Connections Run Deep

My wife Stormy and I are visiting a special friend this week, with such an unusual connection I wanted to share part of the story with you. I say part, because the story is still being written with each passing day. How is love expressed, and what does it do? Deep and lasting connections are what make communities strong. We value our Southern Gables friends and neighbors, and families everywhere do the same – in rich countries, poor countries, in deserts and jungles and war zones, it’s true: people making connections is how love comes into being and makes the world a better place. 

This story started when Stormy and I were working in the Peace Corps, learning the language in our initial training… 

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….

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….

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. Grandma and Grandpa 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.

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. A close connection.

Elena had moved to the US and become a 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 her in the hospital, 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, then months. 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 worked to regain mobility, painfully and slowly, it brought 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 a deeper connection than just that of a mutual friend. We experienced joy with every advance in her therapy, and we rejoiced when she could 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.

This story was first published in and is reprinted with a few updates, with the permission of… me. Our “honorary niece” Elena recovered from her injuries and we are looking forward to seeing her again after all these years. 

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