Pages from an Old Book

I never met my great-grandmother, Olena. At least, not that I recall. My mother says that she brought me to see her, but I must have been only a few months old, and then a year later Olena slipped on a rubber mat and died of a heart attack. The house where she lived was sold.

olena's book

We are a family short on artifacts and rich on stories. It’s hard to accumulate anything when fate has consigned you to live in a strip of land that sees one invader after another. In Olena’s life she experienced several revolutions, two wars and two famines. My world was turned upside down simply by traveling in the areas of Ukraine touched by war in 2014, so I can’t imagine what it would have been like to live through the kind of hardship that Olena experienced. According to my mother, Olena coped by writing. Cooking and writing.

Stories about Olena, her books and her food are part of our family lore. Less clear are the details on the more mundane elements of her life–who were her parents and siblings. “Manuscripts don’t burn,” wrote Bulgakov in the Master and Margarita, but records, oh how easily do they burn and vanish. (Years later I would find traces of her family in declassified NKVD archives, mentions of them losing property, of the whole family being blacklisted either for being of the wrong religion or for having one cow too many.) In the few photographs that I have of Olena, I see a short, stocky brunette with a serious look in her eyes. She was my grandfather’s mother, a young woman from a reasonably affluent family who married against her parents wishes. Alexei had nothing much to recommend him apart from his handsome face. Even in the faded sepia photographs I can see the glint in his eyes and the seductive potential of his smile. How could a bookish, sheltered girl resist his advances–or any other women around him?

Olena worked for a guild weaving carpets and making embroideries, which was nationalized as the factory of Clara Zetkin–the lack of connection between a German Marxist and Ukrainian rugs didn’t bother the Communists. We have some of Olena’s creations, including runners decorated with roses and birds, chemises with lacy inserts and embroidered pillow covers. But the most interesting memento is her stack of notebooks.

At first she hand bound the books, using whatever sheets of paper she could find. Later she wrote in school notebooks or empty address books, filling out any available space with angular handwriting. There are cooking notes, beauty recommendations, diet tips–excessive weight appears to be her constant concern–and observations on any topic at all. “Don’t keep your emotions inside, they will corrode you,” she writes. And then adds, “But what if you can’t share them?” Sometimes she goes back and crosses out whole passages, commenting “I was wrong about this.” It’s a conversation with oneself. Sometimes I feel like a voyeur glimpsing such private thoughts.

The recipes are the most fascinating part, especially considering the place and time when Olena wrote them. They are extraordinary in their richness and decadence. The Soviets have much to answer for, not least of all the vulgarization of traditional cuisines in the regions they controlled. Olena’s elegant recipes are a remarkable contrast to the Soviet dining experience–forgotten Ukrainian specialities, multilayered cakes flavored with rose jam, almond biscuits, fresh salads, elaborate roasts and fish soups. For much of my Soviet childhood this was the stuff of fairy tales, completely out of reach during a time when the only food easily available at stores was canned seaweed salad and buckwheat groats.  And here my great-grandmother writes about rosewater, saffron and real vanilla beans.

My mother recollects dinners at Olena’s as the height of gourmet delight; even though she cooked with simple ingredients like potatoes, root vegetables or cereals, Olena could add an unexpected touch or experiment with a novel combination. Her potatoes were roasted with wild thyme. Tiny sardines, which most people bought for cats, were stewed with tea leaves and onions until they tasted smoky. She made carrot cakes and zucchini bread before such things became popularized by healthy living advocates. As for the dishes beyond her means, she recorded them. Was she trying to preserve memories of her childhood? Was it her own private rebellion against a life in which she couldn’t share all of her thoughts freely? I will never know. I can only recreate her recipes and imagine that perhaps this was her intention all along. To share. To feed. To be remembered.

P.S. In telling a story my mother described Alexei as the former soldier, but working with my family archive, I see that a former soldier in Nicolas II’s private guard was a different Alexei, my maternal great-grandfather. Olena’s Alexei was also quite a handsome man, and both Alexeis died tragically and at a relatively young age, so the traces of them in our family history are few, nebulous, and sketchy. Our memory tricks us easily.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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112 Comments

  • Hagar: Beautiful! Absolutely fascinating to read about your great grandmother Olena and the writing she left behind. Thank you. March 11, 2016 at 7:59am Reply

  • Mare: Beautiful article today. As usual.

