Grandma Kuzemchenko was, in many ways, already gone. She didn’t speak often, and even then only in the Ukrainian of her youth. She would sometimes violently spit and curse the Soviets, not realizing that the revolution that drove her family from their home had collpased in failure over 20 years ago. She often failed to recognize her children and grandchildren, which was perhaps the most distressing for her large and extended family, which refused to allow her to be placed into a home.

But she still remembered the traditions and skills that had been instilled into her at a young age. Cooking, cleaning, sewing…Grandma Kuzemchenko could be found doing all those things even if she no longer remembered where she was. But the pysanky, the traditional Ukrainian Easter eggs…those were the most special.

Every Easter–for Grandma Kuzemchenko did check her Orthodox calendar with its photographs of illuminated saints–she would raid the fridge for eggs and the emergency candle cupboard for wax. The old metal wax-pot and stylus were kept under her bed, just where they had been during her girlhood near Kharkov, and the family would awaken to see Grandma Kuzemchenko huddled over a carton of eggs and bowls of dye, with wax softening on the stove.

Using the stylus, each egg would be painted with bold geometric patterns or expressive and angular Orthodox motifs. Sometimes both. Grandma Kuzemchenko would work on the eggs in batches, drawing on the wax designs, dyeing, and wiping the wax away with a warm cloth, until fantastic pictures of haloed angels trumpeting Cyrillic blessings amid bold background patterns began to emerge. She wouldn’t stop, save to eat or sleep, for days.

When the pysanky were done, Grandma Kuzemchenko would carefully divide them up: this many for the priest, this many for the children, this many for the graves of loved ones, this many for a living room basket to ward off misfortune and bring good luck. Her family, as much as they were able, distributed the eggs according to her hand-written Ukrainian labels.

But when asked to share the secret of preparing her dyes and drawing her designs, or when asked if anyone else could join in, she would only say, in her mother tongue, “It is a secret to be passed from mother to daughter, and I have no daughters.”

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