Patient's gifts, large or small, expensive or not, are welcome tokens of appreciation for the care I've been able to offer. I’ve been the grateful recipient of cookies, cakes, homemade bread and even a stepping stool made by a carpenter I successfully treated.
But the most unusual — and most special — gift was the Ukrainian Easter egg.
When I was living with my grandparents as a child, I would occasionally look up at the highest shelf in their living room, noticing a colorful egg-shaped object quietly resting there.
Time progressed, and I asked my grandmother about it. She paused for a moment and, speaking to me in the Yiddish of her youth, told me that it was a "going away gift" given to her as a young girl by one of her Ukrainian friends. My grandmother’s parents were sending her and her two sisters and brother from Odessa in southern Ukraine to the United States, where they would be far from the troubles progressing around them and the rest of Europe.
A relative who'd settled in Cleveland had written my grandmother’s father, my namesake, offering them a place to stay when they all arrived.
My grandparents didn't celebrate Easter; Pesach (Passover) was the holiday we observed, but this gift, with its religious background, was a small treasure that reminded my grandmother of the family and friends she left behind in Ukraine. It is one of the few items from her childhood that I recall ever seeing in her home on East 153rd Street.
Grandfather passed away in 1960 and grandmother moved in with us — my mother being her only daughter — and the beautifully made egg was lost during the move.
But another Ukrainian Easter egg would come into my life decades later.
A few years ago, a long-time patient of mine stopped in for her regular ocular exam. She was a kindly individual, widowed, whose macular deterioration was slowly advancing with age. Fortunately, she was still able to read with the reading prescription I updated at her ocular evaluations.
No longer driving, she needed a ride to travel from her home to our office. She stopped in around Easter and, after her exam was over, opened her purse to pull out her insurance card and also a carefully wrapped gift — a Ukrainian Easter egg. She told me her parents were from Ukraine and she’d been making the eggs all these years. She was about the same age as my elderly mother, with both of their parents coming to Cleveland around the same time.
This traditional, crafted item was just like those made in Ukraine, with the pattern drawn on the egg and filled in with beeswax and dyes, built up by repeating this process with different dye colors. The term pysanky, she told me, is derived from the Ukrainian word for “to write” and the tradition dates back several thousand years.
It started as a pagan art form celebrating seasonal rebirth with symbols and colors all celebrating the harvest. Livestock represented wealth with white standing for purity and green for growth. The art form took a religious turn when Christianity came to Ukraine in the tenth century.
The egg my patient gave me was beautifully made, with red and yellow swirls that brought back memories of my grandmother’s pysanky that I’d not seen in years.
My patient passed away five or six months later, and that was the last time I ever saw her. Her lovely gift now resides on a shelf in my own home, reminding me of the one given to my grandmother as a going-away present in 1913.
The gift my patient gave me was indeed so very thoughtful, and more appreciated than she could possibly have imagined.
And, as war once again ravages my grandmother’s homeland, I’m happy she isn’t here to see it and so very sad for the family — and country — she left behind.