The Language of Loyalty
Hello. Goodbye. Please. Bathroom. These were the only words I knew in English when I started kindergarten in 1971. To my ever-practical mother, the last word had seemed particularly important. She made me practice saying “bathroom” at least a dozen times as we walked to St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic School, which was just a few blocks from our tiny apartment in a rough, working-class neighborhood in Yonkers, New York.
A word about my mother. Because she spoke with a strong Ukrainian accent, she said “betroom” instead of “bathroom.” We must have sounded like a couple of compulsive gamblers planning their next move. Bet room. Bet room.
The rest of our limited repertoire sounded equally exotic. For some reason, my mother thought that a kindergartener should know what day of the week it was. The first day of school was a Thursday, but my mother couldn’t pronounce “th,” so it became “Turzday.”
Today is Turzday and I need to use the bet room.
Earlier that morning I was so nervous that I threw up. The school had issued only one uniform, and my mother had to spot clean it with dishwashing liquid to get the stain (and the smell) out, but I was crying and wouldn’t stand still. Although my mother is only 4 feet, 10 inches tall, she has a big voice and I was always afraid of her when she yelled. On this particular morning, she slapped me. I stopped squirming, but by the time we arrived at school my eyes were red and my uniform still damp.
I had never been inside a school, so I had no idea what to expect. In those days, preschool wasn’t considered an essential part of a child’s education.
My mother led me into a noisy classroom and left. Spotting an empty seat at one of the small wooden tables, I put my new Minnie Mouse lunchbox on the floor and sat down, smoothing the pleats of my skirt and folding my hands demurely in my lap, just as my mother had taught me. All around me, children were chattering away in English. As I listened to the strange, uncongenial sounds, I wished fervently that I could understand what they were saying.
Our neighborhood was so dangerous that my mother never let me out of her sight, so I hadn’t had any interaction with American kids. My only exposure to English had come from television. My mother urged me to watch Sesame Street every day so that I could learn a few words before I started school. But it was hard to figure out what Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog, and the Cookie Monster were saying. They all spoke much too quickly. Besides, they were so entertaining that I was perfectly content to just watch them. I didn’t really care what they were saying. Now I wished that I had paid more attention.
Suddenly the teacher was clapping her hands, calling the class to order. I could tell by the way Mrs. Bobiak raised her voice slightly at the end of a sentence that she was asking the class a question, but of course I had no idea what it was. A girl in pigtails raised her hand and said something in rapid-fire English. Mrs. Bobiak smiled, so I gathered the girl’s response was correct.
As the morning advanced into afternoon, I found myself wishing that I could remember how to say “bathroom” in English. I tried hard to conjure up the word my mother had attempted to teach me, but my mind was as blank as the sheet of paper in front of me, on which I had as yet drawn nothing. The other kids were all busy drawing, but I didn’t know what we were supposed to draw.
Having no other choice, I explained my plight to Mrs. Bobiak in Ukrainian. “Hodi tut, ya tobiy pokazhu,” she replied with a smile. My new teacher spoke Ukrainian! Bending down to my height, she added in English, “Come, I’ll show you where the bathroom is.” My fondness for Mrs. Bobiak exploded into love. I no longer feared making a fool of myself. From then on, I called her Pani Bobiak, using the Ukrainian word for “Mrs.”
We had two hours of Ukrainian language instruction every day, courtesy of Pani Kharkevych, a cantankerous, white-haired native Ukrainian lady. Her mind-numbing method consisted of opening a textbook, pointing to a picture, and asking, “Shto tse ye?” (“What is this?”) We had to repeat the Ukrainian words for “mother,” “father,” “sister,” “house,” “dog,” and so on. The second hour was devoted to writing the Cyrillic alphabet. I often felt sleepy, but I dreaded the thunderous thwack of Pani Kharkevych’s long wooden pointer on my desk, so I did my best to feign interest.
The rest of our lessons were in English. Pani Bobiak was an engaging, energetic teacher who encouraged questions and made the class laugh.
