During my uncle’s funeral in 2001, the priest told me during a conversation: “You are not Russian. You are Ukrainian.
The funeral took place in the small but ornate Ukrainian Catholic Church in a mining town in central Pennsylvania where my uncle had grown up. He and my mother were two of the eight children my grandmother raised there. My grandfather, an immigrant coal miner, died at age 44, leaving my grandmother a young widow with a large family. Her Ukrainian Catholic faith sustained her. The town’s church offered English, bingo and Ukrainian lessons for its children to learn their parents’ native language.
Throughout my childhood, my mother often told me how much she hated those Ukrainian lessons. But she also told me colorful and very detailed stories about her childhood in this small town. There were two Catholic churches, one for Ukrainians and the other popular with Italians in the city. When my mother and several of her siblings moved to Baltimore in the years following World War II in the late 1940s, Mom turned the page on all things Ukrainian. She enrolled as a part-time student at the Maryland Institute College of Art and found employment with the Social Security Administration. When she met my father, who was Jewish, they got married in a small Ukrainian church located in East Baltimore on Wolfe Street. It was 1952, and my father said that the Ukrainian priest was one of the few at the time who wanted to officiate at their tiny interreligious ceremony. By the time I was born, my mother had become a Roman Catholic, finding the Archdiocese of Baltimore more accessible than Ukrainian Catholicism in terms of church locations.
The one Ukrainian tradition that my mother proudly maintained was held every Easter season. An artist at heart, Mom had the talent and skills to create beautiful pysanka. These festive and colorful Easter eggs used to amaze me when I was a kid. My grandmother had taught my mother how to decorate these wonders in several steps, and in turn, my mother tried to teach me. Growing up, I could only dye and design the eggs slightly well under Mom’s guidance. By the time I became a mom in the mid-1980s, my mom told me she was having more and more trouble finding the right kind of wax needed for eggs. Nevertheless, she created a few beautiful eggs every Easter. As a child, my daughter proudly brought a sample egg to her kindergarten’s “Holiday Heritage Sharing Day,” guarding it with extreme caution so as not to drop her grandfather’s precious creation. mother.
As I got older, my mother told me that she regretted not having learned more about Ukrainian traditions than her mother and a few of her siblings had learned so well. One of my aunts made delicious homemade meals pierogies. Another had a gift for braided breads and hrudkaa Ukrainian egg cheese, very often a centerpiece in an Easter basket.
Twice a year until my grandmother died in 1972, I would have the opportunity to spend time with her in that small town in Pennsylvania where my mother grew up. My grandparents and several aunts and uncles are buried in the city’s Ukrainian cemetery.
As a baby boomer growing up during the Cold War, my family usually told me that Ukrainians were Russians. It wasn’t until 1991, when Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union, that the important distinction was made, as Ukrainian pride began to emerge stronger than ever. Hence the message sent to me by the priest at my uncle’s funeral. With the current crisis, my thoughts have often turned to this city and my own heritage. I cannot fight side by side with the courageous President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but I can at least contribute to the struggle of the country of my ancestors. On a more personal level, I will try, albeit clumsily, to dye some pysanka this Easter 2022.
Caroline Buck ([email protected]) is a local writer, performing arts educator and teaching artist.