People often ask me what I’m up to in my own writing work, and I always have a few answers. Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to write a few pieces about my Ukrainian heritage. These are near and dear to my heart.
“A Jealous American Feminist: Ukrainian Women & the Roles They Occupy” published on Medium.com – April 8, 2014
which led to Project 2:
“The Untold Story” published in the Virginia Repertory Theatre playbill for “Other Desert Cities” – April/May 2014
which led to Project 3:
My latest work in progress is a new novel tentatively titled Nesting Dolls. Interested in a sneak peak?
This was the one about watching her uncle starve. Larissa could tell by the way her grandmother extended her frail hands in a show of begging with the jailers as she spoke. The children exchanged looks as their great-baba’s arms gestured through the air. Her white-blond hair was wiry and untamed. Her gold rings caught the morning light falling through the kitchen window, the skin on her fingers stained red from making borsht. Vira raised an imaginary gun at her child audience.
Larissa wanted to object more, but she was running out of options. Ira should have been here to help an hour ago, and she needed to pick up the flowers for her daughter’s party that started in three hours.
Anna’s sixth birthday had an English tea party theme. Hand-painted porcelain tea cups. Crumpets. Ivy. Wreaths of delicate flowers instead of party hats. Anything less would raise eyebrows from the other mothers. This, Larissa had learned.
A heavy Ukrainian sigh broke through the moment of silence. The children sat mesmerized. Half-terrified. “Soldiers arrested me when I tried to bring bread. Two big men. Blond giants. One had mole size of penny on forehead.”
Larissa picked up her keys, fidgeted with them for a moment in her hands, and said her good-byes. There were surely worse babysitters. Her youngest, a four-year-old boy, had wide anxious eyes. He loved these stories, but she knew it was a matter of time before there would be nightmares. How could there not be nightmares?
“Aunt Ira should be here any minute,” she said, making her voice light-hearted. “I’ll be back really soon.” No one in the room acknowledged her. On the rug by Vira’s feet, Anna wrung her hands with her freshly painted pixie-dust pink fingernails. Alex hugged his knobby knees in front of him.
“They forced me to ground and stole food I had hidden in my skirt.”
Larissa fidgeted with her keys again and reached for the doorknob. Her grandmother had toned down over the years. As a child, Larissa had heard much worse about that moment on the prison office floor. She closed the door as softly as she could.
The sidewalks of her neighborhood were occupied by the occasional stroller and casually mascaraed mom, hair perfectly blown-out, eyebrows perfectly plucked, and clothes the perfect combination of shabby chic couture. Larissa smiled and said hello to each of her peers, waving at every precocious toddler. The flower shop was only a few blocks away. She didn’t mind putting on her perfect-mommy face for the trip. It was a fair trade for the walk surrounded by the smell of fresh grass and suburban birdsong. She just wished her sister would show up. Ira’s relationship with time was the same as her relationship with men—loose and unpredictable.
Three blocks down the street, the ribbons festooning the shop’s window reminded her of the Ukrainian headdresses Vira had made for her as a child. Streaming colorful ribbons often accompanied the band of poppies, cornflowers, periwinkle, hollyhocks, and hops across the crown of her head. Tiny sunflowers too, maybe. She had always wanted ribbons all the colors of the rainbow. Ira had preferred just the Ukrainian yellow and blue.
Larissa had debated Ukrainian crowns for Anna’s party for just a moment before deciding against it. None of the other girls would know what to make of it. She didn’t want Anna’s party to be remembered as odd.
Vira had, of course, castigated her about the plan of the tiny rose-bud wreaths, but she bellowed about so many things these days. Larissa’s pinned-back ponytails. Anna wearing shorts and t-shirts for playdates instead of a dress. The lack of chores for the kids. Children playing inside instead of out on a sunny day. Vira’s own undebatable decision to go to Warsaw for a Ukrainian Folkdance exhibition.
Larissa’s ninety-one-year-old grandmother hadn’t been back to Europe since she had escaped it, widowed and infant in tow—that infant being Larissa and Ira’s mother. She needed to go back before she died, she said. She needed to watch Ukrainian dancing on soil where it made sense, even if it wasn’t Ukraine itself.
Larissa knew frowns made wrinkles. She tried to relax the muscles in her face to a more attractive arrangement as she walked into the flower shop. Mingled sweet and light fragrances surrounded her, reminding herself of today’s list: baby’s breath and tiny buds of pink roses. She had debated using fakes from the craft store, but they never came out as well. And it was Anna’s special day after all.
Flowers in hand, she thanked the clerk and returned to the crackless white sidewalks and manicured grassy lawns freshly trimmed by local lawn services. Heel, toe, heel, toe. The choreography of her blood simmered under her skin but remained hidden in her simple well-postured stroll. She had never been as excited as Ira about the Ukrainian dance classes they had taken as children, but she’d been good at it. She’d turned heads. She had danced and let every worry leave her head—at least until she realized that Ukrainian dance was a bit weird to the other kids at school.
Heel, toe, heel, toe. Larissa relaxed the wrinkles she felt forming on her forehead. The English garden scene she’d created in their backyard looked lovely from the little glimpse of it she could see from the sidewalk approaching her house. Very Beatrix Potter—though didn’t Beatrix Potter hate kids? She needed to think of a better comparison. She needed to take some pictures of it before guests arrived.
With two hours until the party and five hours until Vira needed to be at the airport, Larissa straightened the balloon-covered Happy Birthday flag by their front door before walking inside.
“I told them I was German citizen. I said ‘Heil Hitler’ and raised hand.” Vira sat in her favorite floral armchair with her thin boney legs propped up on an ottoman and her right hand raised in a Nazi salute. Anna and Alex still sat on the floor by her side. “If they knew truth, I’d just disappear. No one would know what happened to me.”
“Like magic, Baba?” asked Alex.
Larissa raised her eyebrows, willing Vira to turn her way. She didn’t.
“Tak, like magic,” Vera agreed solemnly, putting her veined hand on the little boy’s head.
“I don’t want someone to disappear me.”
“Then be good liar.”
Both children looked to their mom at these words. They’d heard her keys jangling in her fidgety hands.
“No one will make you disappear, little bug.” It was a nickname Alex had outgrown, but Larissa couldn’t help herself sometimes. She set her collection of flowers on the kitchen counter next to the eight naked grapevine wreaths that they would decorate. She made a note of Vira’s medications sitting in their crowded pill box that she would have to put away somewhere out-of-sight but not somewhere where it would be forgotten. “Who wants to get ready for a party?”
Vira leaned back into the chair, closing her eyes, bringing her red-stained hands to her wild hair that Larissa would soon have to remind her to tame. The children rushed their mother, and Larissa hugged them tightly, checking their faces as if she could read any childhood trauma in their souls. Anna ran her small fingers against the delicate rose petals. Alex pinched off a few blooms of baby’s breath before Larissa guided his hand away, directing the children outside, each with armfuls of decorations.
“Knowing how to lie can save life someday,” Vira added, eyes still closed. Larissa stopped in the threshold. The back patio door was open, and both children had already thankfully walked out. “It’s true for you too, Lala.”