Whenever she could spare the time, she would pull up a tiny wooden chair and sit right next to me. I loved the smell of her perfume. It reminded me of the day I felt like an American celebrity, at the tender age of 4. My mother had taken me to Gimbel’s, a big department store, and there, on a shiny glass counter, was a delicate bottle of perfume shaped like a swan. I was enchanted. My mother picked me up so I could take a closer look. A saleslady came over and said something, probably asking how she could help us. I pointed to the bottle. My mother’s arms tensed as she looked at the price tag. The perfume cost $25, a princely sum for us. The woman, who had taken a liking to me, let me touch the swan’s head and sprayed a little of the perfume on my slender wrist. It was a light floral scent. I spent the whole bus ride home sniffing my wrist. I was sure this must be the perfume that American movie stars wore, and now here was the very same scent, right in my classroom. Every day I hoped that Pani Bobiak would sit with me and when she did, I always moved my chair just a little bit closer.
As she patiently explained the lesson of the day, her soft voice flowed over me, instantly dispelling any nervousness I felt. Soon I was learning new words every day. Now I was excited whenever Pani Bobiak mentioned “crayons,” “paper,” “pencil,” or “story time” because I knew what all of those words meant and I could even repeat them with a reasonable facsimile of an American accent.
By the middle of first grade, I was reading as well as my classmates. (Unlike today’s children, we were not expected to read in kindergarten.) The words came easily to me, and I loved the sound of English. With my hand over my heart, I proudly recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. Unlike most of my American classmates, I didn’t smirk, slouch, or mumble. I spoke loudly and clearly and I knew every word.
Although my mother was pleased that I was doing so well in school, there was tension at home. A rift had opened in our family. Or maybe it had been there all along and I just hadn’t noticed.
While I was falling in love with American culture and the English language, my mother had retreated into the world of the Old Country.
* * *
As a child, I didn’t know much about my parent’s past. I realize now that she and my father, who were forced to leave their homeland, were both deeply traumatized.
They were originally from the Lemko region of the Carpathian Mountains. Although this region was in southeastern Poland, it was a Ukrainian enclave that had always been independent from the rest of Poland. Its people spoke Ukrainian, not Polish, and had their own government.
But in 1947, when my mother was just 7 years old, Polish and Soviet soldiers came to her family’s home and ordered them to be “ready for relocation” in three hours. Along with 140,000 other Ukrainians, they were herded onto trains at gunpoint.** The men carried hastily packed suitcases while terrified mothers tried to calm crying children. Anyone who dared to ask a question received a kick or blow for an answer. Forced into crowded cattle cars, they were given very little food and no water. Many became sick and died along the way. My mother watched a man’s face turn blue as his body stiffened. The stench was unbearable. “We thought they were taking us to a concentration camp,” she told me. Seven decades later, she still remembered every detail.
Those who survived found themselves in the desolate landscape of Poland’s “regained territories,” which were newly acquired from Germany, in the north. My mother’s new home was a small apartment with two filthy mattresses on the floor. The windows were broken and there were holes in the walls from shelling. My father, who was 13, was already in northern Poland by this time. I don’t know the details of his journey. He never spoke of it.
Instantly recognizable by their Ukrainian names and accents, the new arrivals were treated as interlopers. Yet they were not allowed to leave. Those who attempted to return to their homeland were arrested and imprisoned.
My parents met and married in Poland. As exiled Ukrainians forced to live in a foreign land, they had always clung fiercely to their native language and culture. Now here they were in America, outsiders once again. Of course, there was a crucial difference. This time they had decided their own destiny. But would they be accepted in America? Could they make a life in New York?
As Ukrainians in Poland, they had suffered constant discrimination. When my mother was 21, she was turned down for a secretarial job, although she was a fast typist and had received a near-perfect score on a written test of Polish grammar. “We don’t need people like you,” the hiring manager brazenly told her. Her last name (Tesczbir) was obviously Ukrainian. So was her accent.
