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.