Asya’s Secret

Happy Nowruz! Happy Persian New Year! Happy Spring! Two days ago I recorded a short film for my Instagram stories about something I learned from my great-grandmother, Asya, but some of you asked me to put it into text format to be able to re-read it. Since Asya’s message is inspiring and uplifting, I thought that today would be ideal for sharing it here. You can watch the film in my Instagram highlights.

My great-grandmother Asya was born in 1915. She was a beautiful woman, with wavy dark hair, almond-shaped eyes and a Rubenesque figure. A rose-scented red lipstick was always in her purse as was a bottle of perfume. I don’t recall her using them, but she loved these items as she did her carved tortoise combs and lace collars. She was the most vivacious person I knew, always ready to crack a joke or make light of things. That trait of hers might have served her well, because being born in 1915, she lived through the dawn and dusk of the Soviet Union, with the Bolshevik Revolution, several famines and two wars in between.

“Is it an Eastern European thing or a family trait?” my husband asks me as I tell him these stories as an example. “Whatever one complains about, you find a personal story involving a war, a nuclear accident or another calamity.” History defines us down to our personal details, and Ukrainian history is particularly character-shaping stuff. I lived through the Chernobyl accident, a coup d’etat, and in 2014, through a war when I returned to Ukraine to be with my grandmother Valentina, Asya’s daughter.

What these experiences taught me is that Ukrainian grandmothers are right: if things can get worse, they very likely will and we just have to learn to cope.

This worldview may sound too pessimistic to some, but our society tends to sugarcoat hard truths. “Everything will be well, don’t worry.” And we expect that whatever difficulty we experience will pass and that things will go back to normal. Yet they rarely do. Life may get better in some respects and worse in others, but it won’t be the same. The sooner we learn to adapt to changes, the easier it becomes.

The good news is that we are much more resilient than we think. I will use Ukraine’s history as an example. The place known as borderlands or bloodlands has one of the richest cultures in Europe–literature, music, carving, embroidery, egg painting, icon drawing, weaving, poetry, cuisine. It’s endless. What has emerged out of the cauldron of Ukraine’s tragic history is incredible.

It’s proof that the human spirit is irrepressible and that people will find ways to rise beyond their circumstances and be creative. Their yearnings for art and beauty carry them through.

Asya used to say, “The human heart is a strange instrument. It gets used to pain and it never ceases to hope.” So, remain hopeful, seek beauty and create.

Image: my great-grandmother Asya (on the right), with a friend.

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35 Comments

  • Leslie: What a beautiful quote from your great-grandmother. Thank you 😉 It’s easy to get lost if we aren’t reminded to take longer look at where we’ve already been. March 20, 2020 at 9:35am Reply

    • Victoria: I also find it very helpful. More helpful than the useless “all will be well, just wait a little” advice. It encourages complacency, where as we have much more control over what we think and how we approach each situation, including this one. March 20, 2020 at 9:49am Reply

  • Gabriela: You are such an inspiration. Your article reminded of a quote by Nietzche, “Amor Fati”, love or accept destiny. And as you say, with creativity, even better. March 20, 2020 at 9:45am Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, I like that quote very much, thank you for sharing. March 20, 2020 at 9:50am Reply

    • Eudora: Amor Fati… One of the most powerful mottos I know and one I have been thinking a lot those days.
      Thanks Gabriela, sweet and wise Victoria, and all of you for making Bois the Jasmin such a great thing…no matter what. March 22, 2020 at 3:54pm Reply

  • Marsha: I love it when you bless us with your family stories! Thank you! March 20, 2020 at 10:57am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Marsha! March 21, 2020 at 7:24am Reply

  • N: I believe I owe a debt of gratitude for a hardiness and steadfastness practically embedded in my DNA from my Ukrainian and Russian ancestors. Yes, when things are bad I remember what my grandparents went through and it keeps things in perspective. My ancestors survived extreme cold, going form wealth to poverty, war, the Nazi’s, hard physical labor, Stalin, famine, separation from family, and displacement to name a few. You are an example of how to survive hardships while keeping your grace intact and I admire that. March 20, 2020 at 11:11am Reply

    • Victoria: What an inspiring example, N! You also must a vast trove of family stories and many role models.
      The first time I found myself in such a position was when the war started in Ukraine in 2014. I realized that I have to look for the sources of resilience within myself and to remember what my family lived through. March 21, 2020 at 7:24am Reply

  • Deborah L Smith: Such a lovely story about a beautiful survivor 🌸 March 20, 2020 at 11:42am Reply

    • Victoria: She was stunning, even in her 90s. March 21, 2020 at 7:21am Reply

  • filomena813f: Victoria, what a beautiful post. our great-grandmother Asya was a very beautiful woman. Good looks obviously run in your family. Thank you for a most inspiring post, especially during these perilous times that lots of us are going through at this oment. March 20, 2020 at 11:45am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Filomena! She was our family rock. March 21, 2020 at 7:20am Reply

  • Filomena: Sorry for the omission of letters in my post. “Your” great-grandmother and the last word should be “moment” March 20, 2020 at 11:47am Reply

