At my uncle’s funeral in 2001, the priest remarked to me during a conversation, “You’re not Russian. You are Ukrainian.”
The funeral was held in the small yet ornate Ukrainian Catholic Church in a coal town in central Pennsylvania where my uncle had grown up. He and my mother were two of eight children my grandmother raised there. My grandfather, an immigrant coal miner, died at age 44, leaving my grandmother a young widow with a big family. Her Ukrainian Catholic faith sustained her. The town’s church offered English lessons, bingo and Ukrainian classes for her children to learn their parents’ native language.
Throughout my childhood, my mother often told me how much she hated those Ukrainian language classes. But she also told me colorful, very detailed stories about her childhood in that small town. There were two Catholic churches, one for the Ukrainians and the other popular with the town’s Italians. When my mother and several of her siblings moved to Baltimore in the post-World War II years of the late 1940s, Mom turned the page on all things Ukrainian. She enrolled as a part-time student at the Maryland Institute College of Art and found a job with the Social Security Administration. When she met my father, who was Jewish, they were married in a small Ukrainian church located in East Baltimore on Wolfe Street. The year was 1952, and my father said the Ukrainian priest was one of the few at the time willing to officiate at their very small interfaith ceremony. By the time I was born, my mother had become a Roman Catholic, finding the Archdiocese of Baltimore more accessible than Ukrainian Catholicism in terms of church locations.