Like a missing person it seems I will never find Ukrainian Christmas again. It is now almost gone completely, even from my memory. How to bring it back again? I can’t even find a real Ukrainian person to talk to. Like the ones I saw once in Ukraine, so long ago. Near a brook, in a meadow, in a forest, in the small thatched roof house where we took refuge from the rain, the young family priest playing an accordion… while his braided wife beamed and passed around the cherry wine…. and then the same priest again at the well one morning,… my mother said it was good luck… the scene like something from a Gogol story..I remember still the taste of homemade cherry wine….
Snow? There is no snow. It is forty degrees today and the irises seem to be rising from the fermenting ground, the daffodils are peeking out, in and out they have peeked now for a month and a half. Several irises bloomed last month in the park across the street. Large citron colored ones that looked good enough to eat. Everything around them looking almost wintry, because it was late autumn after all, and there they were, like something out of “Alice in Wonderland.”
There is no Christmas tree this year. Nor last year. Sad, because I love Christmas trees. More than people. They are lovelier to look at, smell better, make the house cozy and warm, add magic and mystery in a silent way like only deep forests can…..make me happy and transport me to other places, happier places, happier times. They don’t talk nonsense, yell, whimper, cry or complain. They just are. Beautiful, fragrant things that never need a bath.
Every morning I would turn theChristmas tree lights on, before I made the coffee, and later, cup in hand, sit and stare and smell, breathe every single needled pine from every forest on earth in every wild and silent place left, silent like a monastery in the clouds, where they bake good bread and tend their quiet gardens. All the Chartreuse in the world could not give me the exhiliration, the quiet thrill of that tree glowing as though with a thousand hearts, like gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and the lights… ruby reds and auburns, magentas, all the shimmering clarets and Bordeauxs in cut glass goblets, all the kissed lips under the crumbling mistletoes, the old and new, the shiny and tarnished golds of ancient Venetian masks, like a painted dowager forgetting what party she was going to.
Ah the smell of the Christmas tree, especially when it started to dry just a little….. slightly sweet, powdery, woodsy and piney like an old sacred forest…. and the antique elf ornaments, the faces impish, slightly wicked, half-smiling in the dark glinting corners of the tree, their sharply etched features like the Chinese man holding up my red lamp. More alive than me, beating like a throbbing heart, pulse pulse pulse goes the red flaming room like a fire that doesn’t hurt or scare, just warms you through and through, and scatters rose petals up the stairs that you follow to the dark and dreamy alcoved sanctuary of quiet dreams and peaceful sleep.
I made Ukrainian borscht with mushroom dumplings again. Like my mother did. But instead of a few hours it took two days. My only Ukrainian gesture. Because, it is just too hard to make the complete Christmas Eve dinner of twelve courses, or even seven or eight which my family once did. Too hard to make it right.
I am either too lazy, too unorganized, too Americanized, too materialistic, too lavish, too stupid or too thrifty… that it never works anymore. Making the hundreds of dumplings with different doughs that often are so stiff I break my back rolling out the sheets. Then after all that rolling, the dough still so stiff I have to take each individual dumpling square and roll it out three or four times until it is pliable enough to fill and seal with the savory mushroom filling.
Or the varenyky, the dough always works but the shape, the thickness the savoriness of the filling are always off. Too much salt not enough salt, not enough pepper, not enough cheese, too much dill too little dill, too much oil, not enough oil. This time it was the egg yolk. My aunt told me the yolks made the dough tough but I ignored her advice and put it in because the woman in the Ukrainian cookbook said so. It had to be authentic, but now I know it never will be, because I am not. The woman who wrote the cook book could put the yolk in and it would work, it was probably a pure yolk from a happy singing chicken who gladly gave up this yolk to make her Christmas Eve varenyky.
I no longer sing and dance when I cook. I swear and fume and storm around the kitchen like a whacked out stampeding elephant. Sometimes I swear so much I feel deeply ashamed, even though I am alone in the kitchen. I feel someone there watching. I almost hear her sad breath, see her swollen red puffed eyes….. Can’t you do this one thing this one thing with joy and gladness? Food does not taste delicious if you make it when you are angry or mean or cursing. Or, if your hands are not manicured and clean, if the floors are dirty or the windows and blinds dusty, if the bathrooms do not sparkle, if the beds are not made if the floors are not gleaming if the house is not flourishing with flowers and the tiny lights of the tree do not sparkle.
I started the kvas late…a mixture of fresh beets, coarse salt and sourdough bread that you start at least a solid week before making the borscht. It adds a deep bordeaux color and a tart slightly sourish taste. I made it 8:00 p.m. Sunday night the week before Christmas, so that meant I had to make the borscht on Christmas Eve. I used organic cheesecloth to cover the big punch bowl that I placed in the cold sunroom.
