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Living My Mother’s Life

My first idea for this second post was to Blame It On Byzantium – by way of a back story to my life in an Orthodox Church – and I will get to it in a future post. But today I will tell you about a recent Sunday, as a reflection on reliving my mother’s life, to my astonishment.

I have an enduring childhood memory of being taken by my father to the Edmonton Exhibition grounds – merry-go-round, ferris wheel, cotton candy – while my mother stood chopping and frying mounds of onions at the food booth operated by the Ukrainian Women’s Association of Canada, Edmonton branch. (This may have been for the hotdogs, perogies/pyrohy being still far too ethnic for public offering.) It’s what women who went to church did – and cooked for weddings and funerals and served tea at Spring Teas – and so I found myself, a few months after becoming a paid-up member of St Elias Ukrainian Orthodox church in Edmonton, welcomed into the January monthly fellowship luncheon team, handed an apron, a knife and a mound of veggies to slice.

The luncheon teams are made up entirely of women, although occasionally a spouse will help with clean-up, and the team captain is responsible for the menu. Unlike the weeks of Lent when the captain has to be particularly creative to go beyond the inevitable humus and tuna fish sandwiches, January is not a fasting period, and our captain is creative with all kinds of meats and cheeses and salads, and team members contribute an astonishing variety of baking. Meanwhile, the Divine Liturgy is proceeding upstairs and we teamsters are given time out to join the line-up of parishioners receiving Communion near the end of the service.

Those staying for lunch drift down and help themselves to beverages but no food until the priest and deacon have joined us and said a prayer and blessing. They are the first at the buffet table and we lunch ladies wait until everyone is eating dessert before we fill our own plates. We do not eat with our guests but are called out by name and given a round of applause before we begin the clean up.

Do I chaff at such retro custom?

Even as I donned that first apron, I felt I was simply taking up the responsibility handed down to me by my mother and her generation: as they had served, so now would I. If this meant food preparation, I was happy to do it, hopelessly gendered as I am (it’s men, for instance, who set up the security system and priced snowblowers). Secondly, it would be churlish to refuse, given that I am now part of a community. And this relates to the fact that I am also an oblate of a Benedictine community, St Peter’s Abbey in Muenster, SK (more about that in another post), and have committed to living as best I can according to the Rule of Benedict which is deeply concerned with hospitality, as in Chapter 53: The Reception of Guests. “Once a guest has been announced, the superior and the brothers are to meet him with all the courtesy of love.”

Benedictines also live according to precepts of humility. Chapter 7: Humility. “Brothers, Divine Scripture calls to us saying Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” This has been a new challenge for me, this bid for a change of heart after a lifetime of taking pride in achievements and honours, burnished with a thick shellac of intellectual and emotional defiance as a feminist. I have surrounded myself with people just like me – middle-class, educated, of progressive political bent, well-travelled and usually unchurched – but most of my fellow parishioners at St Elia’s would not recognize themselves in that profile.

When I first sat on the Church Council (and I’m still there), I set myself the discipline of actually listening to the others instead of automatically thinking that I had the best ideas. (“Listen” is the first word in the Rule of Benedict.) Besides, being quiet and listening to people with decades more experience in managing the church was a humbling education: what did I know about when the carpets need to be cleaned, the altar cloths replaced and the pussy willows gathered and bundled for Easter? about which charities to support? How to help a bereaved family? Whether the Honour Guard of the Women’s Association can assemble outside the church at a funeral home? (Yes, it can.) And on and on, not to mention the long memories of feuds and hurts and disappointmentsamong people who know each other all too well. I was the newbie.

But it’s been quite a while since my fellow parishioners made a fuss that the author of “All of Baba’s Children” had joined their parish. I’m just part of the family now, and I accept that, as family, I did not choose these people individually, they came as a group with the territory, and we may not always get along or even have much to do with each other but no one can say we’re not related.

I am now also on the July and October luncheon fellowship teams. I did not volunteer, I was summoned: as we lose women to disability, relocation or death, the ranks thin and those who remain have to step up and fill the gaps. So, two Sundays ago it was my turn again. I was gathering up dirty plates and cutlery from a table when the woman seated there said, “You’re a writer, you shouldn’t be wiping tables.” I was genuinely taken aback: what did that have to do with it?

13 Comments

  1. Nestor Fedoruk
    Posted August 11, 2017 at 3:48 am | Permalink

    Sixty-five years ago thank goodness my mother, Vera Fedoruk (nee Svarich), cooked, served, and washed with the ladies at Church functions in Vegreville. The days after these events we would have a delicious meal of left overs.

  2. admin
    Posted August 11, 2017 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    Ah, the leftovers. Nothing beats the nachynka crust scraped off the sides of the pan.

  3. Nora
    Posted August 12, 2017 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    I was a waitress for many years, and was very proud of it. I saw myself much like the waiter in Hemingway’s A Clean Well-Lighted Place. I served not only food and drinks, but love. My regulars needed only to walk through the door and I would look at them with eyebrows raised. If they nodded, their “usual” would be on the table even before their coats were hung up. I knew they loved that I remembered their names and what they liked, and that there was a place where they were known. If they brought a guest, the “usual” would still appear first.

    I know people who think service is beneath them, but I never did. I translated that early work into public service, of which I am fiercely proud. Most public servants are cut from the same cloth.

