Daffodils bloom again, every year. Here in the West, daffodils bloom early, in February or early March. So spring comes again, early. Every year, I am filled with joy when I see the first daffodils. In the Midwest, flowers that are dependent on the winter freezes are still waiting to rise again from the cold earth. But they will rise.
We bloom, again and again, also. I’ve seen it in others. I’ve known it in myself. That freshness, that new mind, that spark of energy that was not there before, arises from the ashes of grief, of anger, of hurt. We bloom again, after the war has gone; we bloom again, after a long time, often. Like the long winter in the North, sometimes it takes a long time for the rising to take place – but there it is.
I don’t pin my hopes for the rising on someone else. I know it’s up to me, this hard work of surrendering to what life has placed in my path. And I know that I’ll have to do it again, if my ego-self will just get out of the way for a moment to let me remember. I love the depth of Holy Week, when the tragic journey to Jerusalem – where the powers hold their mighty weapons – has met its tragic end: a reminder that this rhythm of holding on tight to the life I have will give way to the letting go, the long, long letting go.
Many times, I remember that the hard way gives way to glory, after a long walk down a jagged, rocky path. I have to remember to hold on to hope when things are muddled and grief-filled, endlessly – it seems.
Spring comes, fragrant, green, lush. A reminder that the winter does not last. A reminder that sorrow is a path, that sorrow, also, does not last.
Liga was my mother’s godfather. Whenever he arrived at our house, he was dressed in a suit coat. He looked like a retired businessman. I remember his presence, quiet, and he seemed kind. I don’t think I ever had a conversation with Uncle Liga. When he couldn’t work any more, he rode the Milwaukee buses in his suit – always a hat, with a top coat in the winter. In his final years, he lived in an old, narrow apartment close to downtown. The place was dark, made darker by the sounds of traffic on the busy street it faced.
Liga died in the bathtub of that old apartment. At that time, after Dad had retired, my mother and father went to check on him every few days. When he didn’t answer the ring to his doorbell, the apartment manager unlocked the door of his place. My father found Liga, dead. Later, Dad said he couldn’t sleep for several days after he found LIga. “I loved Liga,” Dad said.
Liga worked in the foundry with the other men who arrived from Eastern Europe in the early years of the 20th century. They left before the Revolution of 1917, a revolution that brought a new life, but not the life they had hoped and dreamed for their land. When I knew him, he was alone. I have a picture of him, from the pictures my mother saved and gave to me. It looks to have been taken in the “old country.” Liga, a young man – handsome, with thick, black, wavy hair – sits in a chair, dressed in a top coat and tie, looking sternly into the distance. A young woman, also formally dressed, stands behind him, her hand on his shoulder. What happened to her? What happened to him? Where did those beautiful young people go? In my mind, Liga was always an old man. And when I knew Liga, he was always alone.
Many Ukrainians fled Ukraine for work and food and an education for their children. They arrived in the New World, and settled in the industrial cities of the Midwest, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee. Others settled in Canada. They brought with them their hard work, their ability to live with very little – they were descendants of freed serfs – freed to remain landless, illiterate, and poor, apparently – and a need to drink. Oddly, I don’t associate Liga with drinking.
Most holidays, Liga joined us at the holiday table and in the living room afterward. He was there when we enjoyed the Christmas tree lights, and he was there when we tapped together the ends of colored, painted eggs at Easter, to see whose would crack first. The one whose egg didn’t crack was the winner!
Every few months, Liga arrived at the front door of our flat, where he rang the bell and waited for one of us to run down the stairs to answer the door. In the summer, I would often go to open the door for Liga. He would greet me, shyly and gently. Then, he and Mom sat for an hour or two at the kitchen table. She read to him the latest letter from his family in Canada, which had been carefully carried in his pocket. Sometimes a photo – black and white, of a favorite niece – was included in the letter. Then, Liga told my mother, line by line, his answer to the letter. She translated his Ukrainian into English. When Mom addressed the envelope, Liga always handed her a couple of dollars from his pocket, to put into the envelope with the letter. A few dollars from a poor man, sent as love.
When I think of Uncle Liga, a place in my heart is warm.
My mother did not graduate from high school, although she received her GED while I was in university. I know for certain she did that so that I would graduate with a degree, since I was wavering, and had taken a semester off during my senior year at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. She didn’t tell me her reason to do it then, but I knew. When she received her certificate, I sent her a spring bouquet.
Mom quit school early to work. She married young, also, and had a son within a year – Ron, my brother. Mom was bright. Now, when Mom comes up in conversation, I tell folks that she should have been a teacher – a kindergarten or first-grade teacher. The daughter of Ukrainian immigrants who lived in flats in neighborhoods of poor folks, it was enough that she learned to read and write. She taught her father to read English when she was a girl. In my mind’s eye, I can see her, bright and determined, her feet wrapped around the rungs of a wooden chair in a cramped Milwaukee flat, as her father, Vlas, paced – determined, also. He was smart, although illiterate in his native language. He made that long trip across the ocean, left the familiar village of his homeland so that his children could learn to read and to write.
