Stremba
& Company
 
 

Sviat, sviat, sviat!
Hospod' Savaot!
Ispoln' nebo i zemlia
slavy Tvoyeya!
Osanna vo vyshnikh!

HOSANNAH
IN THE
HIGHEST
TREE

A Christmas Confession

"told" by Matthew-Daniel Stremba to Barbara F. Cates

I had no way of knowing. The little girl in church. No way of knowing just what woes worried her during the week, and then what her Sunday experience turned out to be.

It was soon after our parish had voted out the Julian calendar, an old tradition our foreparents treasured. Grandmom and grandpop would never have ceded that precious measure of time to any authority—Emperor, Pope, Stalin. The adult parishioners, however, after a pretty close vote, rubbed out thirteen days for the sake of putting our Christmas into sync with everyone else's there in our tough town parked on the eastern bank of the Schuylkill River, an hour's train ride up from Philly. We would never again be late for celebrating Christmas.

Oh, the delight we kids felt. We were the second generation American-born, the grandchildren of immigrants from villages in the Carpathian Mountains. And for the sake of being modern, more American, I shudder to think what else we would've gladly given up.

We were a paradox, we American-born children. For all the longing to be part of the modern world, we actively participated in our parish's very other-worldly liturgical services, quite different from anything the Romans were doing in their tidy temples.

Sunday liturgy in those days was singing. The little girl of my lead paragraph—she sang—we all sang. No instrumental accompaniment. Men's voices naturally an octave lower, often reaching lower yet for some folk harmonies.

None of it was in English. Not even native Ukrainians could make sense out of all the Old Church Slavonic texts. And to us second-generation kids it was absolute Greek. But who needed lexical meaning when the simple chant was as rich as buttered cinnamon toast? Add to the chant the smoky incense, icons, abundant candles of various shapes and sizes, and the ritual movement throughout the sacred space that our Roman Catholic peers mocked: "your priest dances round the altar."

I served as altarboy, so I took part in that "dance." The little girl must've stood somewhere in the nave with her parents, refugees from war-torn Europe. Many of those DPs appeared in our parish in the early 1950s. They spoke no English, and we American-born kids spoke hardly a word of Ukrainian. We were stuck on page 6 of the Ukrainian primer, which we visited every Wednesday evening in the church basement under the tutelage of the ancient cantor, Pan* Kravetz. The refugee kids, however, could recite long passages from Taras Shevchenko's oeuvre. We were Peter and Nick and John, Matty and Mike, Elaine and Barbara and Betty and Nancy, while their children answered to Petro, Mykola, Ivan*, Matvyi and Mykhailo, Olena, Varvara, Yelyzaveta and Anna*.


* Footnote. Pan, high-Ukrainian for "Mister," rhymes with the verb "don." The name Ivan isn't "EYE-vin"; it's "ee-VAHn." And Anna doesn't rhyme with banana; rather it's "AHn-nah."

The little girl was Oksana, a name we kids hadn't heard before. Now, we weren't strangers to unusual Slavic names. Among the immigrants who founded the parish back in 1906 there were Tekla, Paraskeva, Ksenia, Hryhoryi, Ignatyi, Dmytro, Kasia, Pelagia. But we saw those uncommon names all the years of our short lives, so they'd lost much of their exotic flavor. Why, my very own grandmother had been baptized Efrozina. But Oksana, well, that was new and, of course, alien.

She was the youngest daughter of DPs who had waited—I found out much later—waited four years in a DP camp in occupied Germany before getting processed for resettlement in Pennsylvania. Because Oksana spoke no English, as a child I never had access to her private life. But then—me at 10-11, and she at 6 or 7—age was divide enough, language barrier or not.

Not till many years afterwards, did I learn details of her girlhood. The loneliness of her first months in public school. The WASP teachers, kind but mangling her name and comprehending little of what she wanted. (One time she was thirsty but had no clue how to deal with a hallway fountain.) And the cool detachment we American-born kids assumed toward her and her fellow DPs.

Were we to acknowledge kids like her as part of our parish, well, there could've been embarrassment. Consider, we finally had the new calendar—wouldn't it be several steps backward to be seen with these little folks who spoke broken English, sometimes wore shabby Salvation Army clothes? Belonging to the dominant group was just so desirable. In the schoolyard we looked the other way lest these Ukrainian kids greet us, their fellow-parishioners, and reach for our hands that we might guide them through the thickets of American English and small-town ways of doing things. Oh, the cruelty we church-going carol-singing Gospel-kissing kids so easily perpetrated.

So, what about Oksana's Sunday experience was so special it deserves your attention when you're so busy with so much else?

Oksana, I found out much later, joyfully joined her voice to all the women and girls gathered on the left in our tiny old church, while giving ear to the men and boys singing on the right, singing the liturgical parts tradition assigned to the congregation. That pleasure in raising her voice to match the grownups' would, in its wake, she said, wipe out all traces of trials and anxieties of the preceding school week. Church had a glow, a resonance—so different from school.

