Recently, we escaped from Ottawa to Colombia for an all-inclusive vacation. We felt we deserved it: these past years have been challenging, and the city felt joyless and grey.
The resort was great. Lounging by the pool, I listened to the sounds of lapping waves and checked my messages. My friend Suzanne, a Girl Guide leader back in Ottawa, was trying to contact me: “Hi Granda, Would you be willing/able to come to a Girl Guide meeting and facilitate decorating eggs?”
Of course! It would be my pleasure to teach the girls how to create pysanky, Ukrainian Easter eggs. Over the years I have taught many friends and their children how to decorate the eggs using melted beeswax, dyes and a kystka. One year, my son’s teacher invited me into their school and I taught his class how to draw on eggs. I didn’t bother using terms like “Pagan Beliefs” as they were all far too young to understand these concepts, so I just said that Ukrainians have been around for a very long time. We talked about the great powers that eggs were believed to contain. They liked drawing horses (wealth), flowers (charity) and wolves’ teeth (protection). I thought she was a very brave teacher for allowing all those burning candles and permanent staining dyes into her classroom
We don’t have the same surname, my children and I. They carry my husband’s name, but our son’s middle name is Stefanus, for he has been named after his great-great-grandfather. My great-grandparents, and their parents, emigrated to Canada from Ukraine, from the towns of Lubaczow, Nowe Sioto and Horyneu. At that time, Canada needed good farmers. They spoke Ukrainian, Russian and Polish. I imagine that April 30, 1909 must have been very frightening and exciting day as they boarded the Prinz Adalbert in Hamburg, Germany heading for Quebec. Somehow, they made their way across the country by train to Winnipeg, where they then took another train heading northwest, finally settling near a small town called Alonsa.
Like many immigrants to this new country, they were given land and started to make a home. More Ukrainians arrived and a community developed. Matrona and Stefanus Kopytko were good farmers, but they were also devoted Ukrainian Catholics. So, they donated some of their land to the community and built a church and hall. They also created a graveyard. The church is now long gone, but three generations of Kopytkos lie buried in the Manitoba prairies, peacefully surrounded by the fields they cleared and planted together.
When school started, their children met their first English-speaking person, the teacher who promptly gave them all new names. My grandfather was changed from Mitro into James, my father from Wolodymyr into Walter. I imagine there were some challenging times in that little one-room schoolhouse as everyone learned to speak a new language and adapt to their new names. At home though, they continued to speak Ukrainian, making traditional foods such as sauerkraut out of kapusta, and pyrohy out of potatoes and cheese. On Christmas Eve (Jan. 6), they celebrated by placing straw under the table, and at Easter they decorated pysanky.
After they were married, my mother insisted that my father leave the farm, and not teach his daughters how to speak Ukrainian. As a young child I remember them arguing. “Life will be better for the girls in the city” and “In Canada they speak English.” I wish they had chosen differently, but they wanted to blend in. They didn’t realize the value of the many languages they spoke. However, they continued making sauerkraut and pyrohy, and they often spoke to each other in Ukrainian. I loved going to my grandparents’ farm. It was my Baba who showed me how to fold rice into holubtsi and my Gido who shared his favourite polka music with me. When I grew up, I went to university and chose to study agriculture. I specialized in wheat and sunflowers.
So now on Christmas Day, my family and friends make pyrohy together, and on Easter we make pysanky. I am grateful that long ago those Ukrainian farmers decided to travel to a new country and plant seeds into the rich soil of the Canadian Prairies. Their bountiful harvests have been generations of proud Ukrainian-Canadians.
This week, the Girl Guides and I decorated eggs together and added some joyful colour into our lives. I believe that everyone would benefit from becoming a little bit Ukrainian. Peace be with you.
Granda Kopytko works at Agriculture and Agri-food Canada. She is a National Executive Director with the Canadian Association of Professional Employees.