So Mom knew the value of education, although she could not see to get a degree herself. The life of a working class woman in that era intervened. She was married and divorced by the age of 22. She worked hard at Cutler-Hammer in Milwaukee, where her employers noticed the bright, hard-working young woman. Although she had greater earning potential than my father, she quit her job when she married again. That’s how things were done.
When I was girl, I walked 3 blocks to the Center Street Library – on 27th and Center – with Mom, every week. She must have read all of the books in the “mystery” section of that library. It was in those days that I learned to love the smell of libraries. In a library, it seems we can smell the riches of what is carried in the aisles. Twice in my life I have worked in a library – in high school, and again in seminary. For awhile as an undergraduate, I flirted with the idea of becoming a librarian. Books would save me, many times, during my life.
When Mom and I left the Center Street Library to walk home, we each carried two or three books to read for the week ahead. I see now that Mom was living her mantra, handing it to me: “you learn something new every day.” I was not able to see that for many years, but now, in my own learning, I understand. And I came to see that the learning that comes every day is not always in books!
Mom taught me how to wash clothes, too. During summers when I was a young girl, my babushka-d Mom would take me down three flights of stairs to the shared basement of our flat to show me how to wash clothes. I remember the smells – the damp and soapy smell of the basement, the hot, steaming water of the wringer washer. Into the first load went whites – sheets, pillow cases, underwear. Into the second load of the same water went towels and colored clothing. Into the last load went Dad’s work clothes. I know the smell, I can see the beautiful wooden stick Mom used to lift the clothes from the washer into the first rinse water, and then into the final rinse before the clothes were taken in the large wooden basket into the yard to dry in the humid air. As I write, I can smell the air, too.
If I could have one item of Mom’s, it would be that wooden stick, smooth, smelling of soapy water, imprinted with Mom’s hands, her weeping and her worries. Like most of what has been held and used over the years, that wooden stick is gone.
I see Mom’s broad, strong peasant hands, hands that in later years would be crooked with arthritis. She was a worker, teaching a little girl whose work is ideas and books and the fabric of words. “You learn something new every day.” I took those words into myself, and I made them my own.
The path I have taken through life has been the path of learning, too, not always from books. I keep your mantra, Mom.
When I was a girl, my father would say from time to time: “my life has gone by so quickly.” I would look at him, just little, and wonder what he meant, and how that could be. I could not relate. Some people say that time goes more slowly for the young, when all the years stretch out beyond, when growing up is something to be yearned for and in the yearning, of course, time passes slowly. But my memory is of that question or wondering that was in me when I heard my father reflect. Later, he would quote again and again, this Bible verse: “A thousand years is but a day in the eyes of the Lord.” Apparently, my dad did not stop thinking about the passage of time.
Often, I think of my most cherished memories, as “life has gone by so quickly.” My memories include those days on my visits to Milwaukee to see my mother, after I had moved to the Bay Area of California, after my father had died. My mother lived in a small upper floor apartment on a busy street close to the center of Milwaukee, and I would stay in the cramped second bedroom, the noise of the busy thoroughfare keeping me awake nights.
Both mom and I were “Milwaukee girls.” We had grown up in the flats that line the streets of poor and working class neighborhoods of the North Side. Those flats are still there.
We knew the streets, the bus lines, the parks, and we knew the sense of “small town-ness” that Milwaukee cherished for a long time. We knew the particular kind of diversity of that place – the streets where Eastern European communities lived, the place where the Italians built their church, now a Cathedral to welcome the Bishop from Rome, the places where African Americans came to live, to build community, during the Great Migration. We knew the part of town where people from Mexico came to live among others who spoke their native language. We knew how to navigate to new places, too, in that city laid out in a grid. I have never understood how to find places in cities that are new to me. How can addresses not make sense, like they do in Chicago and Milwaukee, a small Chicago?
On my visits to see Mom, before the dementia took her away,, we set aside a day to “do Milwaukee.” After coffee and breakfast, we backed her car out of the garage and onto the busy street. We had no particular plan, except to explore old places that held meaning for us, to make our way to the Milwaukee Art Center at some point, to have lunch out, and maybe to do a bit of shopping along the way. I loved those small adventures. I loved the fun we had together: “that’s the fun of it!” was one of my mother’s expressions.
On one of our adventures, we discovered again a small section of town filled with Ukrainian immigrants. My mother’s first language was Ukrainian, and so we ventured into a small bakery, a storefront, and she stumbled to say a few words to the man behind the counter. He understood, all right, and soon we found ourselves in another cramped space, the family’s living room, complete with an altar adorning a corner. They were Ukrainian Catholics, and a candle burned in that corner, lighting up the features of the Virgin Mary, her eyes cast down, her blue gown ending at her bare feet, on a sphere covered with stars.
