to weave, to join, fit together, braid, interweave, construct, fabricate, build

vyshyvanka

Some days, days when trouble looms, literally (a huge telecommunication tower is scheduled to be built across the highway from our property, which is troubling in itself, but the chosen location, a corner of property adjacent to the entrance to the Iris Griffith Field Studies and Interpretive Centre, named for a woman who would be horrified at this development, makes clear the lack of respect our regional district and the owners of the property have for the environmental values so many of us hold dear), some days I sit at my desk and imagine myself elsewhere. This morning it’s Lviv, a city I loved when I visited two years ago, and where part of the writing I’m currently working on is set. I don’t actually know what the writing will become. Fiction, mostly. Mostly it’s a dialogue at this point, a series of questions and answers. Attempts at answers. But as I write, I know a few things I’m moving towards. One of them is textiles and how they are repositories of memory and history. Is it a surprise to learn that text and textile share a root?

from Latin textus “style or texture of a work,” literally “thing woven,” from past participle stem of texere “to weave, to join, fit together, braid, interweave, construct, fabricate, build,” from PIE root teks- “to weave, to fabricate, to make; make wicker or wattle framework.”

In Ukraine, I was drawn to the beautiful rushnyk we saw everywhere, the ritual cloth embroidered or woven with red thread, the colour of life. In churches, they draped the ikons. When we arrived at villages, we were met with bread, salt, and horilka, the bread wrapped in rushnyk. When the family members who learned I’d visited their village (but somehow missed them) came to visit us at a hotel in the Carpathian Mountains, they brought me a piece of Bukovynian rushnyk.  I bought some textiles to bring home but of course I wish I’d bought more. I gave my sons (because Angelica was with us in Ukraine and she bought some of her own) and their families a piece of rushnyk each for Christmas in 2019.

I read somewhere that rushnyk were important in a symbolic way in the building of houses, where they were used to raise final beams.

Suffixed form *teks-ōn-, weaver, maker of wattle for house walls, builder (possibly contaminated with *teks-tōr, builder) tectonic; architect from Greek tektōn, carpenter, builder.

They protected hearths and harvests, they were used to wrap newborns, they contained images of sacred fertility and family gatherings. Some days I wear my heart on my sleeve. I wear bright poppies on a shirt, a vyshyvanka, made in the small city of Kosiv, and I think of the woman who stitched them, unknown to me, a granddaughter who returned in search of family history and who found living relatives, and who found a living language of red embroidery and weaving she wants to understand.

What’s going on across the highway has its own language. Public consultation. Technological necessity. A lot of baffle-gab, quite honestly. What wasn’t heard was the sound of children’s voices, the ones we hear on spring days when buses bring classes to nature school and kids learn about wetlands, plant communities, and biodiversity. After the pandemic, buses will pass under the shadow of an enormous tower, higher than the highest trees, a structure utterly out of its element, but somehow deemed appropriate by both the telecommunications giant responsible and the property owners who have given their permission (though for years they have promoted their resort business as a nature sanctuary). It hurts my heart, the one on my sleeve and the one that beat so hard in the night that I couldn’t sleep.

rushnyk

In the work I am currently finding my way into, one of the characters curates a small museum of these textiles, and by coincidence, or not, she is related to to the character who is trying to learn more about her family story. If I keep my head low, listening, my eyes on the cloths I chose in Kosiv, maybe I will learn something of the language essential to understanding a story hidden in red thread.

“Everything I am remembering is burnished with moonshine…”

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),

gingerbread

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.

rusknyk

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.