Wish I'd Said It

Weeds are flowers too - once you get to know them.

- A. A. Milne

Friday, December 21, 2007

Some Christmas Memories (Issue #159)

When I was a child I was considered the luckiest kid in my class, at least once a year. Every January, around the 6th or 7th, I got to take the day off school - for a sort of religious holiday.

Not a boring old, spend-half-the-day-at-church religious holiday. Nuh-uh. It was Ukrainian Christmas.

Say it with me: Back-to-back Christmases. Every year.

I can still taste the triumph as I reminded my friends I wouldn’t be in the next day. Their envy was palpable, even when I explained there would “only” be one gift under the tree for me at my grandparents’ and it was usually clothes. You could still colour them green even when Ukrainian Christmas landed on a weekend.

It was celebrated every year at my maternal grandparents’ farm, about 20 miles from where we lived. Gramma and Gigi were dairy farmers for the most part, though Gigi switched to raising beef cattle in his later years.

They were born Out West,* in Selkirk, Manitoba and moved to Ontario when my mother was in her late teens. Every year since I could remember, we’d gather at Gramma and Gigi’s a couple of weeks after the “big” Christmas to celebrate our smaller one.

Let’s part the sepia curtains and see what’s playing at Memory Theater this morning....


Gramma and Gigi lived on three different properties in three different houses within my memory. But the structures and colours seem fluid and meld into one another. The people and the smells and the laughter were the same though, so essentially there was only one farmhouse.

It was big. The rooms were all big. Only the gathering of the clan at Christmas could shrink them.

Tables were pushed end-to-end and followed the contours of the room. The kids sat at one end, the adults at the other. I remember my sense of pride when I realized I’d graduated somewhere around the age of 16.


The food. Oh my goodness, the food.

Big Baba, my grandmother’s mother and the family fortune teller, ladles doughnuts, poondiki (dough stuffed with dates) and other delicacies into, around, and finally - golden and delicious - out of, a large vat of hot oil.

To us older kids, cousin Linda, me, and my sister Theresa, she entrusts the critically important task of dusting the hot pastries with icing sugar.

Naturally, we felt it our solemn duty to taste-test the final products as soon as they’d cooled enough, before we could, in good conscience, put them on the dessert platters.

If it once mooed, clucked, oinked or quacked - it made an appearance on the table in some form or another - all of them delicious. They were accompanied by mountains of cabbage rolls, mashed potatoes and perogies. There were several different gravies, my favourite being a buttermilk/mushroom/onion concoction that elevated mashed potatoes to the hautest of cuisine.

Vegetables weren’t left out. Gramma grew many of her own in a large garden. It was just that there was rarely room on my plate for the beets, corn, turnip, peas and beans. Understandable really.


Gigi was about 5' 8" and approximately 225 pounds, barrel-chested and immensely strong. He could shoulder a cow to the left that was intent on going right. I always recall him with a twinkle in his bright blue eyes. He had the permanently ruddy cheeks of an outdoorsman.

He enjoyed a drink. Who the heck wouldn’t after working 14-hour days, seven days a week since he was 14? There were only three alcoholic beverages fit to drink in Gigi’s mind: beer, if it was summer, vodka or rye whiskey at all other times. The vodka was a salute to his heritage, the good old Canadian rye, to his heartland.

You had to be careful if Gigi was pouring the drinks. He only made them in two strengths: regular and Ukrainian. If you didn’t specify, you got Ukrainian - which meant four ounces of whiskey flavoured with a tablespoon of 7-Up. Regular would be three tablespoons.


Gramma was only an inch or two shorter than Gigi and about the same width. Her mission in life, and she took it seriously, was to feed people. At Ukrainian Christmas, she had to feed a LOT of people.

Besides my aunts and uncles and cousins, there were their cousins and aunts and uncles - many of them visiting from Out West. There were also places around the table for “the men,” the workers who lived permanently on the farm.

Like most traditional hostesses, Gram wasn’t all that visible at these feasts. She was forever fussing with something in the kitchen or getting up to fetch a forgotten morsel or to refill a platter.

She was about as huggable as a human can get.


At some point, probably after a couple of Gigi’s drinks, my Dad would sit at the piano and start playing. Sometimes Gigi would pick up his fiddle and play along. One year, and we have curled-up black and white evidence to prove it, Uncle Fred sat in on drums.

I remember noise - a constant hum of conversation or song or both - punctuated often with clinking glasses and raucous hoots of laughter.

It was family at its funnest.


It’s been about 25 years since the last Ukrainian Christmas at Gramma and Gigi’s. For a few years after their deaths, we had modest gatherings at my parents’ house which lasted until my mother’s death 13 years ago.

