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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

Soon it will be Easter and following the traditions of my Mennonite ancestors, I will make paska, a Ukrainian Easter bread.

This year I struggle with how to think about this family tradition. Invading soldiers have swarmed over the area from which a century ago my relatives fled Russian bloodshed. Once again it is a place of war. My maternal relatives lived in the Donetsk District, currently an occupied part of Ukraine.

Usually, when I get out the ingredients needed to make the paska, I think of my great aunt Anna. Our visits were always special. In the early 1980s, when I was a child nearing my teen years, she would take me to the sunny cafeteria on the sixth floor of the Hudson’s Bay building in Winnipeg. I took my time picking out what I wanted because it seemed to me that’s what adults did. But I didn’t really need the time because I always chose the same thing: a grilled cheese sandwich with French fries. It never occurred to me that these weren’t exactly adult choices.

My aunt had beautifully coiffed white hair and, as you might expect from someone who owned a clothing shop, was always exquisitely dressed. She particularly liked tailored jackets over sleekly cut skirts and high-necked lace blouses of the sort I had seen Katharine Hepburn wear in the movies. She usually wore a large pin – often a beautiful oval cameo – affixed neatly in the hollow of her neck. When Aunt Anna spoke about her childhood, it sounded like something out of a fairytale. Her large family had lived in a brick house with an orchard. She remembered pears and plums and five different kinds of apples. She said the pears grew 17 centimetres long, like a tall glass of water. The children would gather mulberry leaves for the silkworms and everyone would eat the delicious fruit. That part of the story I knew. My adult relatives knew more. They knew what happened next.

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One night, her mother came into the children’s bedrooms. In the Low German they spoke she said, “Kinder, steht auf. Es ist Kriech.” (Children, wake up, there is war.) During this time, my aunt remembered soldiers covered with lice who would come and sleep in the family’s beds while the children huddled together in a corner. My aunt described soldiers coming into the house, demanding food, taking things. “Very much was stolen,” she said, “and sometimes a Mennonite neighbour would be murdered.”

So, they fled.

During a prepandemic visit to The Mennonite Story museum in St. Jacobs, Ont., I stared at a coloured chart on the wall: interconnected lines in blue and brown and black, yellow and green – like veins beneath the flesh – showing generations of dispersal. At the top of the chart, a short descriptive phrase: “Anabaptism founded in Switzerland” (1527) and below that, “Harsh persecution forces Anabaptists to flee.”

I looked through all those lines and found the one I was looking for: The flight made by my maternal grandparents as children. Their diaspora in the 1920s from the Donetsk District in what was then the Soviet Union, but which is now Ukraine. When I left the Mennonite museum, I smelled bread from a nearby bakery. A slightly sour whiff of fermenting yeast combined in the air with the applewood smokiness of warm oats and crushed grain. A wholly appropriate smell.

In 2001, a relative made his way back to the area where my aunt’s family had lived. He took pictures and, on his return, shared them with her. She was furious, insisting he must have photographed the wrong place. What he showed her could not have been what remained of the house, of the orchard. Four years later, at her funeral, he said, “over time she forgave me and accepted the fact that the passing of time and history can change a memory’s face.”

My parents raised me in the Mennonite traditions my maternal grandfather and grandmother’s families brought with them to Canada. The smells of baking bread are what I remember most from my childhood church in Edmonton. All those lunches with homemade buns accompanied by thick stews with root vegetables. The faintly bitter taste of the cabbage-filled broths combined with the sweetness of the buttered rolls evoked a feeling of deep comfort, like being held close by someone you love. Dessert was even better. More breads, but of a different kind. Loaves sweetened with lemon zest and raisins, eggs and white sugar and topped with thick coatings of buttercream frosting.

This year, I had hoped that by the time I combined butter, egg and whole milk with flour, sugar, salt and lemon rind for my paska dough, the region from which my aunt escaped would once again know peace. But that does not appear to be the case.

This year, too, I realize that for me, making paska has changed.

While I cannot stop the violence happening in Ukraine, I can think about the traditions I have inherited from that region in a different way. Every time we take part in an inherited ritual, we both sustain something from the past and create something new. Now when I think back on my youth and all that sweetened bread set out on long church tables, I see more than food. I see resilience. I see a diaspora celebrating what could not be taken away.

Sharon Hamilton lives in Ottawa.

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