TW: This story contains references to the impact of the war in Ukraine on children
Some stories are both true and imagined, and this is one of them.
Our Ukrainian family finally arrived in Warsaw! A mother and her two little girls. It took them four days to get here. There were dozens of checkpoints along the way which really slowed things down. My heart breaks just hearing about it.
Olena, the older girl, said “I thought I’d freeze to death sleeping in the car. We didn’t have any blankets so I put on all the clothes I had and it still wasn’t enough.”
“I was so hungry,” added the little one.
Svitlana, their mother, explained that it had gotten harder to find food before they left. They had eaten everything they had brought with them by the second day of their trip.
Then, when they were 12 miles from the border, they ran out of petrol and abandoned their car in a caravan of other cars that had met with the same fate. They walked from there.
It was all I could do to not break down in front of them. I keep thinking about my own children and how Svitlana’s ever survived this journey.
I’ll write more later. Right now, I have some very hungry mouths to feed.
I think the girls are a bit shell-shocked and are clearly missing their father. Kateryna is only six, but she told me she’d remember crossing into Poland from Ukraine for the rest of her life.
I am worried about childhood trauma, but will not voice that to their mother. These little girls’ lives have spiraled out of control and they are hanging on for dear life.
So concerned about your extended family. How they made it all the way to Warsaw is a miracle.
When the family arrived at the border, there were piles of paperwork to be completed, and not enough translators, so they ended up missing the bus that would bring them to town. This turned out to be a good thing in disguise because by the time Svitlana had everything sorted out, Kateryna, the youngest, had wandered off.
Her older sister, Olena was sent to find her. When she didn’t return, their mother began to panic. But she followed the sound of music coming from the other side of the staging ground and sure enough, there was Kateryna mesmerized by a man playing the piano, her doll propped up on the piano bench.
“Mommy, I’m teaching the piano player some Ukrainian songs,” she said. It seems the two of them made quite a duet. This little one has already captured my heart and apparently quite a few others as well.
Got to run. There is an endless list of things to do to get our guests settled in.
No one knows how long they will be here.
Beata -I heard about that piano player on the news here! They said he drove 13 hours with his grand piano in tow to serenade the waves of people who were streaming across the border. He plays beautifully. So glad he provided a small respite from their hardships.
It’s surprising to see that the refugees crossing the border aren’t met by aide societies, but by women and children and neighbors who are giving them food and blankets, toiletries, and directions. Hope has many faces.
Can I send you money to help support your refugee family? Or do you need something else?
Every morning, the first thing we do is check to see if Kyiv is still holding.
For the moment, we have everything we need. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have now arrived in Poland, challenging our infrastructure. There's no money in any of the ATM’s right now, and there was a temporary petrol shortage, as everyone stormed the petrol stations fearing the supply would be cut off.
We remain hopeful that things will go back to normal.
This whole situation with Russia and the Ukraine is horrific. I wish I could just close my eyes and have it go away; but I think that's exactly what most world leaders did before the outbreak of the war -close their eyes and hope it disappears- and that was not an effective strategy, to say the least.
Be well Beata, Em
Our Ukrainian family is trying to get accustomed to living in a foreign country. The language barrier is quite an obstacle. I've been learning some Ukrainian and now I understand what they're saying, if they speak slowly. We manage to get by with the use of a little Google translate and a lot of goodwill.
The girls attend different schools. Kateryna attends an English-speaking school and Olena, poor thing, is in a Polish language school with my daughters. But between them they will be an unstoppable force.
Kateryna drags her one-armed doll with her everywhere she goes, including to school. I am not sure how the doll lost her arm or how we may get it repaired, but the doll means a great deal to her. Maybe she confides in her?
I need to get busy making pierogies. The Ukrainian women are gathering here tomorrow night. They usually get together a few nights a week just for an hour or so, to watch the Ukrainian news, and talk about their loved ones back home. It is quite a community and one I am proud to be a part of, if even just on the periphery.
Guess what happened last night when the women came over to our house? Svitlana recognized one of her neighbors on TV. Her old neighborhood is now occupied by Russian troops who were out in the streets, armed, and doing maneuvers. By all accounts this is just to intimidate. It serves no useful military purpose. But Svitlana’s elderly neighbor wasn’t having any of it, and gave them a piece of her mind.
