Updated: Dec 1, 2021
I am staring out of a window into the dark street while a Ukrainian woman shoves pins into my sleeve when I start to miss my grandmother. The ache of emptiness overtakes me like a rush of cold air, and I stumble a bit to catch it.
“Careful,” Natalia says through the pins in her mouth.
“I’m sorry,” I say, meeting my own eyes in the full-length mirror ahead of me.
“It’s ok,” Natalia responds. Her accent is thick. “Everything is going to be great. Everything is going to be beautiful.”
Despite the fact that I look like a young child trying on their father’s suit jacket, I trust this rough and straightforward woman who I only met about fifteen minutes prior. She places her hands on my shoulders.
“Ok, you change now.”
I cautiously step out of my jumpsuit, taking care not to disrupt any of the pins Natalia has so intentionally placed along the front, back, and sides of the garment. I have done this many times: moved with care, avoided pins, appreciated the strength and delicacy of fabric.
I pause for a moment in the dressing room with my hand over the left side of my chest. It has been twenty years since someone tailored anything for me - the last person to do this was my grandmother.
Every year, we’d meticulously plan my Halloween costume, months and months before October. She’d take me to the fabric store, letting me run my tiny hands over reams of colors and patterns, allowing me to make some of the decisions. I’d gaze up at her as she chatted with the employees, knowing exactly what to order, which perfect words to use, where to cut, and how to fold these special, special materials that would turn me into whatever I had settled on being that year.
When we would arrive at her house, she’d instruct me to stand on an overturned box, and slowly, gently, start to create my costume. I’d stand as still as a statue while she draped our gathered fabrics over my shoulder, bending, kneeling, adjusting me like a tiny doll, and placing dozens of pins in every spot. If I was to grin or giggle or jump around with excitement, she’d rest both her hands on my shoulders, look me in the eye, and smile through the set of pins between her teeth. She was making magic for me. She wanted me to know that.
“I love your space,” I say to Natalia as I pass my folded jumpsuit into her open hands. She removes her glasses from her face.
“I love it, too,” she says. “It’s my favorite studio I’ve ever had. I’ve been doing this a long time.” Her small dog yaps a few times at my feet, and she shushes him.
My grandmother died of lung cancer when I was barely twelve. I had a child’s sense of awareness that she was dying. I watched her shrink and crumble, I heard her cough and saw her lose her hair. When my parents showed up early to a friend’s birthday party, I knew enough to know that she was gone. I had wanted to stay at the party, but I sat with them on a park bench as they held my hands and cried.
I occasionally find photos of us together; I am dressed in the costumes she created for me: a princess, a fairy, even an ear of corn. I can feel her hands on my shoulders, I can remember her. Everything else about her I have given up with time. I am a grown woman now. It has been so long.
“I take payment upfront,” Natalia informs me. “And you’ll need to come back in two weeks for another fitting.” I nod.
“Everything is going to be great,” she says again.
The garment Natalia is tailoring for me is for a winter wedding. Despite the fact that it is a black jumpsuit, Natalia courteously asks if I am a guest or the bride. I inform her that I’m just a guest, and am left aching when it seeps into my skin that my grandmother did not see me graduate, has never read my writing, and won't see me get married, should that day come.
Five years ago I purchased a sewing machine in an attempt to hold onto a connection between my dead grandmother and myself that I knew was long gone. I didn't even take it out of the box, and I ended up selling it to a stranger for $60.
“Can I ask why you’re getting rid of it?” the stranger asked me in my living room, cradling the sewing machine in her hands like a newborn. I was broken inside then. Nothing meant anything to me.
“I just never used it,” I shrugged.
“Well, I am grateful,” the stranger said sincerely.
I send Natalia her payment through a mobile banking app. She checks her phone right away to make sure it goes through.
“Are you Ukrainian?” she asks after seeing my name on her screen.
“I’m not,” I respond. “But I know the name, I know about it.”
The last time I was knocked sideways by grief in this way was when the aforementioned bride-to-be and I had gone to the Milwaukee Art Museum. There was an exhibit there called “The Quilts of Pauline Parker.” Through a door decorated with whimsical font, I found a room adorned in quilts. Beautiful, special, meaningful quilts. Amongst these so carefully made quilts, or fabric collages, as the late Pauline Parker named them, was a simply bound, handmade book with instructions on how to sew. Pauline had created this book out of leftover scraps of fabric for her granddaughter.
And so inside this exhibit, amongst fabrics and white walls and art-loving strangers, I cried for my grandmother, and I cried for myself. I missed her so intensely then. I miss her so much now.
The name Natalia sees on her screen, prompting her to think I am Ukrainian, is Kaleena. My grandmother loved this name.
Kalina (pronounced just like my name, ka-ly-na), or Viburnum opulus, is a shrub that blooms small red berries. The plant is a popular symbol in Ukrainian folklore, songs, decorative art, embroidery, and poetry. According to legend, kalina was associated with the birth of the Universe, the so-called Fire Trinity: the Sun, the Moon, and the Star. Its berries symbolize one's home and native land, blood, and family roots. Kalina is often depicted on Ukrainian embroidery such as ritual cloths and shirts.
“I had a friend in high school, she was Ukrainian,” I explain to Natalia, who is smiling wide for the first time since we’ve met. “She told me about the kalina plant.”
Natalia nods excitedly. “Yes! I love the berries, I eat them all the time.”
“My friend, she told me that the plant is very strong and very beautiful, but that the berries are bitter.”
She ponders this. “A little sour,” she agrees. “But my favorite plant, still.”
We look at one another, this older, magical Ukrainian woman with a shop that I love who is going to make my jumpsuit fit me perfectly; and me, small and trusting, grown but somehow not, with a name that carries so much weight.
“I will see you in two weeks,” she says. She now can’t stop smiling at me. Everything is going to be great. Everything is going to be beautiful.
I wave and walk out of her special place, into the cold, anxiously awaiting her hands on my shoulders again.