While our regular columnist Volodymyr Kish takes a break this week, we have a guest writer filling in with some poignant observations in honour of Mother’s Day, on what it is to be a Ukrainian mother. Tanya Berezuk is a writer and high school teacher within the Peterborough, Victoria, Northumberland, Clarington Catholic District School Board.
My clearest visual memory of Mother’s Days past, is row upon row of parents eagerly waiting for red stage curtains to part, revealing their children, in their embroidered finest, prepared to honour their mothers through song and verse. My clearest emotional memory is the fear and trepidation of a child who knows her lines as well as she does her address and phone number, but who at the final moment, fears the words have been absorbed by the velour threads at which she stares as she waits to hear her name called. The image of her Tato sawing the air with his hand; his metronome as she memorized her verses, steadies her. Once called, she steps forward, uses her ‘GPS’, locates her mama’s mini wave and begins. “Mamyni Ruky…” (Mother’s Hands). At the final line, mothers raise little white flags and surrender their emotions, dabbing eyes moistened by heart-felt truths yet unknown to my young self.
Pani Olha Steciw, taught those poems to her motley crew of Ukrainian-Canadian 1970s kids, and when she did, her passion for Ukraine, its language and its unrelenting determination to achieve freedom from oppression was palpable. Among other poems, we read Shevchenko’s narrative poem, “Sova” (The Owl), the setting of which is so pastoral; it would seem our bard had decided to ‘go rogue,’ breaking from the subversive, satirical verse that characterized his 1843-1845 collection, “Try Lita” (“Three Years”). The poem’s setting pays homage to nature, as his, “wooded valley” in which, “A mother bore a son,” is as ‘green;’ as innocent as the newborn babe. Her emphasis and deconstruction of the next three words, “She gave him,” referring to the child’s, “eyes most beautiful,” mystified us. What, after all, was the big deal? The big deal, she explained, was the gift of heritage the baby received at birth.
I recalled those three words recently when I read British author, Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, whose narrator, a baby in utero, declares himself, “a stately ship of genes, dignified by unhurried progress, freighted with my cargo of ancient information.” By this truth, birth is really what Wordsworth refers to as, “a sleep and a forgetting;” the passing on of ancient codes; yet brand new. A fresh start that is understood by anyone who has welcomed a newborn into the world.
Recently, my family subjected baby Theo, (unbeknownst to him!) our newest addition, to the ritual of studying, with delight, physical minutia, mannerisms and moods as we attempted to label each “parcel” on his “stately ship of genes,” accurately. “See that? Chocha Maria’s smile!” followed by, “Jamie’s, hair, though!” And finally, “Look! A furrowed brow! A philosopher! From whom?” The question was rhetorical. We glanced, in tandem, toward Andrij, Theo’s proud Tato. The night continued and as we took turns tending to Theo’s immediate needs as each of us, in our own way, prayed for a healthy, joy-filled life for our aptly named, “God given,” child.
Upon reflection, and as a result of my own motherhood, it is this respect that Pani Steciw was impressing upon us through the story of Shevchenko’s “Owl.” Shevchenko’s mother, desperate to keep her baby safe, appeals to all the saints and the Virgin Mary. She bathes him in periwinkle, sings him lullabies while rocking him to sleep, seeks prophecy from the cuckoo, daring to peer into the future hoping to glimpse only bounty characterized by, “a pleasant life in town,” with a “splendid bride…in bright red shoes and mantle green.” Her love strikes a universal chord of motherhood when she asks, “Is there on earth a son more fine/In all Ukraine?” She hopes, as do all mothers; that when her work is done, her child will flourish in a kind, peaceful world.
But this is Shevchenko whose admiration of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns is recorded in the new edition of Kobzar, 1847; and who, in The Artist, recognizes Byron, Dickens, Shakespeare and other champions of the downtrodden and the oppressed. They too would have pitied the owl mother who, “slaved and toiled to get her head tax paid;” who felt the injustice inherent in the corrupt military draft which found, “something wrong with,” the “rich men’s sons,” while, “her only son was just the army’s kind.” The balance of the poem is her heart-wrenching, undeterred search for her now adult son as she wanders the countryside asking, “Did you a lad espy, my son?” only to learn that “none had heard of him.”
The final stanza is profoundly sad, yet beautifully ironic. Children, in ignorance, “armed with sticks/after the widow howl/ along the street, and mockingly/call her – Owl! Owl! Owl.” She is indeed the owl; symbol of ancient wisdom and femininity and she knows what she has lost. Her spirit lives in Syrian refugee mothers who lug babies on their backs; in the ‘unwanted,’ Rohingya, persecuted and fleeing in search of ‘milk and honey,’ for their children. And it is the ‘owl’ spirit that inspired Stefan Bugryn’s documentary, “War Mothers” which narrates the courage of three Ukrainian mothers, Galina, Svetlana, and Yulia, of Zaporizhia, who, like Shevchenko’s owl, searched for their sons and whose losses called them to act in memory of their children, for their country and for their people. Theirs is the voice of reason, of sanity. Failure to work toward the promise of peace is lunacy.