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NATE KITCH/The Globe and Mail

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'The army is recruiting all able-bodied men between the ages of 17 and 60," Anna told me in one of her regular phone calls from Ukraine.

Two months ago, when her 23-year-old son was conscripted, she said the army could not afford to feed its troops, and soldiers relied on families and locals to provide food.

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Her latest news was delivered in the same monotone I have come to recognize: a resigned voice housed in a tired body that has become reconciled to stress, hardship and misfortune.

Anna used to call me only once a year, usually around Christmas. Now, she is calling once a month. I first met her in Montreal in 1995 and we have become good friends. She has a special fondness for our family, a deep affection hinging on a horrible event.

In 1995, Anna, her sister and a cousin came to Montreal to visit relatives. During their month-long stay, the women, all in their early 30s, were enthralled by everything a developed Western country could offer: the shopping centres, the enormous choice of foods in supermarkets, the carefree happiness we often take for granted.

On the second-to-last day of the holiday, Anna's relatives took the women to visit St. Joseph's Oratory, a majestic church on the side of Mount Royal. As they drove up, Anna noticed there were people kneeling on the stone stairs leading to the upper chapel.

"Those people are praying on each stair for their special intentions," her aunt explained. "They believe St. Joseph or one of the other saints will hear their petitions."

Anna decided to follow their example. On each step, she later told me, she recited one fervent prayer: "Dear God, I want a better life for my children."

At the top of the stairs her knees ached, and she almost keeled over from her pious effort on an empty stomach.

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The next day, while visiting the Laurentian Mountains, the family was involved in a car accident. Anna's aunt and sister died immediately; her uncle was badly hurt; her cousin, wedged in the middle of the back seat, walked away with hardly a scratch. Anna had a fractured pelvis and a crushed leg. Despite the surgeon's best effort to save her leg, it was amputated below the knee.

In hospital, unable to understand English or French, Anna sank into a deep depression. Eventually, she came to live with our family. We had met the three women when they first arrived in Montreal. Our family often invited intrepid travellers from Ukraine to join us for lunch or dinner, always eager to hear of any news from their ancestral village. When we heard about Anna's predicament, we were moved to help. Over the course of six months, my uncle, a doctor, helped her navigate on her new prosthesis. He would joke and gently flirt to make her feel whole again.

We tried to lift her spirits as she coped with her new reality. Once I played the movie Babe, a humorous story about a brave pig and his farmyard friends. Although she did not understand English, she laughed and laughed and asked to watch the film again. She told me her husband was a butcher.

When Anna had recuperated enough to go home to her husband and three children, she did indeed provide a better life for her family. The insurance settlement allowed her to install indoor plumbing in her village home.

When I talk to Anna these days, I can't help thinking: "There but for the grace of God …" I, too, could be living in a village in western Ukraine.

My family came to Canada in the 1930s. Like many immigrants, they suffered, studied, worked hard and thrived in the 1950s. My wonderful baba never quite got the hang of Canadian life, and didn't learn enough English to venture far from the house. She knew a few choice swear words, which she reserved for the mailman when he didn't bring letters from home. It was as if she thought he personally withheld letters from her beloved sisters and brother.

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For my grandmother, Ukraine was the Motherland. For me, it is the Otherland – a country I have yet to visit that is nevertheless deeply ingrained in my DNA. I grew up steeped in its history and lore. I learned that Ukraine was an indigenous nation in a wider Europe. It was the original cradle of Indo-European culture. In pre-historic times, while Moscow was a mossy swamp, there flourished a culture of extraordinary sophistication in the territories of present-day Ukraine. Rus-Ukrainians, they were called, and they are said to have had a knightly spirit: bravery and a desire for honour and glory.

I have come to understand that Ukraine lives life in a minor key. Its energetic dances and beautiful artifacts – decorated Easter eggs, intricate embroidery – belie the deep sadness of a conquered nation.

While researching ideas on longevity for a book I was writing, I came across an eccentric aphorism from Grigory Nestor, a Ukrainian goat herder who lived to be 116 years old: "The less you know, the longer you live. People who know too much always come to a nasty end."

His unusual advice may assure longevity for some, but it comes too late for many Ukrainians, who are feeling and thinking deeply these days.

Roxanne Davies lives in North Vancouver.

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