learn best practice from your ukrainian baba

My family had a wonderful day at the Ukrainian Cultural Village for the annual Canada Day celebrations. The rich history and culture reminded me of something I had written years ago while working in a government run network of extended care seniors homes. The following is an excerpt from a document I wrote about Best Practice.

My Ukrainian heritage has awarded me with luxurious traditions. The most easily identifiable characteristic of my people is their love for good food. We enjoy full-flavoured, work intensive dishes, made with simple ingredients and skilled hands. There are few items on the Ukrainian palate that are not either wrapped, tucked or pickled, and many are often blanketed with velvety creamy toppings. Consider the traditional Christmas feast: 12 meatless dishes! Each one requiring culinary skill and patience, each one thoroughly enjoyed.

I remember conversations around our own kitchen table of how much Ukrainian Baba’s will expect you to eat when you visit. “Eat, eat! Another helping! More, take more! You eat like a bird, dearie!” I don’t think they’re capable of preparing a small meal. It’s in their genes to set down full plates, regardless of the contents. They are class acts at humble extravagance. It would be an insult for a guest to leave a Baba’s table hungry. They have a way of making anything taste good. Have you ever tried creamed chicken feet? It was passed around our table a few times, and I distinctly remember cleaning off my plate.

Baba spoke of an occasion in her young days when she and her husband searched the house for hours to find a dime, so they could buy sugar to make bread. She told me tales of the mud oven behind her childhood home, filled with dozens of loaves of bread every Monday to feed the family of 15 for the rest of the week. She prepared for us special entrees and desserts, delightfully unusual for me, yet reminiscent of a time when having berries on the plate was a rare luxury.

When I grew up, visits to Baba’s apartment always ended with generous food-gifts to take home in my care trunk. Cookies, leftovers from supper, even miscellaneous cans of beans and soup were ceremoniously presented. Cold cuts, bread, cheese slices, a sundry of pickles, fresh fruit, canned fruit, dried fruit and fruitcake. Her pantry contained nothing extravagant, only the essentials, but there was always enough to share.

It was therefore a rather disheartening undertaking to pack up her belongings one day and move her into the Assisted Living facility in her Ukrainian town. It was a necessary, but unwelcome transition in her life, and our large family spent the entire morning packing. The descent to the bottom of her freezer was tackled by my sister, “These cabbage leaves are 8 years old! I feel terrible throwing them way!” An entire life’s worth of memories emanated from her boxed possessions, through which we had to sort, condense, and unpack in a room one quarter the size of her apartment. We somehow managed to set her up in her new home by the end of the day, adding a number of storage cabinets for those assorted cans of peas.

My parents attended a special function for the facility a few months later. It was a reception for family members of the residents, offering home cooked Ukrainian food and evening activities. When they arrived, they visited with Baba a short time before making their way down to the dining room. Upon entering the hall, they were greeted with stern looking food service ladies who seemed aggravated with the extra work load for the evening. They hurried the guests and residents to their seats, and proceeded to hand out plates with food already on them.

My mother stared at the dish placed in front of her, on which was a diminutive bowl of borsch, two holubchi, and a couple of baked pyrogy. The entire meal could barely fill the stomach of a small child, let alone satisfy the adult guests who sat in the room. Baba sat quietly, saying nothing, unsuccessfully hiding her disappointment. I can only imagine the thoughts that ran through her head, wishing that she could somehow, as in times past, be sitting at a table that was over laden with simple food, and anticipating the happy groans of her pleased guests once they had eaten their full. Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to happen today. She would probably need to provide crackers in their room to supplement this pitiful meal.

From the viewpoint of a bookkeeper, small servings for people who eat small amounts of food makes sense. From the viewpoint of the recipients, however this was unacceptable. My parents followed up afterwards with the facility’s administrators and even called their region’s political representative to voice their concerns. They were assured that this would be investigated but they never heard any outcomes.

The issue was not that people weren’t being fed sufficiently; nor was that it was unsatisfactory food. Rather, it was that the cultural identity of the Ukrainian Baba’s in that room was reduced and ignored, Baba’s who had devoted a lifetime of hours to the preparation of outstanding meals. They would never dream of serving a small meal to their visitors. Their culture, their very identity, was to provide good homemade feasts, albeit humble, nonetheless bountiful. The facility’s meager victuals went beyond being inconvenient. It was shameful and insulting. The event couldn’t possibly encourage them to invite their loved ones to the next planned dinner, furthering their inevitable isolation.

We must retain and appreciate the culture of our seniors, particularly those who live in extended care. Regularly implementing organizational procedure that is indifferent to the historical identity of residents is neglectful and short-sighted. We are the young, the inexperienced, the “green” and we should value their variegated heritage, hidden as it may be at times beneath their dementia. A French Proverb laments, “If you but had the knowledge and old age the strength.” They are now drawing from our strength; let us be intent on drawing from their knowledge.

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