Kiev Stories and Tips

Rushnyk of Chernihiv, End

Samahon, great food and better company. Photo, Kiev, Ukraine

'Three,' I cried. 'I can't possibly take three.'

She continued smiling, pressing me. 'Take one for your grandmother, one for your mother and one for yourself to give to your daughter.' (She seemed so sure I would have one some day.)

'And pack up some of those holubtsi to take home with her too,' Mykhailo intervened, sending a wave of chuckles around the room.

Sasha cocked an eyebrow at me, 'Ha! They won't let her out of the country.'

'That's why she should take them,' Anatoly winked. 'Then we'll see whether she can really live here.'

I obeyed and picked three of the fragile eggs which Titka Olena promptly wrapped in small embroidered handkerchiefs. This is too much, I thought. The eggs are enough, but to have the handkerchiefs as well! I was still stumped on how all of the food had magically appeared.

'Chrystia,' Mrs. Stosia called to get my attention. 'Do you like the rushnyky?'

'Oh yes!' I said politely.

'Which is your favorite,' she asked.

'Well,' I said, taking a look around the spinning room. There was one in particular which I liked though it was a modern pattern of gold threads mixed with a bouquet of wildflower colors and patterns. It seemed too Russian for me rather than authentic Ukrainian. I caught an encouraging smile from Kira and suddenly remembered that a guest should never offend her hostess, which Kira was foremost in my mind. I, therefore, did not want to jeopardize our relationship by not pointing out her good tastes.

'That one,' I pointed to the red-rosed rushnyk in the southwest corner which I knew would someday goto Kira. I smiled grandly at Kira. She did not smile back; in fact she stunned me by turning away, a crushed look on her small face.

I still had no idea what was going to happen, but when it did, the whole world seemed to fall from beneath me. Stosia rose in slow motion from her seat and gently took the rushnyk off the icon it embraced. I believe I let out a silent, stunned scream and shook my head when I heard her say - quite happily, 'Then, it's yours.'

I turned to Kira who was eyeing the towel. 'It's yours! I can't take it! You must have it,' I pleaded, pushing it toward her.

In the States, I feel certain, this would not have been a problem. But I was a stranger in a foreign land, brought up on the watered down version of Ukrainian hospitality in comparison to what was going on around me. There was no way, no matter how much I pleaded (and I did so gently, afraid to offend anyone) that I could not take Kira's rushnyk.

The ordeal was a long one. The merriment picked up around me as though nobody recognized how ill I felt about the gift. I felt alone in that room with Kira. As I gingerly held the cloth between my fingers, she leaned over to take a closer look at the embroidery, her dark, curly hair hiding her eyes. Her shoulders slumped slightly under an unreleased sigh and I was about to tell her something when Anatoly suddenly broke into our world, dragging us back into the room with another series of stories and questions for me.

Our dinner ended pleasantly with a walk in the country to rid us of the stupor we'd drunk ourselves into. I posed for pictures with the various farm animals while the two old women laughed at the goose who refused to sit still in my arms. I forgot about the rushnyk, except that in the back of my mind I was planning on leaving it behind for Kira.

When it came time for us to go, Kira and Sasha scrunched into the front seats of the small Russian vehicle and I lay across the backseat, exhausted, mildly sobered by all of the food. The conversation on the way back to Kiev was one-sided as Sasha tried to keep things light. I started to imagine the tension between Kira and I building again and I really wanted to air out the events that happened back at the cottage. When I started to say something, Kira's soft voice interrupted me.

'Just promise me that you will do one thing,' she said as she turned in her seat to face me. I met her large, dark eyes and was relieved by the genuine smile on her face. 'Use the rushnyk in your wedding ceremony and think of us on that day.'

I was suddenly struck that perhaps Christianity had not died at all in Ukraine; it was still alive and kicking in the homes of my hosts, in the cottage we were leaving behind, in the cupboards and open doors, in the treasure boxes of kindness and generosity extended to strangers from foreign lands. Those were the roots that still clung to the turmoiled Ukrainian soil, and that was all I needed to understand in that moment.

'Of course I will, Kira.' And I did.

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