Preserving tradition by preserving.

I’m here to talk about pickles and family. Stay with me here, people.

At the end of September, my giant, crazy Ukrainian family gathered at my Uncle’s home in Springbank to celebrate my Grandpa’s 90th birthday. As we yelled overtop of one another for four successive hours in a true toast to Walter Michaleski’s love for talking and having things at a volume that destroys human hearing, I looked over at my grandparents and it was all smiles – tired smiles. Grandpa’s hearing hasn’t been great for years, and the complete cacophony my family generates makes it hard for him to stay in the conversation. He hurt his back earlier in the day and was hobbling from chair to chair, my Grandma in tow.

The Green Green Grass of Home. Happy 90th, Grandpa.

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Grandma, eyes crinkling as she smiled, holding her first great-granddaughter, bouncing her in her lap. Always seated, always tired. I listened to her story of having to take three breaks to walk through the mall to get to the grocery store, remembering seeing her in there two weeks before as she rushed our conversation, looking drained.

A couple of weeks later, she was rushed to hospital with an upper GI bleed brought on by complications with her blend of blood thinners. Turns out she’d been feeling crappy for months, and while she convalesced in the hospital with new meds and a blood transfusion, she’s much better.

Meanwhile in Dauphin, my Grandpa Al’s partner for more than 25 years has passed away, leaving him to reorganize and reorient a life with his closest family member a four-hour drive away.

I am incredibly lucky to have three of my grandparents still here, and a pair of them living five minutes from my home. I feel guilty about not seeing them all the time, not picking up the phone, not putting pen to paper to send them a letter. There’s always a great excuse about being busy, but busy is about choosing what you spend your time doing.

What I’ve been spending my time doing instead of calling Grandma

This summer and fall, I ended up spending a lot of time doing things that my grandparents do. Nic and I planted our first community gardens at the Parkdale Community Association and at an elderly neighbour’s place. I inexplicably built things like tool racks out of wood and screws. We harvested our bounty and picked up a giant canner at a yard sale so we could preserve everything. We have a bin full of potatoes in our parking garage, dirt and vermiculite still clinging hard to their skins.

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The first beets, picked fresh from our little garden.

I’m baking something at least once a week in our little kitchen – focaccia, loaves of bread spiralled with slow-roasted tomatoes that we grew in our garden, dinner rolls, buttermilk biscuits, cookies that ended up less like Cookies by George and more like Jawbreakers by Willy Wonka. We bought a chest freezer off Kijiji and stuck it in the office, where it hums away gently next to the susurrant purr of the external hard drive.

I (okay, we – virtually all of these activities are Nic-included, thank god, since she has actual life skills) spend a lot of time doing this stuff. It takes a lot of work and a lot of meetings (at least for the goddamned community garden) and I’m often finding my thoughts turning to my grandparents. I’m thinking about my Grandpa Wally and his neatly aligned rows of beans or his acumen for carpentry. I’m thinking of Grandma Jean and her “bake-’till-done, knead-it-until-it-feels-right” intuition with flour, eggs, water and yeast. I’m thinking of Al, all the way back in Dauphin, with a big house and a big yard full of produce.

I’m living in a condo across from a bike path in a big city, and I’m trying to recreate some kind of prairie diorama – a hipster-toba – that combines the place and community I love now with a sense of where I (or more specifically, my family) have been. I’ve been thinking a lot about the “why” behind that. Why do I want to know how to can? To make ribs the way my grandpa does? To eat food I’ve grown myself?

I am a bad Ukrainian, because I am not Ukrainian

For the past few years (basically since my divorce) I’ve been spending a huge amount of time thinking about – and acting on – a desire to be closer to my family and my city. I don’t think it should be a surprise that when my marriage fell apart I leaned pretty hard on my parents and extended family, who were there with kind words, late-night text messages and bad jokes about which farm animal my ex most closely resembled. It made me want to spend time with these people, but it also made me think a lot about why we do that – why we help our blood, why we make the time – with meals, a kind ear and (at least in my family) gently-used wine fridges.

Growing your own food, baking your own bread, canning your own stuff – all of these things my grandparents did for years had nothing to do with “authenticity” or “environmentalism” or any high-minded ideals. They did it because they were frugal. And they were frugal because they had to be – in a way that I simply can’t imagine. I’ve never had to make a choice between having to hunt for my meat or my family not having meat. The hardest decision in my average grocery shopping day is deciding whether I want to drive halfway across town to get the coffee beans I really like or being lazy and slumping to the local Co-op for a bag of Kicking Horse.

Spiced carrots are seriously tasty.
Spiced carrots are seriously tasty.

I live in a world of plenty where I can buy the artisan loaf and get the spicy pickled carrots to have on my charcuterie plate with the cheeses from halfway across the world. I have a family that treats food as something that approaches the sanctity of religion, but I’m thinking that the founding books of that church have a lot more to do with a lowly stable in Bethlehem than St. Peter’s Basilica. Getting back to the roots of prairie food is about more than just eating well – it’s about connecting to the things my family have been doing for generations and respecting what and how they put these things on the table.

My friends know that I wave the Ukrainian banner pretty hard for a third-generation Canadian. I use it as an excuse, mostly – for being stubborn, for being too loud, for hating Russians for no discernible reason. None of that makes any sense. I’m as much Belgian as I am Ukrainian. I can say about 14 non-curse words in Ukrainian and can’t read a sentence in Cryllic. I feel basically no connection with the country of Ukraine and yet here I am calling myself PerogyPower in video games.

Connecting to place and to family

Now I’m dating a girl who is also (kinda) half-Ukrainian and we are learning these things together (though Nic is a way better vegetable gardener than I am). I don’t think I’m so much a proud Ukrainian as I am a proud prairie kid. I’m proud of my family travelling here, for cutting out Manitoba scrubland to make way for farms, for living in places without plumbing and electricity, for building a life here so their kids could have it better, so my parents could have it better, so I can have it so good that I get pissy about not being able to get flat-leaf Italian parsley at the Safeway so bad that I grow it myself.

I’m not learning to can or garden or bake bread because it’s fun (though it really is) or particularly cheap (it really isn’t). I think I’m doing it because it connects me to that place and those people that have given me so much. I hope that once day I can do the same thing for another generation of sort-of-Ukrainian, mostly-just-prairie kids – right after I get off the phone with my Grandma. I have to learn how to make nalesnyky properly before Christmas.

Nic and Mom with their beet leaf holubtsi - and yes, the beet leaves are from the garden.
Nic and Mom with their beet leaf holubtsi – and yes, the beet leaves are from the garden.