Lovely, fragile eggs symbolize Ukraine's enduring culture

April 17, 1992|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

On a brisk April day in East Baltimore, laundry flapping like fresh spring flags, the sun lights up a tiny rowhouse that is ``TC jewel box of Ukrainian culture. Entering the home of John and Luba Rad, you are struck by the meticulous arrangements of folk embroidery, ceramics and wood carvings. There is a portrait of poet Taras Shevchenko and a mosaic of Cossack warrior Taras Bulba.

What you notice most, however, are the eggs.

Luba Rad holds an Easter egg as intricately detailed as an illuminated manuscript, colors sparkling like gems.

"My favorite color is the blue, blue for the color of the sky in Ukraine. Next is the yellow, the yellow gold, which is the wheat," Mrs. Rad says. "The people put all those bright colors into the eggs because they are happy that winter is gone. They are praising God."

Spread out on the couple's kitchen table are pysanky, dozens of decorated duck eggs and goose eggs. The eggs tell of stags and fish and birds, of hope and triumph, of subjects as old as art.

Like American Easter eggs, pysanky celebrate life over death and nature's promise of regeneration. They are proudly displayed in the Ukrainian community throughout the Easter season. To the Rads, the eggs also represent the victory of a nation of the dispossessed over their oppressors.

Forced from their Ukrainian homeland to work as laborers in Nazi Germany, John and Luba Rad met in a refugee camp after Word War II, married, and decided to emigrate to the United States rather than return to Communist Ukraine.

The Rads' story seems a parable of the fruits of persistence and sacrifice. When they arrived in Baltimore in 1949, Mr. Rad went to work as a field hand on a vegetable farm in Middle River; his wife worked in the farm's kitchen. After their first child, Maria, was born, they moved into the city and Mrs. Rad stopped working outside the home. Three other children followed. All were raised to speak Ukrainian and to become vessels of the culture.

And all attended college.

Along the way, John Rad worked 23 years with American Standard, gradually moving up from janitorial work to a job blending colors for the company's tubs and sinks. When he was laid off, he started over at Domino Sugar, sweeping the floors. At his retirement, he was proud to call himself a sugar boiler.

In the Rad family, it is 68-year-old Mr. Rad who decorates pysanky. Although it is unusual for Ukrainian men to decorate eggs, he says he painted his first one at his wife's request.

"She said, 'We got nothing to show our children about Ukraine,' " he explains. His first attempts were simple: Eggs with the star-like markings that represent the tears of the Blessed Mother as she wept over the crucifixion.

Gradually Mr. Rad worked his way into the intricate and complicated designs which braid the pagan folk art of Ukraine together with its Christian symbols.

Pysanky are as much ritual as craft. A tradition stretching back more than 2,000 years holds that decorated eggs carry the power of spring and that they be given as gifts. In its own way, each egg becomes a prayer. The Rads have spent 40 years filling their home with prayers for a Free Ukraine, hopes which were finally answered last year.

"We came here from the country and no one thought we were cultured," Mrs. Rad says. "People understand now more about this. They understand our Easter tradition, our Christmas tradition. And we find there are some people that do not have these things."

The Rads have shared pysanky with Greater Baltimore for almost 20 years. In a culture where hands are trained to punch keys and push buttons, their demonstrations generate intense interest. They have decorated many more eggs here, they figure, than if they had stayed in Ukraine.

"Why we do this is because the Ukraine was in slavery," Mr. Rad says. "You cannot appreciate this: I couldn't have put up the Ukrainian flag or have shown the Ukrainian trident [national symbol]."

"We have never stopped informing people about how big our country was, how many people we had, about our culture," says Mrs. Rad. "This was our job."

Mr. Rad has several pysanky to finish before Easter weekend. As he works, the aroma of melting wax suggests old churches and old wishes. Ukrainian folklore says as long as Easter's eggs are decorated, goodness will prevail.

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