Dani, one of my Bulgarian language teachers from pre-service training in the Peace Corps, grew up in a town called Lucky, in the beautiful Rhodope mountains. The Bulgarian place name “Lucky” (really Лъки, or you can spell it Laki) doesn’t mean lucky; it just sounds like that to our English ear. She lived in a big house shared with several generations of her extended family. The house itself was built by, added on to, and passed down by the family through the years. By the time we met Dani she was an adult of course, working on her own in a different city, but her childhood memories were tied together with cousins, uncles and aunts, and grandparents who gave structure and meaning to everyday life and learning.
Individual families had their own space in the big home, but the overlap and shared spaces of the family home brought a kind of closeness that is hard to imagine for those growing up in a “single family” residence. Stormy and I had seen a glimpse of how it worked in Bulgaria, with our host family Pavlin and Krassimira, and again while visiting in Velingrad. It’s in the book. . .
Most homes are two or three stories, with two or more generations living in the house. It’s usually one generation per floor: newlyweds on the top, parents and grandparents below. From generation to generation, down and out. (p. 49) In the Bogoevi home, Dyado, Grandpa, was Krassimira’s father who lived downstairs. He had a garden and kept goats. The goat pen was at the back of the house. The back porch and part of the garage, with the outside door open and an inside door closed, served as a stable and hay barn. (p. 14)
When we visited the home of our friend Miladin’s sister in Velingrad we saw the same pattern in a big old family home, feeling the many-layered ebb and flow of life with members of three generations, sharing hearty meals and long conversations. . .
The house was in the traditional style with the different generations each living on their own floor. Each floor was, or could be arranged to be, a separate apartment. Baba and Dyado lived on the ground floor. Over the generations people grew up and moved down. . . As more and more people found jobs in distant places, it seemed the pattern of passing family homes along in the traditional way would gradually become less prevalent.” (p. 272)
Living close together with different generations gave depth and dimension to the meaning of family, putting down roots that held firmly. That was one of the traditions and ways of living that we admired about Bulgaria.
Well, we’ve been back in the States for some years now, but memories of the deep ties coming out of those big family homes came back to us recently. Dani, our former teacher, told us about her cousin Elena. She had grown up with her in that big house in Lucky.
Elena had moved to the US and become a dual citizen, was living and working happily in DC, had come to Denver for a vacation and was injured in a terrible accident. She had been in a coma for weeks when we heard the story. We got permission from her family to visit, since Elena didn’t know anyone else out west.
We were happy to be a part of her recovery, at first only offering words of support and comfort and not even knowing if they were heard or understood since she was heavily sedated. As she gradually awakened over a period of weeks and learned who we were, we were thrilled to witness her progress as days turned into weeks. She regained her ability to communicate by nods and gestures at first, sometimes a treasured smile, then by writing, and finally a voice. As she works to regain mobility, painfully and slowly, it brings back memories of struggles and triumphs of our own, when friends and family members supported and cheered us.
We’ve grown to think of Elena like a niece, maybe a little like a daughter, someone with more than just the connection of a mutual friend. We experience joy with every advance in her therapy, and we look forward to the day when she will be able to get back to her real life. “Everything starts with friends” – remember that concept? Put that together with the idea of that big extended family house that she and Dani grew up in, and the connection reaches across the miles and years to always.