When I was little, one of my favorite places to be was The Original Shop, a dress store owned by my grandmother, Ann Kaprowy. For more than fifty years, she sold women their bridesmaid dresses, prom confections, mother-of-the-bride gowns, and workwear in this clean, bright space.
When I was at her house, which was a cozy apartment that sat above the shop on Selkirk Avenue, I was usually desperately busy watching Days of Our Lives while eating the Mirage chocolate bars she kept in the fridge. But at least five times a day, I’d head down to the store to see what was up. My grandma and auntie Pam were always busy. Invariably, my grandma was helping customers, giving her gentle but firm opinion about a gown or on her knees puffing chalk against floaty chiffon to indicate where the new hem line should go.
In large part, my grandmother’s customers were Ukrainian, short, smiling ladies who arrived wearing thick winter coats made of boiled wool, their hair wrapped in paisley babushkas to protect their hairdo from the wind. Wearing an elegant skirt, pressed blouse, a fresh coating of conservative lipstick, Ann chatted comfortably with them in her native tongue, the sound of the foreign language sounding, to me, like rolling water. I would stand on a chair to watch the exchange, my elbows on the front jewelry counter, waiting for my grandmother to introduce me.
She always would. “Gene’s daughter,” she’d say smiling, reverting to English for my benefit.
My grandmother was able to sustain a solid business in Winnipeg in part because of the Ukrainians in the city. Manitoba has the largest Ukrainian population in Canada, and Canada has the second largest Ukrainian diaspora after Russia.
They began arriving in the 1890s, attracted to the province for its agriculture, the flat, cold plains of Manitoba not unlike the land they had left. They built farms, homes, stores, schools, churches that still line the province with their signature bulbous steeples. After more Ukrainians arrived at the end of both world wars, they entered the city. And there, they worked too, in meat-packing plants, railway yards, in metal shops.
Steeped in Ukrainian tradition, my grandmother was born on a farm in Manitoba and moved to Winnipeg after she married, settling in the poor, tough north end of the city.
One thing I learned early about the Ukrainian ethic? You work. When she was in her late 90s, I asked my grandma if she had any life advice for me. She didn’t hesitate for a second. “Be honest and work hard,” she said and went back to pinching pierogi.
So when I see pictures of Ukrainians fiercely fighting against an impossible dictator, outnumbered, poorly equipped, viciously attacked because they have the gall to want a Western life? I’m not surprised. I’m heartbroken, yes, but I’m not surprised.
Ukrainians, they fight.
As I’m sure many of you have, I’ve been reading the news constantly. It’s not the first time I’ve seen the destruction of war depicted in the media, but I’ll be honest: it’s the first time I’ve had a personal connection to it. Every time I see a babushka, I think of my grandmother.
The picture that stopped me in my tracks though was one of a man surrounded by glass bottles, which had been collected in order to make Molotov cocktails. How would it feel for your country to ask you build them? How would it feel to stand in a line to receive a gun so, when the situation likely arrives, you can try to defend yourself?
My husband and I have donated to World Central Kitchen (wck.org). If the name sounds familiar, it’s because WCK volunteers were mobilized in western Kentucky after the tornado in December. Now volunteers are stationed at the border of Ukraine and Poland and they’re feeding refugees as they escape. It’s run by renowned Chef José Andrés, who has videos of the work they’re doing on his Instagram page (@chefjoseandres). As of Feb. 28, they’d served 8,000 meals at the border.
I know there are organizations and churches everywhere that are gathering funds and supplies, which is so heartening to see. I can’t remember a time the world, frankly, has been so unified. From catastrophe comes cooperation, I guess.
In turn, there are beautiful stories surfacing everywhere. I’ll end with this one. A few days ago, my cousin Lisa, who lives in Fargo, N.D., expressed how devastated her fraternal grandparents would be if they’d been alive to see this destruction; they escaped Ukraine after World War II. In answer, I decided to send Lisa some flowers as a bit of a pick-me-up.
I called a random florist and placed my order. When the busy lady on the phone asked me what kind of flowers I wanted, I told her the flowers were her choice, but asked if it would be possible to wrap yellow and blue ribbon around the vase.
She was quiet for a minute and when she spoke, I realized the busyness had drained from her voice and been replaced with the sweetest gentleness.
“Of course,” she said, her voice breaking. “Of course we can. I’m thinking of Ukraine too.”