This is a story about love and how that love made a crippling disability vanish. It involves 85 years old babushka Anna who lives next door to our home in Tbilisi, Georgia. Anna is less than five foot in height. She hasn’t left her home now for maybe five years, and her home is just a tiny, typically communist two rooms in size. It’s the same home where she raised her son and her daughter and lived with her husband who passed away over thirty years ago now. Her spirit is alive and her face, the lines in her face, her blue eyes, her expressions and her warmth tells more stories than her words could have shared. Here is one of babushkas life stories.
Anna called myself and my darling Tamuna into her small room for strong black Turkish coffee as she does daily so we went in and shared our time with her while she shared her home and coffee and smiles with us. In her strong Russian and Armenian and Georgian mix (common here in Georgia) Anna turned to face me and started in her usual fast pace to share a story with me of her life. Of course I had no idea what she was saying (despite the fact she keeps trying to teach me to speak Russian) so two things helped me to understand. One is my darling woman Tamuna who speaks Russian and Georgian (most do in Georgia) and the second thing was the animation from the hands of Anna, the expression on the face of Anna and the tears that run from her eyes.
One day at the age of just one year and two months, I screamed and screamed and screamed in my crib. Mamma ran to me and picked me up. As she picked me from my bed she noticed that something was wrong with my right leg. It was lifeless and limp. Mamma shouted for papa and he ran through to see what was going on. Quickly papa grabbed me and all three of us rushed to the closest hospital in Moscow, Russia. After sometime the Doctor reported to mamma and papa that I had suffered a major stroke. They didn’t know why this would happen to a baby. All they knew was it had happened and now my right leg would become useless for the rest of my life. Nothing could be done to reverse the damage and the Doctors did what they could to stop the damage going any further through my tiny little body. This left me with the problem that my body would continue to grow yet my right leg would remain short and limp. Papa cried and cried and would say in his tears “even if we had enough money to stop the high river it would never be enough to put my Anna’s leg right” Papa was one of Russia’s secret multi-millionaires post revolution in 1926. These were dangerous times; if papa revealed his wealth he would be risking prison if not his life. Of course, as I grew and went to school then started all the bullying and mockery. One of my legs was shorter, I couldn’t hide it so all I could do was do my best on my sticks – I hated those sticks, my daily reminder! When I walked home from school fear would grip me when I saw the children against the wall ahead of me as I knew I would face laughter, mocking and name calling. This always made me feel ugly and hopeless. As I walked past them I cried and cried because I wanted to run, I wanted to be just like them – normal – I wanted to throw away my sticks I just wanted to be a normal child, running, dancing and doing what all the kids were doing.
You know what was strange? I could actually feel Anna being back in her school days at that point. She could feel her bullies and even hear them as she shared the story with me. I of course wanted to cry but didn’t at this point. Now I knew she wasn’t an ugly child. I had met her daughter and granddaughter whilst in Israel just a few months ago and they are all stunning in their looks. And tonight I saw a photo of Anna from her youth and I can share with you she had a beautiful face and smile and typical dark, sexy Russian look about her. She was far from ugly. Anna continued. When my teenage years arrived I had already suffered over ten years of being bullied and laughed at. Boys liked me but I always thought I was too ugly and rejected all of them. I never believed for one day I would become a bride. At this age I had at least five major operations to have my leg lengthened and now I had got to a stage where I could walk unaided despite my right foot being 4 sizes smaller than my left and of course I had a serious limp that couldn’t be hidden. Every word she spoke had pain, every single last Russian word, and her tears kept falling from her eyes.
I wanted to cry, Tamuna wanted to cry as we sat fixed to the seat as Anna continued.
I really wanted to become a Doctor. So I started to study and went into the ground floor of the University to do my studies daily. I did that for two years. Study for me was a release, I love to read, I loved to discover and I wanted so much to help others and give them the relief from illness and disease that had plague my life for all of my life. But something happened that stole away the possibility of me becoming a person that would one day be serving others in surgery, making them well. I was not to be a doctor after all.
Anna froze for a moment, looked at the ground and cried again. Anna continued. The room and lessons where my studies were to take place had been moved to the third floor. That was a problem for me I couldn’t climb stairs to the third floor. Anna bowed her head and told me again that in those days it was really simple, if you couldn’t get into the class you simply couldn’t do your studies. There was no lift in those days and of course no one was going to carry me to the top! I simply had to finish my studies. I felt ugly, my legs were far from perfect, not a single hour of any day would pass without me saying to myself, “I hate my leg, I want to be normal” Then something magic happened in my life that would change my life forever and in that very moment
Anna lifted her head and smiled and then shared the wonderful story of Seryoga.
Seryoga was a handsome Armenian was to become my husband and for the next 35 years until his death I loved and adored him. In that 35 years he would tell me daily that I was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He would tell me no one could cook a meal like I could. He would tell me that in a room of Georgian and Russian beauties there were none in the room as beautiful as I was. He would hold me caress me, love me adore me and treat me like a precious stone. And you know what Alani (they call me that here)? Never once, not one single time or moment even during dark times did he ever mention the one thing I could never remove from my life? The one thing that pained me embarrassed me and even made me feel shame and that thing was of course my short withered leg. I can honestly tell you… I had forgotten that my leg was short, withered, painful or any different to anyone else’s leg. It had vanished while I was with my wonderful Seryoga.
At this point Anna asked me to come closer and look at a scar of 24 stitches from her ankle to her knee where her leg had been lengthened and stitched 4-5 times over the years. At the end of Babushka Anna’s story she turned and continued … I never share that story, it is very private but I feel a warmth from you that asked me to share.
I have tears as I write this short story for you of course yet it taught me something and it was this… Her husband gave her something more powerful than her fathers millions, more powerful than all the surgery, more powerful than any medicine and much more powerful than anything else designed to remove the daily reminder of her leg and it was this… Absolute pure love for the woman he shared 35 years with, built a life with and created children with. This love was so strong in Anna’s own words …
“I forgot about my leg being any different to anyone else’s”
You have to agree Anna’s husband showed incredible love for his wife. And in a world so self-obsessed, in a world that refuses to grow into age with dignity, in a world where the risk of failure and disfigurement and the risk of feeling ‘normal’ and in a world that rejects anything that has taken external beauty to the extreme and mistaken beauty for love you have to say this was truly an incredible example of love covering all things.
I cannot get her words out of my mind and the depth they carry so I will say them once more for you…
“I forgot about my leg being any different to anyone else’s”
A true story with Babushka Anna.
I hope you enjoyed it. I hope you feel moved. I hope you feel inspired. Please feel free to leave a comment below.
Alan Forrest Smith