redux: “the vacant place at the table”

morning, with rushnyk

Note: I wrote this a year ago. So many more vacant places at Ukrainian tables this morning. So much sorrow. Yet what an astonishing country. What courage. Slava Ukraini!


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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s