I stepped into the small house and immediately the smoke of the frankincense brought me back to prayer services in Egyptian mosques. Today, these clouds of incense were hovering over a yellow corpse lying peacefully in his living room, in a small Ukrainian village nestled in the foothills of the
Carpathian Mountains. The deep sounds of the church Slavonic prayers chanted by the villagers surrounding this elderly man vibrated in my chest, and the sound of the roosters, the rays of the early morning sun, and the frankincense, transported me to a 19th century Chagall-painted world. My 5’4’’ height allowed me to see well over the heads of the babushkas which were covered with black scarves as is traditionally worn when in mourning.
I’m holding one side of a wreath, in line with the other women, as we walk through the village from his house, to the church. Lesya is holding the other side. The shopkeepers step outside of their shops, the kids stop their bikes, the cars shut off their engines, as we walk through the village, singing these ancient prayers with the priest and the corpse.
An hour and a half of standing in this 18th century church, decorated with icons and gold- painted walls, candles illuminating from within, frankincense burning…I wonder how these grandmas can stand so long with their swollen feet in their tiny shoes. I wonder if besides the occasional ring of a cell phone, the prayer services were really like this hundreds of years ago. The service was reminiscent of a traditional Jewish prayer service, with parts that the leaders would recite, and parts that the congregation would chime in, prostrating themselves at times.
As we continued the procession from the church to the cemetery, we stopped in front of the school where this elderly man taught folk music for most of his life. The children ran out to the courtyard to see us and give respect. Lesya and I put down our wreath for a moment while we stopped and I looked at her solemn face, in mourning of her uncle. She looked at me and said in her beautiful Ukrainian-village-Russian, “I wonder what’s really there”, her head motioning to the heavens.
I was reminded yet again that we really aren’t so different from each other, even though we are often made to think that we are. To stand here with my new friend, I felt grateful to have made it to this point in my life, and to have been created as an American woman in the 20th century, able to see the world like this. Something none of my ancestors were ever privileged enough to do.