Surrounded by Love

My grandmother Parania died yesterday evening. She was 88 years old, and she was the remarkable matriarch of our Dudycz family.

I have been staring at those two sentences for the last several hours, not sure where to go after that.

Do I write about how she lived through WWII, left her home and family in Ukraine, met my grandfather and moved to America, lived an incredible life and raised six children while working nights?

Do I write about the large family holidays in her home, filled with food and laughter and so much love?

Do I write about the way she carried herself with the grace and presence of a queen, the way she radiated with pride when her sons and daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren succeeded? She knew that their joy and accomplishments were also hers because she was at the heart of it—along with my grandfather, she was the foundation of this strong, growing family.


Dudycz Family (Sophia’s Communion), 1954

That’s the key. Family was the most important thing to my baba, and nothing made her happier than to be surrounded by everyone she loved.

The Dudycz Family, 1979

For the last several months, her health had been failing, and my father and his siblings took turns caring for her and my grandfather. They would stop by each day on a revolving schedule, making sure that all their needs were being met.

When it became increasingly evident that she was dying, hospice was called in and many of the grandchildren stopped by to visit for what we knew could be the last time—to tell her we loved her and to be there for the woman who devoted her life to her family.

Baba 1987

The last time I saw Baba, they had already moved her bed (now a hospital bed) into the living room. She was bedridden, and it was hard to see her that way—she had always been up and about, cooking and baking, embroidering pillows, sewing clothes, bouncing babies on her knee. Two of my cousins were there when I arrived, and I was grateful because my older cousin, Chris, has the gift of chatter that I lack in situations such as that one.

My cousin talked to Baba with that big smile of hers, telling her all about the family bbq and the adventures of the youngest members of the family, our children, Baba’s great-grandchildren. At one point Chris said something about the girls in the family inheriting all their beauty from my grandmother, and Baba chuckled and smiled. It was the last time I heard her laugh, and it was a much quieter version of the robust laughter that would usually fill a room. But it was a laugh, a glimpse of the Baba that was trapped in that failing body. Her bright spirit still shone in her big blue eyes.

Birthdays at Baba’s, 1980

It was a gift, and I was grateful that Chris could share those anecdotes to make our Baba smile. When Baba got tired, we kissed her and told her we loved her, then moved to the kitchen to spend some time with our grandfather, our Dido. My Uncle and Father shared some stories about caring for their parents with a mixture of humor and honesty that is the norm in our family.

We talked and laughed, and it felt like we were in the right place at the right time. It felt good to fill that kitchen with love. That’s what my Baba always did. My father walked over to check on her, and Baba told him that she had a “beautiful family.”

I knew that she had felt the love in the house, in the kitchen, from our visit. I knew that it meant a lot to her not only to have us visit, but to have us together, to know that we would carry on together. No matter what. We had learned from her and my dido, and from our parents, the importance of family.

For as long as I can remember, Baba would tape the photos of her family to the kitchen wall. “Baba’s Wall” I called it in my head. At the kitchen table, she and Dido would eat with their growing family beside them. We were close to them, even when we were miles away.

Baba & Dido 1991

Throughout this process of dying, slow and uncertain as it was, I watched my father and his siblings devote their days and nights to care for their mother. I know this is not the norm in our modern age. I know that it’s not always possible, but for them, caring for their mother and father was not something to be handed off to others. She was their Mama, our Baba, and she gave us so much. How could they not make her feel cared for, safe, loved, and never alone? They did it with smiles and love, they supported one another when it got hard or painful, they were there for her and for each other. It is one of the most touching and inspirational things I have ever seen.

And in the end, after months of having her body fail, my Baba died held in the loving arms of her six children in a moment that my father (the youngest son) called beautiful and holy. I think it was exactly the way she would have wanted to go, engulfed in love by the children she raised and of whom she was so proud.

I learned so much from Baba Dudycz, and I’m sure that I’ll write more about it someday. There are those things we hold onto: the lessons and traditions we’ve learned, the memories we recall, the physical objects that tie us to someone who’s died. I will think of my Baba when I’ve made Easter babka from her recipe, when I spread her embroidery on the dining room table, when I add another photograph to my own wall.

Baba Making Varenyky 1992

This week we will gather together to bury her, and it will be hard. But we will have each other, and I have no doubt that she will be there as we honor her memory, as we share stories, as we laugh and cry. Together. Her “beautiful family.”

Vichnaya Pamyat. (Eternal Memory.)

Baba, I love you.

The Things We Hold On To

I have been fortunate to meet and get to know quite a few writers who have had a profound influence on me and my work. I’m grateful for each and every exchange. (I once received a phone call from poet Louise Glück that left me shaken in the parking lot of the grocery story because I was so taken by surprise to hear her voice.)

I believe in telling the people in my life whom I love and admire how much they mean to me, and I also believe in telling the writers and artists I admire how much their work means to me. Kyle Cassidy has written repeatedly about this in his blog, and I agree with him.

When I am on the receiving end of an email or tweet about my work, I am so appreciative and touched. So much of the time we write alone. To hear from the “audience” is a rare gift.

Photograph: Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis

I sent Ray Bradbury a fan letter back in 2010. I wanted to thank him for his stories, for the joy and inspiration, for the thrills and magic.  After talking with a friend and fellow-Bradbury fan, I included a copy of my much-loved and tattered copy of Dandelion Wine. I was reluctant to part with it, but excited at the possibility that he might sign it.

The problem was that I forgot to include my self-addressed stamped envelope. I didn’t realize this until I returned from the post office and saw it sitting on my table. I quickly drafted another letter and stuffed the envelope inside.

He never returned my copy. I suppose it was tossed aside due to its lack of SASE. However, a few weeks later, I did receive this:

Although sad to be missing my beloved Dandelion Wine, I was pleased to know that he had read my letter. I hadn’t read his story, “Juggernaut” at the time, and sought it out immediately. (You can read it here.)

I was a little upset when I saw the envelope, however. I thought that my youngest daughter (three-years-old at the time) had scribbled all over it. I nearly threw it in the trash. I’m not sure why I kept it.

I put it aside in the “to be framed someday” pile. I still haven’t gotten around to that large pile, and after Ray died, I went back to it. I looked more closely at the paper, which must have come from his printer. I liked the thought that it came from his working space, from the place where he created his amazing stories.

Reading another essay about Ray at the time, someone mentioned the doodles he often drew to accompany his signature. Curious, I googled and found a few examples. Like this one:


and this one:

That’s when I realized it had not been my daughter’s scribble, but Ray’s!

Many who knew Ray Bradbury have written beautiful, heartfelt tributes:

By his biographer and friend, Sam Weller.

By his friend Neil Gaiman.

Mark Evanier, recounting his meeting with Ray as a teen.

My grandmother is dying, and because I cannot yet bring myself to write about her, I’m writing about Ray.

I like that I have this envelope and printer sheet of Ray’s, a small link to him and his work. I need to purchase that paperback of Dandelion Wine again. I’d like to reread it, but I want the same edition. I’ve grown attached to the cover.

When someone dies, we often want to keep the connection somehow, to remain tethered in some way. We do it with photographs, letter, articles of clothes. We do it with books and art, with songs and videos. We use the tools they used: a wooden spoon, a pen, a guitar pick, a thimble. We put on their perfume or drink their favorite beer. We try to remember. It’s hard to let go.

I guess I’m not just writing about Ray.