Infuriated, my mother wrote a letter to the local Communist Party boss and when she didn’t get a response, she went to his office to confront him. This was in 1961, when all of Eastern Europe was known as the Soviet bloc. Nikita Khrushchev and his cronies ruled with an iron fist. No one dared to complain about anything, at least not publicly, and certainly not to a Communist Party bigwig. The official was so flummoxed that he actually intervened on my mother’s behalf, and she ended up getting that job.
Why did he help her? Maybe he was captivated by my mother’s sultry Sophia Loren looks, which made her stand out in a country of blue-eyed blondes. Or maybe he admired her moxie. Whatever the reason, one thing was clear: She couldn’t go on fighting the Communist Party. Eventually she would end up in prison.
Without telling anyone, she applied for an exit visa to the United States. It would take years to get permission, and her behavior would have to be above reproach. She would pretend to go along with the system.
When she met my father in 1962, she told him her plan. “We’ll always be foreigners in America,” he pointed out.
“We’re foreigners here,” my mother countered. “Can it really be worse?”
“But how will we survive? We don’t speak English.”
That was true, but they were both young. My father was 28, my mother only 22.
“We can clean rich people’s houses or work in a factory,” my mother suggested. “It will be hard for us, but it will be easier for our children.”
After much discussion, they agreed that they would leave together. In 1965, the Polish government finally let them go. My sister was two years old by the time they arrived in New York. One year later, I was born.
We lived in a two-room apartment with no heat, but plenty of pests. There were mousetraps everywhere. Even so, my mother found a mouse in the bathtub. The little creature was trying to climb out of the tub, but the porcelain was slippery and it kept falling back in. Addressing the mouse in Ukrainian, my mother said, “I don’t want to kill you. But I don’t want to live with you either.” She then turned to me: “Otkroi vikno!” (“Open the window!”) I did so. She wrapped the mouse in a thick bath towel and threw it onto the roof of the next building. After it landed safely, my mother shut the window and said (in Ukrainian), “I hope she has a good life. Don’t just stand there. It’s time to start dinner.”
As strange as this may sound, we were actually lucky. Our monthly rent was $146, but the landlord had agreed to reduce it by $40. In exchange, my mother mopped the entire building every night. It must have been backbreaking work, but she never complained.
The other tenants, all Americans, ignored us whenever we passed them in the hallway or on the stairs. To counter her loneliness, my mother played Ukrainian records every day. Often I would hear her singing along with the patriotic songs emanating from our stereo while she made soup (mushroom, tomato, or borscht).
If I came into the kitchen and tried to start a conversation with her in English, her eyes went cold.
Her response was always the same: “Ya ne rozumiyu.” (“I don’t understand.”) This was not true. I knew that she understood at least part, if not all, of what I was saying.
“Why won’t you talk to me?” I often asked her (in English).
“Why are you so stubborn?” she would retort (in Ukrainian). “Why do you refuse to speak our language?” Why, she demanded, couldn’t I be a dobra donka (good daughter) like Oksana, Khrystia, or Dzvinka? We saw these girls in church every Sunday, and didn’t I notice that they all spoke to their mothers in Ukrainian?
“If you keep jabbering in English, you won’t remember any Ukrainian at all by the time you grow up. You’ll forget who you are. Is that what you want?”
That was exactly what I wanted. But of course I couldn’t tell my mother that.
* * *
One day when I was in third grade, the school sent home a letter. St. Michael’s would be closing by the end of the year due to lack of enrollment. I would have to transfer to a public school. I was elated.
Public School #16 turned out to be everything I had hoped it would be. We spoke English all day, and none of the students were Ukrainian. I loved my new school, but the disappearance of Ukrainian language instruction from my education threw my mother into a panic. She became even more militant in her efforts to preserve my cultural identity, insisting that I speak only in Ukrainian to my brother and sister.
I continued to speak to both siblings in English. If my mother caught me, she gave me the silent treatment, sometimes for days. When that didn’t work, she made me scrub the bathtub, clean the toilet, and mop all the floors.
Still, I refused to give up my campaign. Feeling daring one evening, I called my best friend. Hearing the anathematized language, my mother marched into the kitchen, calmly took the receiver out of my hand, and hung up the phone.