  4. Ihor George Kutash
    Posted August 12, 2017 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    A delightful post! Thanks for sharing

  5. Evelyn Myers
    Posted August 12, 2017 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Keep me posted – such wonderful memories!
    Looking forward to more of course. love Evelyn

  6. Posted August 13, 2017 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    Loved this, Myrna. Looking forward to reading more. One comment: I thought the person who tried to exempt you from doing the kitchen work because (as she said with reverence I believe),“You’re a writer, you shouldn’t be wiping tables.” This is a true compliment and rare! Usually it is often the male writers (or male anything with a notable profession that is unusual but looked at with some admiration in certain surroundings)who are given this type of respect and acknowledgement. Maybe it’s because I am currently re-reading Woolf’s A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN that alerted my feminist consciousness when I came across that sentence in your blog. But of course on your part, it has nothing to do with your being a writer who is sharing the duties of this particular community, and in the best of Benedictine practice, one works to serve others, and is humbled, but there is that element of surprising, guileless respect that still needs to be recognized and cherished as a gift even so. I bless the woman who said this to you. Love, Irene

  7. Bohdan Lukie
    Posted August 15, 2017 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    My beloved friend Irene Zabytko put me in touch with your blog and i am happy she did!
    I had the pleasure of your company while I was a pastor at Holy Eucharist Ukr. Cath. Ch. in Toronto – you may not remember me but that’s okay….
    Delighted that you are sharing your “journey of faith” which we all must experience to be true to ourselves… and yes, i do look forward to your personal sharing….
    As of July 2nd, I have celebrated 50 years of priesthood and happily and at times painfully experienced our Ukie church and our Ukie community as we strove to adjust our faith to a modern world and it to our emerging changing Church.
    It’s been a great journey and since i’m only 75, I am anticipating wonderful growth and positive changes in the rest of my life…
    God bless you, Myrna, I have always been a secret fan of yours. Father Bohdan ‘Don’ Lukie

  8. Andrew Fedosov
    Posted August 15, 2017 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Myrna I only wish I could be handed a knife and work with those masterful cooks! I admire them very much and in many ways it is the women whose collaborative and creative community-enhancement that outdoes the shimmer of clergy in their vestments. But all would scoff at a man in the kitchen. So very sexist.

  9. Posted August 16, 2017 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed this post! I am a thirty-five-year member of the Ukrainian Women’s Association of Canada, St. John’s Edmonton Branch, as were/are my grandmother, mother, many aunts and some cousins. Service to the Ukrainian Canadian community and to the greater Canadian community has always been important to our members. The organization has always promoted leadership skills in women and has, from its inception in Ukraine in the nineteenth century, defended women’s rights. Should your readers wish to learn more about it, Myrna, please have them subscribe to Promin (Sunbeam) Magazine, excerpts of which are available on the website of the Association at uwac-national.ca.
    Thank you for writing so eloquently about something that touches me so personally. Best wishes always,
    Leona

  10. Heather Devine
    Posted August 16, 2017 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed reading about your volunteer experiences in the church kitchen. Your status as a female parish member vs. writer is interesting. My aunt told me that when one is retired, no one cares what you did before you left work and returned to private life. Everyone is ‘equal’ in the retirement environment. Your experience with the Ukrainian-Canadian Women’s Association sounds very similar. The church is the focal point of the members….

  11. Yvonne Panchuk
    Posted August 16, 2017 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    Hi, Myrna,
    Recognition is nice and heartwarming, even if surprising, but I think you’ll agree that it is the service to others that has its own just as pleasing reward. And it does take humility to change roles, even taking on service of the so called ‘humbler’ kind. There is nothing less worthy about the skill and organization that happens in the church kitchen to make a meal appear on time and in adequate tasty quantities. It is strange how unrecognized that art is in our society. Even the skill of waiting on tables is an art in itself when done with loving care.
    However, I’m bothered with the idea that the meal has to be prepared during the Divine Liturgy. Not before with the last minute things done after the Liturgy while people visit a bit? Why are we in such a hurry that we need to make ‘the cooks’ miss the holy service upstairs to do their humane service downstairs? Have you ever questioned this? I got away easy because I’d help either before or after because I had to be in the Divine Liturgy because of my cantor role there. Even then sometimes I was asked to miss the Divine Liturgy to help in the kitchen. I could not do that, both for myself and for the sake of the role I have in the Divine Liturgy. (Everyone in attendance at the Liturgy has a role in the service as well. And well, being a cantor doesn’t make my role that much more different, perhaps just louder.)
    Love, Yvonne

  12. Posted August 16, 2017 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    Myrna, such a delightful post. I have memories of seeing the women volunteers in the basement of the church I attended as a child: St. Mary the Protectress Ukrainian Greek Orthodox church, Burrows and Sinclair, Winnipeg. How could a congregation manage without the service of those like yourself, women who are willing to roll up their sleeves and don their aprons, all in the spirit of giving.

    Nice as well that you’ve made the connection with your mom. Lovely photo of her. I see where you get your good looks. 🙂

  13. Heather Kellerhals
    Posted August 17, 2017 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    Many thanks Myrna, so many things to start one thinking. The word HUMBLE sticks out for me. In E.B. Whites “Charlotte’s web, the last word that the spider spins into the web for Wilbur the pig before she dies, is that one word humble. As she says the word humble has two meanings – not proud and near the ground. Think gardening, preparing and serving food.
    Incidentally, the men on Quadra Island are very active with our Community Lunch – they chop and make soup with the best!

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