Woman details the 'enriching' experience up of growing in Aylesbury with Ukrainian parents

A guest column from Marusia Mary Lawrence whose parents left Ukraine to call Bucks home

By Marusia Mary Lawrence
Wednesday, 23rd March 2022, 2:33 pm
Updated Wednesday, 23rd March 2022, 2:36 pm

My Childhood in Little Ukraine

Traditionally, in the 1950s, mothers stayed at home to care for their husbands and children. However, my parents were very modern for the time as childcare and housework were completely shared around both of their jobs.

As a child, I basically lost four years of education because we spoke only Ukrainian at home.

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Marussia and her mother Ewa (Eva) Nyznyk, at St Joseph’s RC Church, Aylesbury for Marussia's first holy communication in 1960

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It was only when I moved to St Johns C. of E. primary school that I was obliged to learn English.

But I remember one day the teacher asked us to write as many words as we could from our surname - and mine was Wytwyckyj!

As I got older my parents actively discouraged me from speaking Ukrainian because the UK wanted immigrants to integrate.

Mary and her dad, Oleksa (Alexander) Wytwyckyj, at St Louis Convent School fete in 1960

Even when my birth was registered my parents had to add the English Christian name Mary to their choice of Marusia.

They were compliant due to having lived under the Stalin regime in the Ukraine.

My father seemed to take the lion’s share of the shopping, so I would go with him to old Friars Square.

Other Ukrainian men would congregate at the top of the square and start chatting about all sorts of things – most of them completely over my head – but there was no space for me to voice a question or a comment.

Marusia at St John’s CE Primary School in 1960

I could understand the language but most of their chat didn’t mean anything to a six-year-old.

Up to about age eight, I was regularly taken by my father to visit Frank, a Russian - walking quite a distance. They’d play all sorts of card games, smoking continuously, and I’d be sitting listening to the chat, fascinated by the cards – they were so serious in their play – though I can’t play cards to this day.

As an older child I had two responsibilities which stand out in my mind. Once or twice a week I’d have to go to the garage on the corner and buy paraffin for the heaters, carrying a one-gallon can in each hand.

When they were filled they were so heavy I still remember the pain of the full cans on the way home.

Marusia and her dad on her wedding day in 1995

It was also my weekly responsibility to handwash the bed linen and towels in the tin bath – we had no machine - after boiling kettles because we had no running hot water in the house. It built up the strength in my arms and shoulders because afterwards I’d have to carry the tin bath outside to empty it.

I was very envious of our neighbour Gladys. She had a mangle and I was wringing the clothes out by hand on my own!

My parents probably didn’t buy a mangle or machine because they were paying the mortgage, and desperate to keep out of debt.

In some ways it was a rather hard childhood, but it was also like a version of The Good Life – my parents’ way of living in the Ukraine transposed to Aylesbury.

I used to shell the peas and prepare runner beans grown on my father’s allotments, but also pound the cabbage and cut up the blocks of salt to make sauerkraut in our wooden barrel.

When we had jars of gherkins in the larder, my father would have grown the cucumbers, garlic and dill – everything but the vinegar.

I thought it was completely normal for a man to be proficient in sewing and mending – Dad even made my school uniform making patterns from his weekly Ukrainian newspaper - building and cooking.

This wasn’t good preparation for having a husband!

Even as a child I recognised that my life was different from the other children. I played with local children but it was quite difficult to make friends with the language barrier

and I experienced some bullying because of my foreign name.

But my life was enriched by my parents bringing me up to know their culture, as we attended Ukrainian cultural events in Leicester and Ukrainian Christmas and Easter celebrations at the cathedral in London.

And I learnt the value of hard work and respect for others, growing up in our home, my Little Ukraine.

Marusia Mary Lawrence is a retired administrator who is an active church member and a local parish councillor.