Tag Archives: Chernobyl

My Granny’s Knitting

Until I was eleven years old, I lived with my parents in a family compound, with my maternal grandparents next door. Until age four, I was an only child. Then, during the post-World-War-II baby boom, my three siblings were born over the course of twenty months. While my mom and dad were busiest—mom caring for my younger sister and twin brothers, dad building a fledgeling small business, both of them scrimping and saving up for a larger house—there were several years in the mid-1950’s when “Granny” became my frequent caregiver. 

Granny taught me piano, encouraging me to practice daily on the tuned used upright at her house—as our family grew to four children, our small cottage threatened to burst at the seams and had no room for a piano. Granny also taught me to knit. I noticed that on social occasions, Granny often proudly wore a Red Cross lapel pin that identified her as a World War II “knit your bit” volunteer. She and others like her had knit warm sweaters, hats, and socks for Allied soldiers, both those at the front and the wounded in hospitals. 

During the years when she was teaching me knitting basics, Granny was still knitting warm socks and caps for the Red Cross, probably to be shipped to World War II refugees in Europe. As the 1950’s gave way to the 1960’s, the need for Granny’s knitting diminished. Arthritis eventually put an end to her handicraft efforts. I don’t know what happened to Granny’s lapel pin, but recent events have got me to thinking about her knitting again. 

The February 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops plus threats of nuclear escalation by Russia’s president Putin have struck a nerve for many. They remind me of a previous nuclear stand-off—the Cuban missile crisis. In the fall of 1962, as I entered high school, the U.S. and the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.), which included the current country of Russia, engaged in a tense stand-off about the deployment of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida. At the time, the U.S. had stationed nuclear missiles in Turkey, near the southern border of the U.S.S.R. Many adults around me worried about the possibility of an exchange of nuclear arms. The widespread destruction and the ongoing aftereffects of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed that nuclear weapons strikes could obliterate entire U.S. cities. They could also contaminate with long-term nuclear fallout the Maryland countryside where I lived. After a tense couple of weeks, the 1962 crisis was resolved peacefully, with the removal of missiles from both Cuba and Turkey. 

Mr. Putin’s threat to again use nuclear weapons raises the specter of human-induced annihilation. It’s also scary that the site of one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents so far, at Chernobyl, is in northern Ukraine. Escape of radioactivity from that partially hardened reactor might be an ancillary result of ongoing hostilities.  

It now makes more sense to me why Granny did her knitting, and why her Red Cross pin was so special to her. Granny was born in rural Virginia in 1879, when the area where her family lived was still struggling to rebuild after the U.S. Civil War. She lived in various parts of the U.S. before relocating to central Maryland with her husband and growing family about 1915. In April, 1917, when the U.S. entered “the Great War,” Granny was pregnant with my mom. For much of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Granny became the prime family breadwinner, heading the housekeeping department at a Baltimore luxury hotel. 

When war again broke out in Europe in 1939, Granny worried about the draft status of her only son. She followed news reports closely. I’m not sure how early in the conflict Granny began knitting for the Red Cross, but I think she produced warm wear for soldiers and then civilians for much of World War II and its aftermath.  

Last weekend I attended a local rally in support of Ukraine. It was a sunny day in San Diego. War seemed distant. Lots of attendees waved Ukrainian flags, carried bouquets of sunflowers, hoisted hand-lettered signs decrying the Russian government’s aggression, expressing hopes for a speedy end to the killing. Several speakers explained, in Ukrainian, Russian or accented English, that there was no quarrel between the peoples of the two countries, just lethal aggression instigated largely by Mr. Putin.

By now, I too am a “granny.” It’s a continuing joy to watch our two grandchildren grow toward adulthood. Soon, if all goes well, I’ll have three additional step-grandchildren and a third biological grandchild. Since this past weekend’s rally, I’ve arranged further donations to charities working with refugees fleeing the fighting. I’m intensifying my charitable efforts more locally, also reaching out to friends and acquaintances with ties to Ukraine. I’m searching for ways to be more effective in reducing the suffering caused by this senseless war. I’m recalling Granny’s knitting with a renewed sense of respect.  

On to Kyiv, and Then What?

Like many globally in this media-saturated world, I’m distressed about the ongoing invasion of Ukraine by its larger neighbor Russia. For weeks, we’ve seen reports of a buildup of Russian troops and military equipment along the borders with Ukraine. Now it seems that troops and equipment are on the move and a full-scale invasion has started. The aim, as nearly all American pundits and experts tell us, is to topple the existing Ukrainian government and to install a regime more to Russia’s liking. 

This is a scenario that has played out countless times throughout history by whatever superior military power desired to dominate its neighbor(s). The United States of America has not been immune to using such tactics, despite our protestations of “spreading democracy,” and so on. 

Problems can arise in the aftermath of a military conquest, as we’ve seen most recently and tragically in contemporary Afghanistan. Conquering and governing are two rather different domains. Once a new regime gets installed, who repairs the infrastructure that’s been damaged or destroyed during the conquest?  Who provides the basic necessities—food, clothing, shelter—to a cowed, needy, and probably sullen civilian population?  Who firms up borders and stems the outflow of brain and talent of those eager and able to leave? Who works to reduce the likelihood that resentments will fester and eventually result in further armed conflicts when the balance of military power shifts?  

I’ve never traveled in Ukraine. Prior to the current war, my main point of reference to Ukraine was the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, a now-decommissioned power plant near the Ukrainian/Russian border, about 70 miles from Kyiv. Much earlier, I was taught courses in Russian language and culture by a college professor who’d escaped from Ukraine during the final days of World War II. When “Dr. K.” taught us, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was near its height, the Cold War was raging, and the availability of non-official information about conditions in any socialist republic was severely limited. As our language facility in Russian improved, Dr. K. showed us articles from the Soviet press that glorified the Soviet state without mentioning any possible problems. 

An ancillary point of reference to things Ukrainian: I’d learned to recognize a musical piece, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” I liked the somewhat ponderous music, but didn’t make much effort to visualize an actual gate. It turns out that there was not actually a “great gate” when composer Modest Mussorgsky wrote his piece during the late 19th century. The Kiev-related piece was the final composition of a suite called “Pictures at an Exhibition” that featured an artist’s rendering of what a memorial gate might look like. It would have celebrated the survival of Tsar Alexander II after a failed 1866 assassination attempt. In much earlier times, there had been a gate, erected during the 11th century reign of Yaroslav the Wise as part of city fortifications. (Per the sources I referenced, an actual memorial gate was reconstructed in Kyiv in 1982 by a then-waning USSR.)  

The impulse to conquest seems to be part of our human heritage, from the earliest cave dweller with a bigger club, through the desolation wrought by 1940’s era fire bombings and atomic bombs, through the 1990’s Rwandan genocide conducted mostly with machetes, plus all the other “more conventional” weaponry used before and since. If we are to survive as a species, it seems to me that we need to cultivate more assiduously a countervailing impulse to nurture. The members of the military I know best and most admire are much more eager to assist after natural or man-made disasters than they are eager for combat and conquest. The ongoing disaster of our current global viral pandemic, plus the slower-moving planet-wide disaster that is climate change, can use all our ingenuity and empathy. These and other disasters call out for the greatest exercise of our nurturing sides that we can muster. 

If or when Kyiv “falls,” then what?