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My grandmother and her embroidery


Yury P. Vynnychuk, a Ukrainian author, was born in the city of Ivano-Frankivsk on March 18 1952. He was educated at the Department of Philology of the Stefanyk Prykarpatsky University; he majored in the Ukrainian language and literature. In 1974, he moved to Lviv where he had a number of odd jobs; in 1987 he landed a job of a director of the Estradny (Variety) Theater Ne Zhurys (Cheer up!). He also wrote plays, screenplays and lyrics for songs. In 1991, he left the theater for full-time journalism. In 2006, he was promoted to editor in chief of the Post-Postup newspaper.

In 1997, he was elected member of the Association of Ukrainian Writers. Yury Vynnychuks writings were published in translation in Great Britain, Germany, Poland, Canada, Serbia, France, the USA, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Belarus. Two animated cartoons were made to his screenplays.

Yury Vynnychuk also works as a translator from English and some Slavic languages into Ukrainian. In 2005, he won the BBC contest for the best Ukrainian book (Vesnyani ihry v osinnikh sadakh Vernal Games in Autumnal Gardens).



My memory has retained the image of my grandmother doing needlework all the time.

I was not paying much attention to her embroidery until one day when, after she had done an embroidered picture of the old cherry tree that grew right in front of our windows, the tree disappeared. It was in fact a dead and dry tree, and my grandpa had long wanted to cut it down but kept postponing its removal. And then one fine day the tree vanished.

I somehow connected the disappearance of the tree with Grandma’s embroidered pictures and began digging into my memory in search of other things that had disappeared after they had gotten depicted in Grandma’s embroideries.

A stray dog came to mind — some time ago it had chosen the wasteland near our house to live there. Every night it howled at night so terribly that the whole neighborhood began cursing the damned thing for keeping people awake and nervous. Several times, raids were organized to deal with the dog but it proved to be too cunning and too fast to be captured.

But then, about a week before my becoming aware of a connection between Grandma’s embroidery and the disappearance of the tree, the dog stopped howling at night. Of course, it could have migrated to a different place — but then I discovered a picture of a dog embroidered on a pillow case.

This discovery suddenly made it all click into place. It was my grandmother who was responsible for disappearance of the tree and of the dog! And there must have been a lot of other things that vanished after being portrayed in her embroidery! I checked her embroideries and was relieved not to find any human figures in them. All those things that could be seen in her embroidered pictures could hardly be missed if they did disappear anyway.

I could not keep this secret to myself for long, and shared it with Grandpa.

“Big deal! I’ve known about it all along.”

“Why didn’t you tell me about it?”

“I meant to do it but somehow kept forgetting to tell you. Other things were on my mind,” said Grandpa, shrugging his shoulders. After a pause, he added, a warm smile on his lips,“All right, all right, I’ll tell you what I know. Once — it was some time before the last war — people started being arrested. Prisons were full and many of those arrested were dispatched to Siberia… Young people were drafted and sent to the front with no training. They had no anti-tank weapons and they were supposed to stop the enemy’s tanks…So many of these young people died in battles. The soviets suspected the people of Halychyna to harbor anti-soviet feelings and under the slightest of pretexts, or on no pretext at all, the secret service hounded people down and threw them into the clink. I got arrested too. Your grandma was so upset she was beside herself with worry. She, poor thing, kept coming to that prison where I was kept hoping to get a glimpse of me, but no one was allowed to talk to or see the prisoners… The nights were particularly hard on her, and to while away her time, she began to do embroidery. It was the prison that was on her mind all the time, and she began to embroider a picture depicting that prison… As she later told me, she had just finished embroidering the prison wall, the guards, the farces dogs when… It was in the middle of the night when my cellmates and me who all of us had trouble sleeping, suddenly realized that there were no more walls around us, no guards, no dogs! And we were lying on the ground. It did not take us long to realize it was a great chance to escape — and we did! Yes, the prison disappeared but those who had arrested us were still very much in existence, and we knew they would be after us in no time. So we, the escapees, had to hide. Those who were younger chose to live in the forest and those who were more advanced in years made their way to distant villages. Your grandmother and me, we left our home and went to a village in the middle of nowhere. That’s how it was. But we did not realize at first all that great miracle of disappearance happened because of her embroidery. We could not figure out what had happened. People said it was the Most Holy Mother of God who had taken pity on us and saved us from captivity…

Some time later, I realized that I had not seen our cat for some time. ‘My dear Hanna,’ I says, ‘where is our cat Matsko? I’ve not seen him for quite some time.’ As I was saying this, I spotted a new tablecloth on the table — and there I saw the portrait of our cat! I had a sort of a sudden brainstorm then.

‘My dear Hanna,’ I says, ‘could you be so kind as to… well…would you undo this picture of yours from the tablecloth?’

‘What?’ she say. ‘I’ve spent so many sleepless nights doing that embroidery and now you want to destroy it? What an idiotic idea!’

I pretended I agreed with her that it was a bad idea, but secretly, I took scissors and began removing the embroidered picture from the tablecloth. No sooner had I removed the last thread, when I heard meowing — it was our Mytsko who came back! Was he hungry! He ate everything I gave him in a moment.

