A Warm summer rain taps gently on the roof of the open back porch overlooking the back acres of our farm. It is early morning, a sacred time of day. A recent dry spell has left the grasses dressed in variegated shades of brown-yellow-green, and the rain is appreciated. From the porch, one can see the bluebird house where Mama and Papa Bluebird recently welcomed a set of twins to the world. When I peeked into the nest, and saw them, their scrawny naked necks were so vulnerable it made my heart ache. A flurry of activity ensues as the parents labor to feed their young. The bird chorus is in full concert. Someone gave the Robin a solo, his throaty trill is leaping with joy up and down the scale. A grade school memory emerges from a day when Sister Zoe coaxed Mark Mogenson, a tall, redheaded, shy boy to sing a verse. We had all been singing, in our varying childlike semi dulcet tones when she hushed us. “Mark, you have a LOVELY voice. Please repeat that verse for us.” Like today’s Robin, I watched as Mark transformed in that moment. He puffed up his chest, cheeks as plump and rosy as a cherub, and sang for us. Despite children’s well-earned reputation for cruelty to each other, not one snicker passed between us all, not even from Tommy Trevor, the resident freckle-faced scourge of the nuns who taught us. For a brief minute, we were all rapt, caught up in a veil of sweet kindness. Sister Zoe had that kind of magic where a person uses their power for true goodness. I learned through a class web site a few years back, Mark had passed away at a young age. If he were sitting here today, marveling at the Robin song with me, I wonder, if I asked him, if he would have remembered that day. I hope he took it with him on his short journey through this life, and I hope it was a good memory for him. With all of the abject sorrow being inflicted on our tortured world at this very moment, the only solace I know of lies in Nature and her beloved animal creatures. It is only in these moments, when I gratefully breathe in the perfume unique to a summer morning rain, that my overworked brain calms, and fragments of gentler times emerge, and I remember that sometimes, the best we can do is to be more generous with simple and small kindnesses. And, to be worthy of receiving them from the Sister Zoe’s of this world.
My paternal great-grandparents , Elik and Anna Yurdyga, emigrated to the US in 1910, from Ukraine. They were farmers in the old country, and they continued with that tradition, raising their own food on a farm in Upstate New York. My father has fond memories of time spent in the care of his grandparents as a very young boy. His grandmother spoiled him by sharing his grandfather’s precious preserved cherries with him, over his grandfather’s light-hearted protests. Once they had a rooster that attacked my father, and that bird promptly wound up on the Sunday dinner table. From listening to the stories, I gather they were very tough, but loving people who raised 8 children who all “made good” as my grandmother would say. One was an artist, one was a NY City career woman, two fought heroically for this country, some stayed in the Finger Lakes region, and some migrated to California. All of them contributed to the prosperity, values and success of this country. My grandmother, Mary Yurdyga, was the one I knew and loved best. She was a single parent before it was common, a hard-working waitress who raised three children, bought her own home with the tips she earned and saved, and supported herself and her children by taking in boarders. One of them became my grandfather, John Juskow. Mary Yurdyga Juskow is the reason why I most identify with my Polish-Ukrainian heritage. She enriched our lives with her wonderful Ukrainian cooking, and her green thumb, no doubt inherited from her parents. Oh the sweet babka, the tart kapusta, and golden brown pierogis fried in onions! Her flower gardens were legendary. She taught me to knit, how to grow marigolds, and once took me to Christmas Eve mass at St. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church . I remember my white gloved hand in hers, the acrid scent of incense burning inside pots swung back and forth by the priest, who spoke and sang in the primal mysterious language of the old country. Grandma had distinctive features: She could look right into your soul with those piercing, deep brown eyes, magnified by thick glasses. She had a small, pert nose and a beautiful smile, paired with a sharp tongue and a core made of steel. She had a way of making me feel seen. Her house was the museum of my childhood; I spent hours admiring an oil painting made by her artist brother, of a gray horse standing in a field overlooking a valley. (I was obsessed from birth with horses) and a cast iron horse figurine purchased by her first husband, that sat nobly on a high shelf in her pristine parlor. When I was 11 years old, she gave them both to me and I still have them today.
In those days, people did not speak of the past, and so, I have no inkling of the hardships that drove them to America. If one reads the history of the Ukraine, the nature of the hardships can easily be imagined. And of course, today we can just turn on the news to see firsthand what these tough, brave people of mine are enduring.
My Ukrainian roots are aching. Every day I pray for the people who are suffering, yet fighting so hard. I have always been fascinated and proud of my Polish-Ukrainian heritage, and that old pride within is rekindled when I see that blue and yellow flag flying, and when I see people standing in solidarity with that tough, beautiful nation.
Grandma, wherever you are, I hope you see – we all made good, thanks to you. Today in honor of your memory, I am going to whip up some golumpkis for Sunday dinner, and continue praying for peace in Ukraine. Sharing a photo of my great-grandfather on his farm, holding my dad.
