On the eve of the New Year, I wish to share with you a story told by the hostess of a cottage in which my friends and I stayed last summer, in Crimea, north of Sevastopol, near Uchkuevka beach. It’s a popular destination among Belarusians. One evening, sitting on the slope of a hill, we were admiring the tremendous beauty of the sea, when I saw Valentina. She was walking in a nearby pine grove, from whence the aromas of pine needles and various herbs wafted. She walked over to us, asking what had brought us to her locality and, little by little, we began chatting. That night, in southern Ukraine, we sat beneath the night’s huge stars, listening to the gentle rhythm of the waves. It inspired frankness, which continued at her veranda, over a cup of tea, and Valentina shared her thoughts openly.
I asked if she often walked among the pines for her health, and if it might not be better to swim or walk along the coast. She replied that she had a special story connected with the pines and asked if I wished her to share it, which she did.
Returning to childhood can help us to understand our problems and inner thoughts: material and spiritual ones. I’m an educational psychologist and can vouch for problems connected with the real world being the easiest to solve. I realised this long ago, and so deeply that, apparently, I grew up with this understanding. When my son was 3 years old, he showed me how easily he could cope with everyday challenges. I’ll never forget looking at the faded paint and cracks between the floorboards of my parents’ home, saying what an ugly floor it was and that it needed repair. My little son, who was nearby, looking at pictures, suddenly jumped up, took a box of plasticine and, with concentration, as if it was the most important thing in the world, began to select pieces to match the colour of the ‘problem’, cheerfully covering all the defects in the floor. The uneven floor had more than once caused him to fall and bump his head, making him question who had made the floor in this way. I realized then how close children are to the truth. From my youth, I had been amazed at how willingly and joyfully some would begin an undertaking — washing up, sweeping the floor, laundering clothes, or weeding. They were even upset by adults deciding to join in. I remember my husband giving our grandson a whip with which to chase out our neighbour’s hens from the garden. However, he then decided to help, much to our grandson’s frustration, who cried and shouted, since he wanted to undertake the task independently.
My motto is to speak less and to do more. I’m ashamed to say that our parents painted the floor themselves, saving us from the smell of paint in our holidays. Since then, I’ve endeavoured not to moan about the little things. When I’m tempted, I suppress the inclination.
Of course, it’s hard to say that we ever really ‘know’ ourselves: the secret and mysterious nature of our soul, which cannot be touched or measured. What is the human soul? I once wrote an essay on the subject but, here, I’ll tell a story connected to a fir tree from my childhood.
At first, I did not like this frozen pine, which my parents, for some reason, called a fir tree. It did not resemble the dark slim trees with thin branches, which I’d seen at my friend Sashka’s house. And how old was I at that time — 3 or 4? I asked why it looked different to that of our neighbours and my mother told me that theirs had been purchased, while ours was directly from the forest. However, her eyes became sad and it seemed to me that the tree, in its bucket of sand, yet to be decorated, also looked mournful. I felt sorry for the tree but then came to admire it. Its transparent icicles began to melt, sending sparkling drops dripping onto the floor, like tears. It was magical. I simply sat and watched it warming. I touched the trunk and the resin seeping from where it had been cut, so that my fingers stuck to each other; I was delighted. I still remember the sensation. I even tried to chew the long firm needles, which tasted astringent and sour. I liked it and the smell even more.
My final reconciliation came on my mother decorating it; I at last forgave the light green tree for not resembling a real fir tree. We hung many large pieces of cotton wool on its branches, for want of toys and silver strands (as Sashka had). It was the first fir tree of my childhood; the others, I cannot recall. I also cannot remember my father, who must have smiled at me in that distant childhood. I do recall feeing confused and anxious, worrying that my parents didn’t love me, or that I lacked their approval. Such uncertainty is, apparently, common among young children, as psychologists say. Such fears can mark a child for the rest of their life.
Even years later, when I had married a Belarusian and moved to Minsk, I continued to dream of that pine thawing, always grieving. In my dreams, each year, the toys placed on the branches fall and break, and the needles drop off, as does the cotton wool. I wonder why I torment myself in this way. I become angry with my mother, wondering why she didn’t do a better job with the decorating, tearing the cotton wool into smaller pieces, to resemble the ‘snow’ on Sashka’s tree. I take a broom to sweep up the needles but they are everywhere, dry and prickly; I can’t collect them all, and they stick painfully to my finger. In the dream, I’m annoyed by the lacy paper napkins, pasted on the small windows of our Ukrainian wattle cottage with nasty glue. I come from Kharkov Region.