You have to tie the cheesecloth around the fermenting liquid with string. I had no string and looked up and down the house in every drawer, shelf, pantry and even in the medicine cabinets. How can a cook have no string? I finally used a rubber band but trying to get it around the wide punch bowl was hard and it kept snapping almost hitting me in my frowning screwed up face, landing in the red liquid and I had to fish it out. This organic cheesecloth got very frayed when you cut it, and little strings of cheesecloth fell into the liquid and I had to fish it out.
Christmas Eve. The week earlier I had lost my house keys while shoveling a foot of snow… for some reason I kept them under my gloved hand so as not to lose them. Dropped them somewhere in the overflowing banks of snow. I had left the door open so was not locked out, but I worried about the keys lying somewhere in front of the house. I spent an hour looking for them, retracing my steps, and digging up shovelfuls of snow along each and every path and throwing them up in the air to see if my rattling keys came tumbling down. Nothing. They may turn up in a squirrel’s mouth in spring. Soaking wet I longed for a hot bath and ran upstairs to find the hot water just tepid stepped inside the bath and took it cold… ran out with wet hair damp clothes and had lunch with friends and drank too much ate too much talked too much complained too much…..worrying about my keys… if only I could find my keys…
I have been sleeping late, am always tired and crabby, and nervous. From what? Nothing. I did nothing. I worried about my family, my job, the new government, (if you can call it that)… sickness and death, murders and mayhem again and again, and the weather always hovering above my head like a helicopter, a noisy, rattling mess of tubes and wires and iron and blades, screeching like some monster from the deep from the depths of heaven or hell something we made that will swallow us all up one day. With pride. That it got rid of the stupid little beings. Like those weird jumping spiders in the basement, they look like those flying killing machines in “The Terminator” or those mechanical Daddy long leg spider things in the B sci-fi flicks. Killer spiders, killer mosquitos, that is what I have flying around in my basement now. No one can tell me what they are… no one knows…. I know …they are tiny devils to make me insane…..
If only it would snow the trauma would be gone. Yes it would. If it snowed forever and buried this sad and sorry earth once and for all. Make it clean again.
I’m waiting for the handyman to come because I have an outside dripping faucet that won’t stop dripping water. I forgot to shut off the water supply to the outside faucet and now too late .. icicles forming on the house outside but not as icy white as those forming in my head my heart my soulless soul……. these fingers typing out these slanderous worlds are icicles too.
The borscht took hours to make Saturday, Christmas Eve. Four different pots of vegetables and stocks to cook and to run through sieves and the sieves are not fine enough so I run them through coffee filters and they drip drip so slowly into the bowls. The liquid from dried wild mushrooms are the worst. You have to rinse the mushrooms at least five times even after they are cooked… the cook book author does not tell you this but you have to do it otherwise there will be lots of sand and grit in every mouthful you take…. I rinsed them five times…. then the wild mushroom stock had to be sieved three times through coffee filters…..
Then, if you are not insane by the time all the liquids are sieved, the beets grated and put into the vegetable stock pot, and then drained gently so as not to cloud the broth, then you pour them all together like a witch like an alchemist like a crazy cook like a screaming vampire. The kitchen a magenta blur of bloody spots like a murder has just taken place…. and the borscht is in the red pot and it is the deepest darkest most gleaming ruby liquid it scares you… emerging from the dark cave of your culinary treasure troves of memory and lust and greed and dust and sadness and all the mad tears you cried over mom and dad and crazy long dead friends and lovers and cousins and sisters and murdered ones…
The pot is so heavy and the fridge upstairs broke down just in time for the holiday and you have to walk the fourteen steps down into the dank and deep basement filled with decades of books and food and records and CDs and tapes and diaries and notes and recipes and magazines and the Christmas ornaments and decorations and trees you forgot to bring up.
Forgot? How can you “Forgot”? Forgot. I forgot to make the kvas in time I forgot to go to church for midnight mass, I forgot to take the walk to see the hundreds of luminarias on the sidewalk on Christmas Eve I forgot to give to my favorite charity I forgot to make the flourless nut torte with the mocha frosting and I forgot to make the varenyky and I forgot to make the compote and I forgot to clean the house and I forgot to call my friends and I forgot to hold my tongue and I forgot to pray and I forgot to resole my boots and I forgot to shut the water off and I forgot forgot forgot my heart my head my mind my soul. Soulless. You can not have Ukrainian Christmas if you have no soul.
Wonderful writing as usual. I certainly could not go through all that palaver! Hats off to you for attempting it. I have never had a real Christmas tree and am not sure I would ever bother with one. You make it sound magical though.
I admire your transparency about how you feel but it also makes me sad because I hate to think of you hurting, or suffering anguish, or perhaps wishing you weren’t around. I hope the beauty of your imagination, your joy and appreciation of nature, good food and wine outweighs the lows of life.
May God keep and bless you O. May He minister the inner peace that transcends natural understanding and daily strengthen you mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually.