The Point of Learning Ukranian
Because of you, Grannie, the night you knelt,
put your hand on my shoulder, hand that knew wet soil
and crochet hooks, asked Do you have to piss or shit before bed?
Maybe those words weren't bad in your language.
You made me a strange girl, a child with a Scottish
family name and a longing for boxy Cyrillic,
rolling the sounds past the tongue, then the meanings,
the places where bad words might become a choice.
The children in the old readers had sleds and ponies
and didn't talk at all about pissing, shitting, only
about drinking water from the stream with a cupped hand,
juice from apples from angry Farmer Ivan's tree.
На щащя на сторовя на новей рік,* I threw wheat in your doorway
both new years, Gregorian and Julian. You told me
you were born on the coldest day of the year,
New Year's Eve, according to the old calendar.
Your hand was steady around the stylus in the spring,
deep stink of beeswax, farmer symbols everywhere on the писанки,†
eternity in your thin wax lines, wheat sheaves for bounty, curls of protection,
green dye for hope and the new crop, no piss, no shit,
you would've scolded me for asking, for causing збитки.‡
Years later, the professor taught Kiev Ukrainian, clean S sounds, weightless V's.
I'd visit, speak S's the width of toothpicks. You'd smile, wave your arm,
my proper words converting the kitchen, you'd say, What's the point. It's a dying language.
Then the letters came. Foreign cousins starving in L'viv.
Photos of a baby. You rolled dollar bills into the fingers
of gloves and mailed them and your notes,
which you traced until they were perfect,
described your children, sisters, grandchildren,
never yourself, and you said Mи сильний тому що ми родина.°
* Pronounced Na shcha-shchya na storovya na novei rïk, and means "To your health, to your happiness, in the new year." These words are the beginning of the new year's greeting.
† Pronounced pysanky. The name for Ukrainian easter eggs.
‡ Pronounced zbytky. Means "pranks" or "mischief."
° Pronounced Mih sylny tomü shcho mih rodyna. Means "We are strong because we are family."