“It was always something,” Baba says. “People were always fighting.”
Agafia Stawiski (known dearly to her family as Baba) with the most pleasure, teaches me how to knit at a seat in the kitchen. Baba is a great knitter. I am making a fool of myself. I have not knitted my whole life, not like Baba, who made jumpers for her children and grandchildren, and who knitted stockings many decades ago in Ukraine. “The cotton was so thin,” she had remarked; to knit the stockings was delicate, such was her time in Europe it seemed.
“It was always something.”
Baba’s life in Ukraine was always moving. She is from the Lemko region of Ukraine (now Poland), where the small village of Snietnica exists in the lowlands of the Carpathian Mountains. The peoples living in this region were constantly being displaced, which for Baba was in 1947. It began during the first world war and reached its height in the late 40s and 50s. She was right, it always was something – for if not for displacement, it was occupation by the Germans, the Russians and the Poles. “People were always fighting.”
When I ask her more about this, Baba shares a laugh with her grandson, who sits across from me. Yarema is helping me with Ukrainian translation, in parts, and he mentions UPA: the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. UPA was an underground partisan movement that fought against the Soviet Union, the Poles and the Nazis to protect their homeland. Baba’s grandchildren enjoy to think of their grandmother, the cool undercover agent. Baba, though, is modest in response to involvement with UPA: “I don’t want to talk about it too much, but if they needed to be fed, they’d be fed.” She was imprisoned for four years for her involvement.
Baba gave nothing away; she talked her history like facts, but when she talked of her life with her loved ones, it became a story woven. Ukraine one needle, Geelong the other. Baba seized the opportunity to move to Geelong in 1964 and for six years they lived in a bungalow as the house was being built: five children and two adults.
When I ask her the difference between Ukraine and Australia, she says that Australians seem more like “one people”. Baba makes it clear that she means this as no insult to either country, rather she is being frank. The years of displacement and the ever-changing borders of Ukraine have made it difficult to feel unified. Behind her, though, is a vase full of pysanky- dyed Easter eggs. Baba’s family have made them over the years. Indeed, her house has been a bit of a hub as it has carried the traditions on. Baba and her family also care for the garden, where there are hundreds of herb varieties…. tomatoes, garlic, onions, beetroot… apples, grapefruit, passionfruit…
I have even been in the shed and seen the bags of cross-bred seeds. They have it down to a science.
That garden has seen as much of the world as Baba has. I take comfort in the idea that, no matter how uncertain things may have been for Baba, there will always be the garden, the house, and her family.
“No, Gen,” Baba interjects, seeing the mess I have made with the wool. “Right… left.”
Right. Left. Right. Left.
Yarema makes me a coffee, we knit in silence, and in this cosy kitchen things make sense. Just for a little while, things make sense.
Story: Gen Schiesser. Photo: Supplied