Each year, Mother’s Day in May gives us pause to recognize and show gratitude to the person that undoubtedly has played the most important role in shepherding each one of us through the minefield of infancy and youth to the hopeful maturity of adulthood. For most mothers, it is a grueling and often thankless process that those of us of the masculine gender have little hope of understanding, let alone emulating.
For Ukrainian mothers, there has also historically been the added challenge that they were often forced by fate and circumstance to shoulder all the burdens of raising children and providing for the necessities of life in the absence of husbands and fathers, who were off defending their land and who often perished in the endless series of invasions and wars that have characterized most of Ukraine’s history. They needed to match the strength and bravery of their Kozak mates with their own brand of fortitude and endurance in the face of the unkind fate inflicted upon Ukraine by historical circumstance.
Ukrainian history is replete with shining examples of such determined women. Foremost of these was Olha, now known as St. Olha, grandmother of the great Ukrainian prince and ruler of Kyiv Rus, Volodymyr the Great. In 903 AD, Olha married Ihor, the then ruler of Kyiv who loosely ruled over the various Slavic tribes of the early Kyivan Rus empire. While on a tax gathering expedition, Ihor was ambushed and killed by a rebellious Slavic tribe called the Drevlians. As Ihor’s son and heir Svyatoslav was only three years old at the time, Olha took over as regent in his stead. The Drevlians then proposed to Olha that she marry their Prince, thereby putting them in charge of the Rus empire.
A lesser woman might have succumbed to what was then considered the reasonable thing for a woman in her position to do, but she was made of sterner stuff. She rallied her people around her, raised an army, and through wile, cunning and personal bravery, obliterated the Drevlians, razing their capital to the ground. She then continued to rule effectively and wisely until her son Svyatoslav was able to take over the reins of power when he reached adulthood. She is probably best remembered as the first Ukrainian ruler to become a Christian, presumably as the legend goes, being baptized by the Emperor Constantine in Constantinople in 945 AD.
There are of course more contemporary examples, and particularly here in Canada. When the first Ukrainian pioneers settled in the remote expanses of our Prairies, conditions were primitive and harsh to say the least. For the first few years, they were often forced to live in hastily constructed mud huts or shacks, until they could clear the land for agriculture. Often, the men would be gone for long periods of time working in lumber camps or on the railways, trying to earn some money to carry them through until they could bring in some crops. The burden of looking after the homestead, while at the same time raising the typical large brood of kids, fell on the mothers. The hardships and struggles of that time beggar the imagination, and the biggest load arguably, fell upon the women.
My own mother was a shining example of this type of strength and grit. I can remember the primitive living conditions of our first house in a little mining town in norther Quebec. There was no indoor plumbing and the heating and cooking was done on a wood burning stove. Later when we moved to a farm in the Niagara peninsula, the amenities had improved considerably, yet my mother still had to juggle the multiple responsibilities of cooking, housekeeping, the never-ending toil that the farm required, as well as looking after our two cows and chickens, not to mention three rambunctious children. Regrettably, I took all this superhuman effort for granted at the time, and was not able to truly appreciate it until long after she was gone.
I am reminded of a conversation I once had about mothers with my cousin Hryts from the bucolic little burg of Pidkamin in Western Ukraine. We reminisced warmly about our departed mothers, and as we waxed nostalgic, he remarked quite forcefully, that there was no doubt that his mother was the greatest Ukrainian mother that had ever lived.
“And why is that?” I asked him with my usual naive curiosity.
“Why the answer is quite obvious, my dear young turnip” he replied with a chuckle.
“No one else would have been able to put up with the ‘smarkach’ (loud, arrogant, snotty-nosed kid) that I was when I was young!”
Indeed! If your mother is still around, take the time to express your sincere gratitude that she put up with you all those years.