  • Amrit: Victoria, like most of us, I also derive great pleasure from your sharing your Ukrainian family stories, photos and musings. In fact, I hope for them as they are uplifting, and give perspective and courage to the present moment and circumstance. So thank you deeply- you do more good than you know. March 20, 2020 at 2:40pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much for saying this, Amrit! March 21, 2020 at 7:20am Reply

  • Alexandra Fraser: Thank you for that quote. So much more helpful than ‘everything will be okay’. It’s an anxious time for everyone. Our government has totally closed our borders .Unprecedented. The world has changed so suddenly March 20, 2020 at 5:36pm Reply

    • Victoria: Our lives changed completely within a very short period of time, but we will emerge out of it. Meanwhile, we have to support each other. March 21, 2020 at 7:18am Reply

  • bregje sturkenboom: the first thing i thought as i looked at that picture was:that woman with the leopard collar kind of looks like me:)(when i was younger)
    Beautiful quote and so true.
    With the rest of your story i sometimes agree and sometimes disagree.
    The only constant in life is change.But i also feel like life comes in waves. They rise but always come down as well.so you have some time to catch your breath before the next one comes.And underneath the surface it’s always calm.
    So i think all difficulties do pass.And so do all easy and happy moments. Things don’t necessarily have to go back to how they were(that would mean we never evolve or learn) and the passing might even happen by death.Or we adapt to the difficulties and they become normal.
    I hope what i’m writing makes some sort of sense, because i’m struggling to translate it into words;) March 20, 2020 at 8:02pm Reply

    • Victoria: Asya’s birthday is tomorrow, by the way.

      No, I think that we agree. My point mainly is one can’t wait passively for things to change for the better. And that we have more control and resilience than we think even in terrible situations. March 21, 2020 at 6:23am Reply

      • Bregje: Yes.
        As long as you live you will experience challenging situations.It’s completely up to us how we deal with them.In the outside world but also within.If you are strong within nothing can truly break you.(spirit wise)
        Exactly like you said we have more resilience than we think.

        How wonderful that you still have that quote from Asya.I’ll be thinking of her today!
        Do you know what kind of perfume she liked? March 21, 2020 at 11:15pm Reply

        • Victoria: She wore a perfume that smelled like Coty’s L’Origan, something called White Lilac and rose oil. March 25, 2020 at 12:22pm Reply

  • mononoke: Beautiful quote. I’ll keep it! As you said if this could get worse it will, or maybe not. We have to hope as we cope with it. Meanwhile, I will enjoy the firsts spring rays from the window. And maybe I’ll perfume myself today with Ostara, who cares when it runs out! (OK, I do 😅) March 21, 2020 at 5:21am Reply

    • Victoria: Ostara is perfect for days like these. It’s also sunny here. March 21, 2020 at 6:20am Reply

  • Aurora: ‘To find strength in what remains behind’, thank you so much for evoking your great-grandmother’s life and the wonderful photo, it’s so nice of you to share memories of her.

    In the west we have let ourselves take pretty much everything for granted. I too think of my family and the war, my grandmother taking care of six children while her husband was tried and deported – he was killed, one of 819 – the famous Nacht und Nebel marked prisonners who were to disappear without trace – in Sonnenburg Silesia (now Poland).

    Of course, I find this enforced semi-confinement tiresome and I don’t particularly wish to get ill and items missing from supermarket shelves are a pain, but my apartment has never been cleaner and I have time to go to the lake and feed the birds. March 21, 2020 at 8:14am Reply

    • Victoria: The sound of birds in the morning is definitely an unexpected but pleasant side effect.

      Thank you so much for sharing your story! March 25, 2020 at 12:20pm Reply

  • Nancy Chan: Your great- grandmother’s quote really inspires and strengthens us in these tough and challenging times ahead. The idea of perfume and rose- scented lipstick is so uplifting.

    I am really grateful for Bois de Jasmin for keeping everyone’s spirits up. Take care everyone. March 21, 2020 at 11:56am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much! 🙂 March 25, 2020 at 12:21pm Reply

  • Tara C: Thank you for this wonderful message. I am also heartened by the videos of the Italian people singing and playing music from their balconies in the midst of the most appalling suffering. Your great-grandmother was absolutely right. March 21, 2020 at 1:19pm Reply

    • Victoria: Such moments are heartwarming. March 25, 2020 at 12:21pm Reply

  • Michele Adsit: I was disappointed when I read Amazon is shipping more food, more sanitizers, more books, more puzzles, but less personal care items. Now is not the time to become lax in our personal care. Let’s take our baths and showers, use our creams and lotions, put on lipstick and earrings. Last but not least, use our perfumes! I’m using an old favorite, Chanel #22. March 23, 2020 at 8:57pm Reply

    • Victoria: I can understand that they are overwhelmed, but yes, their definition of essential items is very much their own.

      You smell wonderful! March 25, 2020 at 12:28pm Reply

  • WARA: A beautiful book I read Traveling with Ghosts by Shannon Leone Fowler states the following on page #286 “Sarajevans had fought terror with tolerance, death with humor, and fascism with culture! And this is what Bosnia taught me~that grief can be met with creativity, power and beauty.” Thank you so much Victoria for sharing the amazing stories of your great grandmother!!! March 30, 2020 at 7:47pm Reply

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