Hearing about that, I was taken with a similarity in our disparate childhoods. Yes, for me too. Monday to Friday was mostly worry—would I be up to facing down the toughs?—Willard, and that overgrown Spenser boy who should have been in junior high by then. And what to do not to look like a sissy in gym class? School days, oh, they were too much the brutal real world. Church? well, that was storyland, poetry, beauty and safety.

"I would never've guessed," she said. "You and your friends looked so terribly confident marching up and down the school hallways."

"Thank heavens I mastered the look."

"But did Sunday also fortify you for the week to come?" she asked.

And that's where our experiences of church diverged.

Oksana, the little girl piping up the Galician chants, would grow in excitement as the Liturgy gained momentum, no one strong enough to hold back all that text (penned, legend has it, by Saint John Chrysostom himself), all that ritual, nothing could stop a Sunday from spilling into the Sanctus. In Old Church Slavonic, that's sviat! sviat! sviat Hospod' Savaot! Basic enough, it was—we all knew the literal meaning: "holy! holy! holy is the Lord!" But for Oksana, it was more than the words alone indicated—the hymning swept her up into Meaning, with a capital "M".

Ispoln' nebo i zemlia slavy Tvoyeya! She threw herself into these words which meant "heaven and earth are full of your glory"—words which were barely comprehensible to me and my American-born peers—we knew slava for the "glory" it meant and zemlia for "earth," but we couldn't parse the line. But Oksana, the little girl, became one with that glory, glory much larger than its five letters, glory much wider than words. Osanna vo vyshnikh! Yes, Oksana felt it, that elevator feeling, she was swept off her feet, swept high up into a cherry tree. WHAT?

And the congregation concluded the hymn by singing once more: Osanna vo vyshnikh! It mattered little to her that the refrain really meant "Hosannah in the highest!" because the glory she felt was much more—"Oksana's up in a cherry tree."

"Every Sunday was Christmas!" the adult Oksana recalled.

And I wondered, for the first time, how those recently arrived DPs had felt then about the parish's jettisoning January 7th in favor of December 25th. We had no idea how all those slow Americanizations of our community were affecting them. And we never cared to inquire, much less address any sense of loss with comforting words.

"I remember," I said, "the first Christmas tree we installed in the sanctuary, doing things up like the Irish and the Germans, but uh, what's this about a cherry tree?"

"Oh, your Ukrainian! Has it never improved? Vyshni. Repeat after me. Vyshni. Remember Chekhov's play, The Cherry Orchard. He didn't write in English, you know. Real title: Vyshnevyi Sad."

"Chekhov wrote in Russian," I said.

"Same word in Ukrainian, but I'm pronouncing it as an authentic Ukie would, not like those russkis. Holy, holy holy, heaven and earth are full of your glory! And Oksana's up in a cherry tree! Osanna vo vyshnikh!"

Puzzlement must've continued on my face. She said: "Osanna became Oksana! You see??? And she's singing glory from a treetop loaded with cherries!"

"Ha-ha! Of course! And—and that—that fortified you for the week to come?"

"It did. My glory-experience. It was as if I could almost—almost touch it with my hands, grab it and hold onto it."

"A palpable mystical experience."

"This DP thanks you, sir, for the vocabulary lesson."

"Aw, sorry. Does the liturgy continue to fortify Oksana the grownup?"

"Oh, I haven't been to church, since—mmm, God knows when. Divorced, remarried. You know how the Church feels about that. Besides, I'm married to a Jew."

"Happy?"

"Very."

"Is it too late to apologize for how poorly I treated you and the rest of our parish's refugees?"

"Oh, my childhood pain has long since given way to—to a sense of—of comedy—the comedy of it all. I laugh about it when I think back. Even now, recounting those things for you—I had to restrain myself from cracking up with laughter. But, then, Stremba, I can't speak for the rest of us DPs. You may very well apologize to them for your shoddy boyhood behavior."

"How do you propose, dear Oksana, I get an apology to them?"

"Write this story. Plant it here and there and yon. One of them, at least, may come across it. And forgive you. I forgive you with all my laughter."

EPILOGUE

My Bride, Barbara, whom I call Cates, which is the surname she never surrendered to any authority—the woman wouldn't yield to the mother-in-law, nor the marriage-license clerk, not the Bishop, not Stalin—my Bride monitors my health and my posture. Spying the deterioration of my posture at the computer or the dining table or behind the steering wheel or bowing the fiddle, she'll lean close and alert me in a low voice. Does she whisper "Straighten out"? No, that would've been my Mother's choice of words. Does she hiss "Stack the spine"? Nope.

A fluent Russian speaker, she chooses to whisper gently "osanka," a Russian word that means "carriage, bearing." Osanka is pronounced "ah-SAHn-kah."

As you can already guess, whenever I hear those whispered words "osanka, Matto, osanka" and dutifully begin drawing my shoulders back and down, it's then that the little girl comes center-stage in my head—Oksana. And Oksana leads me to osanna vo vyshnikh. And osanna vo vyshnikh calls up that deep wonder of all those years ago, Sunday, singing, Old Church Slavonic, incense, floor-to-ceiling icons, candles and dance. From bad posture to fortifying memories. Every Sunday was Christmas.

At this time of year, I heartily wish you all to find such simple prompts that can ferry you all year long into Christmassy wonder. (Thanks, Cates.)

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