‘Well, my dear Hanna,’ I says to her, ‘here we have a queer thing happening — the moment you embroider a picture of something, it disappears!’

She just laughed at me, at my ‘silly inventions.’ All right, then. So I aks her to embroider a portrait of that scarecrow in our garden. She said she would. And what do you think? The moment she finished her picture, the scarecrow vanished into thin air! It was not there, as though, as we say, it had been licked away by a cow!’

Now she became convinced that it was her embroidery that made things disappear. And since then she has been very careful what to portray in her embroidery.”

As it turned out, our neighbors also somehow learnt of this most uncanny ability of Grandma to make things disappear. They were careful not to offend her with a word or deed, not to argue with her about anything lest she get angry and have them portrayed in her embroidery.

One of the neighbors, Dzyunyo, turned up one day at the threshold of our house with a goose. He confessed that it was he who had stolen a cock from our henhouse, and that he had brought the goose as compensation.

Next day we had another visitor — another neighbor, Mrs Buslyk who came to claim the goose saying it was hers. The goose was returned to her, but a day later she came back with it, saying,

“Dear Hanna, please take this goose as a present! I beg you — make an embroidery portrait of my husband! He is a yucky boozer and if I don’t get rid of him his drinking will do me in!”

Grandma could not stand drunks and thought them to be a useless lot, and she did make an embroidered portrait of Mrs Buslyk’s husband.

And — can you imagine that? — a week later this same Mrs Buslyk came to our house again, holding another goose. She asked to have her husband back, please.

“Make up your mind, for God’s sake!” cried out Grandma. “One day you want him gone, and now you want him back.”

My mother joined the conversation. She took the goose, checked her for fat and said in a satisfied voice,

“I wonder what it would be best to cook it with? Stuffed with buckwheat or rice?”

But Grandma obstinately refused to undo the embroidery.

Then it was my father who joined the conversation, “It’d be best to stuff it with rice and mushrooms.”

“Take pity on me,” wailed Mrs Buslyk. “Look at me now! What am I now? I am not a widow! And yet I am not unmarried!”

“I think you can be considered to be a widow,” Grandpa offered his opinion.

“Well, all right,” said my mother. “Who will butcher the goose and get it ready for cooking? You or you?” she looked alternatively at my dad and at my grandfather.

“Even if that goose itself asks me to undo the embroidery, I won’t,” cried out Grandma.

“All right, I can do it,” said Father but with not too much enthusiasm. “To make it quick, I’ll take an ax and will chop off its head.

Meanwhile, Grandma spread the piece of cloth with Buslyk’s portrait on it on the table. “Look at this picture! I’ve captured his likeness so well! Look at the way he stands, loop-legged and in a sort of lopsided way — you immediately understand that he is roaring drunk! It’s such a nice picture! And you have the nerve to ask me to destroy it?”

Grandpa advised my father where to look for the ax. “I wanted to sharpen it but then forgot to do it.”

“Never mind, I’ll sharpen it myself,” exclaimed my father enthusiastically, warming up to the task.

“I really think it’d be best to stuff it the way the Chinese do it. It will be so delicious it’ll melt in your mouth and you’ll lick your fingers!” said Mother.

“I don’t like those Chinese, I don’t trust them,” blurted out Grandpa.

The thing is that the person who had had Grandpa arrested, had been nicknamed “Chinese.” He conducted cruel cross-examinations himself and had a habit, to entertain himself, of ordering to have the political prisoners stand up all night long at one spot, without moving. Since then, Grandpa, when he read in the papers some news about the Chinese cultural revolution or about military clashes at the Chinese-Soviet border, would say,

“If war breaks out with them Chinese, I’ll be the first to volunteer. I have a grudge to settle.”

Incidentally, the Chinese proved to be in luck — my grandfather died before any major conflict developed — which did not happen anyway.

Mrs Buslyk kept imploring to have her husband back, “He was not that bad, you know. He even used to do some shopping, not often though, but he did!”

“All right, all right!” Grandma cried out in desperation and made a gesture of reluctant resignation with her hand.

And she did undo the embroidery.

The day after Mrs Buslyk’s husband had been returned to his wife, he got drunk as a skunk and lashed out at Mrs Buslyk for wasting two good geese for nothing.

Grandma heard his screams and swearing, put her head out the window and shouted,

“If you, goddamn fool, do not stop this very minute, I’ll embroider you again! And then more than two geese will be wasted for nothing!”

The drunk Buslyk wanted to give a nasty reply but in spite of the befuddled chaos in his head, he realized he’d better keep his mouth shut.

Mother cooked the goose according to a Chinese recipe but told Grandpa that it was an old Ukrainian recipe that she had used. Grandpa found the goose to be extremely “yummy” and kept praising my mom’s cooking skills.

“I tell you, the Ukrainian cuisine is the best in the world. We, Ukrainians, must be given credit for inventing so many things, and for our invention of how to make sausage we have earned the undying gratitude of all the people in the world. But who remembers such things now?”

Then he turned to me,

“You, Yurko, study well to be clever so that you’ll be able to tell the world how much they owe us.”

Well, I must have studied well because now I remind you all about what Grandpa wanted me to remind of.

This is a true story of my grandmother, may she rest in peace, and of her God-given gift. The last thing that she did in her life was to embroider her own likeness.

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