“Just because we live here now doesn’t mean that you’re American,” she told me. “You must always remember that you are Ukrainian.”
How could I possibly forget that we were Ukrainian?
Our doctor, dentist, insurance agent, and plumber were all Ukrainian emigres. So was our all-purpose repairman. My parents had even managed to find a Ukrainian bank. The president, loan officer, and tellers were all Ukrainian.
Every night, as I turned out the lights and climbed into bed, I breathed a sigh of relief. In the morning, I would open the door and walk back to school, back to America. Secretly I longed to live in that world all the time. It seemed freer, lighter, a place where laughter and even dreams were possible. Home meant listening to depressing songs about the Old Country and being forced to speak Ukrainian.
I figured out a solution. If I couldn’t speak my beloved English at home, I would do the next best thing—read in English. So, while my sister baked cookies and cakes in the kitchen with my mother and my brother played with his toy trucks, I read piles of books from the library.
As I entered adolescence, I got into the habit of taking my books to the basement of our apartment building since no one ever went there. I took a flashlight with me and there I sat, reading about Jane Eyre and the mercurial Mr. Rochester. I was also fascinated with John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie and Rainer Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.
I started collecting words the way some people collect colorful seashells. Some of my favorite curios: ziggurat, pettifogger, sobriquet, deus ex machina, commotrix, sesquipedalian, uxorious, woebegone, iconoclast, unrequited (from Romeo and Juliet), will-o-the-wisp, zeitgeist, and Xanadu.
What was so special about these particular words? I liked the way they sounded. Sometimes, on lonely evenings, I would whisper them, like an incantation.
But I also wanted to know what these tantalizing new words meant, so I looked them up in the huge dictionary my parents had given me (I told them I needed it for school). If a word had four or five different meanings, I wrote down all of them in a spiral notebook I had bought just for this purpose. Underneath the definitions, I copied the sentence in which the word had appeared when I first discovered it, along with a sentence of my own creation. Sometimes I jotted down a few lines of poetry or quotes from favorite authors.
By the time I turned 13, I had discovered 1,167 new words (I liked to number them). Most were words I would probably never use, but it didn’t matter. My words were like shiny trinkets. I liked to admire them. In fact, I carried my vocabulary notebook with me so that I could look at all my favorite words while waiting for the bus or standing at the checkout line. (Since my mother couldn’t read food labels, she often sent me to the neighborhood grocery store.)
Ironically, my obsession with new words led to trouble at school. When I was in seventh grade, I used the word “consanguineous” in an essay. My social studies teacher, Mrs. Shapiro, called my mother. Obviously, she said, an adult was writing my essays.
“Is it you?” she asked my mother.
“No, is not me,” my mother replied. “She do herself. You hear how is my English, wrong all the time.”
“What about your husband?” Mrs. Shapiro persisted.
“He talking same like me, lot of mistakes.”
Mrs. Shapiro never called again.
I tried to enlist the support of my siblings in the ongoing war over which language our family should speak at home, but it was hopeless. My brother was too young to understand my angst over our cultural identity. As for my sister, she seemed to relish her role as the dutiful donka who spoke Ukrainian as a show of filial respect. I was the lone infidel. But it was all right. I had my books and my American friends.
Perhaps it is only fitting that I, the sole member of my family with an American name, should have staked a claim to the English language. My mother is Anna (Anya in Ukrainian). My father and brother share the same name, Peter (Petro), and my sister is Barbara (Varvara). But my first name, Lori, exists only in English. There is no Ukrainian equivalent.
Naming me “Lori” had been my father’s idea. He had heard the name somewhere and decided he liked it. My mother didn’t like it and tried to Slavify it by trilling the “r” (“Loh-rrrree!”) But, like its owner, the name refused to bend to her will. No matter how she pronounced it, “Lori” sounded undeniably American.
Of course, language wasn’t the only source of conflict in our family. We clashed over culture, too. When I was in eighth grade, Liz Moen, one of the most popular kids in my class, invited all the girls to her house for a sleepover birthday party. I was the only girl who had to leave right after the birthday cake.