    Your great grandmother Olena lives on through you. March 11, 2016 at 9:06am Reply

    • Victoria: It always felt like she was someone I actually met. March 12, 2016 at 1:01pm Reply

  • Annie: Moving article. You made me think of my grandaunt who wrote a book of family stories and handcopied it for her five brothers and sisters. March 11, 2016 at 9:17am Reply

    • Victoria: Such a precious artifact, Annie. I keep convincing my husband’s family to do something similar. They also have so many stories. March 12, 2016 at 1:02pm Reply

  • Alicia: How moving, Victoria!Each time I try one of your recipes , even if it isn’t hers, I will think of Olena.My grandmother didn’t embroider, but she made lace, in a complicated method full of pins over a small cushion. I tried a couple of times, but soon gave up. The books in my grand father’s library were more enticing.
    Victoria, thank you very much for this beautiful post. March 11, 2016 at 9:25am Reply

    • Hanne: My grandmother made lace, with many pins and bobbins, sorry I don’t know correct names. My father’s family had a lace shop in Belgium almost a hundred years ago but it went out of business in 1914. March 11, 2016 at 9:31am Reply

      • Alicia: I don’t know the names either, Hanne. My grandmother with several friends often met in the afternoon, and while chatting, they all made lace at full speed, in quite complicated patterns. In Spanish it is called “encaje de bolillos.”The whole house was full of these little masterpieces, curtains, towels, cushions, pillows. I was mesmerized, but learned soon that I had no talent whatsoever for so complex an art, neither did my mother, who never try to learn it, and instead became an accomplished sculptor. March 11, 2016 at 9:49am Reply

      • Victoria: Whenever I pass by one of the old lace stores in Brussels, I wonder who and how started them. March 12, 2016 at 1:09pm Reply

        • zephyr: I’m sure they’ve been there for generations. We have very close friends who were stationed near Brussels (NATO) twice, and each time the girls and their mother took classes from ladies who taught them how to make this Belgian lace – the kind with the cushion, pins and bobbins that Hanne describes. They were especially interested in teaching the girls (not Belgian at all, but American), because I think they want the art to survive. Now those girls are adults, and their babies’ christening gowns are all edged in that beautiful Belgian lace. March 12, 2016 at 2:19pm Reply

          • Victoria: This is such a time consuming and delicate craft that it can easily fall into oblivion. There is a beautiful store inside Galleries St Hubert in Brussels, and they have the most amazing things. Very expensive, of course. March 13, 2016 at 8:08am Reply

      • Sofie: Kantklossen… Bobbin lace making, your terms were correct Hanne 😊. My aunt does it as well, it’s amazing to watch her do it. March 14, 2016 at 6:49am Reply

    • Victoria: Olena also made lace, and I have her special tool for weaving it. It wasn’t the complicated Italian lace like the kind you are describing, but it was still pretty. All of my grandmothers were quite good at these kind of crafts, but Olena had a particular renown.

      Thank you! March 12, 2016 at 1:05pm Reply

  • Hanne: A big thank you, Victoria. I’m your reader since 4 years ago. I don’t comment often but today I want to say thank you. March 11, 2016 at 9:32am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Hanne. I appreciate you visiting and reading. March 12, 2016 at 1:10pm Reply

  • Michaela: To share. To feed. To be remembered. You are not far from her at all.
    Thank you so much for this touching story. What a remarkable woman she must have been. A true survivor. March 11, 2016 at 9:44am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Michaela.
      It was such a time that forced people to adapt. She also loved reading, according to my grandmother (her daughter-in-law) and she subscribed to all of the magazines that were available. March 12, 2016 at 1:13pm Reply

  • Patricia: What a lovely tribute to your great-grandmother Olena! I also had a great grandmother with a literary bent. She came to the US from her native Cornwall and settled in Colorado, bringing with her a fondness for saffron bread and an ability to make a mouth-watering Cornish pasty (a sort of meat-and-potatoes pie sent down into the mines for a quick miner’s lunch). She taught her daughter, my maternal grandmother, how to make pasties, and my grandmother in turn taught me. Emily Gay Burroughs Carter wrote “Letters Home” about her new adopted country, and they were published in the local Cornish newspaper.

