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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?

25 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. admin
    Posted August 31, 2017 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    Nora, this is a very moving reminiscence especially since it makes the link with other kinds of “service” that may be rendered within our respective communities, public and private. I assume you include your work with Alberta writers as public: to paraphrase Marshall McLuhen, writing and publishing are a self-invasion of privacy. We do it as virtual volunteers!

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

    A delightful post! Thanks for sharing

  6. admin
    Posted August 31, 2017 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Fr Ihor. We two now belong to a Mutual Admiration Society as I am so often grateful for your homilies on the wesbite of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada. Fr Kutash’s articles here

  7. 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

  8. 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

  9. admin
    Posted August 31, 2017 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Irene. Yours is a very illuminating observation. Yes, the woman in question did speak, if not in reverance certainly with utter seriousness. And now that you have made the point that she was actually making a gift to me of her “guileless respect,” I finally understand that piece of Scripture that I quoted, about “the humble shall be exalted.” I’ve always been uncomfortable about what I assume the word “exalted” to mean in this context, ” to raise in rank, power, or character.” But now that I’ve Googled “exalt in the Bible”, I see this: “to elevate by praise or in estimation.” That is what that church sister was doing, and I can now think of our little conversation as a genuine exchange of her esteem for my cleaning-up.

  10. 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

  11. admin
    Posted August 29, 2017 at 3:30 am | Permalink

    Dear Fr Bohdan, alas, I have no recollection of my visit to your church. I wonder when and why I would have been there…not even the wonderful Photo Gallery on the church website provokes a memory. (But the photos are an exemplary collection of men and women at work on all the small and larger tasks that have to be done to keep the place ship shape and the wolves away from the door.)

    As for “adjusting our faith to a modern world,” whew, that’s the big one. I subscribe to a blog, Public Orthodoxy, which airs current issues from an Orthodox perspective, understood broadly. (So broadly that the writers incur the wrath of the Orthodox alt-right, e.g. christianforums.com: “totally evil blog. They are one of the biggest open supporters of Homosexual marriage and biggest critics of so called alleged ‘Orthodox Fundamentalism’.” Happily, I am also a reader of the recently-published English-language translation of the Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, “Christ, Our Pascha.” Inclusive language throughout! Praise of “distributive justice”! However, I’m not crazy about “the sin of artifical contraception.” …Thank you for your blessing. I turn 73 next week and I will be grateful for your continued companionship on this particular journey.

  12. 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.

  13. admin
    Posted August 29, 2017 at 3:05 am | Permalink

    They wouldn’t scoff at you, Andrew. You don’t need vestments to enhance your je ne sais quoi in the kitchen. (Actually, we do have a male parishioner who bakes traditional Ukrainian breads, so it is not unheard-of.) After all, if the Order of Canada Savella Stechishin can be rightly acknowledged as a pioneering feminist in the Canadian West, she also said this about her famous cookbook: “Young men who enlisted in the army and married English brides wanted to have their borsch, their kasha, their pyrohy. After the second world war, there were no cookbooks and everyone was too busy cleaning up in Ukraine, so I read as many Ukrainian magazines I could get my hands on.” When possible, friends in Ukraine sent her recipes.

    By the way, what’s your secret ingredient for borshch? Mine is dill pickle juice – so, not a secret anymore. You’re welcome.

  14. 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

  15. admin
    Posted August 29, 2017 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    Thank you, Leona, for this very kind message and also for the brief account of the contributions of the Ukrainian Women’s Association of Canada. I’m sure this is the group my mother spoke of whenever she announced she was off to a meeting of the “Tovarystvo” [society, association, club]; I have a group photograph of the members of the Zhinoche [Women’s] Tovarystvo, Edmonton, on their 20th anniversary in 1946. Not a word of English, all women identified in Cyrillic letters and none by her own first name. Thus: M. Kostash, I. Faryna, K. Miskiw…I recently heard the story from (the artist) Larissa Sembaliuk-Cheladyn of the redoubtable Savella Stechishin – described on Wikipedia as “an ethnocultural social maternal feminist” and an original member of the UWAC – who, some time in the 1920s rounded up a group of women friends in Saskatoon, got her hands on a jalopy and drove all the way to New York to join a suffragist rally. Well, I never! Do you know this story?… Wiki: “Shechishin’s most prominent book is the English-language Traditional Ukrainian Cookery (1957), which saw its eighteenth reprinting in 1995 and has sold 80,000 copies.” My mother gave every one of her nieces, and her two daughters, a copy of the book back in 1972. Just today I pulled it off the shelf to consult her recipe for Bukovynian Nachynka.

