Spiders and Straw

DidoDWe just passed the milestone of 40 days after my Dido’s death. In Ukrainian tradition, this is the time when his spirit moves on to the afterlife, to join my Baba.

Last month, my father and his siblings had to go about the responsibility of preparing my grandparent’s house to be sold.

I’ve grown up with a rich cultural legacy and many family stories, but we never had family “treasures” like other kids I knew. My grandparents left Ukraine during WWII, and they brought very little with them from the Displaced Persons Camps. There were no antiques: no great-grandmother’s rocking chair, no ancestral bible, no great-uncle’s violin.

When my father went into politics and began to acquire a few mementos of historical or cultural significance, it was a big deal for us. These were keepsakes–a word almost reverent because it was rare and new.

My parents would say: Look, here is a photo with the President; you’ll be able to show your kids someday. Here’s a statue your father was given; it will be yours someday.

It was never about acquiring things; it was about building a legacy, something my grandparents had not been able to bring over with them.

However my grandparents, like many of their generation, made up for the lack of keepsakes with the things they themselves made and the rich oral tradition they kept shared. This group of Displaced Persons came to Chicago and built/painted/sewed/baked/engineered with their hands. They created museums, built camps, cultural centers, restaurant, shops, renovated homes, planted trees and flowers. We have a Ukrainian Village in Chicago because of their handiwork (as well as the work of those who came before and after). They got their hands dirty to make a very real foundation–they were crafting a future that connected with their roots.

My sister and I went back to visit my Baba and Dido’s house with my father a few weeks after my Dido died. When we walked in, all the signs of his hospice were gone. On the table and countertops were objects to be disposed of or given to goodwill if no one in the family wanted them. Most of the things were practical everyday objects (kitchen tools for a woman who loved to cook and bake for her friends and family, silverware and dishes from years of entertaining guests) as well as Ukrainian treasures, those things they acquired in Chicago or were given as gifts: wooden handmade vases and plates, paintings and prints, ceramic art and dishes, pysanky, and probably the most precious: those things made by my Baba’s own hands: her embroidery, her pillows and handkerchiefs, her pavuky (straw mobiles).

I felt compelled to have something my Baba used in the kitchen, something she would have used all the time that I could also use: a rolling pin, a cookie cutter, as well as a set of four wine/cordial glasses. My Dido loved to garden, and so from the garage I have a gardening hoe that he made.

It was an odd experience, going through their things in such a way. It got me thinking about what we acquire in our lives and our homes, what we will will leave behind, what we really need.

This week my aunts and cousins came over to teach me and my kids how to make a traditional Ukrainian “pavuk.” As long as I can remember, my Baba had these strange straw mobiles hanging in her home.

Baba's Pavuk
Baba’s Pavuk in the yard.

I think because they were made with drinking straws and blue and red yarn (or whatever colors she had on hand), I assumed it was a craft she came up with on her own. Then a few years ago, my aunt told me that the “pavuk” is actually an ancient Ukrainian tradition. Using drinking straws and yarn was my Baba’s spin on the traditional handicraft, because actual straw was not readily accessible in Chicago. I loved learning from them, and I was so grateful that they had learned from her.

Cutting straws for the Pavuk.
Cutting straws for the Pavuk.

It turns out this handicraft is in danger of dying out in Ukraine. Like so many others, it’s an old ritual that’s being forgotten. Traditionally, the straw was taken from the final harvest, like the straw collected for the didukh (a bundled sheaf of wheat that embodies the spirit of the ancestors and the reminds us of Mother’s Earth’s bounty).

Cousins learning how my a Pavuk.

The Pavuk (“spider”) is a mobile that would also be crafted from straw. It would be hung in the home for the winter season. Out of the chaos of these random pieces of straw , they would cut and craft diamond shapes strung together to make a delicate hanging mobile. Some say the name comes from patterns like a spiderweb, others saw that the hanging mobiles themselves are like giant spiders. Either way, it’s a wonderful name and tradition, since spiders are cherished in Ukrainian culture as messengers, harbingers of good fortune.

Pavuk made from straw.

The pavuk would absorb the negative energies and then get burned on the Feast of the Epiphany. Some believed that they should be left hanging in the home to attract good luck for the family. Some moved it to the barn to bring fortune and health for the animals. Either way, the pavuk reminded the family of the bounty of the harvest through the cold winter days.

Our ancestors wanted to bring beauty into the home, and so they did so by adorning their objects (sacred or everday) with symbolic beauty: inlaid wood or carvings, embroidery, or painting. They also crafted gorgeous objects out of gifts from the natural world, like straw and wood. Objects of hope in times of darkness.

Pavuk made by the cousins, 2013.

Winter has historically been a time when people turned inward, became more contemplative. With snow on the ground, they could not toil in the fields or hunt in the woods. They were forced to remain indoors, living off all they had preserved, spending their time making things for Spring, telling stories, playing games, remembering. The land appeared dead or asleep, and starvation was a real threat. All around them were signs of how fragile life can be.