The young Russians who were sent to fight Putin’s war didn’t quite know what to make of her, so they didn’t really push back, thank goodness. At the end of her tirade, she proffered the troops some sunflower seeds, the traditional symbol of peace. That's when Svitlana’s neighbor told the young recruits to put the seeds in their pockets.
“Then when you die here on our land, sunflowers will grow out of your corpses,” she taunted.
So sunflower seeds are now the symbol of resistance and solidarity.
It was all over the news. Did you see it?
Today I am taking solace in the small steps and brave actions of so many. Svitlana’s neighbor was certainly brave! I think I would have been hiding someplace as far away as I could get. This war has already gone on far too long and been far more violent than most would have expected.
I heard a story about Ukrainians switching all the road signs around to confuse the invading troops. I wonder if they just had them going around and around in circles? It’s good to find something to laugh about in all this.
Here Russian vodka has been removed from the shelves, but we do not have to make the great personal sacrifices that the Poles do. Are Polish people worn out from the heavy burden of providing shelter for their Ukrainian guests?
Thank you for providing what we cannot.
Thinking of you and your Ukrainian family.
No one here is tiring of our Ukrainian guests. On the contrary! We are aware of how weary they are and how much they long to return home, but it is simply not safe and we are happy to have them.
Please don’t make me out to be some sort of hero. Everyone in town has accepted refugees and my daughter’s school has a vibrant parent community to support them. It takes a village.
Em, I have a favor to ask you. I am sending you a picture of Kateryna’s doll. Could you have a look around and see if there is a place you can order replacement parts? She says she wants to keep her doll even if her arm is missing, but she seems sadder these days and I’m thinking if her doll could get better, so could she.
I’m on it. -Em
Today I learned that Kateryna is not the only child who seems a bit down these days. Many of the children are missing their fathers and older brothers who they’ve left behind. When children ask when they can return home, some of the mothers tell their children they’ll return soon. Others say nothing. And a few, say ‘never’.
Many places in Ukraine have limited electricity and some form of curfew, so communicating with loved ones has gotten more difficult. Svitlana has had no news from her husband for over a week now. She goes about with a strained look on her face. She is consumed with worry but does not want to talk about it with the children.
I have to say my little Ukrainian family has truly become part of ours, but it is Kateryna who has stolen my heart. When she first came to us, she didn’t know whether she should call me Auntie, or big Sister. Now she calls me Mama two.
How are things with you? Beata
Every time I hear about the generosity of the Polish people opening up their homes, it warms my heart. The kind acts seem to multiply exponentially, putting a touch of humanity on an otherwise tragic situation.
Still looking for an arm for the doll.
Sending love, Em
It’s the beginning of December and that means St. Nicolas Day is around the corner. We have decided to make it a bit more elaborate this year since we could all use some cheering up. I am teaching the girls, mine and Svitlana’s, how to make pierniczki gingerbread cookies.
Some of the mothers have transformed the school cafeteria into a winter wonderland where there will be entertainment and games. Traditional ones, not the video kind.
The children wrote letters to Santa at school today and they will deliver them in person tonight. The whole neighborhood is looking forward to it -a bright spot as the war drags on into winter.
Em! The most remarkable thing happened at the celebration last night. When we entered the cafeteria, it was as if we had set foot into a magical, Disney-like place. Snowflakes hung from the ceiling and a small ice rink had been set up outside so the children could skate.
An enormous Christmas tree stood in the center of the room and under the tree was a grand piano with Santa Claus playing Christmas carols. I think you know who Santa Claus was! Occasionally Santa would take a break to read their letters and dispense gifts to the children. Months of gloom seemed to evaporate.
Kateryna was once again drawn to the music and the look of awe on her face when she saw Santa playing Ukrainian carols, along with the Polish ones, was too precious. Her English has come along since attending school and she and Santa had quite an exchange.
Kateryna gave her letter to Santa and this is what it said:
Dear Santa Claus,
Everyone thinks I want a doll for Christmas. But I don’t. I am six and a half now and I’m too old to play with dolls. But I can’t leave mine behind because it’s the only thing I have from home. I like it here, everyone is nice to us, but I miss my home and I miss Papa. Sometimes I forget what home looks like, and that’s why I like to have my doll with me. Because then I can remember how good it was to be at home with all my things and with Papa. I don’t need a new doll.
Mama says our house is broken now. That a bomb went off and broke everything-the walls, the windows, and even my bed. So, I am glad my doll was not there. At least here with me she is just a little bit broken. And I am glad that Papa is alright and that the bomb did not break him. Olena and I both miss Papa very much, but I think I miss him more.