    My treasure is an original poem about the sinking of the Titanic, written in her own hand and signed at the bottom. This was passed down to me in a lacquered Chinese box also containing a picture of her taken as a young woman in Truro. March 11, 2016 at 9:47am Reply

    • Marsha: I would love to be able to make a Cornish Pasty. I was just thinking about them a day or two ago. March 12, 2016 at 5:21am Reply

      • Patricia: I’ve made them, Marsha. But they never achieved the lightness my grandmother was able to manage. She would make them every year for my mother’s birthday in late September, and I remember how much I looked forward to them! March 15, 2016 at 12:39pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a real treasure, Pat! Have you ever visited the place where she came from?

      By the way, I developed a fascination with pasties after seeing them mentioned in one of my English novels. But I imagined them as elaborate pies. 🙂 March 12, 2016 at 1:15pm Reply

      • Patricia: I have been to Cornwall, which is just gorgeous. My grandmother was a terrific home cook and made pasties with a delicate, flaky, melt-in-your-mouth crust, but the original pasties had to withstand being brought into the mines and were eaten by hand like a sandwich. The crusts on those must have been heavy-duty! March 15, 2016 at 12:37pm Reply

  • rickyrebarco: What a beautiful story, this is absolutely amazing! Have you ever considered publishing an edited version of her notebooks or just the recipes or both like the book about Mexican cooking? (I forget the name). I think it would be a huge hit in Europe for sure and in America also. It sounds like such a poignant tale of very trying time in history and overcoming the worst of times through cooking and writing. Your great-grandmother sounds like the perfect heroine of a great novel. March 11, 2016 at 9:54am Reply

    • Victoria: Like Water for Chocolate?

      My mother jokes that we are a matriarchal family. Men somehow appear at the edges of the stories, although there were some fine men too. Sometimes I complain that so little has remained of the family and so few archives, but when I start putting the stories together, I realize that there is a great deal. March 12, 2016 at 1:18pm Reply

  • zephyr: Yes, I agree with Mare! Victoria, you and your family are honoring your great-grandmother’s memory in so many ways, using her recipes, retelling her story. How wonderful that you have her notebooks! Keep passing it all on to the younger members of your family! The older I become, the more conscious I am of the importance of doing this. March 11, 2016 at 9:56am Reply

    • Victoria: Same here. I’m thinking of making a digital copy of her notebooks for my younger cousins. March 12, 2016 at 1:19pm Reply

      • zephyr: That’s a great idea – they will love it, and truly appreciate it even more when they’re older!

        I thought about your great-grandmother’s notebooks a lot yesterday. It reminded my of my maternal grandmother’s recipe cards. The cards themselves aren’t nearly as personal as the notebooks you have, but they are all in my grandmother’s handwriting. Just seeing her handwriting brings back so much! About twenty years ago, all the female relatives on that side of the family made photocopies of the recipe cards each had, all written out by hand from Grandma, and gave copies to those who didn’t have some of the recipes. Now we all have complete sets, and are passing them down to younger cousins and even my cousins’ grandchildren. The third and fourth generations barely remember Grandma, or never met her, but they sure know her recipes! Most of them are for Christmas cookies and kuchen, lol. And they all recognize her handwriting! March 12, 2016 at 1:49pm Reply

        • Victoria: They’re also very special, mostly because of the handwriting. I have a few of my grandmother’s recipe cards written on various scraps, and they’re fascinating. I also found her notebooks in which she mentioned what museums and concerts she visited and when. That’s Valentina, Olena’s daughter-in-law, whom I visit every summer. March 12, 2016 at 1:59pm Reply

  • spe: In some ways, a heart-breaking piece. My father’s family left the Ukraine in 1917. It’s stunning that her memoirs survived the tumult. Thank you for sharing her life with us. March 11, 2016 at 10:12am Reply

    • Victoria: We have family in France and Germany, but I don’t know where they might be or how even go about finding them.

