Pyrohy and poetry

ON the afternoon before Christmas Eve, Mom and I were in the kitchen filling and pinching together pieces of dough to make pyrohy. A large pot of boiling water burbled softly on the stove, steaming and warming the air. We pinched carefully and quickly; the race was on to cook all the traditional courses and dress the house before the guests arrived for our family dinner. In the middle of our project, the doorbell rang. Mom left the room to respond, grabbing a dish towel to wipe her floured hands.

``Merry Christmas, Mrs. Kuzma,'' an adolescent voice politely spoke.

``Come in, Peter, come in. Merry Christmas,'' she answered as if she'd been expecting him all day, and she took his coat. The two sat down in the living room.

Peter, one of her students at the parish Ukrainian school, had come to rehearse a poem he was to recite in the church Epiphany program. I heard him begin the lines slowly, cautiously, as if conscious of someone else's presence in the house (possibly in the kitchen).

He worked through each of the many couplets to a confident finale, and my mother applauded, ``Good . . . very good, Peter. Now..'' She murmured some suggestions I couldn't hear, reciting certain lines for emphasis. ``Well, try again, hmm?''

He began again after a pause, and some adult depth rounded into his voice. Toward the end, his speech quavered, betraying that he was about to lose his place. ``It's OK. Go on,'' Mom comforted him and started the next verse for him.

I thought of my mother in that room. One on one with her pupil. I thought of her clear voice and the lyrical quality of her character that sounded when she taught. Of the boy's heroic effort to memorize the many verses in Ukrainian and to see the images the poem and my mother's voice evoked. I listened on.

``Fine,'' she chimed when he finished again. She reassured him that he was a good student and that they would rehearse together still a number of times before the performance. As they headed for his coat and the door, a paper bag rustled.

``Oh, why thank you. And thank your mother. Merry Christmas, happy holidays.''

``Merry Christmas.'' The door closed firmly shut.

She came back to the kitchen with a small gift. ``Isn't that nice.'' She shook her head as she started to unwrap the package. ``We'll still go over it a few more times,'' she seemed to apologize, ``but he's doing really quite well and, well, I still have so much to do. ... Actually, I'd forgotten he was coming.''

I nodded. ``That's a nice poem. But I couldn't hear it all from here.''

``He was a bit abashed in the house here.'' Now she began to apologize for him as she left the room to put away the half-opened gift. When she reclaimed her place at the flour-dusted, dough-bedecked table, I asked her if she could recite the poem for me. I hoped she'd say yes, since it was just the two of us.

``Ooh ... let's see.'' Pursing her lips, she looked up from the table toward the steamy windows, then paused.

``Smerkayetsya.'' Night falls, she began and continued verse after verse. ``. . . And still I hear the rustle of coats and scuffle of boots when carolers . . .''

Her voice broke and eyes teared. She waved her floured hand as if to chase away the memory that had stolen in with the poem -- as if she were waving away an insignificant fly. ``Ooh, there I go.'' She rolled her tear-filled eyes at the part of her that had drifted in from a past and place far from our Connecticut kitchen.

``It's OK. Go on,'' I coaxed, and she steadily found the lines and scenes that led to the poem's end.

``I remember when I first had to memorize that poem in school back at our DP camp in Germany. Professor Chubaty, rest his soul, asked me to learn all the verses in a few hours for a performance that afternoon.'' She beamed. ``And I did.''

I didn't doubt her.

We finished the last rows of the dough and rolled out several more rounds of dough as night fell and the hour of our guests' arrival approached.

My mother's powerful memory in all its richness will never leave or deceive her.

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