At my uncle’s funeral in 2001, the priest remarked to me during a conversation, “You’re not Russian. You are Ukrainian.”
The funeral was held in the small yet ornate Ukrainian Catholic Church in a coal town in central Pennsylvania where my uncle had grown up. He and my mother were two of eight children my grandmother raised there. My grandfather, an immigrant coal miner, died at age 44, leaving my grandmother a young widow with a big family. Her Ukrainian Catholic faith sustained her. The town’s church offered English lessons, bingo and Ukrainian classes for her children to learn their parents’ native language.
Throughout my childhood, my mother often told me how much she hated those Ukrainian language classes. But she also told me colorful, very detailed stories about her childhood in that small town. There were two Catholic churches, one for the Ukrainians and the other popular with the town’s Italians. When my mother and several of her siblings moved to Baltimore in the post-World War II years of 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 a job with the Social Security Administration. When she met my father, who was Jewish, they were married in a small Ukrainian church located in East Baltimore on Wolfe Street. The year was 1952, and my father said the Ukrainian priest was one of the few at the time willing to officiate at their very small interfaith 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 my mother proudly maintained took place every Easter season. An artist at heart, Mom had the talent and skills needed to create gorgeous pysanka. These festive and colorful Easter eggs were a source of wonder to me as a child. My grandmother had taught my mom how to decorate these multistep marvels, and in turn, my mom attempted to teach me. As I grew up, I could dye and design the eggs only slightly well under Mom’s guidance. By the time I became a mom, in the mid-1980s, my mother told me that she was finding it increasingly difficult to find the proper type of wax needed for the eggs. Nevertheless, she would create a few beautiful eggs each Easter. As a child, my daughter proudly took a sample egg to her kindergarten’s “holiday heritage sharing day,” guarding it with supreme caution so as not to drop her grandmother’s precious creation.
As my mother aged, she told me how she regretted not learning more of the Ukrainian traditions that her mother and a few of her siblings did so well. One of my aunts made delicious homemade pierogies. Another had a knack for braided breads and hrudka, a Ukrainian egg cheese, very often a centerpiece in an Easter basket.
Twice a year until my grandmother’s death in 1972, I would have the opportunity to spend time with her in that small Pennsylvania town where my mother grew up. My grandparents and several aunts and uncles are buried in the town’s Ukrainian cemetery.
As a baby boomer growing up during the Cold War, I was generally told by my family that Ukrainians were Russians. It wasn’t until 1991 when Ukraine won independence from the Soviet Union that the important distinction was made, as Ukrainian pride began to emerge stronger than ever. Hence, the message from the priest to me at my uncle’s funeral.
With the current crisis, my thoughts have often turned to that town and my own heritage. I cannot fight side-by-side with courageous President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but I can at least donate to my ancestors’ country’s struggle. On a more personal level, I will attempt, however awkwardly, to dye a few pysanka this Easter 2022.