      You’re right, it’s extraordinary that her books survived. I found one batch in the apartment my father’s brother was selling. He didn’t know what they were and was about to toss them. So, these books themselves have quite a story. March 12, 2016 at 1:23pm Reply

  • Sylvia: What a beautiful tribute! I’ve been reading your blog since 2007 ( I believe ) and have so enjoyed your family stories. I agree with your reader who encouraged you to think about publication. I think your grandmother’s story is an inspiring story; a strong woman who created a way to overcome such an oppressive time is so encouraging. March 11, 2016 at 10:16am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much, Sylvia, for your nice words and your encouragement. It all means a lot to me. March 12, 2016 at 1:23pm Reply

  • Jeanne: What a wonderful article Victoria! My father wrote a little book filled with stories, photos, maps and some of his drawings. He printed and bound the books himself, one for each of his children. It is so comforting to have the book, with the stories of his early life and his life with my mom. It was the best gift, something all of us treasure. March 11, 2016 at 10:19am Reply

    • Victoria: I agree, it’s best gift. I appreciate such things even more now that both my husband’s and my families are spread all over the world. A few years ago my husband’s parents made a scrap book for him and his brother with photos and articles and various little things he made a kid. It was so sweet. March 12, 2016 at 1:25pm Reply

  • JanLast: Thank you so much for sharing this with us. It means a great deal to me that you entrust us with your family story. I read it more than once, and I agree you should put these wonderful recipes in a book. I’m saving this post because it is a shining example of overcoming adversity. March 11, 2016 at 10:20am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much, Jan. As I mentioned earlier, it means a lot to me that you read these stories, and if you are touched by them, as a writer I couldn’t be more gratified. March 12, 2016 at 1:33pm Reply

  • Trudy: Such a lovely touching article. There is something about reading or hearing details of the lives of those who came before us that stirs an emotion I can’t quite name. A familiarity though we never knew them. A connection, an intimacy, a belonging, an understanding. I love this story of your great grandmother. Thank you for sharing. March 11, 2016 at 10:22am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, you’re so right. I read a lot of memoirs, and this is the feeling I often have. March 12, 2016 at 1:33pm Reply

  • Connie: Beautiful prose about your Grandmother. Totally fascinating about her life and her life. Many times I find today that people do not stop and think about their Mother’s or Grandmother’s lives and the hardships they must have endured. It makes our lives seem trivial. My Grandmother was a young teenage girl when she came from Ireland and married off to a Irish Man who was already here in America whose wife had died and he needed help with the farm and children. She must have been very scared.
    Thank you for sharing that today. March 11, 2016 at 10:53am Reply

    • Victoria: Your grandmother must have been very brave, too. I can’t even imagine how it must have been for a young girl to travel across the ocean to marry someone she has not even seen before.
      Thank you also for sharing this story. March 12, 2016 at 1:40pm Reply

  • Scented Salon: How can one reconcile such a cruel world with the magic of a smiling baby elephant falling into a human’s lap and being petted with his eyes closed? The brain cannot even function with this duality.

    I often think if I were to die right now, what would be left of me? All my perfumes. I would not get to smell anymore, but my loved ones would continue to smell me. Your great-grandmother can be felt through her writings. Others can be felt through their legacy of food, artwork, music, etc.

    People are so beautiful…yet at the same time we are all so ugly too. March 11, 2016 at 11:05am Reply

    • Victoria: I like this quote from Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate:

      “I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never by conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning.” March 12, 2016 at 1:42pm Reply

      • Scented Salon: That quote cracked me open like an Easter egg on Sunday evening. I treasure it. March 12, 2016 at 2:09pm Reply

        • Victoria: It’s a powerful novel, and if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. March 13, 2016 at 8:04am Reply

      • zephyr: My husband and I both love that book, and had our fifteen-year-old son read it too. That quote from it is magnificent. March 12, 2016 at 2:09pm Reply

        • Victoria: I’m impressed that your son read it too. Yes, Life and Fate is a must read, but unfortunately, as the Soviet Union collapsed, and everyone, in the former USSR countries and the West, has chosen not to dig too deeply into the crimes of the Soviet regime, it has been less read than it should have been. March 13, 2016 at 8:06am Reply

          • Scented Salon: I’ve never heard of it but have ordered it. March 13, 2016 at 2:27pm Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: Wonderful post Victoria! Your writing is so very beautiful. Thank you. March 11, 2016 at 11:10am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much, Phyllis. March 12, 2016 at 1:42pm Reply

  • Edna: Beautiful evocative writing. Your brave & creative great-grandmother not only lives on through her writings, but through your memories and writings of her. Thank you so much for sharing. March 11, 2016 at 11:46am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank very much, Edna. March 12, 2016 at 1:42pm Reply

