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.

Surrounded by Love

My grandmother Parania died yesterday evening. She was 88 years old, and she was the remarkable matriarch of our Dudycz family.

I have been staring at those two sentences for the last several hours, not sure where to go after that.

Do I write about how she lived through WWII, left her home and family in Ukraine, met my grandfather and moved to America, lived an incredible life and raised six children while working nights?

Do I write about the large family holidays in her home, filled with food and laughter and so much love?

Do I write about the way she carried herself with the grace and presence of a queen, the way she radiated with pride when her sons and daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren succeeded? She knew that their joy and accomplishments were also hers because she was at the heart of it—along with my grandfather, she was the foundation of this strong, growing family.


Dudycz Family (Sophia’s Communion), 1954

That’s the key. Family was the most important thing to my baba, and nothing made her happier than to be surrounded by everyone she loved.

The Dudycz Family, 1979

For the last several months, her health had been failing, and my father and his siblings took turns caring for her and my grandfather. They would stop by each day on a revolving schedule, making sure that all their needs were being met.

When it became increasingly evident that she was dying, hospice was called in and many of the grandchildren stopped by to visit for what we knew could be the last time—to tell her we loved her and to be there for the woman who devoted her life to her family.

Baba 1987

The last time I saw Baba, they had already moved her bed (now a hospital bed) into the living room. She was bedridden, and it was hard to see her that way—she had always been up and about, cooking and baking, embroidering pillows, sewing clothes, bouncing babies on her knee. Two of my cousins were there when I arrived, and I was grateful because my older cousin, Chris, has the gift of chatter that I lack in situations such as that one.

My cousin talked to Baba with that big smile of hers, telling her all about the family bbq and the adventures of the youngest members of the family, our children, Baba’s great-grandchildren. At one point Chris said something about the girls in the family inheriting all their beauty from my grandmother, and Baba chuckled and smiled. It was the last time I heard her laugh, and it was a much quieter version of the robust laughter that would usually fill a room. But it was a laugh, a glimpse of the Baba that was trapped in that failing body. Her bright spirit still shone in her big blue eyes.

Birthdays at Baba’s, 1980

It was a gift, and I was grateful that Chris could share those anecdotes to make our Baba smile. When Baba got tired, we kissed her and told her we loved her, then moved to the kitchen to spend some time with our grandfather, our Dido. My Uncle and Father shared some stories about caring for their parents with a mixture of humor and honesty that is the norm in our family.

We talked and laughed, and it felt like we were in the right place at the right time. It felt good to fill that kitchen with love. That’s what my Baba always did. My father walked over to check on her, and Baba told him that she had a “beautiful family.”

I knew that she had felt the love in the house, in the kitchen, from our visit. I knew that it meant a lot to her not only to have us visit, but to have us together, to know that we would carry on together. No matter what. We had learned from her and my dido, and from our parents, the importance of family.

For as long as I can remember, Baba would tape the photos of her family to the kitchen wall. “Baba’s Wall” I called it in my head. At the kitchen table, she and Dido would eat with their growing family beside them. We were close to them, even when we were miles away.

Baba & Dido 1991

Throughout this process of dying, slow and uncertain as it was, I watched my father and his siblings devote their days and nights to care for their mother. I know this is not the norm in our modern age. I know that it’s not always possible, but for them, caring for their mother and father was not something to be handed off to others. She was their Mama, our Baba, and she gave us so much. How could they not make her feel cared for, safe, loved, and never alone? They did it with smiles and love, they supported one another when it got hard or painful, they were there for her and for each other. It is one of the most touching and inspirational things I have ever seen.

And in the end, after months of having her body fail, my Baba died held in the loving arms of her six children in a moment that my father (the youngest son) called beautiful and holy. I think it was exactly the way she would have wanted to go, engulfed in love by the children she raised and of whom she was so proud.

I learned so much from Baba Dudycz, and I’m sure that I’ll write more about it someday. There are those things we hold onto: the lessons and traditions we’ve learned, the memories we recall, the physical objects that tie us to someone who’s died. I will think of my Baba when I’ve made Easter babka from her recipe, when I spread her embroidery on the dining room table, when I add another photograph to my own wall.

Baba Making Varenyky 1992

This week we will gather together to bury her, and it will be hard. But we will have each other, and I have no doubt that she will be there as we honor her memory, as we share stories, as we laugh and cry. Together. Her “beautiful family.”

Vichnaya Pamyat. (Eternal Memory.)

Baba, I love you.

The Things We Hold On To

I have been fortunate to meet and get to know quite a few writers who have had a profound influence on me and my work. I’m grateful for each and every exchange. (I once received a phone call from poet Louise Glück that left me shaken in the parking lot of the grocery story because I was so taken by surprise to hear her voice.)

I believe in telling the people in my life whom I love and admire how much they mean to me, and I also believe in telling the writers and artists I admire how much their work means to me. Kyle Cassidy has written repeatedly about this in his blog, and I agree with him.

When I am on the receiving end of an email or tweet about my work, I am so appreciative and touched. So much of the time we write alone. To hear from the “audience” is a rare gift.

Photograph: Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis

I sent Ray Bradbury a fan letter back in 2010. I wanted to thank him for his stories, for the joy and inspiration, for the thrills and magic.  After talking with a friend and fellow-Bradbury fan, I included a copy of my much-loved and tattered copy of Dandelion Wine. I was reluctant to part with it, but excited at the possibility that he might sign it.

The problem was that I forgot to include my self-addressed stamped envelope. I didn’t realize this until I returned from the post office and saw it sitting on my table. I quickly drafted another letter and stuffed the envelope inside.

He never returned my copy. I suppose it was tossed aside due to its lack of SASE. However, a few weeks later, I did receive this:

Although sad to be missing my beloved Dandelion Wine, I was pleased to know that he had read my letter. I hadn’t read his story, “Juggernaut” at the time, and sought it out immediately. (You can read it here.)

I was a little upset when I saw the envelope, however. I thought that my youngest daughter (three-years-old at the time) had scribbled all over it. I nearly threw it in the trash. I’m not sure why I kept it.

I put it aside in the “to be framed someday” pile. I still haven’t gotten around to that large pile, and after Ray died, I went back to it. I looked more closely at the paper, which must have come from his printer. I liked the thought that it came from his working space, from the place where he created his amazing stories.

Reading another essay about Ray at the time, someone mentioned the doodles he often drew to accompany his signature. Curious, I googled and found a few examples. Like this one:


and this one:

That’s when I realized it had not been my daughter’s scribble, but Ray’s!

Many who knew Ray Bradbury have written beautiful, heartfelt tributes:

By his biographer and friend, Sam Weller.

By his friend Neil Gaiman.

Mark Evanier, recounting his meeting with Ray as a teen.

My grandmother is dying, and because I cannot yet bring myself to write about her, I’m writing about Ray.

I like that I have this envelope and printer sheet of Ray’s, a small link to him and his work. I need to purchase that paperback of Dandelion Wine again. I’d like to reread it, but I want the same edition. I’ve grown attached to the cover.

When someone dies, we often want to keep the connection somehow, to remain tethered in some way. We do it with photographs, letter, articles of clothes. We do it with books and art, with songs and videos. We use the tools they used: a wooden spoon, a pen, a guitar pick, a thimble. We put on their perfume or drink their favorite beer. We try to remember. It’s hard to let go.

I guess I’m not just writing about Ray.