“Ma, I’m BORED!” How many times did I say that as a kid? Haunting my mother like a vulture, around the kitchen table on a muggy summer morning, while she sipped coffee from a green Fire King mug, penciling on her crossword, trying to find some peace. Without looking up, she’d say “I’ll give you something to do…” And I’d disappear out the door, bing, bing, bing, like Ricochet Rabbit, past the dog, dozing in the shade, past the back yard, through the tall grass, under the barbed wire fence and down the cow path before you could say “Lickety split!” (Do not ask me where that came from just now, the voices that speak to me from those days in ancient history must be heeded.) I most surely wound up catching minnows in the cool waters of the creek to put in Tupperware containers on the back step (Mom wouldn’t let us bring them in the house) And, sadly, it took me a couple of times to realize they couldn’t live in a bowl, simply for my entertainment. They were to be enjoyed alive and well, flashing, silver in the creek, darting back and forth, as minnows and children are meant to do.
Remember when the late spring/early days of summer, so anticipated, finally arrived? Freedom, sunshine, deep greens everywhere! Bird song in the morning, and crickets heard through the screens at nightfall as you lay awake in bed, thrashing at the sheets and the injustice of a too-early bedtime. Asking for one more drink of water, crying out “I can’t sleep!”in the hopes an adult would take mercy on you and set you free from the stifling bedroom in which you were trapped. Only to hear “Don’t make me come up the stairs!” Ah, those were the days. When the adults were downstairs, in charge, and you were not, but you could fall asleep knowing there were sentinels between you and the creatures of the night.
Fast forward almost 50 years. (How did THAT happen?) It’s a lazy Sunday, the day is full of possibilities, and I have all the freedom that being an adult on a beautiful late Spring day entails. I am in charge of myself, and the day stretches ahead. I’ve done the cup of coffee on the deck, observed a Flicker sitting in the grass, his bright eye turned up to the sky. I marveled at my knockout roses with their pink and red petals glistening with morning dew. I watched neon-yellow goldfinches perched on slender tall grasses, swinging back and forth with the breeze. I served the horse and donkey their morning grain, kissed their velvet noses, and inhaled the barn perfume, blend of hay, manure and leather. There are still hours of this beautiful day left to enjoy. And yet…
“Ma, I’m bored.”
“I can give you something to do…perhaps wash the dishes? Throw in a load of laundry? The bird cage is looking pretty grim…”
Just like old times, only I am the boss of me and the conversation is all in my head. If you will excuse me, the fields, woods and streams are calling my name!
Leaving the warmth of the barn last night, with its sweet aromas of leather, hay, and horse, I clicked off the lights and slid the heavy barn door shut. The snowy field looked as if all the stars had fallen from the sky and lay, glittering on the white ground, like diamonds in the moonlight. My boots made that indescribable sound that boots make when they sink into a foot of marshmallow-soft snow, a sound halfway between a muffled creak and a crunch so satisfying you want to lie down in it and make snow angels in the darkness.
Oh, this beautiful night, the sanctuary of the barn! Where lives the horse I wished for every birthday and Christmas of my childhood. The barn with the scent of horse, leather and sweet hay, has always smelled like home to me. We would not wash our riding jeans for weeks, my teenage best friend and I, so we could just close our eyes, inhale the fabric and ride our memories over and over again in the green, summertime fields of our minds. Long into the barren winters, roaming high school hallways, forever the misfits in a sea of invisible rules we could not navigate, our imaginations took us galloping far away. Until the summer when we could visit the barn of her sister and live the dream again. In high school, I wrote an essay about placing 3rd in a barrel race on a borrowed horse at a local horse show. My English teacher, Mr. Merrigan gave it an A+ and wrote in my yearbook: “Keep writing!”
Last year at this time, we were planning a family Christmas at my parents’ home way up in Maine. For the first time, our entire 15-person family would fill that little house in the woods with food, games, laughter and love, instead of them coming to New Hampshire to visit us. At the end of the weekend, my father said, “I can’t wait to see what you write about this!” I have yet to do so. The words to accurately describe such a wonderful event in the wake of Covid-19 have eluded me. Maybe the time was not right then. We were all so joyful and innocent, with no idea what was waiting for us around the corner. The pandemic has cut us off from my parents in their remote home. They are safe, but we all are starving for the warm embrace of family.
Thankfully, animals are safe to hug. If you ever have the chance to hug a horse in winter, I highly recommend it. Their winter coats make them as soft and warm as a living, breathing plush toy. Also, if you can, stare into the dark eyes of a donkey. Donkeys are the most honest creatures on Earth, and if they look you in the eye, you have truly been seen, down to your soul. Animals make me want to be a better person. This year more than ever they have been my saving grace.
