My children have been born in four different cities on two continents under four sets of very different circumstances. Of all my births to date, I was the most nervous before the last one, my fourth baby.
Unlike the United States, Ukraine does not have many dark-skinned people, or Asians, for that matter. It's a fairly homogenous white society, which means that anyone of non-European descent stands out and might be exposed to ridicule, or worse. However, although I'm half Japanese, I've been fortunate.
I have not experienced any racism here. Until recently.
I love lasagna.
No, that sounds too trite.
I adore lasagna.
My earliest memories of this comfort food are from my grandma making it. Even though she was something of a health nut and always prepared nutritious meals, lasagna was something she did well. Her method was simple. She'd layer the pre-cooked noodles in a casserole dish with her savory meat spaghetti sauce, cottage cheese, and shredded mozzarella. Knowing her, I'm sure the cottage cheese and mozzarella were low-fat varieties, but the result was always delicious.
Once I moved overseas and set up housekeeping on my own, it wasn't long before I wanted to try my hand at making my own lasagna. But I couldn't find lasagna noodles. Or cottage cheese. Or a decent mozzarella that didn't cost an arm and a leg. So I set about experimenting and substituting. Thankfully, my husband is a good sport about such things and offered me valuable feedback. (Usually some form of, "This tastes great, Sweetie!") I discovered several delicious combinations that, while not strictly lasagna, satisfied my craving for my favorite food. I found that I could toss cooked pasta with my own savory tomato and meat sauce, curds, and a shredded hard cheese and bake it all in a casserole dish for something that had the taste (if not the texture) of lasagna. I also experimented with replacing the lasagna noodles with cooked brown rice and layering the rice and other ingredients for something that was more reminiscent of true lasagna. At the height of the summer produce bounty, I also discovered that I could use sliced zucchini and eggplant in place of lasagna noodles for a surprisingly delicious and satisfying meal.
And then the economic crisis hit Ukraine.
One afternoon not too long ago my husband and I were on a date. All we were doing was sitting on a park bench talking, but since we didn't have the kids with us, it felt like a holiday. One nice thing about being out and about without kids is the ability to people watch, and on this day we saw something fascinating. It was a mother with three daughters about the same ages as our three sons. (That would be 5, 3, and 1, for those of you keeping score.) She parked her stroller by a bench, let her toddler out, then sat down and opened a book.
I just had an epiphany. Why is it that it bothers me when guests drop by unexpectedly, and I haven't had a chance to clean the apartment beforehand? I've never questioned the embarrassment that fills me as I hastily move piles of unfolded laundry to make room on the couch, while clearing toys off the floor by kicking them toward the wall, before I run to the bathroom to make sure that no one has peed on the floor or left traces of poop in the toilet bowl since the last time I was in there. I've never questioned that embarrassment, until today. After all, what in the world have I got to be embarrassed about? I have three preschool boys at home, for crying out loud! Of course my home is a perpetual mess! Who am I trying to fool?
And that's when I had my epiphany.
We recently had lunch at the home of a friend. When we entered she told us that we didn’t need to take off our shoes, because her floor wasn’t very clean. She said this matter-of-factly, without a hint of embarrassment or apology. When we still removed them because we felt awkward about wearing shoes inside, she suggested that we don houseslippers. We did, and she immediately gave us a tour of her house, making us feel at home. We enjoyed a leisurely lunch while our kids and her 5-year-old son played inside and out in the expansive yard.
The house and grounds boasted two cats, three kittens, one dog, a pen of chickens, and two flocks of geese, including a bunch of goslings. After we finished eating, our hostess showed us her chickens and collected ten eggs to send home with us, then she walked us to her vegetable garden, where she harvested some radishes and green onions for us. It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, and we didn’t mind her dirty floors one bit. As we were leaving, she said something that has stuck in my mind.
I remember one evening when my sister and I were young. We were staying with our grandparents for the summer, and Grandpa was to put us to bed while Grandma was out at a church function. But after we got ready for bed and had climbed the stairs to the loft where we slept, instead of tucking us in, praying with us, and rubbing our backs as he usually did, Grandpa said, "Let's make a memory." I asked what that meant, and he explained that it meant doing something with people you love so that you could look back and remember it later.
Yesterday we had seven children at our home. Five boys and two girls. Ages 1, almost 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I wish I had taken a picture, but I was so busy trying to keep order, cook, and retain a semblance of internal calm that it never entered my mind that the experience might make a good blog post and I would need pictures. The almost-2-year-old, 4-year-old, 6-year-old, and 7-year-old belonged to another family, and their parents were out of town for the day, so my husband and I got to practice large-family parenting skills for twelve hours. I'm so grateful that my husband was around to help out, because I'm not really good with kids.
My mother-in-law, who is mom to nine children and one of the wisest women I know, is fond of saying that since God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble, she wants to be a humble person, because she knows just how much she needs God's grace. I'm with her 100% on that one . . . except that I'm not naturally a humble person.
It’s a beautiful spring day here in Western Ukraine. Nevermind that the temperature is hovering right around freezing–the sky is blue, and the sun is bright. It seems appropriate, as here in the Eastern Orthodox world, we’ll be celebrating Easter this coming Sunday, April 15. But as much as I love the celebration of Christ’s victory over death, this week always has the capacity to fill me with guilt. That’s because this Thursday is Chystyy Chetver, or “Clean Thursday,” in English. You see, at some point in the history of the Orthodox Church, someone decided that it was a sin to have a dirty home on the day of Christ’s crucifixion, and the tradition of Clean Thursday was born. This week Ukrainian women will labor feverishly to ensure that their homes are spotless by Good Friday, with the majority of this spring cleaning taking place on Thursday. If you took a walk in our neighborhood this Thursday, I guarantee that you’d see many people busy washing their windows. In fact, as I sit here typing, I can see one industrious neighbor already hard at work on hers, and it’s only Tuesday.
To help you understand my guilt, I have to let you in on a secret. I don’t do windows. I don’t mean that I dislike window washing or that I’m too lazy to do it or even that I’m too busy to make it a priority, although perhaps all those statements have an element of truth. No, what I mean is that at some point after having children, I made a calculated decision to stop washing windows. I still clean up the little fingerprints and wet nose art that appear on the inside of our windows, but I only wash the outsides of windows that open into our apartment or give onto a balcony, and in our current living situation, those surfaces comprise only about 50% of the total area of windowpanes. As for the other 50%? Well, I guess I just count on summer thunderstorms to keep them clean enough that they won’t become a complete eyesore.
Why do I do this?