There is only one thing I want for Christmas, but it is a big thing and I don’t know if I can get it. Let me know if you think I can.
When he finished reading her letter, Santa told her that she could have her gift if she really wanted it, and if all her friends really wanted it, and the grownups too. Then it would be possible. And do you know what our little Kateryna wanted?
Peace on Earth.
Let’s hope she gets it.
Merry Christmas! Beata
* * * * *
If you are wondering why this story is labeled as both fiction and non-fiction, it is because many parts of it are true.
Beata, my amazing Polish writing partner, hosted a family of Ukrainian refugees when they poured across the border, as did most of the families in her town. A lot of the letters are taken verbatim from emails that we exchanged.
Davide Martello, the Italian piano player, did indeed drive 13 hours with his grand piano in tow to offer music and respite at the border to people ravaged by war.
Olga, the Ukrainian woman with the sunflower seeds, is very real, but her name probably is not. Try as I might, I could not find any reference to her name in various news sources, but she is emblematic of so many brave acts of resistance that were inspired by Ukrainians deep love of their country.
As for Kateryna, she represents many of the Ukrainian children whose lives have been permanently altered by the ongoing conflict. And her Christmas gift? Well, if we all try hard enough, maybe one day this gift can come true.
You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.
This was a powerful story on an important theme, made all the stronger by all the little true-to-life details. Great work on this one!
Thank you Daniel. It was an easy one to write because all of the people in the story are so inspirational in different ways. Hoping everyone will go to Youtube and see the pianist in action.
Wally, this story deserves to live outside of the Reedsy world. It is so beautiful and heartfelt and heartbreaking, all in one. It gives us so many perspectives of the war that many are unable to access or too apathetic to access. The news can be overwhelming, but this is what gets people involved - real human stories. All the details about the trauma Svitlana's family faced making it to Poland, the armless doll, the foreign language schools, it encapsulates so much for us. The Piano Man is such a beacon of kindness in humanity. Music (and o...
Beata is a testament to strength as are the other people in the story. I think it is really easy to forget about the dire situation that families everywhere who are experiencing war are going through on a day-to-day basis. I could ask for nothing better than for people to be reminded of them.
I do appreciate the reminder and bringing this to the forefront of my mind, thank you.
Excellent work, Wally! What a heartfelt, touching story, and great job bringing in the non-fiction aspect. There was a family who came to our church who were among the Ukrainians that fled the country. Great job👍🏼
Hi Wally! I love a good letter correspondence story! I really enjoyed this story/account of your friend’s hospitality in a refugee family’s time of need. You curated the emails perfectly and really brought these people alive for us. Wonderful job,
Thanks so much Aeris! The only difficult letter to write was Kateryna's since that was the only one that was totally invented. I love a good correspondence story too. Have you read "The guernsey literary and potato peel pie society"? Except for the title, the book is charming.
Yes I have!! I thoroughly enjoyed that book. It took me a few chapters to get used to the format, but then the rest of the book read so smoothly. The movie was pretty good too.
Ha! My thoughts exactly.
What a beautiful story. The use of letters is a clever device, because they are layered with the day to day life of the writers, but there is nuance and emotion in them below the surface. Well done!
Thanks so much Ginny! Glad you enjoyed it!
As someone who has exchanged many letters in a snail-mail world, I loved the format. Your writing is powerful though the letters are brief; it adds to the non-fiction sense of urgency and awareness. To see the war depicted through one family's struggles and progress, despair and hope, this powerful and intense writing should have a broader audience! Best of luck and keep writing!
I miss the days of snail mail..the anticipation of getting a letter and then discovering its contents.
A touching account of a heartbreaking situation. I like that it shows the stories we don't normally see during a war, such as the children, and it's a great reminder that this isn't some distant political event, but that real people's lives are dramatically affected by it. As others pointed out, the letter format works well here, particularly with the letter-in-letter format, when writing to Santa. The ending is conflicting. On the one hand, it's a hopeful note. By asking for world peace, Kateryna tells us that she doesn't understand the...
Michal thank you so much for your detailed comments on my story and everyone else's. They really help gain perspective of how the reader is experiencing the story. Your comment "It's a depressing situation, but maybe that's precisely where hope helps", I think it is where hope begins.
Great story. To think that the current situation made it look like a real-life story helped more. Congrats.