On another adventure, I gazed at my mother as she gazed at one of her favorite paintings in the Milwaukee Art Museum, The Wood Gatherer, by Jules Bastien-Lepage. Later, Mom told me her wonderings about the scene that painting depicted, her own story fleshing out the art. I still own a print of that painting.
One day at lunch we found ourselves in an old Italian neighborhood for an Italian lunch, another at a Jewish deli across from a synagogue.
As the years passed, it was harder and harder for mom to enjoy those days, until the last time we set out. We did not know it was the last time, but something had changed. We returned home to her apartment right after lunch. Soon enough, I’d have to move Mom out of her apartment and into assisted living in the Bay Area, a move which she made bravely and with great trust.
I suppose some part of me thought those adventures would go on forever, that those times when we laughed and remembered and saw old things new again, would not end. All times end. Now, those days are distant memories, and I continue to cherish them as some of my favorite times.
Here, I find myself years later, remembering those small adventures, remembering the tilt of Mom’s head as she laughed, remembering the narrow streets we knew so well, remembering driving her blue Tercel all over the city we loved. I’m in the memory time for so many people I have loved, so many experiences, so many grievances that had filled my life over the years. All of those beloved people, all of those rich days are a memory, now.
Only a few weeks ago, the news was not filled with story after story of the War in Ukraine. Only a few weeks ago, we were focused on what the next surge of the COVID virus would bring, what it would mean to this pandemic that has affected the world. Only a few weeks ago, we all waited for the next report: what countries were open to travel? How would life be different after these two years of the global COVID pandemic? Although these were not easy questions, we did not know how quickly and completely the news, our attention, the attention of the world would shift to Ukraine. Like so many of you, I cry every day now.
My mother’s first language was Ukrainian. Mary was born in 1918 to Alex and Frances Markowski – Vlas Markov Srebny and Feodosia Machsuda Srebna – in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Mary was the third living child of my grandparents, after her brother, John, and her brother, Michael. She was the second child to be born in the United States of America. After her would come Anne – Hannah – and Peter.
Like immigrants of all times and places, my grandfather and grandmother must have had their dreams, their hopes, for their new life in their new land. Or maybe it was my grandfather’s hope, and my grandmother, dependent on him, left her home and all she knew in the “Old Country” to come to a land she would not know as her own, as his spouse, without a dream of her own. They brought their first born – Ivan – and their memories of the land they knew, the people and customs of the land they knew, to this unknown place, where life would surely always be a struggle, as it is now, to the poor and the immigrants among us. Maybe my grandfather had a dream, a hope, some sort of light in himself that would surely come to shine in this new land. It did not. All of these thoughts now are speculation, because the poor and the uneducated among us are only numbers, so seldom is their story told.
The memory of my grandparents and how they came to be here is only memory, now. My grandfather died when I was one, and my grandmother, who only spoke Ukrainian in my memory, died when I was 19. Many times in the life I’ve crafted for myself, I’ve wondered about them. And I wonder who else now, in my generation, wonders about them, thinks about what their lives must have been like, what they held in them and with them as they came to this new place. Only questions arise, not many answers. As I think about my family in this country, I think that pieces of the story must exist somewhere, in someone. Who knows?
I’ve always had questions, I’ve always wondered, from the time I was young, about what lives my grandparents had. People who struggle to survive seldom leave deep marks on the path of their lives. Their children and their children’s children – and so on – are all that remain of them. I expect they had a dream, or a hope for this new place. I keep looking for that dream, that hope. I’ve been looking my whole life.
Were they content? Why leave their homeland, then? Why go to somewhere unknown, into an unknown future, with only hopes for something better, and nothing else? Whatever their dreams, they were not fulfilled. “Ukrainians have not done well in the United States,” I once heard a commentator say.
In my search for who they were – who I am – I have turned to DNA research. Several years ago, I connected online with a distant cousin who came from Ukraine, and who now lives in Canada. Through our connection, he had hoped to find a way for me to go to the place of my grandparents’ birth, their home. These days, instead, my cousin speaks daily to his family in Ukraine, helping them decide where to go for safety.
And this same story is being told for millions, millions of people, today.
Now, of course, another dream is lost. The dreams of millions in Ukraine have been smashed to death in just these past couple of weeks. As I write, people who could not think of leaving their home only a few days ago are leaving their homes, hoping to find safe passage to – to where? As I write, a war that started in the mind of one man is dismantling lives and livelihoods, forcing human beings to look for safety somewhere far from home. It’s an old story, older than the scriptures.
“Once I was happily content to be As I was, where I was, Close to the people who are close to me…” – “Far From the Home I Love,” Fiddler on the Roof
Now, as the world watches, the Ukrainian people on the move again, people who were living their lives like the rest of us, just a few weeks ago. We are stunned as we watch, but our discomfort, our tears, our fears are only that. Today, we sit in our comfortable places, lamenting for these other human beings. Their history – their long history, has been full of violence, of turmoil, of poverty, all these things often at the hand of their leaders.