A few months ago, my favourite son Ben and I stopped by the annual fundraising luncheon and sale of Ukrainian tchotchkes – цяцьки – at St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker Ukrainian Catholic Church. (Ukrainian churches here in Canada often have fancy-schmancy mouthful names like this: Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church or St. Demetrius The Martyr Ukrainian Orthodox Church, or those simply named for obscure saints you’ve likely never heard of – like the churches of St. Paraskevia or St. Onufry).
We sat doing some first-class people-watching and borsch-eating while observing the women cooking, talking and laughing together in the church kitchen. I was struck by an intense frisson of nostalgia. “These are my people!” I whispered to Ben. And as I said that, I had a strange and unbidden craving for a piece of pie.
The association between pie and older Ukrainian women is embedded in my genes.
For decades (until her death last year), whenever I flew home from the west coast to visit my mother, we always made a compulsory stop at her church, St. John The Theologian Ukrainian Catholic Church, usually timing our visit to coincide with morning coffee break for the church kitchen volunteers.
There, Mom and I would sit among the church veemen – as my family still affectionately calls them – each one my honorary auntie, and each one beautiful, funny, big-hearted, no-nonsense. Many of them had known me since I was a newborn baby.
Just like those in the kitchen here at St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker and the countless prairie churches of countless Ukrainian immigrants to Canada, the church veemen of St. John’s had spent decades rolling perogy dough and stuffing cabbage leaves and baking pies to sell in their little church store. The hard work of generations of these unpaid church veemen helps to pay off the church mortgages.
When I walked into the church kitchen, I’d hear squeals of:
“Look who’s here! It’s Carolyn, home from Victoria!
“Sit down, we’ll put the coffee on, you must be starving – here, have a nice piece of pie with us!”
My church visits back home always involved coffee with my aunties – and, yes, pie.
WARNING: under no circumstances if offered homemade pie should you dare to say “No thanks” to any Ukrainian church veemen offering food. They simply do not care if you are on a diet (“DIET?!”) or are not hungry (“NOT HUNGRY?!”) and will accept no excuses for turning down pie. Refusal will be interpreted as an insult, probably born of poor upbringing. So for the sake of your parents’ reputation, just say YES to the pie.
Pie, I observed, appeared to be a daily staple in the diet of the average Ukrainian woman volunteering in that church kitchen. The thing is, I cannot even remember the last time I ate a piece of pie here in my own home (too fattening, too sweet, too unhealthy, too much of a good thing?)
Yet here are all the church veemen, well into their 80s and 90s, vibrantly busy volunteering after a lifetime of the least heart-healthy diet you could imagine, including the daily Ukrainian holy trinity food groups of bacon, sour cream and butter.
So when we’re back in St. Catharines, out comes the pie. And we never say no.
There are few problems in life, according to my mother and her friends, that cannot be discussed, argued and satisfactorily resolved over a piece of still-warm-from-the-oven homemade strawberry rhubarb pie – especially when the rhubarb and strawberries come from your own garden. Even more so with a nice little hit of vanilla ice cream on the side.
At St. John’s kitchen, after welcoming bearhugs and smooches all round, we’d settle down at the long table with the church veemen and their pie. By the end of our visit, I waited to hear what I knew they would always say before I stood up to leave:
“You are so much like your mother!”
When I was younger, I cringed a bit hearing this, since I inwardly prided myself on being consciously and deliberately quite different than Mom. For example:
1. My mother’s disciplinary style was screaming and hitting. (So I declared a no-screaming/no-hitting house rule with my own kidlets. Well, except maybe for that one teeth-brushing incident when my daughter Larissa was two . . .)
2. My mother was an obsessive workaholic who returned to work when I was just two weeks old, and I was raised for the first nine years of my life by a live-in housekeeper I was afraid of. (So I stayed home to take care of my babies).
3. My mother was by nature a critical and demanding person, seeking and finding the flaw in everyone/everything. (I’d bite my tongue off rather than openly criticize others as I was criticized growing up).
Yet, when those church veemen told me: “You are so much like your mother!” – I’m pretty sure they weren’t talking about our mutual parenting skills or career choices.
What my mother’s oldest friends were observing, I believe now, were the inherent ways that Mom and I were so much alike. For example:
1. I’m a dead ringer for my mother, physically. Yes, I know – that’s the shallow, superficial stuff – but it’s the first thing you’d notice if you ever saw us side by side. (And she had one of those amazing faces that was attractive in her youth, but actually got better looking as she aged. I live in hope!)
2. I have the same laugh that Mom did. (And she had a fabulously smart sense of humour along with an utterly disarming ability to see the funny side of almost every scenario).
3. I inherited my outgoing personality, opinionated world view and crazy-go-nuts Slavic work ethic from my mother. (And she was the original multi-tasker, able to chat sociably with just about anybody while accomplishing the work of two normal humans – convinced that she and only she could run the planet correctly. Ouch!)
Last year, while facing my first Mother’s Day since my Mom’s death, I quoted in an essay here the words of Christopher Buckley from his memoir, Losing Mum and Pup. His observation: when your mother dies, you are an orphan:
“But you also lose the true keeper of your memories, your triumphs, your losses. Your mother is a scrapbook for all your enthusiasms.
“She is the one who validates and the one who shames, and when she’s gone, you are alone in a terrible way.”
During that lovely lunch with Ben at St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker a few months ago, that frisson of familiarity – that knowing sense that somehow this church hall and these church veemen felt like home – was intoxicatingly nostalgic for me, particularly now around Mother’s Day.
Although dementia had stolen Mom’s final months and years from us, her larger-than-life influences on me and her other four children and 11 grandchildren were immeasurable. When I survived a heart attack five years ago (on the way home from celebrating her 80th birthday), we made a family decision not to even tell her. She lived thousands of miles away, after all, was lucid during only brief periods each day, and would likely either forget this news, or be confused and worried at being repeatedly reminded of something bad happening to her eldest child.
As I wrote last year, and as I celebrate Mother’s Day with my own wonderful kidlets this month, I know we’ll all be thinking of their Baba, remembering that she is responsible for the people we have all become.
And I also know she would have heartily agreed with Tenneva Jordan‘s famous definition of motherhood:
“A mother is a person who, seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie.”
In memory of Joanie Zaruk ♥ May 7, 1928 – February 21, 2012
Rest in peace, Mom – Happy Mother’s Day
Pass the pie!
- A Motherless Mother’s Day
- When Your Mother Dies
- “Bereavement Eating: Does Grief Cause Carb Cravings?
- “Goodbye Mom” – cardiologist Dr. John Mandrola‘s moving tribute to his mother
* I first discovered the beautiful painting called The Perogy Pinchers by Lesley Lorenz on her website, and now own a framed print of this evocative scene. Read Lesley’s story about this work.