We did a little circle tour from one end of the room to the next as she pointed out the various icons and rushnyky. Most were stitched in red and black threads -- traditional to the region -- on white linen or white cotton. Others were more Russianized in bright, bold colors or pastels and modern patterns.
'And this one,' she said, while pulling me behind the partition and pointing to another icon in the southwest corner, 'is my rushnyk. I hope that Titka Olena will give me this one.'
It was clear that Kira's aunt was an artist; the craftsmanship on the towel was distinct, graceful. I took in the enormous rose heads and flowering bouquets threaded with black to enhance the vibrant scarlet. The ends of the rushnyk were further decorated with an expensive eyelet. I nodded to Kira in mutual appreciation over the handiwork.
'She will give it to me, I'm sure,' she added in secret confidence.
I was overtaken with the simple gesture of friendship from Kira, of the desire to bond with me. I smiled at her and kissed her cheek, 'Of course she will.' And we shot down the medivka we'd been clinging to during the art tour.
I don't recall when or how it all happened, but with the downpour of more shots, the noise grew among our little group of seven and the next thing I remember is taking a close look at the table as we prepared to say grace. It was brimming with our placesettings as well as a variety of dishes. The table was laden with food, reminding me of a traditional twelve-dish Christmas feast. Fresh-baked bread wafted its steamy smell toward me, mingled with the other aromas of wild mushroom gravy, cabbage rolls known as holubtsi, jams and pork hocks. Homemade pickles and stewed vegetables added color next to the dish filled with kasha - buckwheat cooked fluffy with eggs. Sausages, accented with garlic, lay in pink slivers, and fresh goat cheese was crumbled for the taking. But before I could dive into all of that richness, I was served a bowl of green borscht. Made with chevril to give its distinct, tangy taste, it is filled with hard-boiled eggs, potatoes and sour cream, all swimming in a meaty broth. It is, by far, my favorite soup in the world.
Being the guest of honor, I was offered to fill my plate first. I dived into the kasha and tried my first bite of one of the cabbage rolls, also filled with buckwheat and meat. Typically, I have tolerated cabbage rolls, they're certainly not my favorite, but there was something about Titka Olena's recipe that made me gluttonous. I couldn't get enough if I had tried. I continued heaping more rolls onto my plate, dousing them in the wild mushroom gravy, while complimenting the cooks repeatedly.
Olena and Stosia laughed with me, their thin, graying wisping out from underneath their colorful headscarves, vast bodies rolling with each pleased chuckle. They took turns helping me pile more food onto my plate stating that I was too thin anyway, while Sasha continued pouring the shots, and Anatoly and Mykhailo teased me.
'A toast to our amerikanka!' Anatoly raised his glass, sweeping it toward me. 'Yizh! Yizh!'
And so I did as he ordered and ate.
We toasted to everything that day: to America, to Ukraine, to God, to good friends, good health, family - those present and those unable to be with us. We toasted to my fiancee waiting at home for me, to my decision that we would honeymoon in Ukraine (Stosia took my idea seriously and joyously told me that John and I could share the partitioned room while Kira's brother stayed in Kiev). As the merriment reached a crescendo, Titka Olena - which she insisted I call her - took my hand and squeezed it affectionately.
'Here, I want you to have something,' and she waddled into a corner of the room as everyone fell silent and she gently pulled out a box. Uncovering the lid, I saw six hand-painted eggs nestled in straw. She gently pushed the box toward me, 'Pick three.'