I had tried to explain the concept of a sleepover to my mother. To my horror, she started sobbing. “Why do you want to sleep in a stranger’s house?” she asked (in Ukrainian). “Why?” She paused, looking up at me accusingly. “Do we not take care of you that you want to leave home and live with this other family?”
Then there were holidays. I was always envious of my American classmates, who told stories of Easter egg hunts and chocolate bunnies nestled in colorful Easter baskets. In our house, Easter meant waking up at 4:30 in the morning to attend a three-hour mass (it started at 6, but we had only one bathroom for the five of us). Did I mention that we had to stand up the entire time? The highlight of the ceremony was advancing very slowly on your knees from the back of the church all the way up to the front to kiss a picture of Jesus on the altar. Children as young as 6 were expected to do this.
I wanted to go trick-or-treating with my friends, but to my parents, it sounded like madness. What? American parents let their kids take candy from strangers? And there was a whole holiday devoted to such foolishness?
Of course, I was expected to marry “nash chelovik,” “our own,” by which my parents meant a Ukrainian.
To win such a husband, I had to learn how to do two things:
1) cook traditional Ukrainian food
2) dance to Ukrainian folk music
The culinary training often made me nauseous. “Put your hand inside the chicken when you wash it,” my mother remonstrated, shoving my hand into the slimy dead bird. “Pull out the gizzards. No, not like that! Put your hand all the way in to make sure there are no organs left.” I tried to ignore the chicken’s blood, which was dripping down my arm.
But the dance lessons were even worse. Knowing how to dance was important because it would increase my chances of meeting a suitable husband. Most young couples in our social circle had (supposedly) met at one of the Ukrainian zabavas (dances) given every summer in upstate New York. Soon I would be attending these, and what would I do if a potential suitor asked me to dance? I thought that I would just say no. But my mother declared that I should agree to dance with as many young men as possible and that it would be shameful if I “stumbled like a newborn calf.”
To fully appreciate the special kind of torture of those Sunday afternoon dance sessions, you have to understand this: In her youth, my mother was a professional dancer. Her folk dance troupe, which consisted of 10 men and 10 women, performed all over Poland, winning top prizes. (In photos she is decked out in a beautifully embroidered peasant blouse and full skirt.) Her standards were impossibly high, especially for a 13-year-old. No matter how hard I tried, I could never move the way she did. Watching my graceless form, she would scold me every time I made a mistake. Then she would lift the needle off the record, and I would have to start all over again. My 11-year-old brother, who was my partner, spent most of the time stepping on my feet and giggling. I wanted to smash those records.
* * *
Time passed. My parents bought a house in the suburbs. Now that we were putting down roots, I thought that my mother would assimilate into American society. But she still wore the quaint, outdated dresses and pillbox hats that she had brought with her when she first arrived in America. And that’s not all.
Every summer she picked the apples, currants, and blueberries that grew in our backyard and spent long afternoons preserving them “for the winter,” just as she had always done during Communist times in Poland, when empty store shelves were the norm and the only way to survive the long winters was to preserve fruit when it was available in the summer.
I told her that there would be plenty of fruit to buy all year. But she put her hands on her hips and gave me one of her you-kids-think-you-know-everything looks.
“You think your America is perfect? What if there’s a shortage of fruit?”
“There won’t be a shortage.”
“How do you know?”
It always irked me when my mother referred to the country we both lived in as “your America.” Wasn’t it her America, too? But of course I didn’t have to ask.
And where was my father when all of this was going on?
He worked round the clock, even on weekends, so he wasn’t around much. After putting in eight hours as a handyman in an orphanage, he would go to his second job as a cab driver. Often he would come home at 2 in the morning, only to vanish once again as soon as the sun rose.
On those rare occasions when he wasn’t working, he got together with his friends, all immigrants from Poland or Ukraine. The men, whose hands were calloused and red after a hard week’s work at the factory or construction site, embraced my father in rough bear hugs and kissed him on both cheeks.