  • Teddee Grace: I enjoyed this so much! At least some of your interest in aromas and fragrances must come from this wonderful, creative woman. March 11, 2016 at 11:57am Reply

    • Victoria: My family often tells me that in some ways I have taken after Olena. March 12, 2016 at 1:43pm Reply

  • Jillie: Such a moving, beautiful article. It brings home to me how sometimes when we look at history, wars and foreign countries we forget the human beings at the centre of it all. People with feelings, personalities, memories. People like us. Just because they are no longer with us, their spirits can live on in our celebration of their lives. And we should do our best to lay down memories for the future too. March 11, 2016 at 12:05pm Reply

    • Victoria: So true, Jillie. Which is why when I read the news about wars and conflicts, I often feel that the human element is missing entirely. It’s all about the number of victims, damage, etc. March 12, 2016 at 1:44pm Reply

  • Ariadne: Victoria, Thank you so much for sharing this. Did you find that any of the journals had a scent? March 11, 2016 at 12:15pm Reply

    • Victoria: The ones my grandmother stored had a mildewy, vanilla-like scent. March 12, 2016 at 1:45pm Reply

  • Aurora: Writing runs a thread in your family, Victoria. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful homage to your paternal great-grandmother.
    If I remember well, the great recipe for crepes is one of hers isn’t it? With the excellent tip of adding butter. A remarkable woman with a lot of inner strength finding solace in writing. I was reminded, reading this post of a family story: how in my grandmother’s house the children would gather – my mother was one of them – and the younger ones would listen rapturously to the older children describing what an eclair pastry was, as such luxury had disappeared in occupied France. March 11, 2016 at 12:31pm Reply

    • Victoria: That’s right. It was her crepe cake recipe that I once shared. Such an easy and elegant way to serve crepes with cheese.

      Your story really moved me. March 12, 2016 at 1:46pm Reply

  • Karen A: Oh Victoria, what a beautiful, poignant and touching article. Thank you so very, very much. March 11, 2016 at 12:50pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for reading, Karen. March 12, 2016 at 1:46pm Reply

      • Karen A: I think more and more of us need the refuge of beauty that BdJ provides; reminders of good – fragrance, food, books, thoughts. The realization that there are many of us trying to incorporate more positive aspects in to our lives, and thereby increasing the positive in the world, helps me feel not quite so overwhelmed with all that is going on. March 12, 2016 at 7:53pm Reply

        • Victoria: As Sa’adi said, “The rose and the thorn, and sorrow and gladness are linked together.” March 13, 2016 at 8:24am Reply

  • Sapphire: Victoria, what a wonderful story. It reminds me of my own paternal grandmother, who immigrated to New York from Germany after living through WWI and the subsequent flu and famine. Then she had to go through the Great Depression here and a lot of prejudice during WWII. Luckily, we have a book she put together where she translated all the letters she got from home after she first came over. And one of my aunts put together several long emails to the family about Memaw’s life after she immigrated and up through WWII. It helped that she always liked to talk about the past and told the same stories often, which has helped me to remember a lot. She lived to be 101 and I still miss her. March 11, 2016 at 2:09pm Reply

    • Victoria: What an incredible lady! I’m very grateful for all of the stories shared in this thread. Thank you very much. March 12, 2016 at 1:48pm Reply

  • laraffinee: How wonderful to have your great grandmother’s notebooks! How precious to be able to get a glimpse into her life. I don’t even have a picture of my great grandmother and only have a couple of photos of both of my grandmothers. I don’t even have a photo of my mother as a child. Soviet Kulakization wiped out all such momentos in my family. You are very lucky to have such a treasure! I hope you can preserve it well so future generations of your family can see it too. March 11, 2016 at 2:21pm Reply

  • Neva: Wonderful little story. Your writing is very picturesque and I could easily imagine a romantic and tragic movie made after your grand grandmother’s life. It makes me wonder if not every life is partly romantic and partly tragic when one thinks of our wishes and hopes, fulfilled or not…? I like the part when you say that your great grandmother revised her thoughts and wrote “I was wrong about this”. It’s so human and touchy.
    It’s great that you who like cooking have these recipes. I’m sure you will enjoy it through your life just like I enjoy my grandmother’s handwritten cookbook. She was a cooking teacher in a girl’s school in the 1940-ies and 50-ies. March 11, 2016 at 3:19pm Reply

