I am preparing some gift boxes to mail to the children I won’t see this Christmas. What goes into them: small gifts, boxes of buttercrunch (to be made this afternoon), gingerbread (made this morning),
some homemade items, and this year, rushnyk from Ukraine. Rushnyk cloth is used for rituals and ceremonies; when we arrived somewhere, we would be met with a tray of tiny glasses of horilka, or moonshine, a little bowl of salt, and a loaf of bread wrapped in the most beautiful cloth embroidered with symbolic elements I learned to decode, or at least some of them. They speak a language I sometimes understand. A little. In churches they draped the ikons. They were also a means for women to communicate. They hold wishes, dreams, history, and the cycles that bind us to each other and our homes: fertility, childbirth, harvest, marriage, death, the afterlife.
Sometimes I can’t believe we were actually able to travel to Ukraine and I’ve dreamed of the moment when my relatives came in the door of our hotel, presenting us with champagne and a beautiful rushnyk I’ll use to wrap bread the next time my family is here. Somehow these threads become more important to me as I age and as the occasions for my family to gather become more complicated. The final essay in the collection I’ve mostly finished is about Ukraine—what I hoped to find there and what I did find.
Everything I am remembering is burnished with moonshine, the taste of cherry-filled varenyky, sweet butter on dark bread. Mornings I swam in an unheated pool, the bottom littered with drowned insects, while all around me mist rose from the valley below our mountain slope. The mountains above me, source of the Dniester, Tisza and Vistula Rivers, the upper streams of the Black Cheremosh and the White, the Prut. I thought of those mountains forming a long spine to the Beskids in the Czech Republic, where my grandmother was born, 2 years after my grandfather, though they didn’t meet until 1919, in the badlands of Alberta, she a widow, and him? I have no idea of his romantic history, though in his small archive of papers there are two photographs, one of two women, taken in Chernivtsi, one of whom resembles him enough to be a sister, and another of a woman with a generous mouth, dressed in a fur vest like the Hutsul women wore. Everything I am remembering, burnished with light too faint to read by, like the moonlight that came through my curtains at Sokilske, haunting the room like old history.
–from “Museum of the Multiple Village”, part of Blue Portugal.