|pumpkin cheesecake with gingersnap crust (homemade, back in the land of cream cheese!)|
In a rare double-post, shared with my justwrite blog-- where I normally post freewrites and rough drafts of creative work, but am this month posting daily excerpts of my Nano novel progress-- here's a bit of that memory from November 2009...
My first Thanksgiving in Ukraine, I lived with a host family. Still, I came back from language classes—I think we had the afternoon off?—with a plan. While other Americans planned for a big gathering in a pizza place in the city, I decided on a different route. I stopped by a grocery store and a stationery stall and got some supplies, then headed back to the apartment. My host mom and sister were both still at work and the university, respectively, so I had some time to prepare.
Luckily, I’d already been living in this apartment in Chernihiv for about two months by the time Thanksgiving arrived, so I was at least somewhat ready to deal with the challenges of the kitchen. I had no illusions about cooking a full Thanksgiving dinner by the time Tamara and Ira returned home, so I decided on a few modest side dishes and some… what would I call them if someone were to ask? Informative and entertaining decorations. That’s if someone were to ask in English, you understand. Or at least that’s how I’d be answering in English, were I to understand the question in the first place.
I chose to make mashed potatoes (probably my favorite dish on the traditional Thankgiving table and on nearly any table upon which it appears, plus easy enough to make with one of the cheapest and most readily available ingredients in Ukraine), but while I was thinking about my choice for a second dish, Tamara made it. That is, the night before Thanksgiving, while abnormal percentages of Americans were eating pizza and going out to bars, my host mom made lots and lots of pumpkin kasha—pumpkin puree mixed up with some sort of grain (rice, I think it probably was). To be clear, I’m not complaining about this development at all; pumpkin kasha should be celebrated, whenever and however it appears. Still, the amount of pumpkin kasha—because Tamara knew that I loved it—made it ridiculous for me to think about making multiple dishes the next day.
So, I scrubbed, peeled, cut, boiled, and mashed potatoes and planned the informative and entertaining decorations that would adorn the cabinets in the kitchen/ dining room. I’m not sure exactly what I had in mind, but what I ended up with was vastly beyond what I had imagined. It’s hard to say whether I was bursting with pride or slightly embarrassed, lest anyone should see my display, but it was impossible to turn back. I kept thinking that someone would show up while I was still preparing and I could sheepishly look excited about inviting whoever it was into my odd style of celebration, but time kept passing.
Eventually, I decided that my decorations were informative and entertaining enough. I cleaned up, ate my mashed potatoes, pumpkin kasha, and hardboiled egg. Happy Thanksgiving to me! Still no one came home. I washed my dishes and went to my room to do my homework.
Some time later, Tamara rang the doorbell—it was our custom to deadbolt the door on the inside if someone was at home, necessitating the person inside to be alert for those returning. I let her in, we exchanged greetings, and I returned to my room. I had decided abruptly that I wanted the kitchen Thanksgiving theme-pieces to be a surprise. So, I kept my head down at my desk, staring through notes that read “whatever whatever whatever you know you’re not even reading this so why even bother pretending oh come on” as I listened to Tamara head to the living room, her bedroom, and switch to home-clothes, then back to the fridge in the hallway to gather a few dinner items. Then, in the kitchen, she switched on the light. I held my breath a little.
“O, Melissochka, dyakoyou za pyuree!” she called. She was thanking me for the puree, the mashed potatoes.
No problem, I told her. But did she see the decorations? Was she informed? Was she entertained?
That is, she made no comment. She didn’t answer my questions by saying “no comment,” especially because I didn’t ask these questions aloud. I thought this prudent.
I heard her fussing in the kitchen, putting together her meal, and setting it down on the table. Would she never look up at the cabinets where this display was fully prepared to inform and entertain her? I heard her sit down on the bench, which meant she was below and facing away from the cabinet, and turn on the television.
It’s not right to be frustrated in a situation where no one knows that you have expectations for them. Right? Certainly.
I watched my homework for a while, flipped a few pages around.
At some point, the dishes clattered into the sink, the television was turned off, and I heard Tamara laugh with sudden surprise.
“Oh, Melissa, what is it?” she called out to me at last, in Ukrainian.
The only word for what I did was ‘scampered’. I scampered from my room to the kitchen like an elementary school kid, proud and pleased and ready to show off my efforts to my somewhat bewildered but definitely amused host mother.
The display, in classic cut-out construction paper shapes, incorporated various elements of Thanksgiving into a smorgasboard of explanation. There were parts about history, bits about contemporary celebration of the holiday, and a plenty of the ingredients that make this occasion so deliciously fulfilling. The topper was the hand-turkeys, also in classic elementary style, that I had made for each member of my host family, with a note on top thanking each for a specific attribute. “Tamara, thank you for your generosity!” I thanked Tamara, her daughters Ira and Vika, and grandson Ihor, so four slightly confused looking turkeys marched across the bottom of the cabinets, bearing what they hoped were correctly constructed Ukrainian notes of gratitude.
Yes, yes, all of this was in Ukrainian. You see? It took a long time. None of these little leaves or pumpkins or other display shapes took long to cut out or stick up on the cabinet doors, but the construction of the actual words and phrases took much longer. Listing the ingredients of a Thanksgiving feast, while perhaps superfluous, was the easiest task, requiring simple recopying from my textbook or the dictionary. I even knew some of the words already! Potato? Картопля! Corn? Кукурудза! Bam! Of course, writing out these words meant using my gorgeous elementary block print handwriting, but hey, sticking with the theme.
Plus, my host mom was proud, and that’s what it was all about.
I mean, she was entertained and informed, and that’s what it was all about.
When Ira, my host sister came home, Tamara showed off this display to her on my behalf. What did Ira think? She definitely raised her eyebrows, but she didn’t stick out her tongue or anything behind Tamara’s back, so I think that was a success. Yeah, I may have the language skills of a child, but I’m older. So!
The next night, when Vika and Ihor came over to visit, Tamara knocked on my door, and the whole family came in to deliver a present to me. A present? For Thanksgiving, it was explained to me. They didn’t know it was a holiday, really, but they wanted me to have a present. It was a small furry blue bag with a smiling flower on it and chocolates inside. Awesome. Then we all made hand turkeys together, and they wrote notes on theirs, thanking me for something I meant to them. I had to use my dictionary to figure out what they appreciated, but it was clearly well worth the effort.
This was my first Thanksgiving in Ukraine, and while it wasn’t anything like any Thanksgiving I’d ever had before or will again, the opportunity to share this wonderful holiday with such an accepting and loving family is one I’ll never forget.