    • mayfly: Really beautiful insight into you’re Great Grandmother’s world, Victoria, it’s such a pleasure to read you’re articles, and her cakes sounded divine! March 11, 2016 at 4:06pm Reply

      • Victoria: Thank you very much!
        My mom says that her cakes were legendary. I usually bake cakes according to my grandmother’s recipes, but I will try Olena’s soon. March 12, 2016 at 1:51pm Reply

    • Victoria: Can’t agree more. It’s special to glimpse into someone else’s life this way, and it’s a miracle these books are even around.

      These handwritten cookbooks are treasures. My grandmother has several notebooks in which she writes down various recipes she wants to try and last summer I had fun going through them with her. Each recipe came with a story of a person who share it with her. March 12, 2016 at 1:50pm Reply

  • Lindaloo: Indeed, Ukraine is a strip of land that has been much trampled on. My Ukrainian father was born in Austria in 1902 and emigrated from Poland in 1928 without ever having left his village. March 11, 2016 at 4:07pm Reply

    • Victoria: The western parts changed hands several times, every time with tragic consequences for ordinary people. We are from central Ukraine, but it was the area hit hardest by the famine engineered by Stalin between 1932-1933. The memories of that hunger run deep. March 12, 2016 at 1:53pm Reply

      • katherine X: Right or wrong – my Jewish great grandfather feared Stalin more than Hitler. In June ’39, after sending my grandmother, father, and aunt to South America via France, he and my great grandmother returned to Lviv (then Poland – now Ukraine) to look after his company and workers. He was devastated when Russia invaded Poland, and he never recovered. The story is too sad to tell – except to say they sought refuge by foot with friends through Romania and that my great grandmother arrived safely in Colombia, then NYC. I remember her well, even though I lived far away. She was a strong spirit who cooked for the family, even after going blind – I recall enjoying her matzoh ball and chicken soups. March 16, 2016 at 11:45pm Reply

        • Victoria: I read that this was a common sentiment in the early years, mostly because the Soviet treatment in those lands was so awful and people had a naive illusion that the German rule would be better. Of course, they quickly were proven wrong.
          In such circumstances, your great grandmother’s story is remarkable. Very moving. March 18, 2016 at 6:04pm Reply

  • Qwendy: I am imagining a kind of annotated memoir book project for you ….. Although maybe it’s all in its most active form in this blog! Genetic predispositions are so mysterious, no? I find myself a bit envious of your multi layered family life … So much of mine is unknown. I am delighted to be able to share in yours here! March 12, 2016 at 3:10am Reply

    • Victoria: I need to collect more of the stories. Every time I visit my grandmother, I discover more and more bits. Interesting, no? Most of my ancestors were either archivists, writers or teachers. March 12, 2016 at 1:55pm Reply

  • Marsha: I also thank you for sharing your family stories with us. I envy you so much the possession of these books from such an insightful, talented, strong, imaginative, perceptive, passionate and discerning woman. To go back and mark something out and write “I was wrong about this.” It’s like she was doing her own therapy or something. It is an absolute miracle that they survived. I have read in the other comments and it is true for me too that I don’t know too much about either side of my family. I do know that one of my Mother’s sisters decided to do some geneology work and found out that her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were all born out of wedlock! She decided to not do anymore searching. I said What the heck? About all I know on my Dad’s side is that his grandmother went to college when women usually did not go and she was valedictorian of her class. However, being a woman, she could not read her speech. A man had to do it for her. March 12, 2016 at 5:38am Reply

    • Victoria: When I started searching, I decided that I will go as far as I can and be prepared for all sorts of outcomes. It’s a bit like being a detective. And an archaeologist at once. Of course, you have to be mentally ready that the family myth–and every family has those–may not hold up. March 12, 2016 at 1:56pm Reply

  • Marsha: (I wish you would print your great-grandmother’s books too. I would love to read them and would certainly purchase a copy1) March 12, 2016 at 5:40am Reply

  • Cathy B.: What an absolutely fascinating story. I agree with Marsha, as I would love to read more stories and especially see some of her recipes. I associate many of my memories with recipes. My Mom, aunt, and I would always make homemade Easter candy (the cooked meringue version) and my Dad and I would always dye eggs in onion shells. You are so lucky to have these memories in written form. She sounded like a lovely woman. March 12, 2016 at 3:29pm Reply

