Being here in Ukraine is like time traveling on a magic carpet through my childhood. When I said that to someone recently their response was, “Oh, No.” As if it’s not a good thing to drift back into yesteryear. But for me it is a gift—to me it is swift ride through the years on a flying carpet to a time that was magical. Every day in some way I seem to be reminded of the little red cottage where I grew up surrounded by aunts and uncles that were more like brothers and sisters. My mother being fifteen years old when I was born made me the youngest in this large close knit family. These memories swirl around me whether I am in the market buying dirt covered carrots and potatoes just plucked from the ground or watching someone tending their garden—In a wink of an eye I am suddenly transported into a distant but sensate memory.Today my magic carpet took me back to a time when we would walk through the back yard, passed the wire fence that contained chickens or pheasant and passed a garden that had pretty much been harvested.
The time is late October, the air is crisp and cold, the leaves crunch under our feet and there is a wonderful smell of wood fire in the distance. We are scurrying to beat the squirrels and other little animals that are hurrying to beat us to the walnuts. The race is on—who will get them first. We’d cross over the railroad tracks behind the house and head into the forest looking for walnut trees. Course my uncles know exactly where the trees are because it was an event that was repeated year after year.
It was cold but we were didn’t care as we had our expectations and our bags and buckets to fill with lots of walnuts. The walnuts by now would have ripened and fallen from the trees. My uncle Ray said never to pull them off the tree but pick them up off the ground. The walnut husk turns black when it ripens and that is when it falls from the tree. The shelled walnut is encased inside this husk. Sometimes the husk would be partially green and black or all green but we would gather every one we could find on the ground under the leaves and no matter if it was black or green into the bucket it would go.
We would spend the afternoon filling our containers of various sizes and then weighted down we would head back home. We knew there would be hot turkey soup waiting for us when we got back. We never let the walnuts stay inside the husk for long either or the nut would have a bitter taste. So, after warming up by the fire, having a little hot soup, my uncles would take a hammer and go out by the back door and crack the hull to get the walnut out. Then they would bring the shelled walnuts into the house where they would dry out for a week or two.
Once they were dry we all would gather together again and begin the job of cracking the shell to get at the nut. The kitchen around us would be a fury of activity as my grandmother and my aunts would be cooking a huge meal or maybe some blueberry slump. I don’t ever remember anyone complaining – it was just something we all did together as we prepared for the long winter ahead.
Today here in Ukraine as I cracked open the shelled walnuts a Ukrainian friend had brought to me a few weeks ago, my magic carpet took me back to those childhood days. I could smell the aroma from the kitchen. So after I cracked the walnuts, I peeled some apples, tossed in some cranberries another volunteer had brought back from Hong Kong, sprinkled on walnuts fresh out of the shell, covered it with water and sprinkled a little sugar on top and struck a match to light the burner. In a few moments, I had applesauce just like my grandmother made.I can’t help but wonder what changed—I can’t remember why or when we stopped gathering walnuts. And, I wonder if the trees are still there or have they been cut down to build homes. 11/13/11-Poltava, Ukraine