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.
For Mary Yurdyga Juskow: Remembering My Ukrainian Grandmother
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.
The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same
“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!
The Greatest Gift
When I was a kid in Catholic school, every year in late fall we were recruited to sell Christmas Seals to raise funds for the poor. As an incentive, there were trinkets we could win for certain levels of sales. The books of stickers each sold for a dollar. One year, the award for selling 5 books of seals was a beautiful plaque of Mary, holding the baby Jesus. This plaque was made of plastic, but It looked to me as if it were carved from a beautiful, dark piece of wood. Mary’s expression captivated me. Her head was tilted sideways and she was demurely looking at the baby she held in her arms. She looked simply ethereal to me. I felt the love of a mother for her child, emanating from that simple plastic object. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, I had to give this to my mother for Christmas.
Now, selling five dollars worth of Christmas seals in today’s world, I know, seems quite achievable. Nowadays, parents bring children’s fundraisers to work, and kids have family members to sell to. But, this was the year 1971, and the world was much different then, especially where I lived, in rural Upstate New York. We were the only non-farm family on a road where the nearest neighbor was a mile away in either direction. Our next door neighbors were literally, cows, hay and cornfields. I went to school in the town of Little Falls, a 45 minute bus ride from home. The city kids in class could go door-to-door a couple blocks and meet their quota. My options for sales were limited. But I simply burned with the desire to achieve this, and took my share of the books with great hope in my tender, 10-year-old heart.
After school, while it was still light outside, I asked my Mom if I could go down to the neighboring farm and try to sell some Christmas Seals. I think at first she kind of hesitated. I imagine she didn’t want her daughter pestering the neighbors for money. I think our conversation probably went something like this.
Me: “Mom? Can I go down to Helmers and sell some Christmas Seals?”
Mom: “Oh, I don’t know…”
Me:“PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE?!!”
Mom: “Let’s wait until your father gets home and ask him”
Me: (knowing my father was no pushover) “But, it will be dark by then, and I won’t be able to go!”
Me: “Mom! It’s to help starving poor children!”
Mom: “Well… I guess so…”
Me: “Thanks, bye! I’ll be back before supper!” (Door slamming behind me)
(I have to take a minute here and thank my Mom for giving me some freedom at a crucial time in my life, and for putting up with my energetic “persistence” (pestering!) for all of my childhood, and beyond. Also, I haven’t changed much in in 48 years!)
I hit the road with high hopes and a fistful of stickers.
The Helmers had three children, all of whom attended the public schools, and so, I would have no competition for sales. Eddie was the eldest. He and I had a tenuous friendship, almost like a sibling rivalry at times. We once played a game of “My father could beat up your father” one hot summer day, when we were bored, and sitting on the concrete step outside my kitchen door. The game ended when he claimed his father, and their whole herd of cows could beat up my father, our dog, her six puppies and me, and I replied my father armed with our lawn mower would scare all the cows away and run down his father with said lawn mower. Things got pretty ugly and he wound up going home. Luckily for me, Eddie was helping his dad milk cows, and so I got to sit down in Sarah Helmer’s kitchen enjoying some cookies and milk and pitching my Christmas Seals. Believe it or not, I was a very shy child who loved disappearing into books, hated getting called on in school, and blushed red as a beet when the spotlight landed on me. But, I liked Sarah. She had a gentle manner and a very kind smile that crinkled the corners of her blue eyes. I put my glass of milk down, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and got down to business.
“For just one dollar a book, you can help starving children all over the world,” I explained. “You can put these pretty stamps on your Christmas Cards to decorate the envelopes and show your support at the same time!”
Mrs. Helmer stood up and walked to a flour canister on the kitchen counter. She opened it and removed a bill, then came back to the table. “How many books do you have to sell?”
“Five, ma’am.” I thought to myself, great, one down and just four to go!
Sarah smiled and placed a five dollar bill on the table in front of me. I realized, I didn’t have any change. Now what would I do?
“I’ll take them all.” I could not believe my ears. A whole five dollars!
“Oh, thank you, Mrs. Helmer!” I handed her all five booklets, and clutched the bill. I couldn’t wait to get back to school with all my books sold at once!
“You are quite welcome. Would you like another cookie? You can take it with you.” Clearly she could see my eagerness to run home with the loot.
I could not believe my luck. In one fell swoop, my goal of getting the perfect Christmas gift for my mother was achieved.
Now that I didn’t need to worry about making other sales, I pocketed the money and decided to take the long way home, through the fields and woods, instead of the road. I jumped over the ditch and took to the November cornfields, skipping past the dried chopped- off stalks, kicking clods of dirt with the toes of my sneakers as I went, watching the clods explode in dust clouds, left and right. I ducked under the barbed-wire fence bordering the cow pasture and cut through ancient apple trees to the other side, which bordered yet another cornfield, then, the edge of our property. I burst through the kitchen door, and my mother looked up from a crossword she was working at the kitchen table. “What took you so long? I was about to phone the Helmers to ask about you!”
