Munkhtsetseg

A volunteer experiences Mongolian grieving traditions firsthand.

Vocabulary:

Khashaa: the fenced yard where someone lives, either in a ger (traditional round Mongolian yurt) or house

By Adrienne Matunas - Peace Corps Volunteer, Mongolia (2014 - 2016)

This poem is about Munkhtsetseg, my pre-service training host mother, who passed away after a car accident three days after I left her home to swear in as a volunteer. According to Mongolian tradition, family should be together on the forty-ninth day after their loved one has passed away to do good things, especially for children, so that the person's soul, which is near on the forty-ninth day, will have peace and be able to move on.  My host mother's name, Munkhtsetseg, means "everlasting flower".


After the wedding,

she was beautiful.

The earrings she wore

shone like her laugh

for three months

when, like a child, I pointed at things

and she told me their names.

It does not matter

how untiring a woman is, how smart

how much a nation

depends upon her mettle.

Loss is as flooring, as unforeseen

in every place.

There is

the Mongolian driver who woke

before dawn

to bring us to her funeral, just in time.

The two younger sisters

I didn’t realize until that moment were also mine.

There is the privilege

of knowing a mother’s

last weeks.  To be included,

that briefly,

in the unparalleled life of another.

When the teacher came to get me, the American daughter,

I saw smoke rising

from three khashaas, marking the absence.

You don’t truly know what you’re doing here, do not know

what it means until you are

guest to the grief of a family.

After forty-nine days,

we returned to Javkhlant.  This time

there was sun on the snow, Himbe’s one

good ear flapping as he walked

down the road that was

good as home.


This poem was entered in the Volunteer category for the 2015 Peace Corps Poetry Contest. The contest received more than 1,000 submissions, representing over 50 years of Peace Corps service in more than 100 countries.

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