Friday, April 2, 2010
My father's family is Ukrainian in background, and even though my father and his siblings are second generation Canadians, their Ukrainian heritage shows through, especially around the holidays. After all, the number one way we stay in touch with the Ukrainian in us is by eating, and there is no better way to celebrate. Cabbage rolls and borscht, dill buns and perogies, creamy mushroom gravy and the best quality kolbasa... Dinner time is a good time to be Ukrainian.
When Andrew and I were dating, the first holiday I spent with his family was Easter. As his parents live a good 14 hour drive from us, I knew that if we spent Easter with them, it would mean missing my family Easter dinner back home. Missing dinner represented missing my check in with my Ukrainian side, so I devised a way to take Ukrainian Easter with us. Before we left home, we stopped by Oseredok, the Ukrainian cultural centre here in Winnipeg. I went in search of a Ukrainian Easter egg to bring to Andrew's parents as a gift, but though the cultural centre was lovely in many respects, it was completely free of real Psyanky. They only had the painted wooden eggs, which is as much Psyanky as margarine is butter.
Not knowing where else to look, I called my former employer at Sevala's Ukrainian Deli. I had worked as a dishwasher at their Ukrainian buffet when I was in high school, and I knew that he had his finger on the pulse of all things Ukrainian in Winnipeg. "Where can I find a real Ukrainian Easter egg?" I asked him. "Todaschuk Sisters," he confidently replied. Um, who?
I found them in the phone book, and called for the store hours. "What time are you open?" I asked, when a women answered the phone. "When are you coming?" was the unexpected answer. Feeling a little on the spot, I suggested a time later that day, and Andrew and off drove off in search of Todaschuk Sisters' Ukrainian Boutique.
Located in an old part of town, the boutique is delightfully unusual. An awning stretches the length of the store front, above the windows. The store itself is tiny, just a squarish room with a display case on one side serving as the cash desk. There aren't really any shelves, no traditional store displays of any kind. Instead, there is a Christmas tree in the middle of the room, hung with ornaments for sale, and lengths of traditional red beads. There is another display case on the wall adjacent to the front window, filled and piled high with candles, dishes, embroidered tea towels, floral wreaths, candy dishes. More goods are in piles everywhere you turn, and there is really only enough room to circle the tree single file as you shop. Here is a photo of the Pope, there is a fridge magnet, here a display of postcards, there a teapot.
In the back of the shop you see a sewing machine, and rolls and rolls of woven trims for making traditional Ukrainian costumes. There is also a hairdresser's chair, and the faint smell of permanent solution fills the air. Then you notice the stairs. They lead upstairs, to where the shop owner lives with her husband. And now let us talk of Sylvia Todaschuk, the wonderful lady who finally had my authentic Ukrainian egg.
Standing behind her overflowing display case, this smiling women peers over her glasses at us. An egg? Of course, she has them. She reaches into the depths of her case, and resurfaces with a basket full of eggs. I pick one up, and it is heavy in my hand. They aren't blown, or boiled, she explains to me. Eggs are left just as they are found, because an egg is life, and if you destroy the life, the symbolism is lost. Cash or cheque, there is no automated debit or credit card machine here.
Sylvia stands and talks to us in the unhurried manner of an old friend. She is not worried about getting back to anything, and doesn't pressure us to buy anything other than our one humble egg, but I pick up a postcard anyway. We thank her and head on our way, and the egg survives its 14 hour drive to Calgary a few days later.
On Thursday, Andrew, Nik and I went to again to buy this year's pysanky. We have bought one for every Easter we've been married. This year brought our fifth egg, and we talked with Sylvia as Nik ran around the tree in the center of the shop. "He's being so good," she crooned, and ran upstairs to get him a treat.
They are moving their store soon, she told us, to a new location downtown. They will no longer live in the room above the shop. The end of an era, I think. But we will find her in her new store next year, anyway, because we know she will always have our pysanky, our eggs of life.