I’ve told the dream to friends, as well as to my husband and son, and I’ve read books on psychology, looking at Freud and Nostradamus, to see their dream interpretations. However, nothing has yet rung true to me. My family is alive and well, so I have nothing to grieve for. I am free to organize elaborate celebrations at holiday time, as my beautiful niece has pointed out to me, and I enjoy delighting my family in this way. Once, before New Year, I bought a pine similar to that first one, as I wanted to show my son the fir tree of my childhood. I asked myself why I wanted to do so. I wanted to comprehend what was tormenting me: I loved that tree yet was simultaneously ashamed of its poor decorations. I was also anxious about why my mother was sad and why there were no smiles or other signs of pleasure in the lead up to the holiday.
Sadly, I continued to feel tormented and was reluctant to go to the market to purchase a tree, knowing that it would irritate me. As ever, I hung shabby Old Man Khottabych among the other decorations and, at last, when the festive season ended and I could throw it away, I felt only relief, able to push aside my disturbed feelings until the next New Year…
Then, a revelation came from the depths of my soul and I finally stopped being plagued by those dreams. When my father died, my husband and I brought my mother into our home and she lived with us for almost 12 years. On her 90th birthday, we celebrated by inviting a military orchestra, who played directly under the windows of our apartment; they even played some of her favourite songs, which my father-musician had played at dancing parties. My mother laughed happily at the amusement of it and was always interested in the world around her, and our work. She wanted to move with us to Crimea.
However, the festive period around New Year always seemed to quiet her, reminding her of those difficult times within her marriage. My father’s mother had told him that, while he was away fighting in the war, his wife had conducted an affair with a German who organized provisions for the dining hall in which she, with other girls, worked as a cleaner. My mother recalls, “He was very kind to me, pretending not to notice when we took away left over bread and even butter.” The food fed not only my brother, aged 4, but her mother-in-law, and my father’s sister, and her two small children. In this way, they withstood hard times, until the Germans left our village of Volchansk. My father received early retirement on medical grounds, then the war ended: he had been seriously injured near Kaliningrad, and spent six months in hospital, before returning home to wife and son.
“At first, everything was fine and, for several years, we lived happily, although we were poor. I have no idea why my mother-in-law decided to make a wrongful accusation against me — or why he believed her, rather than me,” my mother revealed. When I was 3 years old, my father fell in love with another woman: the manageress of the kindergarten where he worked as a supply manager. My mother was beautiful, but so was she. They were even alike in appearance. At the New Year’s Eve party, where kindergarten workers attended with spouses, my mother realized the relationship. Of course, she was pained, but was obliged to accept the situation, for the sake of her children. She was worried by what people might say if she left: that she was depriving her children of their father. My brother, then aged 16, agreed. She reconciled herself by saying that such things often happen in life. However, my father’s detachment continued until his unmarried beloved found a bachelor for herself. He became upset for a while, but eventually regained some cheer and he and my mother resumed good terms, living in peace and friendship as far as possible. They came to my school-leaving party and we celebrated their Golden wedding anniversary.
When I became a mother myself, I felt sorry for my father and began to recollect small gestures fondly: him brushing my hair before the mirror. He noticed my steadfast sullen look and simply told me that I’d understand when I was older. Of course, I do. I had seen him chatting with his lover, having eavesdropped by the door of her office, and planned to relate all to my mother, saying that they had simply had an innocent conversation. I wanted to ease her mind. However, part of me knew that there was more to it.
After many years, I’ve been able to gain better understanding of my feelings towards my parents’ relationship. I appreciate the anatomy of our fears and realize that they rubbed along together as best as they could and they were excellent parents. Thank God that we managed to surround them with care and attention, and had time to give pleasure, so that they could be proud of us. Like that frozen pine, my mother was able to warm her soul in the bosom of her family, at the New Year, receiving gifts and the sincere love of children, grandsons and great-grandsons. She was able to set aside her mourning and I hope that, in those last years, she was able to rise above memories of that ‘terrible’ New Year. Perhaps she no longer had the energy to think about the past: who knows? What is remarkable is that I’ve ceased to feel anxiety at this time of year, and no longer dream about that first New Year fir tree.
Rather, I have another ritual now: every autumn, I want to plant a pine tree. Have you noticed that there are two pines and two fir trees under the windows of our house? Each New Year I decorate them. We’ve done the same at our rural home in my husband’s homeland of Belarus, in Lyakhovshchina. They are quite tall now. When the season ends in Crimea, we’ll visit them when we see my husband’s family.
I like to walk among the pines, as it awakens tenderness in my soul, so that I can rejoice in the life I’m living. Life isn’t easy, but it is blessed.
By Agrafena Volchanskaya