It all started with a trip to the Clinique counter at Von Maur where a striking young woman, dressed in a white lab coat, sporting a sleek, long, dark, ponytail strode over to assist me. She spoke with an exotic accent.
She dug through the drawer and found the translucent face powder I needed. She asked if I’d like to try a trio of eyeliner pencils that were on sale. I looked at her perfectly lined eyes and asked if they were the ones she used.
“No,” she said, “I use something I brought from my country.” I took this as an open door to inquire.
“Ukraine,” she answered.
Interest piqued, I asked how long she’d been here, wondering if she’d come here to escape the war.
She and her sister had said goodbye to their parents and taken the last bus headed for safety in Poland, from a city just north of Crimea. From Poland, they traveled to Sweden. Exhausted from the journey and lacking a necessary document, it was determined her sister would return home to help take care of her mother who had been diagnosed with cancer. Julia traveled on alone.
This woman, a few years younger than my daughter, who had worked as a teacher and interpreter, arrived in the U.S. July 20th, to live with a host family, not far from me.
I told her I’d try the eyeliner pencils and that I had been a teacher too. English. She became immediately self-conscious about her use of the English language and I assured her she had nothing to worry about–which is true.
As I stood there holding my little shopping bag of cosmetics, not wanting to leave, I knew I must talk to her more. Get to know her better. We had more to learn about each other’s lives. I asked if I could take her to lunch and she excitedly agreed.
Let’s Do Lunch
We met back at the Clinique counter and walked to Applebees in the mall where our young server was fascinated by my new friend and her accent. Knowing we had little time, we talked quickly.
We talked about the grit and admirable spirit of the Ukrainian people and how proud she is of them and President Zelensky. She asked me what teaching is like here and mentioned how their food is spicier and they eat more vegetables. I showed her pictures of my family and she showed me her news feed full of war–torn cities.
Julia misses her mother and sister and worries about them but is grateful to send money for her mother’s cancer treatment. Her mother told her on the phone, “If I die, do not come back for my funeral. Live your life.” There was a mist in her beautiful, dark eyes as she told me this.
Watching a small group of young people socializing at the bar, she mused about her friends and how they used to visit each other’s apartments to share a meal or hang out. Apartments in a city that no longer has access to water. She spoke of feeling guilty for sitting in a restaurant, ordering whatever she wanted to eat when her family and friends were dealing with supply shortages and the dangers of war.
At my encouragement, she shared some differences she has noticed between my home town and hers. “We do not waste food,” she said. I quizzed her, “Since this war started or before?”
“Before,” she said. “We have smaller portions and we do not waste food.” She continued, “people who lived through previous wars pick breadcrumbs off the table with the tip of their finger and eat them. Like this.” She dabbed at the crumbs on the table in front of her.
We exchanged numbers and vowed to keep in touch. As I take off for the winter, I really don’t know if or when I’ll see her again. But I hope we’ll stay in touch.
A Meaningful Goodbye
We hugged goodbye in the mall and I was taken aback by her parting words. She said something like this: enjoy your family this winter. Love them. That’s all that matters. I came here with only a suitcase and my emotions. You can get by with almost nothing, but not without love and your family.
This beautiful young woman gave me a valuable reminder. As we pack suitcases and boxes and bicycles and spices for our trek to Phoenix, all I really need is already there or will come visit soon. Perhaps the image of Julia talking to her mother and sister on the phone will help me remember what matters. I hope so.
One Final Word from My Friend
I reached out to Julia to share a draft of this blog for her approval, ask her if there was anything she’d like to add, and for any photos I might use. In addition to sending the photos you see here, she wrote this:
“In this world there still exist people who have a kind heart. They are willing to help because their souls are as clear as a tear. People helped my sister and me in Sweden and people are helping me here in America. They are my Angels.”