Why I’m nothing like – yet just like – my mother

by Carolyn Thomas   ♥  @HeartSisters

www.myheartsisters.orgA 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.

"The Perogy Pinchers" by Lesley Lorenz *
“The Perogy Pinchers” by Lesley Lorenz *

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 circumstance, 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 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.

Mom with her first grandchild, Ben - 1977
Mom with her first grandchild  my son Ben – 1977

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!

See also:

* 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.



14 thoughts on “Why I’m nothing like – yet just like – my mother

  1. I so enjoyed reading this 🙂 It’s fascinating how we are alike but not alike from our mothers, and yes – I reckon they are a scrapbook for “for all your enthusiasms.” What an interesting way to put it.

    Thank you for this beautiful story of pie. 🙂 My mother-in-law is Hungarian, so I know all about the refusal of food, though I think she just blames it on my being Canadian and not knowing better.

    Wonderful post! And wonderful storytelling, too.


    Liked by 1 person

      1. PS I wanted to share this lovely message left today on my Contact Me page by a reader named Chuck from Cleveland:

        “I just read about your mother’s pie. I too am a heart attack survivor and I struggle with my weight. Recently I have been eating more home grown and local foods and removed all processed foods. I spend my summer buying produce from the Amish families and canning and preserving whatever we can. My wife makes her pies and takes pride in her dough. Your comment about your mother made me think how much pride my wife takes in her pies and I was going to share that with you.

        So I do not know where you are from but if by chance you are ever near Cleveland Ohio, drop me a line and my wife will make you one of her apple pies.”

        ** Thank you, Chuck! ***


  2. Hi Carolyn,
    I love this post. The story you tell is wonderful and stirred up a lot of “I get that” feelings for me.

    I relate on so many levels – the church, the pie, the looking alike and now learning to live motherless to name a few.

    And that Christopher Buckley quote about mothers being our scrapbook, well that brought tears to my eyes because it’s so completely true.

    Thanks so much for writing this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I also love that Buckley quote, which brought a tear to my eye, too. Another quote that spoke to me when my mother died last year was from Rona Maynard’s wonderful book My Mother’s Daughter“:

      “Baby showers herald the transition to motherhood. Roses, greeting cards and invitations to lunch celebrate mothers every May. Yet, despite our culture’s motherhood mystique, no rituals mark the psychological journey we daughters begin when our mothers die.

      “The loss of either parent cuts deep, but mothers shape most women’s lives like no one else. What your mother served for dinner (or didn’t), whom she married (or divorced), the work she chose (or had forced upon her) – things like these tell a daughter what it means to be a woman.

      “Whether you model your choices on hers or cringe at the very thought, whether she nurtured or neglected the girl you really were (as opposed to the one she thought you would be), your mother was your North Star.”

      Thanks for your comment here, Nancy.


  3. I really enjoyed learning some more about you Carolyn – you are a gifted storyteller bringing those church scenes and those women vividly to life for us.

    Mother’s Day was back in March here in Europe and I wrote of missing my own Mom, who died 18 months ago of a brain tumor. Not that I missed her anymore on Mother’s Day (she hated those kinds of celebrations) than I do every day.

    The words you quote about feeling orphaned after the death of your mother are so true.

    Enjoy your day with your family

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Marie – and also for your including a link to this article on your own site. You’re so right about Mother’s Day being a loaded holiday, especially the first one following the death. Thanks also for the wise reminder from writer Anne Lamott (one of my favourites) in your March post about how some of us can feel on such a Hallmark holiday.

      “I hate the way the holiday makes all non-mothers, and the daughters of dead mothers, and the mothers of dead or severely damaged children, feel the deepest kind of grief and failure.”

      (Readers, please visit Marie’s highly recommended Mother’s Day post).


  4. Since I can remember, everyone has told me, You are your Daddy’s child! Just like him! Same looks, same way of thinking, same warped sense of humor 🙂

    But, I would not be me, if it were not for my Mom; she’s awesome, funny, supportive and can equal my Dad’s sense of humor any day of the week. Her humor comes from “out the blue” and leaves you with nothing to do but laugh out loud.

    The woman has over 3000 “sayings” locked into her brain and she whips them out when you least expect one.

    For example, I was telling her about a business deal I was working on, and I was kinda upset about how it was coming together. She said “Oh Honey, Don’t you know you can’t get milk from a bull, no matter how hard you try?!” That is my Mom!

    My brother turned 50 today. I called Mom and said “Hey this time 50 years ago, you were in labor!”

    She said “That is impossible, I am only 29” 🙂

    Happy Mother’s Day to all Moms, have a blessed and happy day.

    Liked by 1 person

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