My mother busied herself in the kitchen, preparing huge platters of tomatoes, pickles, and homemade cheese, which the men picked up with their fingers and placed on thick bulky (buns). Then came steaming hot kielbasa (thick, spicy sausage), varenyky (dumplings stuffed with cheese or potatoes), and holupsti (stuffed cabbage). Dessert was homemade plum cake or jelly donuts with a dusting of white confectioner’s sugar on top.
The men would sit at the table for hours, eating and tossing back endless shots of horilka, a throat-searing Ukrainian vodka laced with pepper. One man might protest: “Ni, ni, vistarchit, bilshe ne budu.” (“No, no, that’s enough, I don’t want any more.”) But two seconds later, they were pouring each other refills. Some of the men’s faces turned red. A few declared that the stuff tasted terrible. But still they drank. I finally realized that it was a contest to see who could drink the most without falling under the table. Sometimes my father “won.” Once the evening really got going, the men would start singing, off key, but with great gusto. Usually it was “Mnohaia Lita,” a celebratory song that fits just about any occasion.
Since the men rarely brought their wives, there was no one for my mother to talk to. The men liked her because she was so pretty, but she didn’t feel comfortable in their presence and mostly stayed in the kitchen. Although she didn’t mind their raunchy jokes, she was appalled by their drinking. She might have a little wine on Christmas or New Year’s Eve, but that was all. She never went on drinking binges the way my father did.
In retrospect, I see how hard life must have been for my mother, who spent most of her time alone at home. I often found her sitting at the kitchen table, crying, especially at night. Her only relief was writing long letters to the family she had left behind in Poland. Calling her mother, brother, and two sisters was out of the question; it was too expensive.
Yet she did nothing to ameliorate her lot. Despite heated arguments with my father, she refused to learn English. I think she wanted to pretend that she didn’t really live in New York, that she was just passing through. She even started talking about moving back to Poland, but my father had other plans.
When I graduated from middle school, he suddenly announced that we should all be American citizens. Of the five of us, only my brother and I had U.S. citizenship since we had both been born on American soil. My father, mother, and 16-year-old sister were all Polish citizens.
My mother told my father that she was much too busy taking care of all of us to prepare for some silly citizenship test in English, but he would brook no opposition.
As you may have guessed, she learned just enough English to pass the test. I had expected that we might at least go out to eat to mark the occasion, but there was no celebration. In fact, my mother stuffed her citizenship papers into an old drawer. When I congratulated her, she didn’t even look up. Her indifference to what seemed to me a momentous occasion pained me. It seemed that nothing had really changed.
Indeed, as I started high school, my mother continued to insist that I speak only Ukrainian at home. I couldn’t help wondering: Why was her loyalty to her language stronger than her loyalty to me?
When I was 18—nearly two decades after my parents immigrated to America—my mother and I finally reached a truce. I was given permission to speak to my siblings in English. As for my interactions with my mother, we decided that she would continue to speak to me in Ukrainian, but I would answer her in English.
It seemed that there might finally be peace in our household. Then I found out that my college (Columbia University) required all students to study a foreign language for two years.
A tantalizing array of languages were on offer (including Finnish and Swahili), but I had missed the registration deadline. By some cruel twist of fate, the only language still available was Russian. In our house, Russia had always been the enemy (Ukraine and Russia have a long and bloody history, as my parents often reminded me). How was I going to break this news?
“I am not paying for Russian language classes!” my father thundered when I told him. My mother sobbed and called me a Bolshevik, which was the epithet she always flung at me when she was angry.
Once I explained that waiting for other languages to open up would delay my graduation by at least one semester, they relented.
* * *
I studied the language of the imperialists, and a few years later, in 1991, I quit my job as a reporter for a small New York newspaper and flew to Russia.
My original plan had been to find a reporting job at a bigger newspaper on the East Coast. But the American economy was in a recession that year, and my six-month-long job search had yielded absolutely nothing. So I decided to try a different tack. I wrote a letter in Russian and mailed it along with my resume to the New York office of what was then known as TASS (the Telegraphic Agency of the Soviet Union). The editor-in-chief invited me to come for an interview, and we ended up speaking, in Russian, for over an hour. A native Muscovite himself, he commented on my fluency, then stunned me with this offer: How would I like to work as a “stilist,” a bilingual copy editor, in TASS’s Moscow headquarters?
