Baba spreads the newspaper across the oil cloth on the kitchen table. She pulls out a chunk of beeswax, a candle and kiskas. Finally, she sets down a carton of eggs that her chickens have laid. She’s scrubbed them clean of dung and straw. A dozen white canvases.
I pack the metal funnel of my kiska with wax, dip the tip into the candle and scrape it across the egg. My 7-year-old hand, clutching the wooden shaft of this tool, leaves a crooked trail of wax. I peer across the table at Baba who has drawn a crisp, straight line around the circumference of her egg.
“Mine doesn’t look anything like yours!” I complain.
“Just paint it so the chicken doesn’t recognize it,” she says, a perfectly formed star taking shape on her egg. She is inscribing it with beeswax to make the traditional Ukrainian Easter eggs called pysanka. Mine is already bombed with wax blobs.
“Make the mistakes part of the design.” She promises that this year she’ll put my nicest egg into the glass globe she keeps in the china cabinet.
Baba adds boiling water and vinegar to the evaporated dyes that have crusted along the bottom of the jars. She salvages and resurrects these vibrant colors year after year.
“Why can’t we just open a fresh package?” I ask holding one up.
“These old dyes are perfectly good,” she says.
Baba was born during she Spanish Flu pandemic, and in her first 25 years she would endure two world wars and the Great Depression. Those dyes were a metaphor for how she learned to live her life, always crafting something practical, and often beautiful, out of almost nothing.
I hunch over my eggs all day, dipping them in and out of the dyes. Yellow. Orange. Red. Black. With my kiska, I create stars, flowers and wheat — the wax forever sealing these vibrant colors onto my egg.
As I pull what I believe is my best egg from the Mason jar of black dye, the final color — disaster strikes. The egg rolls off the end of the spoon and lands between my feet on the floor. Tears roll down my cheeks at the sight of the broken pieces of shell floating in the yolk.
“Well, the chicken sure as hell won’t recognize it now!” Baba says, wiping away my tears with the same cloth she uses to clean up the broken egg. “You’ll make more.” At the time, I don’t understand the full meaning of her words. It’s evening and we don’t make any more eggs that day. My egg is gone.
But over the next 30 years, in the weeks leading up to Easter, we will settle ourselves around her table to make dozens of pysanka. One year, I will knock over the candle with the sleeve of my hoodie and the newspaper will catch fire. Beating out the flames with a wet tea towel, Baba will crush all of our pysanka and we will have nothing to show for ourselves that year. Whether I was a brooding teenager, working on my university degree, or struggling through an abusive relationship, our spring ritual never changed.
When Baba is in her late 80s, we convene at her table, still blistered from The Great Pysanka Fire of ’83. The eggs that I’ve picked up at the store, she laments, are not as large as the ones her chickens used to lay. But at least we don’t have to clean them. Baba has laid out old newspaper, wax and kiskas that she has unclogged and refurbished. She lights the candle and we begin. She pulls her kiska around the egg. I can see the line veering off to the right; the two ends will never connect. The points of her stars are uneven, like the ones I’d made as a child.
“I’m finished. I can’t see,” she says, setting down her egg and kiska. She won’t pick them up ever again. She rubs her eyes, but the cataracts that block her vision can’t be wiped away.
“Just paint it so the chicken doesn’t recognize it,” I say. I melt the wax from one of my pysanka to reveal golden suns and sprigs of wheat layered onto a backdrop of geometric red and white stars. Baba picks it up and turns it over in hands that are bent from arthritis.
“Knowledge and growth,” she nods, pointing out the symbolism of this pattern.
By her mid 90s, Baba must move off the farm and into a nursing home. Open flames are not permitted there because many people have oxygen tanks. But I continue the ritual without her. As the snow melts, I carefully pack the pysanka into cartons and bring them to her for inspection. She picks up an egg and gently rolls it between her fingers as she asks about the fall harvest. It is spring. She feels the egg more than she looks at it now. I know that I am slowly losing her, but the pysanka still bond us.
Baba passed away two winters ago, at 101 years old. Before the coffin closed, I placed two pysanka near her folded hands — one of hers and one of mine.
The next spring, I spread the newspaper across my kitchen table, set out a chunk of beeswax, candles, kiskas. I opened a carton of eggs — I had to drive to three stores to find white eggs that were not blighted with date stamps. For the first time in my life, I wouldn’t be able to show Baba my pysanka.
But I have my own children now. My daughter reached for an egg, heated her kiska in the candle and dragged it across the surface with glee. I began my own egg, recreating a pattern that was one of Baba’s favorites.
“My egg looks so bad!” my 9-year-old daughter exclaimed.
“As long as the chicken doesn’t recognize it,” I smiled.
“What chicken?” To my kids, eggs do not come from farms, they come from stores.
I glance at the glass globe on the shelf. I can trace out our lives in these pysanka. They tell the stories and memories of my Baba. They are a Ukrainian map of our relationship, and now I would add my own children’s eggs to the globe and they will become part of that story.
This spring, when we start painting pysanka, the world is collapsing into something that had been very familiar to my baba. I no longer have the luxury of going to three different stores in search of perfect white, polished eggs. We are supposed to leave home only when necessary for essentials. We should probably eat these eggs instead of painting them. Even though I have newer supplies, I sift through the box of pysanka materials I’ve rescued from the farm and salvage what I can. I pull out a mottled and misshapen chunk of wax that was my Baba’s and hand it to my daughter. She fills the kiska, dips it into the flame of the candle and pulls it across the egg, recreating and reliving the patterns of her great-grandmother’s life.
Her pysanka doesn’t even make it into the first dye before it slips through her fingers and cracks on the table in front of her. She frowns.
“It’s OK,” I say. “You’ll make more.”
Daria Salamon is a novelist and travel writer and the co-author of “Don’t Try This at Home: One Family’s (mis)Adventures Around the World.”