Valentina Rytenko

| life | family |

I’m writing this on the second leg of a United Flight from San Francisco to Cincinnati via Houston. I’m racing home to spend some time with my Mom and cry with her a bit.

In a cruel twist of fate, less than 24 hours after riding the high of reflecting on how wonderful 2023 was, the universe dragged me all the way back to rock bottom. My cousin sent me a message this morning letting me know that my Grandmother passed away. This was not a complete shock because her health had been deteriorating for a few months now, and the healthcare system in Ukraine was not that great even before the war. Last week my Mom told me that she said goodbye to her already and was instructed not to cry too much.

me and my grandmother, Valentina Rytenko at her house in Ukraine with me wearing a Vishivanka
Рытенко (Клименкова) Валентина Петровна, 01/01/1938 - 01/03/2024

Rytenko Valentina Petrovna (always бабуля валя to me) was born on New Year’s Day in 1938 in Baku, Azerbaijan. She turned 86 a few days ago. She died today in her home in Kalush surrounded by her Son and Daughter in law. She was my Mom’s Mom and spent most of her life living at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, Ukraine in a small city called Kalush.

She was a source of warmth and joy in my life even though we lived a world apart. I don’t remember the details of how much time we spent together when we were kids because we lived in Azerbaijan and she lived in Ukraine. I know she was an amazing cook, had the greenest thumb, and loved her family very much. When we moved to the United States in 1994 it became even more difficult to stay in touch and spend time together.

She came to stay with us in the United States for a few months with my Grandpa when I was a kid. I didn’t really understand the nature of our arrangement back then. I didn’t know that when we dropped off my Grandparents at O’Hare airport back to Ukraine that I would never see my Grandpa again.

She came back a few years later, alone, when I was in high school. She was able to stay for a whole year this time. These were some of my best memories with her. She turned the sad pile of clay and dirt in our backyard into a Garden of Eden and grew all sorts of things back there. She always had something yummy ready to eat when I came home from school. She always gave the best hugs. She was amazed by how much food was always available in America, and she was disappointed to see how much food waste takes place here. I loved visiting buffets with her because she had a deep appreciation for food and always wanted to try a little bit of everything.

Her default state was joy. It took her a nanosecond to smile and it was never fake. She did not speak much English. When we were out and about around town she would sometimes have full conversations with people simply by nodding and smiling. Sometimes 15 minutes would go by before she would tell the other person “Sorry, no English”. Those people were never disappointed though, I guess people just like to be heard, even if they are not always understood.

After she left, we always talked about visiting them in Ukraine, or her coming back to visit us, but it never worked out for one reason or another. A blink of an eye. A decade flew by.

When I turned 30, I had a strong desire to spend my birthday in my birthplace. I was so fortunate to be able to arrange a family reunion and flew everyone out to Baku for a week. This was the first time I saw my Grandma in over a decade, the first time I saw my Cousins since we were all tiny little potatoes, and the first time my Mom saw her Brother in 24 years. It was so special and I think about that week often.

The following year, in 2019, my parents and I flew to Ukraine for a week where we got to spend some more quality time with that side of the family. It was such a wonderful trip. More great memories, delicious food, and the warmth of family love. My Mom was finally abe to visit her Dad’s grave many years after he passed. The last time I saw my Grandma she bought me a Vyshyvanka (pictured above) at a little shop near her home. I wore this a year later when Aosheng and I had our COVID wedding ceremony.

We made plans to see each other again in a year, it was going to become a new tradition. Sadly COVID happened, and then a war broke out, and now its too late. It feels so unfair that we are not able to go and say goodbye to her properly. I don’t know when I will be able to visit her but we will all do it someday.

Last night, I was trawling my old facebook account for the first time in over a decade. I saw a post from an old high school fiend who wrote about his mom passing away a few years ago. He said “when someone dies they don’t go somewhere, they go everywhere”. I needed those words so much, they have been swirling in my head all day.

I am grateful that my last memories of her will always be a warm hug, a delicious meal, and an easy smile. Rest in Peace Grandma, I love you.

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