I wonder if many of us are so busy and detached from nature that we forget about how fragile life is and how natural death is?

This Winter I have been less social than usual. I’ve had a a few adventures (and I’ll write about in the next blog entry), but I’ve spent more time in the house with the kids, quiet time with family and friends rather than large parties and robust celebrations.


Hanging in the air is a feeling of solemnity rather than celebration. It’s not sadness exactly, but it’s reverence–an awareness that our lives are changing, that we are shifting into a new chapter. The matriarch and patriarch of my father’s family are now our ancestors. My father and his siblings are the heads of their respective households. The legacy is being passed down in stories and keepsakes. We say their names and share their stories to remember, we use their mug or rolling pin or favorite vase to feel closer to them.

There’s also something else, at least for me. I think with my Baba and Dido dying, I feel my own mortality a little more. It makes me think about whom and what I will leave behind, the stories yet untold, the lessons I hope to impart, the objects I will pass along, the things I make with my hands.

After this past year, death feels more intimate. I now have friends and family on the other side, and I plan to keep the connections strong. In Ukrainian we say Vichnaya Pamyat, which means Eternal Memory. What is remembered, lives on forever.

So I put up their photos, and I talk to them. My father visits the cemetery and brings flowers, blessed bread from church, a kiss. Several of us cousins carry Baba’s handkerchiefs in our pockets and purses. Our children hug their Pra-Baba’s (great grandmother’s) embroidered pillows at night and look for Baba and Dido to visit in their dreams. We share stories, and we teach each other the lessons we have learned from them.

We remember.

Published by Valya

Valya Dudycz Lupescu has been making magic with food and words for more than 20 years, incorporating folklore from her Ukrainian heritage with practices that honor the Earth. She’s a writer, content developer, instructor, and mother of three teenagers. Valya is the author of MOTHER CHRISTMAS, THE SILENCE OF TREES, and the founding editor of CONCLAVE: A Journal of Character. Along with Stephen H. Segal, she is the co-author of FORKING GOOD: An Unofficial Cookbook for Fans of The Good Place and GEEK PARENTING: What Joffrey, Jor-El, Maleficent, and the McFlys Teach Us about Raising a Family (Quirk Books), and co-founder of the Wyrd Words storytelling laboratory. Valya earned her MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and her poetry and prose have been published in anthologies and magazines that include, The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, Kenyon Review, Culture, Gargoyle Magazine, Gone Lawn, Strange Horizons, Mythic Delirium. You can find her on Twitter @valya and on Mastodon.social @valya

7 thoughts on “Spiders and Straw”

  1. Maura Henn says:

    I’m a little sheepish to admit after all this time I have yet to finish “The Silence of Trees”–but in the last weeks I have picked it up again, and I am very happy I have the story to come back to because now, a few years of friendship building around us, I really understand so much more about what is written in its pages.

    For those of us who come from beginnings without the blessing of family tradition, your words remind me its never to late to begin our own.

  2. Irene Slusarenko says:

    Thank you Valya for such insight. My parents and mother-in-law are still with us, and I will go to NY next week to visit mine. Difficult time of our lives to experience aging first hand. My children will feel some of your sentiments, although their grandparents were so far we only visited a few times/year til they went off to college and now live their own lives separately as well.You are lucky to have a large extended family and continue to grow. Good luck to you and yours, and know that our thoughts are with you.

  3. Hanusia Chychula says:

    Valya – Thank you so much for capturing the sentiment and significance of those talismans (for lack of a better word) that were uniquely my mother’s and your grandmother’s. In this terrible journey in our year of grim “firsts”, it’s a good reminder that honoring family traditions keeps those who we have loved, and lost, alive within us. Vichnaya Pamyat Mama and Tato. Hanusia

  4. ava mahieu says:

    I was very gad to find your site
    I lost my Dido, too, he was Protopresbyter Wsewolod Shemetylo
    I live here in NYC……
    Our family history is very like yours. It’s important to keep traditions going….
    I like your spider very much !
    I did not know about this tradition…it is very beautiful.
    I’m making paintings/multimedia art using Ukrainian traditional motifs…..and trying to help Dads legacy stay alive by singing the old hymns and sharing them with others……God Bless You and stay strong….it is so hard to lose your loved one.
    Thanks for your site
    Ava In NYC

  5. Susan Monks says:

    Beautiful! God bless you for penning this blog.

  6. Anna Olshansky says:

    Thanks for sharing your story about your family and Ukrainian traditions. My Dad was from the Ukraine and came to Wales as a displaced person. Our family have a version of the Ukrainian meal on 6th December like a Sviaty Vechir. I have been making the Diduk and spiders for the family and this year I will attempt a Pavuk. Best wishes from Wales Anna

  7. Valya says:

    Hi, Anna! Thank you for stoping by and for your note. Good luck and Veselyh Sviat!

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