Today, the only acknowledgment might be in passing, during a phone call with a brother or sister. My kids sure never got the day off school.

But I’ve tried to pass along to them the essence of those Ukrainian Christmases and apply it to ours- that it’s not about the getting - it’s about the getting together.

Merry Christmas to all. Have a safe and happy holiday season.


*If you live in Canada, you live in a region. There’s Central, then there’s Down East, Out West, or North. For the authentic, Ukrainian-Canadian pronunciation of “west” try saying the “e” like the “a” in “apple.” Out Wast. Perfect.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

WWB Excerpt & An Incident (Issue #158)

Walking With Benny: 12/04/07

I realized last night, on our evening walk, that I’ve written very little about them. Most of my focus has been on our morning ambles. There’s a reason or three for that.

Often, and particularly since switching to Daylight Savings Time a month or so ago when I started writing this thing, our evening walks are in the...wait for it...dark. My main sense, unlike Ben’s, has been severely constrained. My ears don’t have a whole lot to do either, as the wildlife is usually quiet, settling in for the night. Consequently, I rarely see or hear anything of particular interest.

Ben is as active as ever. His nose, through which he perceives most of his world, doesn’t need light. He trots from side to side in front of me, covering as much ground as possible while still managing to tug me forward. His nose is glued to the ground like a canine minesweeper. To an onlooker, I might look like a blind man sweeping his 15-foot-long, animated-at-the-end cane.

Since my senses are far from overloaded with outside stimuli, I find it easy to slip into a contemplative mood on these evening excursions. Sometimes, I’ll consider the morning’s walk. Did I miss anything - either in the telling or the remembering?

Occasionally, I’ll find myself recalling a particular moment but see it in the different light that time and altered circumstance often conspire to inspire. Each time you see something from a different angle, you are adding to your knowledge of it. Added lore should lead to greater wisdom. Or, as is usually my case, it becomes another canape added to my smorgasbord of useless trivia.

Perhaps things will be different as the days lengthen again and more and more evening walks take place before the sun sets. We’ll see.

Anyway, last night began as a picture-perfect postcard of a Christmas Eve. Heavy, but still fluffy snowflakes drifted in a gentle breeze, romanticizing the streetlights.

A moment later, no longer protected by a row of houses on the left, the west wind slapped us with a gust. Those fluffy flakes of a moment ago now packed some sting when they smacked cheeks and eyelids.

My legs reminded me early on that I had abused them just that morning, thank you very much. The southern part of the path, which Ben and I take every evening, is less-traveled than the northern one. So I was breaking fresh ground in crunchy snow again and my thighs weren’t too pleased with me at all.

I focused on putting one foot in front of the other while hurling thought bolts at Ben, pleading with him to start shivering and turn back for home.

He was a very bad dog and paid me no nevermind.

By the time we got back on the sidewalk, a half-hour later and a scant hundred yards from home, my legs were jelly. And the sidewalk, under a fine coating of new snow, was very icy.

“Oh crap,” said my thighs, in a manner of speaking.

Luckily Ben couldn’t garner any more traction than I, or even his wee frame might have been enough to topple me. Or tow me. He looked like he was exercising on a treadmill and I was as wobbly as a two-year-old ballerina.

But we made it home without mishap.

This time. They did say it was gonna be a long, cold winter.


So I was leaving the Beer Store yesterday, having returned some empties. Approaching my car, I noticed slush had built up in the wheel wells. I was surprised I hadn’t noticed it before and kicked out the offending crud on the front passenger’s side. The stuff in the rear passenger wheel well had really solidified and required several mighty kicks before it finally loosened and fell. The rear driver’s side was easier and I headed to the front to finish up.

It was then I noticed a splash of colour in the back seat. Leaning closer, I peered inside. Wrapped Christmas parcels. Strange. I didn’t recall doing any shopping, let alone wrapping.

And the woman staring at me from the passenger’s seat at the front wasn’t at all familiar either.

Oh crud.

I had just slowly circled and kicked the heck out of someone else’s car.

Don’t you hate when that happens? I blame tinted windows. They’re the work of the devil. And why is it that everyone has to buy a silver car just because I have a silver car?

The laughing driver, another lady, returned as I was slapping my forehead and miming my apologies to the woman in the car. Over my stumbling sorrys she not-at-alled and thanked me for ridding her of the accumulated ice and snow. When I peeked over a moment later, before pulling out of the lot, I noticed she and her friend whooping and hollering in a most unladylike manner.

Rascals must have gotten into the brewskies early because it wasn't that funny.