Kiev Stories and Tips

The Rushnyk of Chernihiv, II

My gracious hosts. Photo, Kiev, Ukraine

On the way to Federenkos' home in Chernihiv, I reminded myself that it would probably be a slow process to re-establish any sort of regular church practice after having Atheism forced down Ukrainian throats for over 75 years. I finally let it go when we pulled alongside the hedges bordering the property and focused my attention on the environment. A vast field of gold remained frosted under a November sun - it reminded me of the blue and gold national flag of Ukraine. A creek wound its way among tall, bare oak trees and the beaded branches of willow trees. The yard to the house was covered in scrubby grass but mostly it was bare from regular trampling. Three sheds flanked the main cottage, each housing a different set of animals: a menagerie of fowl ranging from domestic geese and ducks to chickens; a few spirited goats; and two mumbling pigs. The main house was whitewashed and thatched and an old picket-fence door leaned lopsided in its frame. It would have to be repaired before the snow flew.

'I hope I didn't make you late,' I apologized.

Sasha laughed at me, 'Of course not! They don't even know we're coming!'

I suddenly felt extremely self-conscious. If nobody was expecting us then certainly they were not expecting a Ukrainian American! I knew that only two things could happen when we walked in: they'd be shocked into silence - which was dubious considering the nationality - or I would become a celebrated hero returning to her homeland even though I'd never been to Ukraine before.

We stepped through the doorway into a pantry where miscellaneous canned good were stacked and stored. I deducted that this was the cooler then. The dirt-packed floor stopped at the edge of the threshold of a wooden floor laid in a woven pattern and leading us into a brightly-lit kitchen. Delicate curtains, reminding me of both my grandmothers, billowed away from the windows to allow the streaming sunlight in. A small kitchen table rested against the far wall. There were several charming antique furnishings scattered about with dried flowers and herbs, and, on the walls, traditional icons hung in every corner, their frames draped with the always-accompanied rushnyk - an embroidered towel.

I heard Sasha bellow out greetings and Kira's sing-song voice echoing her husband's. Kira made introductions to the surprised, but sincerely delighted, hosts. I hugged Mrs. Stosia - Kira's grandmother - who hugged me to my core; Kira's aunt, Mrs. Olena, broke away from the enormous paddle holding a rounded loaf of dough, ready to go into the clay pich. Surrounded by the two, babushka-covered women, I immediately warmed up to the way they spoke through their smiles and twinkling eyes while my perceptions of the place were being tugged between charming and depressing. Familiar scenes from Little House on the Prairie replayed in my head along with the romantic notions I used to have about living in the 'Olden Days,' but I was also smacked with the reality that these people were living 'like this' in the Nineties.

Sasha whisked me into the next and last room of the cottage. It too was brightly lit with sunshine. Against two walls were three beds, puffed up high with goosefeather pillows and comforters. Kira's grandfather, Mykhailo Federenko, was propped up on one of the beds facing us. He was ancient looking but his eyes still fired a lively spirit from his pinched and weathered face. The room also contained a large card table - the dining table - and a china hutch filled with dishes and decorated eggs, or pysanky. As in the kitchen, the walls were adorned with various icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary as well as photographs of long-gone relatives; each of them draped with a hand-embroidered rushnyk. To one side of the room, a small partition stood to separate what I supposed to be a 'private' room for one of the four people who lived there. Sasha took me behind it and pointed to a small wooden desk neatly organized with books and papers as well as another bed. Right there, I understood that there were really five people sharing this two-room cottage, for a final sleeping place was located in an alcove atop the backside of the oven.

'It gets very cold here in the winter,' Sasha explained. 'This is where Kira's younger brother sleeps. He has to keep warm, otherwise his joints become inflamed.'

I glanced at my friend, 'I'm sorry to hear that.'

'You would like him,' he continued, flashing me a grin. 'He's also a writer, but he's in Kiev right now.'

We were interrupted by an invitation from Anatoly, Kira's uncle, who had just come in from some chore. 'Sit at the table! Tell us about our young amerikanka!'

Sasha and I sat down in the bedroom/dining room while Kira excused herself to the kitchen. My offers to help were turned down with impatient waves from all three women and I found myself among the three men, instead.

'We brought you a gift,' Sasha announced to them. His six-foot-three frame filled the room where he stood and, with a lot of embellishment, he reached into his leather jacket and slammed the bottle of samahon on the table before us. Mykhailo's grin consumed his whole face as he raised his hands into the air and muttered, 'Good man, good man.' He directed a glance toward Anatoly who was already reaching into the china hutch for glasses.

It took no more than a minute and I was downing my first shot of the day, laughing that it was 'noon somewhere.' The women called out cheerily, informing us that we would have fresh bread in just a few moments. Due to the nature of the rustic surroundings and our unexpected arrival, I was preparing myself for a small peasant meal. In the meantime, I savored the heat inside my body and the sweet aftertaste of the honey in the liquor we continued pouring.

Kira came back to join us at one point, wiping her hands on a borrowed apron. 'Come here, Chrystia,' she called quietly. 'I want to show you something.'

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