    • Victoria: We also dye eggs in onion peels, and the color is the richest shade of mahogany imaginable. Or chocolate brown, depending on the onion color. March 13, 2016 at 8:09am Reply

  • behemot: What a wonderful, touching story. It must be great to have these memories… March 12, 2016 at 10:16pm Reply

    • Victoria: I wish I met her, but I’m happy there are many stories about her. March 13, 2016 at 8:32am Reply

  • Olga Bodnar Talyn: I lost my Dad this summer. My Mom is 94 with dementia. I have tried to collect and write down all the stories I could remember, for all my people were story tellers and artists. All were also land owning farmers. the richness of the past cannot be lost. there are no children in my family to hand them down to. those of us who are Ukrainian have something that is perhaps difficult to communicate. You do it beautifully as I hope I do as well. There is so much pain and suffering but a perseverance that is without parallel with color,scent art,song. A love of Ukrainian life and culture that no one has been able to kill. I have lived in the USA since I was 3 but to my very core of my soul I understand your words and descriptions as my own as well. I discovered your site since I am a collector of perfumes but was overjoyed at the connection to our mutual culture and the histories of our people. You bring tears to my eyes with your beautiful words. March 12, 2016 at 11:39pm Reply

    • Victoria: When you say “those of us who are Ukrainian have something that is perhaps difficult to communicate,” I can relate so well. I also find it difficult to communicate some of these stories, because for one thing, Ukrainians don’t have a shared understanding of history. It was lost to the repression and ideology. And secondly, when you’re in the US/Western Europe, you’re describing stories people around you either don’t know or don’t care about, even though the catastrophes that took place on Ukrainian soil, from the Holodomor of the 30s to the Holocaust, have global repercussions. It’s very painful to dig into these old stories, but at the same it’s also very important. March 13, 2016 at 8:43am Reply

      • Olga Bodnar Talyn: Indeed it is both painful and important. I will share something with you. My great grandmother was Evdokia Holub. I never knew her but I treasure her photo and the stories my mother told me of the memories of her. Of the scents from her cooking of delicious dishes. Dishes created from the vegetables and fruits of the garden. Of the apples,pears and plums from their orchard,of the rose jam laden cakes honeyed from their own hives. Of the fish,eels and crawfish caught from the Ubed since the house stood on it’s banks. Of fragrant mushrooms gathered in the forest. All the while singing in her deep contralto. My mother would bring in blue eggs from the ducks and giant goose eggs from their flock. She told of how she was scolded when she as a five year old when she did not take care of the goslings. All this wrapped in the scent of garden flowers and herbs by day and night blooming mateolas under the stars. My mother spoke of how her grandmother forgave her older brother when he and his pals would hide behind the bank of the river to watch the girls ride their horses under the moonlight to the grassy banks to sing and let their horses eat their fill of wondrous wet river grasses, running out to scare the horses of the girls they did not like, while howling with laughter. These are memories to be preserved. Memories followed by the dying around them when Stalin’s forced famine came with it’s horrors. Of children dying on their doorstep and people hiding a single root vegetable. Of my grandfather hiding in a hole in the forest for a month to keep from being cannon fodder in the soviet army. The complexity of beauty and horror is difficult to fathom.

        If I could create a fragrance with the memories of the beauty,I would run to Firminich which is 2 miles from my house in Princeton, I would. If I could somehow blend the essence of night mateolas, roses, redcurrents, pears,plums against a honeyed backround that made me think of the harmony of an ancient Ukrainian folk song,under moonlight, I would. I cannot. perhaps you can, Victoria and name it Evdokia. March 14, 2016 at 10:30am Reply

        • Victoria: Such a beautiful story! Just writing it down you made Evdokia come alive for me. Thank you very much, Olga. March 14, 2016 at 12:35pm Reply

  • Mia: Beauty is in details! Thank you Victoria, you really know how to present them and make (your) history alive. March 13, 2016 at 7:50am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Mia. March 13, 2016 at 8:32am Reply

  • marymary: Aw, this makes me sad, like looking at old photos. March 13, 2016 at 8:26am Reply

