I can see her standing over the stove, stirring a pot of her homemade soup. She stood about 5’4” and wore colorfully printed dresses, invariably covered with a heavy white cotton apron. Elastic stockings that looked like Ace bandages were rolled tightly just above the knees; her feet held sturdy by thick-soled black shoes tied with black laces. And there was a deep tone to her voice that belied her natural beauty of white hair, blue eyes, cream-colored skin, and a delicate face with lines of a thousand stories. She was my maternal grandmother who had emigrated here from the Ukraine in 1912. Her name was Julia.
Julia married Dmitro who was also from the Ukraine and had arrived in the States two years prior to Julia. He was a factory worker and she was the caretaker of their family of six children. I have few memories of “Mitro.” He died when I was three. I do recall standing outside my grandparent’s bedroom door while doctors and nurses huddled around him and took turns raising his arms. I didn’t know why they were doing that, but it seemed important and their faces were tense. He passed away that day. A pall spread throughout the house as grief attached itself. That’s all I remember about him. But Julia lived to be 91. Being her first grandchild I was blessed to share many days and weeks with her throughout the years. She was the most nurturing person I have ever known. She was not a person of idle conversation. Neither am I. Nature vs nurture?
When she did speak, she spoke with purpose and intent. She read and spoke English very well, but much to my liking, she maintained a thick Ukrainian accent. Julia also maintained many Ukrainian traditions, like melting candle wax in a pot on the stove, dipping toothpicks in it and making intricate designs on Easter eggs before dying them. It was pure art. It was a tradition derived from her long-ago Ukraine. She worked silently. She also had down feathers delivered by truckloads to her garage and with a wheelbarrow she would transport load after load to the basement where here foot-peddle sewing machine sat. Soon Julia had sewn a new down comforter. None of those remain in the family today. Sometimes the importance tradition is lost on those who do not understand that love comes in many forms. I buy down comforters in department stores now. It’s just not the same.
Julia read the morning newspaper every day, moistening her fingers to turn the pages with her cup of coffee nearby. One morning while I was staying with her, she read an article about Nikita Khrushchev. This was long before the Cold War ended, and the article had upset her so much that she threw the newspaper across the room and shouted, “Communist!” When I asked her why she was so angry she told me a story.
When she was a young girl in the Ukraine, her family had a farm. Once she had been struck by lightning and her parents put her in hay inside the barn so she could recover. I seldom asked questions. I listened. As she spoke of the farm in her beloved Ukraine, her face became solemn, then fierce looking. Soldiers, she told me, had come to their farm. They tied her parents to trees and set them on fire. They then proceeded to set the entire farm on fire as she watched, hidden in the woods. After telling me the story, she put her face in her hands and cried, “Bozhe, Bozhe, Bozhe.” God, God, God.
In the small suburban house her children had purchased for her after Mitro’s death, Julia had a patch of a garden. She tended to it every day, pulling errant weeds and letting green onions, carrots, cabbage, squash and tomatoes grow. It seemed her homage to the farm of her family that had been burned so many years ago. She did this in silence, as she did so many things. The lines etched upon her face told many more stories. Does history account for grief that cannot be spoken?
And as I watch news stories today about the tug-of-war happening in my grandmother’s beloved Ukraine, I cannot help wondering how many people are putting their faces in their hands, suffering and crying, “Bozhe, Bozhe, Bozhe” once again.
Tired hands dusting a floured apron
Dinner wrapped in flavors of love
Voice in surround sound nurturing
As we slip into Contessa’s safehouse
She hovers, large in her smallness
Family anointed by her grace
Broken English the text of life
She harbors secrets we have yet to learn
White hair a crowning halo
Our Contessa dusting her floured apron
© Cher Duncombe 2003