The word paradise comes from the ancient Persian word pairidaēza, “an enclosed garden,” and for a Ukrainian, a cherry orchard is an idea of Eden. It has the same potent connotations as a white picketed fence house in the context of the American dream. It doesn’t mean that all Ukrainians dream of retreating to the village and tending to cherries—no more so than all Americans want to live in the suburbs and obsess over greens lawns—but the image has force beyond its mere components.
In many folk songs, the cherry orchard is where friends meet, families gather for supper and beloved yearn for each other. It is a place of safety and beauty. It evokes all of the things that matter—family, love, friendship, bounty. It’s not a coincidence that one of the most popular works in Ukrainian literature is a short poem by the national bard Taras Shevchenko. Recite the opening lines to any Ukrainian—“A cherry orchard by the house. Above the cherries beetles hum”–and you will see his face light up and his mind travel to his own fantasy garden. “And nightingale their vigil keep,” he murmurs the poem’s romantic coda*.
Our cherry garden with the water tanks that reflect the black lace of lilac branches, the damp warmth of tool sheds, and the bitter, raspy odor of dandelion flowers on the compost pile is my great-grandmother’s idea of paradise and her domain. When I think of Asya, the image of her floating up in my mind has the cinematic background of our Poltava garden. She passed away almost two decades ago, but as I rock in the hammock wrapped in her old brown coat, I imagine that she’s still around, cleaning dahlia tubers or experimenting with a new method of grafting grape vines. The cherry trees were planted by her. And so were the periwinkle vines covering the cherry trunks with their delicate tendrils. And the violets breaking through the cold, oily soil. The intensity of her presence in the garden is a reminder of loss, but at the same time it’s comforting.
On returning to Poltava, I follow a ritual established during the summers of yesteryears—I walk around the orchard, noting which of the plum trees have split during the winter, how many tender shoots surround the old apples and whether the daffodils are already pushing through the damp earth. I rub the craggy bark of a sour cherry tree for sticky resin, a favorite childhood treat that tastes of licorice and myrrh. The rickety gate flanked by two ancient lilac bushes swings open, and I can see the vegetable garden and bashtan, the melon patch. “Why would you go to a land where watermelons don’t grow?” my great-grandfather used to ask my aunt Lola whenever she returned from Montreal and told stories of the harsh Canadian winters.
Asya was obsessed with her garden, something that all of us absorbed. “When I can’t fall asleep, I transport myself to our garden and walk around counting cherry trees,” says Lola. My mother sends me photos of her suburban American garden transformed into a miniature version of Asya’s. I haven’t done any garden work since I left Ukraine more than twenty years ago, but somehow my hands remember how to tie the branches and build the water channels around the trees. But Valentina, Asya’s daughter and my grandmother, made the orchard her idée fixe, an ever evolving project. If I were to call her right now and announce my return, I know exactly what she will say: “I can’t imagine greater happiness.” And then she will add, “The garden could use an extra pair of helping hands.”
Photography by Bois de Jasmin
*Taras Shevchenko, A Cherry Orchard, translated by Boris Dralyuk and Roman Koropeckyj, Ukrainian Literature. Volume 4, 2014.