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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks


Ukrainian Childís Table

March 2022

Before we went on our first trip together, a sister and I asked one another, ‘Where’s the one place you’d like to go?’ We paused then said simultaneously, “Russia.” That’s how we ended up on Tony’s concert tour. As we traced back why we both wanted to go to Russia, we decided it was our love of Russian literature and music, and the Ukrainian decorative child’s table in the dining room of our childhood home. Sometimes a friend would come over and we’d have tea at the table. Perhaps a time or two, my sister, Hannah, and I sat there also. We had lots of items from China, but it did not hold the attraction that Russia did. This trip began our love affair with both Ukraine and Russia.

Two Ukrainian boxes of similar design to the table. Gifts to me from Ukraine.

Two Ukrainian boxes of similar design to the table. Gifts to me from Ukraine.

Unique in our house of colonial and other fine furniture, oriental rugs on hardwood floors, and wallpapered rooms, sat this Ukrainian table. Painted brightly with red, gold, black, and green, it was a statement of its own. My mother’s taste was quiet and conservative. Two things stood out—the Victorian loveseat on which my father proposed to my mother and this Ukrainian table. My mother never told the story of the little table. I have no photo of it and the photos of items purchased in Ukraine are the closest I can come. Use your imagination to create a rectangular table about a yard or meter long full of color and with similar chairs the right height for children. With our mother’s taste in decorating a house, how did that table ever get in the house and stay there?

I have been to the Soviet Union (Leningrad, Moscow, Zagorsk, and Kiev) as well as to Russia (St. Petersburg, Moscow, Yasnaya Polyana, Irkutsk, Lake Baikal, and to Ukraine (Kiev, Khmelnitsjy, Alushta, Yalta, Sevastipol, and Yaremcha), Mongolia (Terelj National Park and Ulaan Baatar), and Mogilev, Belarus. What was I doing there? I was a tourist in the USSR for two weeks in 1987 and 1988, a tag-along as my childhood and prep school friend, Tony Antolini, conducted his 142 singers in Rachmaninoff’s a capella Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.  If that’s a lot of foreign names, branch out and travel to different countries or search out the films, literature, and music of anywhere that interests you even remotely. We live on a big planet and need to be familiar with it. My husband went west to Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, and Australia, and then to Saudi Arabia. I went east to Europe, North Africa, and on to Asia.

On my bureau here in Alaska sits an icon image made by a local craftsman, all of small pieces of wood. Next to it is a picture made of birch. The two wool weavings are also from Ukraine.

On my bureau here in Alaska sits an icon image made by a local Ukrainian craftsman, all of small pieces of wood. Next to it is a picture made of birch. The two wool weavings are also from Ukraine.

I love the icons of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. I have many reproductions of them in my house in Oregon and my house in Alaska. What makes an icon—Greek, Russian, or Ukrainian—special? It is a one-dimensional form of art, one dimensional so that when one prays to an icon, the prayer goes straight into and through the iconic image to God. Quaker though I may be, I’ve yet to find an icon that doesn’t leave me speechless.

An iconographer made this one. I purchased it in the shop at Kyiv’s Pechersk Lavra in 2007.

An iconographer made this one. I purchased it in the shop at Kyivís Pechersk Lavra in 2007.

Hannah ended up teaching English literature in a Ukrainian school for a semester and had another trip or two to the country without me. In 2007, we went again, this time starting in Irkutsk and then Lake Baikal. After six weeks in Mongolia, Ukraine, and Russia, we headed to London for a week before flying home. It was idyllic and except for war monuments in all countries. Another possible world war was the farthest thing from our minds. We had both lived comfortably in our New England home through World War II and, like the rest of the world, thought that was the last one we’d ever see. It was the atomic and nuclear bombs that seemed to draw the “line in the sand” that would secure us from a third one.

I had one more trip to Moscow and then to Belarus and this was a work trip. In Mogilev staying in a university dorm that has a postered wall of what to do in the event of a nuclear disaster. Mogilev is 240 miles, or 360 kilometers, from Chernobyl. Since the atmosphere took the dramatically polluted air to northern Europe and even on to Canada, how close might danger be now to any town in any country? Hopefully, that will not be a danger.

Poster painted on the wall of a Mogilev University hallway wall. It’s perhaps 50 feet long and almost floor to ceiling. view 1.

Poster painted on the wall of a Mogilev University hallway wall. It’s perhaps 50 feet long and almost floor to ceiling. view 2.

Poster painted on the wall of a Mogilev University hallway wall. Itís perhaps 50 feet long and almost floor to ceiling.

What I fear now is the stress to children and women who leave their country, without their fathers or husbands. What I fear is the stress to men as they say farewell and return to fight for their country during an invasion. I fear the stress to all as they fight for their country. I fear the loss of life of anyone. I fear the lifelong stress that can remain in any Ukrainian. I have seen the stress of war on my husband, on too many friends, even people I don’t know who have shown up at military forts and bases at one of my book signings. I wish we would stop this aggression of injury to bodies and souls, and to the death of anyone.

I’d like to close this with the words of three poets—two twentieth century Russian poets who lived during two world wars, Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva. These women knew the cost of war. Both lost their husbands and Tsvetaeva had her youngest die in the 1930s and she died by suicide in 1941. The third poet is Taras Shevchenko, a Ukrainian poet of the nineteenth century.

Akhmatova:
So much to do today:
kill memory, kill pain,
turn heart into a stone
and yet prepare to live again.

Anna Akhmatova, Requiem. 1935-1940. In Poems of Akhmatova. Translated by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1973.
I learned Russian to read her poetry in its original.


Tsvetaeva:
You—stuffed capon, I—pigeon.
Gunpowder, your soul, at the autopsy.
And I will be laid out bare
—two wings to cover me.

From Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marin Tsvetaeva. A reading by Ilya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine. Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books, 2012.


I shall close with a opening lines of “Will and Testament”, from Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko.

Shevchenko:
When I die bury me
in the middle of the steppe
of my Ukraine. So I can seize
broad the broadback field and
Dnipro, twisting, so
I can see and hear it roar,
roaring, carrying

Thieves’ blood
To the ocean….

December 25, 1845, Pereyaslav, Ukraine
This translation first appeared in the Asymptote journal.

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