Great story. To think that the current situation made it look like a real-life story helped more. Congrats.
I knew I'd see this story on the board this week. This is so well-deserved. Like I said, this story deserves to live beyond Reedsy. Thanks again for sharing, and congratulations!
Anne Marie not only are you a fabulous writer/storyteller, but coming back to encourage me in my own writing just proves what a lovely, supportive person you are. Thanks so much. It really means a lot. Hope you'll check out my other stories. I will definitely keep reading yours.
A heartbreaking story. And certainly not fiction. I saw a video of the woman with the sunflower seeds. These people have spirit. Hope your story lives on. Great stuff.
John thanks so much for your comments. I wanted to offer a reminder during the holidays that this is still going on, but also that there certain people that offer bright spots and bravery.
The epistolary form is a perfect backdrop for scenes of horror, hope and humanity unfolding in this story. Deeply affecting but ends on a positive note. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for reading! I always think that reading people's correspondance gives you a small glimpse into their hearts. I chose the epistolary form for 3 reasons, tbh, 1) because I had all these emails that seemed like they should be shared so people could get a close up view of what was happening 2) I wanted to challenge myself because I had never tried that form of writing and 3) because it is painful for me to "show don't tell' and I thought I could get away with a lot more 'telling' this way. 😏
This is a wonderful piece. It is sweet and sad and powerful. It takes on a more vivid quality by being told in letters of observation by the host mom. It meant so much to include the neighbor and the sunflower seeds, as well as the amazing traveling pianist, as storied of both traveled far and they portray the underlying courage of the innocent Ukrainians
This is a great story on the human consequences of a war. The details about the children make it especially sad and powerful. And I thought it was balanced how you showed the russian soldiers as more clueless pawns rather then inherently evil. The epilogue where you explained what parts were from real life was a very good addition as well. This story makes me really appreciate all the families in Poland who are so selflessly helping refugees.
Scott you bring up so many important points...especially that no one benefits from war, no matter which side you're on, but in the end, it is the children who suffer the most. You are right-the Polish people have been amazing! While they received the bulk of the refugees, people in other countries like Romania also swooped in to assist. In many cases these are people who have so little themselves, but offered care and shelter to others in need. I think it is important to also shine the light on the noble face of humanity. Thank you for your...
I felt like I was there reading the letters. Happiness & sorrow mixed together. Keep on writing!
Glad to hear you 'felt like you were there' Denise. Best complement ever for a writer. These exchanges about the situation in Ukraine have been going on for many, many months now, so I pared them back, omitted some, and consolidated others for the story. It was difficult to gauge if I did the right amount of editing.
Absolutely beautiful story, Wally. It was a pleasure reading it. Reminiscent of some of the most powerful war correspondence in creative non-fiction and fiction. Hopefully we can all have peace someday, but truly, in the end, as long as we have one another, no amount of war can destroy the love we have for one another.
Peace would indeed be wonderful. Thank you Terry for your much appreciated comments.
My chest was tight (a testament to your craft) reading through the hurdles the characters were facing. If only so many knew what people (especially children) endure while fleeing war zones.
I loved the different experiences shown here through the emails. Particularly poignant is the particularly the way an innocent child experiences the separation a conflict brings. Also, the power music had to move us. Relevant and powerful. The longing for peace transcends everything. Well done.
Sorry, writing on the train on way to work.
Then my conclusion is you must be British. Every British writer I know seems to write on the train to work. True?
True 😊 Travelling on the train is terrible. I’ve been doing it a long time!
Perhaps it's terrible but the only thing you've accomplished is to convince me that it is wildly romantic-being crammed into a coach pen to pen with other writers who are trying to get a last word in before their train pulls into the station and takes them to work. Are non-writers also permitted to ride? LOL
LOL train 🚂 I think the old-fashioned trains are romantic. Not so many people travel on the train these days because more people work from home post-Covid. They usually have laptops. I use my phone because it’s lighter and I’m worried I’d lose my laptop 😊
This one strikes a personal chord with me-- my dad's got a lot of friends who are either Ukrainian or who went overseas to help Ukraine in their effort. Anyway, really, really like this. It weaves together well, it made me happy and sad at the same time, and I adore the bit at the end where you reveal that these are real events. Spreading word is, I think, the best way to make people care about history building itself around us. Terrible events. Great piece. Congrats.
A gripping piece, and most deserving of the shortlist. Well done! RG