“the vacant place at the table”

morning, with rushnyk

In Ukraine, we saw kalyna everywhere, the high-bush cranberry beloved for its culinary uses and also as a symbol for resistance to political oppression. In the garden of the poet Taras Shevchenko in Kyiv, we sat in the shade of kalyna and watched feral kittens play on the ground. The wooden house behind us served as a small museum, the kind of museum I wrote about in my forthcoming Blue Portugal and Other Essays; there were cases filled with the poet’s clothing, his sketches, drafts of his poems, maybe even this poem, his most beloved:

When I am dead, bury me
In my beloved Ukraine,
My tomb upon a grave mound high
Amid the spreading plain,
So that the fields, the boundless steppes,
The Dnieper’s plunging shore
My eyes could see, my ears could hear
The mighty river roar.

I was wishing for kalyna this morning, wanting to do something practical in honour of my grandfather’s country as I listened to the terrible news of Russia’s aggression. What could I do? I brought out the lengths of rushnyk I bought in the market in Kosiv. I loved them in Ukraine, draped around ikons in the churches, wrapped around bread as it came to the table, and the more I learned of the rushnyk’s meanings — as a cloth for ceremonies, for wrapping a newborn, for presenting to newly married couples, a symbol for the hearth, a mediator between the living and the dead—the more I was drawn to them. Mine are kept in a trunk but today I brought two out, made muffins dense with blueberries, wrapped them in the beauty of red berries and stylized flowers, and spread the other rushnyk, a length of fabric embroidered with the traditional emblems of Bukovyna, given to me by my distant cousins who drove for hours to meet us in our hotel above Tiudiv. Today I will pause when I see the cloths in my kitchen, remembering the kalyna bushes in that peaceful garden in Kyiv, the laughter of my cousins, their cheekbones (my cheekbones), remembering the dusty village where my grandfather was born and which he left, its plain houses and nearby river quiet on the afternoon we visited, and maybe I’ll play some Ukrainian music, the beautiful “Kalyna”:

The Sun rose over the hill;
Rose the folk joyfully
From happy slumbers.
But all, all the long night through
A mother slept not.
Weeping, she could see
The vacant place at table,
Lone in the dusk,
And she wept bitterly.

from nadya's family

8 thoughts on ““the vacant place at the table””

  1. I visited Kiev in 1966. My main memory is of the University which had been painted red to symbolise soviet control. I presume a lot more red paint will be needed now. What a tragedy for Ukrainians, and the world. And what frustration to feel so impotent.

  2. Opposite a big park? It was a quick walk from our hotel so we went to amble under the trees. There’s a big statue of the namesake poet and people came to place candles on the steps.

  3. beautifully said and honoured Theresa. My maternal grandmother came from Ukraine. Neither my mom nor I have ever visited though my mom really honoured her mother’s heritage.

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