A Girl, Her Baba and Their Eggs
This is a story about Easter. This is a story about making pysanka with my Baba. It was also one of my first published essays as a writer. (Notice the distinct lack of colourful language and f-bombs.)
Baba spreads the classified ads across the oilcloth on the kitchen table. I slide my hand beneath the cloth and feel the bubbled blister on the veneer surface of the table. Baba had to beat the flames out with a wet towel. I love the feel of this scar, chipped into the table by my childhood carelessness.
She places beeswax and a candlestick on the yellowing newspaper while I read the job listings from last summer. She sets the Eaton’s box on the table and I rummage through it, assessing our supplies. I strike a wooden match and light the candle as Baba returns from the fridge with a carton of eggs. Twelve clean canvasses.
Baba taught me the tradition when I was five years old.
I wanted to transform boring chicken eggs into the delicately patterned and coloured spheres that adorned the display case in Baba’s kitchen. As a little girl, I tried to copy Baba’s patterns. My tiny hand scraped the metal tip of the kiska across the smooth, clean surface of the egg, leaving a crooked trail of wax, punctuated with unwanted black blobs.
Baba would finally pull my egg from the black dye and melt the wax to reveal a mess of shapes and colour. “Well, at least the chicken won’t recognize it,” she said.
Sometimes I would spend an entire day on an egg and then have it slip through my fingers and splatter on the floor. Baba would clean up the slimy yolk from the egg and wipe the tears from my face with the same rag.
One afternoon we concentrated so hard on our eggs that the candle ignited the newspaper and the kitchen table caught fire. Baba crushed all of our eggs swatting at the fire with a tea towel. All we had to show for ourselves that year were a blistered table and colourful bits of eggshell, which Baba later used as bingo chips.
We discuss everything from sponsorship scandals to soap operas, we debate the demise of Eaton’s and the rise of the MTS Center, and she recounts stories from her childhood. Our moods and conversations can be traced in the patterns and colours of the eggs.
Over the past two years, Baba’s world has become smudged and murky. The doctors have confirmed that she is losing her eyesight. The crisp lines on her eggs have become wobbly as her patterns are disturbed by her looming blindness.
Last year by sheer coincidence, her egg found a place next to mine in the display case beside an egg I had made as a little girl. In the mess of colour, our eggs looked perfect. But closer inspection revealed that blobs of unwanted wax and meandering lines marred both. The determined efforts of a young child and a woman going blind.
I watch Baba out of the corner of my eye. She begins to draw a wax line around the circumference of her egg. I was moved by her concentration and need to connect the start and end point. I can see her line veering to the left; these points will never connect.
Her hand arrives back at the other side of the egg to the left of where she began. She abruptly sets down the egg and kiska.
“Well, I guess that’s it for me. I can’t see.” She does not mean that she is done for the day. She will not make them anymore.
“Why don’t you try and finish?” I ask her. “You always told me to make the eggs part of the design.”
“That’s because you’d waste so many goddamn eggs. You take a new egg every time you made a mistake. My chickens couldn’t lay them fast enough.”
The traditional patterns of her eggs and her life have been disturbed. We both know that I will have to carry this tradition forward alone. The stories and memories, mixed with the dye are preserved in the eggs, vibrant and colourful – a Ukrainian map of our relationship.
This is kind of a sad story, but this year I started the Ukrainian Easter egg painting tradition with my own two children. So, it sort of has a happy ending. They drop a lot of eggs and make big messes and I'm pretty sure my Baba told them to do that.
*This essay was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press - April 12, 2004. There was this incredible editor, Margo Goodhand, who took chances on new writers and she probably ignited a whole lot of writing careers.