Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Home and the Dead

May 21st, 2005: Ivanovka (Northern Kyrgyzstan). It is interesting to think about what we call home. I finally made it back to Ivanovka, where I spent my first three months in Kyrgyzstan and discovered that this is my home. The town has not changed much over the last one hundred and sixty odd days. The facades of a few buildings have been resurfaced, but my home is the same. I had forgotten the lazy cud-chewing cows that meander down the streets and the rosy-cheeked children who are so anxious to shout out a “hello meester.”

I spent the day catching-up with Mama and Yulia. We talked about wills and property and family values, marriage and children and buying houses. We talked about work and our health, politics and NGOs. We talked about the weather and grapes, wine and roses, cactuses and the dead and dying.

Yulia cooked Plov and Valya (Mama) presented me with a small bottle of spirits which we sipped over dinner. At seven-o-clock, Mama told me about her teacher friend whose husband had died earlier in the day. She asked me if I would come along to pay my respects to this widow who had been married for forty-nine years (November would have been their 50th anniversary). I said of course and we set out upon the streets.

It was evening and darkness was settling-in. The few working street lights buzzed and flickered lending extra life to our street born shadows. Nearly everyone who passed us greeted us with a courteous, “Zdrasvootsya” (respectful “hello”) and Valya asked Yulia (my sister) if she knew who they were. “Nyet, ya nee znaiyu” (no, I don’t know). They chalked it up to presence of a foreigner and we walked on.

When we arrived at the gate to the house of the dead, we stood silent, waiting to be noticed by relatives dining at a table outside. They rose when they saw us and invited through and asked us to dine with them. Mama explained that we had just eaten and that we had come to pay our respects. A tiny silver haired, wizened-faced, Russian woman stood up from the table and greeted us. She took my hand and squeezed it, gazing up into my eyes and I felt her heavy sadness as she sighed and led me to the entrance of her home.

I don’t know what I expected…perhaps I thought we were going to sit down and drink tea with an old woman newly widowed. What would we talk about?

We climbed the stairs of her porch and passed through the threshold, leaving the living outside to face the dead within. The room had been cleared; rugs had been rolled, table chairs moved outside, pictures and photographs stored-away.

The only thing that remained in the room was the body of the dead, dressed in his finest suit, framed by the walls of his coffin that lay a little above waist height. I froze and the widow released my hand as she walked around the coffin to look upon her husbands face. She had loved him, I could see that. I stayed put near the door feeling a little awkward in the intimate space that surrounded the body of a man I had never seen alive. I stood in one place and clasped my hands and lowered my head trying to find a respectful repose. Mama and Yulia passed by me and took up space beside the widow. The widow was talking to the body. Her voice was calm and almost lilting. She whispered in his ear and smiled, stroking his cheek with the back of her hand. They had been married for 49 years.

I remained at the foot of the coffin and stared into the large nostrils of a man who was breathing hours before. I hoped he had lived a happy life. I hoped he had loved his children and his wife.


  • Wow, this is one of the most incredible blog entries I have ever read. The depth of emotion and empathy you are able to capture and convey is stunning.

    Just one more reminder that the human experience trascends cultural difference.

    By Blogger Randy, At 10:23 AM  

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