My job would be to edit news dispatches sent by TASS correspondents from all over the world. I would have to compare their stories, which were written in Russian, with the English-language translations (done by TASS translators in Moscow), to ensure that everything had been translated correctly into clear, comprehensible English. When the editor offered me a one-year contract, plus an apartment, I said, “Ya saglasna.” (“I accept.”)
I moved into a Stalin-era apartment building in the center of Moscow, not far from Lyubyanka, the notorious headquarters of the KGB (a fact I omitted in my letters to my parents).
I had no press credentials, but with the help of a TASS colleague who knew the right people, I finagled my way into the Middle East peace talks that were held in Moscow just a few weeks after my arrival. I sold the story to the Boston Herald, and my career as a freelance journalist took off. While continuing to work for TASS, I began regularly covering the news for the Herald and writing features for Newsday, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and The Economist. During my five-year stay, I witnessed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the birth of an independent Ukraine.
Although I spent most of my time in Russia, I traveled to other parts of the former Soviet Union as often as I could.
When I visited Ukraine, it felt like a homecoming, although I had never been there. The smell of fresh varenyky sold on street corners by ladies in flowery aprons, the lively cadences of Ukrainian, and the signs on storefronts, written in the language that I knew so well from childhood, triggered something inside me. I was delighted when an elderly grandmother with whom I had struck up a conversation said that there was “something familiar” about me. I had told her that I was from New York, but she looked skeptical. My pronunciation was too authentic for a foreigner, she said, and how could I make jokes in Ukrainian? Was I really from America? When I told her about my parents and about how I spoke Ukrainian before I spoke English, she smiled broadly, revealing a gold front tooth. Pressing my hand warmly, she declared, “Viy nasha.” (“You’re one of us.”)
Although I had just nine months of experience as a small-town journalist when I arrived in Moscow, I managed to publish over 100 articles about life in the post-Soviet era, including a few about Ukraine. My parents were proud.
When I came home for one of my annual visits, I was amazed to see an English-language dictionary on their dining room table. I asked my mother what it was doing there and was touched to learn that she had been attempting to read my dispatches about Russia. “You use a lot of big words,” she observed, “but I’m a good student. I’ve been looking them up in the dictionary.”
For my part, I still jot down unfamiliar words in spiral notebooks. Only now my treasure trove includes Ukrainian words. My mother helps me with the definitions, which I write down exactly as she dictates them. After all, she is the expert, not me.
My favorite Ukrainian word is “iskra,” which means “spark.” It’s the name of my mother’s favorite Ukrainian band. She and my father used to dance to their music every summer, when the band performed live in upstate New York, attracting thousands of Ukrainians. To the admiring glances of couples half their age, they could still dance flawlessly to the polka, the cha-cha, and the tango when they were both in their 70s.
My mother has no one to dance with now. My father died (from Alzheimer’s) in 2013. But after decades of dancing, her feet needed something to do. So at the age of 73, she bought a stationary bike. She’s 82 now, but she still pedals five miles every day. In the evenings she sits on the sofa with a cup of hot tea and listens to all her favorite dance tunes, her small feet tapping in time to the music. I know who she’s thinking about, but she doesn’t like to talk about her feelings. So I ask about her garden, and she tells me that the cherry tomatoes are beginning to ripen.
These days my mother often speaks to me in English. I don’t know why; I’ve never asked her to do so. But I’ve realized something. When words tumble out of her mouth in English, she sounds less like my mother, and I miss that person.
So, the other day I did something that would have infuriated my younger self. I asked my mother to speak to me in Ukrainian. She looked surprised.
“Why?” she asked (in English).
“Lipshe tak. I like it better that way,” I responded.
** In April 2002, President Aleksander Kwasniewski apologized to ethnic Ukrainians for the Polish government’s role in the covert military campaign, which was known as Operation Wisla.