  16. 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….

  17. admin
    Posted August 29, 2017 at 2:19 am | Permalink

    That’s an interesting observation, Heather. Even after almost a decade within the community of my parish, I have no idea what most people’s working lives were before I got to know then within the context of parish life. And I don’t ask. You mean the woman who sings such a beautiful descant is a kindergarten teacher? The woman who handles the casino accounts used to work in a seniors’ residence? The man who checks on the homeless woman who lives in the cab of an abandoned truck next to our church was an auto mechanic? The same goes for me: almost none of the parishioners has a clue what I’m up to when I’m not composing the weekly Service Bulletin or making the occasional report on food basket deliveries to our neighbours. And no one asks.

  18. 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

  19. admin
    Posted August 29, 2017 at 2:09 am | Permalink

    Dear Yvonne, yes, this “prioritization” of meal preparation over attendance at Divine Liturgy has perplexed me, especially as we seem, in my experience, to have lots of time left over between having everything ready to “go” as soon as the first guests come down and the time when they actually do arrive. And there are still 10 or 15 minutes while everyone visits and waits for the clergy to join us. However, I have been grateful for the understanding of team captains that I want to receive Communion, at least. You are lucky in that, as a cantor, you are integral to the Divine Liturgy proceeding. I’m now thinking out loud that, as with the Benedictine Rule, we kitchen servers might ask the priest or deacon to give us a blessing, down there in the kitchen. This would be a way of including us even in our absence from the Mass. What do you think?

  20. 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. 🙂

  21. admin
    Posted August 29, 2017 at 1:57 am | Permalink

    Diana, see my reply to Peter Field on this same subject. However, I do remind myself of the other kinds of service such as what some of our men do – monitoring the surveillance system, clearing the roof gutters, supervising the pouring of cement for a new staircase, pricing snowblowers…As for my mother’s good looks, she was 95 in that picture so you can imagine her 20-year-old beauty, although she never believed herself to be pretty. A synonym of “humble” is “modest.”

  22. Peter Field
    Posted August 17, 2017 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Myrna. This reminded me of my mothers involvement with the women’s group at St. Paul’s United in Belgravia.
    Looking forward to your next post.

  23. admin
    Posted August 29, 2017 at 1:51 am | Permalink

    Oh our mothers! Theirs was a particular generation but I am betting that the women’s group at a United church performed much the same acts of service as a group of Orthodox women. But I also bet that by now United Church men are tying on aprons as well. (Does that include the male clergy, I wonder?) Early on in my life in St Elias, at a fellowship lunch, I heard our priest sing praises of the pyrohy-makers (i.e. the women’s perogy brigade) as “the women whose pyrohy helped build the church.” One of the reasons why I don’t make my own perogies is that they take hours of fiddly-diddly work but only minutes to gobble down. But I bow down to the pyrohy-makers who perform a labour of love for the rest of us.

  24. 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!

  25. admin
    Posted August 29, 2017 at 1:42 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Heather, for this recall of Charlotte’s webby wisdom. I am particularly taken with the notion of being “near the ground” as one way of checking on the sense of one’s own self-importance. (Did you already know that the origin of the word humble is the Latin, humus, for ground?) And for the continuity between gardening and serving up the harvest as acts of service. In his Rule, Benedict is unfailingly practical about seemingly exalted subjects. For example, in the chapter, “Kitchen Servers of the Week,” besides directions for appropriate prayers and blessings, he writes: “An hour before mealtime, the kitchen workers of the week should each receive a drink and some bread over and above the regular portion, so that at mealtime they may serve their brothers without grumbling and hardship.” Amen to that.

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