When I was little, one of my favorite places was The Original Shop, a clothing store owned by my grandmother, Ann Kaprowy. In this clean and bright space, she has sold women their bridesmaid dresses, prom tailoring, mother of the bride dresses and work wear for over 50 years.
When I was at her house, which was a cozy apartment above the Selkirk Avenue store, I was usually desperately busy watching Days of Our Lives while eating the Mirage chocolate bars she kept in the fridge. . But at least five times a day, I went to the store to see what was going on. Invariably, my grandmother would help customers, giving her soft but firm opinion on a dress, handing them their freshly steamed and altered dresses, or kneeling blowing chalk against flowing muslin to indicate where the new line of hem had to go.
My grandmother’s customers were mostly small, smiling Ukrainian ladies who arrived dressed in thick boiled wool winter coats, their hair wrapped in cashmere babushkas to protect their hairstyles from the wind. Dressed in a sleek skirt, a pressed blouse, a fresh coat of conservative lipstick, Ann chatted comfortably with them in her native tongue, the sound of the foreign language sounding, to me, like English. flowing water. I stood in a chair to watch the exchange, my elbows on the front jewelry counter, waiting for my grandmother to introduce me.
She always would. “Gene’s daughter,” she would say with a smile, reverting to English for me.
My grandmother was able to maintain a strong business in Winnipeg thanks to the Ukrainians in the city. Manitoba has the largest Ukrainian population in Canada, and Canada has the second largest Ukrainian diaspora after Russia.
They began arriving in the 1890s, drawn to the province for its agriculture, the flat, cold plains of Manitoba that resemble the land they had left. They built farms, houses, stores, schools, churches which still border the province with their characteristic bulbous steeples. After the arrival of other Ukrainians at the end of the two world wars, they entered the city. And there they also worked, in slaughterhouses, marshalling yards, metallurgical workshops.
Steeped in Ukrainian tradition, my grandmother was born on a farm in Manitoba and moved to Winnipeg after her marriage, settling in the poor and harsh north end of the city.
One thing I learned early on about Ukrainian ethics? You work. When she was in her late 90s, I asked my grandmother if she had any life advice for me. She didn’t hesitate for a second. “Be honest and work hard,” she said before going back to pinching the pierogi.
So when I see images of Ukrainians fiercely fighting an impossible dictator, outnumbered, ill-equipped, violently attacked because they have the nerve to want a western life? I’m not surprised. Heartbroken, yes, but I’m not surprised.
Ukrainians, they fight. As I’m sure many of you have, I constantly read the news. It’s not the first time I’ve seen the destruction of war portrayed in the media, but I’ll be honest: it’s the first time I’ve felt a personal connection to it. Every time I see a babushka, I think of my grandmother.
The photo that stopped me in my tracks was of a man surrounded by glass bottles, which had been collected to make Molotov cocktails. How would your country feel if it asked you to build them? How would it feel to be waiting in line to receive a gun so that when the situation probably arises, you can try to defend yourself?
My husband and I donated to World Central Kitchen (wck.org). If the name sounds familiar, it’s because WCK volunteers were mobilized in western Kentucky after the December tornado. Now volunteers are stationed at the border between Ukraine and Poland and they feed the refugees as they flee. It’s run by celebrity chef José Andrés, who has videos of the work they do on his Instagram page (@chefjoseandres). By February 28, they had served 8,000 meals at the border.
I know there are organizations and churches everywhere raising funds and supplies, which is so encouraging to see. I can’t remember a time when the world, frankly, was so unified. From disaster comes cooperation, I suppose.
In turn, there are great stories surfacing everywhere. I will end with this one. A few days ago, my cousin Lisa, who lives in Fargo, ND, expressed how devastated her fraternal grandparents would be if they had been alive to see this destruction; they fled Ukraine after World War II. In response, I decided to send Lisa flowers to cheer me up.
I called a random florist and placed my order. When the lady on the phone asked me what kind of flowers I wanted, I told her flowers were her choice, but asked if it would be possible to wrap a yellow and blue ribbon around the vase.
She was silent for a minute and when she spoke I realized that the restlessness had disappeared from her voice and was replaced by the sweetest sweetness.
“Of course,” she said, her voice cracking. “Of course we can. I’m also thinking of Ukraine.”