    • Victoria: Bittersweet for me, but at the same time, inspiring. March 13, 2016 at 8:44am Reply

  • Jirina: Thanks Victoria for such beautiful post.
    I think you are very generous for share your family stories with us. March 13, 2016 at 8:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much, Jirina. March 14, 2016 at 12:27pm Reply

  • Austenfan: I’m forever grateful for having studied 2 years of Russian in Antwerp. Not so much the language, which I’ve practically forgotten, but I was also taught about Russian history, beyond what is normally taught in grammar schools in the Netherlands. It gave me a little insight into what happened behind the Iron Curtain even before it was installed. But you are right, few people in the “West” are aware of the details of the atrocities of Stalin’s regime.
    And thank you again, for a beautiful post! March 14, 2016 at 4:51am Reply

    • Victoria: If the ignorance of people on the other side of the Iron Curtain was the only issue, it wouldn’t be so bad. The problem is that societies on the other side also never processed their history and don’t know their history (or prefer to consider only some pages and ignore others). The end result is that discussions that should take place never do and the same mistakes are made over and over again. And very important, the society remains traumatized. March 14, 2016 at 12:32pm Reply

  • Sofie: Thank you. Your essays about your family always bring this very ‘human’ feeling to the forefront. It’s poetic, and beautifully written but it brings the people very much alive. Close by. I can almost see her.
    I love your writing. March 14, 2016 at 7:09am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Sofie. My mom and her sister clearly adored her, and my grandmother always said that she was the best mother-in-law, always taking her side in everything. March 14, 2016 at 12:34pm Reply

      • Sofie: This actually made me laugh 😄! I have a very good bond with my MIL and she is always incredibly supportive and picking her daughter-in-law’s (she has three of them 😉) side and I do think it is a very special relationship.
        I could just see your grandfather leaving the house to chop wood or something to have a respite of these two strong, beautiful women siding up against him 😄. March 21, 2016 at 1:14pm Reply

        • Victoria: He would go fishing! 🙂 March 21, 2016 at 2:16pm Reply

  • minette: I see a beautiful cookbook filled with her recipes, your notes, her notes, your photos, your love, her love… March 15, 2016 at 12:13pm Reply

    • Victoria: What a poetic comment! 🙂 March 15, 2016 at 12:36pm Reply

  • sibel: That was so beautiful!!! She sounds like an amazing woman! I don’t know anything about my great grandparents, you’re really lucky. March 15, 2016 at 2:50pm Reply

    • Victoria: Many records have indeed been destroyed, but one thing that makes it easier in our family is that everyone had children young, so I had a chance to meet two of my great-grandparents. My aunt was always curious about the past, so thanks to her we preserved more stories. March 16, 2016 at 12:06pm Reply

  • katherine X: Victoria – so privileged to have this window to Olena’s thoughts! A great gift to her progeny, and one obviously treasured. She sounds like a woman who found her way to live life fully (you seem much like her). I know you must be proud. Thanks so much for sharing these endearing stories of your vivacious Olena and a time/place most of us know so little of. March 15, 2016 at 9:00pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Katherine. We’re lucky to have all of these strong women in our family who influenced so many of us. March 16, 2016 at 12:29pm Reply

  • DelRae: Beautiful. My grandfarther was a stowaway from the Ukraine when he was 16. Family legend says he was an orphan. He never spoke about his past and we think his family was taken away and he was the one who survived. I wish we had something like Olena’s notebooks.
    In the age of endless selfies and so on, her story is so very poignant. thank you! March 19, 2016 at 3:32pm Reply

    • Victoria: Who knows, maybe if she had such means, she would take selfies. 🙂 On the other hand, she didn’t even like being photographed that much…

      Thank you very much! March 21, 2016 at 10:47am Reply

  • Sara: I can relate to your story, Victoria: the region where I grew up, Istria, changed 4 countries in less than a century. My grandmother used to say she would never go back to when she was young, because she didn’t have enough to eat, and not enough clothes to keep her warm in the winter. But I think all the hardships she went through made her heart grow bigger, as she always had sympathy for other people. Now that she has passed I treasure all the stories that I know about her. March 24, 2016 at 4:22am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Sara! The layers of history and personal stories in such places are numerous. I’m sure your grandmother also gifted many of her qualities to you. March 24, 2016 at 5:27am Reply

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