ROAD TO JUNCTION series: Ukrainian immigrant finally finds the “better life” in Fruita
Editor’s note: “Road to Junction” is a monthly series beginning this week in the Free Press, in which readers will become acquainted with community members of various nationalities who left their native countries for a new home in the United States, and specifically the Grand Valley.
Ukrainian immigrant Ludmila “Mila” Kalenskaya greeted a visitor last week with tea and pie — hot tea and hospitality is a tradition she’s kept since moving to Colorado from her native Ukraine.
She cut a generous slice of her homemade pear pie — made with pears she harvested and canned in brandy and wine. Then, a few minutes later Kalenskaya offered a Ukrainian dish called vavenirs, a cottage cheese ravioli.
On the kitchen table sit jars of rose petal, mulberry and peach jams, as well as canned garlic plum sauce, green beans and other vegetables. Some of the produce is from the garden she and her boyfriend, Kyle Bain, grow at their Fruita home. Some of the fruit comes from neighbors’ peach trees and grapevines.
“She’s really good at urban harvesting,” Bain said.
Kalenskaya, 37, learned the art of preserving foods from her mother, who canned food to help them survive the long winters in the former Soviet Republic. Canning is a big part of the culture there, Kalenskaya said.
There is no middle class in Ukraine, only rich and poor, said Kalenskaya.
When the republic of Ukraine broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country was left more impoverished and without services it had as part of the Soviet Union.
“I started cooking when I was 7. My mom was at work. If I wanted to eat, I had to cook,” she said.
Kalenskaya’s ticket to America came a dozen years ago after she visited what she thought was an online dating site — but what turned out to be one man’s personal site for finding women, she said. He was an American missionary who spoke Russian (Kalenskaya speaks Russian, Ukraine and English) and he promised her a better life. She was 25, and a single mother interested in finding a father for her son.
They married, came to Colorado where he belonged to a strict religious group that did not allow Kalenskaya to work, enroll her child in school or play sports, or even cook from scratch, she said.
Her husband’s mother did not like her “Russian straight-forwardness,” she said. After nine years of marriage, the couple divorced.
“For nine years, it was very hard for me. I didn’t see a better life,” Kalenskaya said. “My hope when I came was to make a better life for my son, for me.”
She met her partner Bain the old-fashioned way in 2009. His cousin introduced them at a Denver hockey game that Bain was playing in and the two “hit it off.”
He has since proposed, and given her his grandmother’s wedding ring.
And, “his mom (Charlene Bain) loves me completely,” Kalenskaya said. “I am so blessed now.
“Kyle is showing me America. He’s introducing me to cuisines. This America is truly the country of opportunity.
“In this country you can still dream for a better future,” Kalenskaya said. “In my country you don’t. There are no possibilities if you are honest; if you don’t have a lot, you won’t have anything. There is a lot of hopelessness.”
Bain appreciates Kalenskaya’s cooking from scratch — although he’s not necessarily fond of some traditional Ukrainian foods. Ukrainians eat a lot of organ meats, as well as chicken feet.
“Kyle can’t eat it like I can eat it,” she said of organ meats.
“I grew up on caviar. Everybody eats and loves caviar. Here, people make gagging sounds when you mention that.”
The couple have an 18-month-old daughter named Darina Grace, and are expecting their second child at the end of the month. They also share custody of an 8-year-old son with her ex-husband. Her oldest son, born in Ukraine, recently joined the U.S. Army.
Bain speaks to Darina in English, and Kalenskaya talks to her in Russian so their daughter will grow up bilingual.
Holidays in Ukraine are celebrated differently than in the United States. St. Nicholas is observed on Dec. 13, with children receiving usually one special, small gift.
Christmas is celebrated Jan. 6-7, with the family getting together for a quiet dinner.
Kalenskaya no longer wants to return to Ukraine, although she misses aspects of her culture and the language, she said.
However, with the help of the Mesa County Library, she’s found a large Russian community locally — there are 1,000 Russian immigrants in Mesa County; 100 in Grand Junction, she said.
She and her fellow emigres get together often for tea parties, which includes food and “lots of hot tea — that’s what everybody drinks in my country — no ice,” she said. “We exchange canned goods sometimes, or just bring some to try something new.”
And, “we gossip, like normal girls.”
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Five candidates are running for three seats on the Garfield Re-2 school board this year.