“I had cookies and milk.” I waited for her to ask the big question.
“I hope you didn’t overstay your welcome.”
“Nope! She wanted me to stay!” I was bursting with excitement.
Mom looked up and smiled. “So? How’d you do?”
“Mrs. Helmer bought them ALL!” I reached into my pocket to show Mom the five dollar bill. My joy turned to alarm. It wasn’t in my pocket!
“Mom! I lost it!”
“How’d you lose it?”
“I don’t know!” I wailed.
“Well, you have to retrace your steps, it must be on the side of the road. You can find it!”
My heart sank, as I recalled that fateful decision to take the long way home, through the acres of pasture. All the skipping, and zig-zagging I did. I would never find it.
“Don’t worry, if you don’t find it, you can explain it to the nuns,” my mother said.
I thought of the shame of telling Sister Regina, I lost the money for all of my Christmas Seals. And then, the heartbreak of losing out on the best Christmas gift for mom on top of it all. I couldn’t even tell her that. I felt tears burn the corners of my eyes, and a huge lump rose in my throat.
“Mom, I have to go look for the money.” I was running out of daylight and the prospect of my father getting home from work and having to explain it all to him, and live the nightmare all over again. Even thought I knew he would understand, I still felt so ashamed to have been so careless and irresponsible with so much money.
“Okay, but do not stay out after dark.” My mom didn’t sound very hopeful. I put on my lucky coat, the one that looked like the color of fall leaves, my favorite, but also the one I tore open on the back, ducking under a barbed wire fence. I only got to wear it for playing now. I was convinced it camouflaged me when I tried to sneak up on animals. I needed all the help I could get to find this money.
There wasn’t much joy in retracing my steps to the Helmers. The sun was getting low, a cold wind came up, and my eyes hurt from trying to discern a bill from the tall grasses. Occasionally, I thought I could detect my footprints in the dirt next to the cornfield, but my hope was fading as quickly as the afternoon, by the time I approached the spot next to Helmer’s where I hopped over the ditch. Nothing. I walked the edge of the road to the Helmer’s driveway and realized, I was going to have to admit defeat and turn to go home. I didn’t want to run into Eddie or any of the Helmers who would wonder what I was doing hanging around the farm so late in the day. I turned around to go home, straight up the road this time. I ruefully looked at the ditch wishing I hadn’t made such a stupid decision to go home that way, and that is when I saw it. Stuck in the tall grass at the top of the ditch, fluttering in a gentle breeze, was a five dollar bill! Could it be my eyes playing tricks on me? No! It was real as real could be as I snatched it lest the wind steal it from me. This time I kept the bill in my hand, and headed straight home up the road, flooded with relief and happiness.
To this day, I wonder how on Earth I managed to find that five dollar bill. It was a tough lesson in persistence and personal accountability that I will never forget. I am grateful my mother allowed me the space to try to find the money, rather than swoop in to give me the money and fix the problem, which would have taught me nothing. The memory of my mother opening her gift that year is one of my most precious, even 48 years later. I’m sure my mother put two and two together, when she realized I earned the gift by selling Christmas seals. I’m sure that is one reason the plaque still hangs in my parents’ house in Maine, all these years later.
Why I Write
I love how, for the writer, writing can bring the past back to life. Today I rewrote the summer of 1971. Once again, I walked through dark green cornfields in Upstate New York, climbed the twisted boughs of apple trees, watched puffy white clouds lumber across a turgid sky, nudged by the heavy breath of mid summer. Fistfuls of juicy blackberries stained my fingers, dripped down my chin as I crammed the sweet, warm gems of the season into my mouth. Oh, to once again roam the sweet spot of childhood when summers stretch endlessly before you, ripe for adventure and offering a treasure trove of sensations: icy cold creeks to plunge dusty, bare feet into, where shiny darting minnows dare you to catch them in eager, cupped hands, the taste of ice-cold sweet watermelon slices and hot, buttery corn on the cob. Saturday morning cartoons shared with your little brother, the two of you tangled on the couch in a twist of spindly arms and legs, as you fought for your own space and argued half heartedly over Flipper or the Flintstones. Your Mom half listening and refereeing from her seat at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and working a crossword. Ah, close your eyes and come with me, we will escape the icy grip of winter and leave this middle age behind! Just take my hand, and hear the sound of the screen door as it slams behind us. Feel the grass as we kick off our Keds and run heedlessly through the back yard, into the fields and the thickets beyond. The sun is warm, the wind is light and the corn fields are whispering our names!