Here we are on the brink of a new year. I think about last year, how innocent we all were, how unsuspecting of how much life was about to change. There is not much new to say about it all, so much has been written, philosophized, and discussed. Besides, I still have a different story to write and I am way over deadline to one of my biggest fans. Mr. Merrigan’s words still resonate: “Keep writing!”
Here we are in November. Can you believe it? Who of us ever, back in March, expected the pandemic would still be here? Not only still here but getting worse! We are two days away from the election and I am beyond the feelings of scared, worried, stress. It’s like the old test your strength ring the bell carnival game where you strike as hard as you can with a mallet to ring the bell at the top. I have hit the bell so to speak, and I don’t have the mental strength to lift the mallet anymore. My feelings peaked at a form of grief beyond description. I will have to just leave it at that. Now, a low-level malaise is the best I can muster.
We live on a farm, and we have plenty to keep us busy. Every evening while the weather was still good, we sat on our back deck, watching the sunset over Pack Monadnock Mountain in the distance, enjoying a cocktail and talking, talking, far into the night. We still perform this ritual, migrating to the tiny, screened in porch off our bedroom. We can see the barn and the back pasture from there. We sit, in our winter coats, huddled up in front of a small propane heater, and talk, talk, talk into the night. Sometimes, my wine glass gets refilled a couple more times than it should, if I am being honest. It helps to buffer the tumultuous feelings I am wrestling with. I think at times, I am hanging on by a thread. All I can do is hold on to that thread, with both hands. Because, what other choice do we have?
Here in New England, we were gifted with wonderful weather this year. I remember in Spring, standing in the green fields, feeling kissed by the sunshine and gentle breezes. The sky was a brilliant blue and there was something brighter, clearer than I could ever remember. Even the birdsong sounded brighter, cheerier than usual. Was it because I appreciated it more, or was Mother Nature patting us gently on our shoulders to tell us everything would be okay? “Just look up,” she seemed to whisper. The glorious summer bloomed into a spectacular Fall, in which the maples, oaks and sumac burst into shades of orange, lemon-yellows, and crimson reds bordering on, I swear – hot pinks. The Fall seemed to last longer, too. And then, it all culminated with an early Halloween snowstorm. Overnight, a brilliant white backdrop made for a beautiful study of the blazing trees. It was like a painting, a sumptuous feast for our weary eyes.
In our little town, there was trick or treating this year. Every year Jonny and I love walking the streets in town, looking at the spooky displays, and we enjoy watching the children in their various costumes skipping from house to house collecting their loot. This year, we were out running errands, and happened to come home just when trick or treat started, at 5PM. It was still light out and we could see a few costumed figures walking on Main Street. “Want to take a spin to see who’s out this year?” I nodded. We passed by the Legion where masked adults were standing at the top of the steps, by the festooned door with buckets of treats offered for self serve. Even behind the masks, I could recognize a couple of townspeople. We drove slowly through the streets by the elementary school, where I once read to my boys under a giant oak tree, over thirty years ago. Costumed children ping-ponged back and forth in the ball field, including two who were dressed in those funny dinosaur costumes with bobbing tyrannosaurus heads and tiny arm waving, and dragging cartoonlike tails behind them. Across the street in front of a heavily decorated house, was a little booth, made up to look like one of those Zoltar fortune teller booths at amusement parks. Inside was a man was dressed up to look exactly like Zoltar himself. From behind the plexiglass, he could drop baggies of treats to the waiting little ghosts and goblins hands. The children lined up, six feet apart, to the sidewalk. We drove by twice; it was so entertaining!
At the top of the hill, three very scary looking clowns sat in web-backed lawn chairs next to a pumpkin head full of treats. Across the street from that, tiny ghost-shaped napkins full of treats were tied to the branches of hedges, for the children to grab as they went by. We marveled at the creativity.
Finally, we turned the corner, and drove past the library, on our way up the hill to home. We stopped the truck at the crosswalk to allow a cluster of costumed children and parents walk past. A little further up the street we stopped again to allow a mom and dad to walk across the street. Between them, each held the hand of a tiny girl in a pink tutu. Her legs beneath the tutu skipped joyfully, but her little face was all business, her large brown eyes seriously watching us as she went by.
Maybe it was just me, but like the brilliant spring skies, and glorious autumn leaves, the faces of the children seemed extra joyful this year. Absolutely everyone, adults, children and even the occasional teen were smiling. Many of them waved to us as we drove by. There was hope in the streets of my beloved town, and a sense of community that seems rare these days, as we isolate at home. We face a bleak winter season of limited or no family gatherings, or, so I thought. But do we have to look at it that way? Maybe with some hometown ingenuity, no matter how far apart we all are this year, we can find a way back to joy, which taken in small doses will help us to lift our chins and our eyes and continue to look up. Yes, here is where I once again arrive, to a place of hope. We can do this.