Ode on a Ukrainian Funeral

Tanya Berezuk in for Volodymyr Kish

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.” (Keats)

Terms like, ‘bred in the bone,’ ‘collective identity,’ and ‘shared past,’ are understood by Ukrainian Canadians in many contexts, but perhaps most poignantly at funerals. Several weeks ago, one of my Ukrainian childhood friends died at the age of fifty three, mourned by a funeral home full of family, friends and co-workers who came to respect her life’s story. The Panachyda consoled us as we inhaled the incense of our familiar Eastern rite church and reached for fresh Kleenex as we responded, thrice, to Fr. Czoliy’s chanting of the reverent and cathartic Vichnaya Pam’yat.

Later I joined a clusters of mourners to watch a pictorial essay of Iryna’s (and our) life played, chronologically, on a digital picture frame. In one photo, Irena, maybe ten years old, is dressed in a Poltava costume, smiling broadly; her head, tilted as if trying to balance the bright, multi-flowered vinok. Her right leg, straight and with pointed toe, is in front of her as are her arms, rounded, and positioned as if she is lowering the hoop to help someone score in basketball. My sister, who stood beside me, said, “Is that you, Tanya?” I responded, “No. That’s Iryna, but it could be. It could be any one of us!”

I recalled L.P. Hartley’s novel, The Go Between, which begins, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” That picture and the ones that followed catapulted me to that foreign land of our mutual past; that fertile, emotional and cultural landscape shared by children of Ukrainian immigrants.

Most of us had two addresses. Iryna’s official address, lucky for my sisters and me, was five houses up the street. Her second, unofficial address, was the Ukrainian Black Sea Hall where we attended Ukrainian school, studied dancing, sang in Homin Choir, and, together with all the other teens, earned a few bucks (‘pocket money’ with long ‘o’s as our tatos used to say) waitressing for weekend functions and volunteering at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church Bingo. The varnished tables, the colour of very old scotch tape, reminded me of amber. Irene was there. We were all there.

We had two identities. Our non-Ukrainian friends, from various ethnic backgrounds, were lumped in the category of, “English” friends, the word “English” akin to the word ‘goy’ among Jews. We celebrated the rites and rituals of both cultures. At English school, a card at Valentine’s Day determined whether the object of your affections shared your feelings. At a Ukrainian zabava, you knew you had his heart if he searched the circle and found you among the clapping crowd to ‘fly’ you during the Kolomiyka. A young woman’s heart swooned when her vinok was plucked from the river by the teenager of her dreams at Ivana Kupala.

As young women, our coming of age was not marked by the wearing a training bra but rather by the conferring of red boots and the honour of dancing the Hopak. For young men, the athleticism required to execute what we referred to as, ‘testosterone moves,’ afforded the best opportunity for posturing. Peacocks, step aside!

We wore polyester long dresses our mothers had sewn from McCall patterns then danced polkas in them like little Slavic pros. At the sound of the first few notes of “Proud Mary” and other “English” songs, we leapt to our feet to dance what my father referred to as, “hoogey boogey.” Our parents clapped, but with trepidation, probably wondering where songs about Kozaks forced to leave their beloved and women carrying water from the well, had gone.

In our historical landscape, Jaroslaw, Orysia, Darusia and Bohdan became Jerry, Arlene, Doreen and Bob respectively. We sat patiently during roll call while our “English” teachers unintentionally butchered our surnames. One day in high school, my friend Boris, clearly tired of being the ‘Slavic names’ coach, chided Mr. Taylor during a colossal train wreck of mispronunciations. He said, “Uh, sir. I believe the ‘c,’ in ‘Vaskievicsz,’ is silent.” I got a detention for laughing.

And if asked, ‘what’s in a name?’ we might recall our pre-school years when we waited in vain for the hostess of Romper Room to see us in her magic mirror and say one of OUR names just once, instead of Owen, Stacey or Jimmy.

And our politics. The one about the three Ukrainians on an island who manage to create five political parties makes us smile. But the zeal with which we practice politics; the level of caring about a Ukraine’s right to self-determination, democracy and the rule of law is as powerful and meaningful today as always.
People say funerals are a celebration of life. This paradoxical statement begs a few questions and gives pause. Is the rite a celebration of the spiritual journey into Shakespeare’s “undiscovered country?” Maybe it is in quiet solidarity that we salute the courage it takes to build our life’s story, conquer the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” and, undaunted, keep going. However we define that celebration, we know, in part, that in paying respects to our dearly departed, we acknowledge our shared humanity and identity.

Oh, Iryna. I’m so sorry that you had to leave us this early. In your peace and silence, we honour you and we remember. Thank you for bringing back so many shining, brilliant memories. The bell will toll for us, too. And when it does, when we, “shake off this mortal coil,” we must know that it will have at least some embroidery on it.