The Still Boiling Water
“When I was finally pulled out of the pot, pieces of my skin remained on its sides.”
1. Consider Unanswered Questions
a. What questions arose in your mind as you read this personal narrative? (List at least 3)
b. Discuss the extent to which the memoir answered each of these questions.
c. Why do you think the author did not include details that you might have wanted information about?
2. Write Your Own Family Story It is not uncommon for families to have stories that are repeated when they gather together. Write your version of a dramatic incident in which you were involved with another family member.
The Still-Boiling Water
Memoir by Chrystia Chomiak
Before you read, think about any books you have reread or movies you have watched several times. Why did you repeat these experiences?
As you read, think about the title. Why is it “The Still-Boiling Water”?
Chrystia Chomiak (1948-) was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany and later settled in Edmonton, Alberta. She studied art history and Slavic studies in Toronto. Chomiak has been an activist, researcher, editor, and art curator.
baba: “grandmother” in Ukrainian
borsch: beet soup
émigré: someone who has left his or her native country, often for political reasons
By the time I arrived, they were already sitting around the kitchen table, drinking wine and laughing. The long dining room table had been set for 24, and the house was full with the sweet smell of beets cooking with wild mushrooms, bay leaves, fresh dill, peppercorns, and just the right touch of tomatoes and carrots as the Christmas borsch slowly simmered on the stove. The kitchen counters were covered with cookie sheets holding tiny pockets of transparently thin pastry filled with a mixture of wild mushrooms and onion, ready to be boiled. They had finished their preparations for Christmas and had started their stories. Each one of my six aunts talks louder than the other, and they all laugh at the same time. Their first stories are always about their boyfriends and husbands, old and new, and who’s coming with whom that year. Then they go back to the small two-bedroom house that they grew up in, and the stories become quieter and the laughter slowly stops. And that’s when this story is told.
* * *
“When I was three years old,” my aunt Maria starts, “I fell into a large canning pot of still-boiling water, which my mother had left on the kitchen floor. When I was finally pulled out of the pot, pieces of my skin remained on its sides. After this accident, I stopped speaking for three-and-a-half months—for my entire stay at the hospital.”
My baba interrupts. She is always the first to tell the story. This is her story. She begins by talking about her suffering, about her poverty in Canada, about the constant numbing work of raising six daughters. Then she talks about the accident and how she could not stop crying, how she almost lost her daughter Maria. She turns to me, looks me squarely in the eyes, and says, can you imagine losing your own child, watching her die?
She recounts the day’s events—preparing the fruit for canning, preparing the jars for canning, preparing the shelves for more jars. She spends considerable time describing the size of her canning pot, the weight of the jars, that she had no one to help her, that while she canned she also looked after her six children. She adds that she had to can in order to have food for the long, cold Edmonton winters, and that it was very hard for her to provide for her children.
She says that she was tired that day, that all morning Maria and Natalia had repeatedly called her and that she had told them not to bother her anymore. She repeats this point a couple of times and tells me how she had to run up and down the stairs, from the basement to the kitchen, each time they called her. She adds there was a newborn in the house, sleeping in the upstairs bedroom.
Then she says that when she heard her children calling her—still yet another time—that that time she decided not to run upstairs but to finish her work instead. She adds that when she finally went upstairs it was she who plunged her hands into the still-boiling water and pulled Maria out. It was she who wrapped Maria in blankets, carried her to the cab, and went to the hospital with her. After a pause she describes —with some amazement—that during the whole ordeal, Maria did not cry, and that instead Maria tried to comfort her and kept asking her to stop crying. “Maria did not cry,” my baba repeats and they are all silent, waiting.
Then she describes the scene at the hospital: how the doctors placed them on adjoining beds, how they instantly connected them—by tube—one arm to the other—one life to the other—no questions—how they lay there alone, she in her house dress stained with peach and plum juices from the morning’s canning—giving blood—giving life—again.
She describes the visits—the daily visits for three-and-a-half months—to the hospital. Daily, walking the seven blocks to the bus stop—every afternoon—taking the bus to the General Hospital, staying just a short time—”I had children at home—little children,” she says—and then returning. From the house to the hospital, from the hospital to the house, every day. She adds that Maria stopped talking after the accident, and that she feared that Maria would be mute for the rest of her life.
Then she describes the afternoon, at the hospital, when Maria finally spoke. It was when she came to the hospital with an old friend, an émigré doctor, Maria’s godfather, just days before Maria was to go home. He gave Maria a ring, she says, and it was then that Maria finally spoke for the first time in three-and-a-half months: “And where is my bracelet?” At that point my baba finishes her story, sits back, shakes her head from all the remembering, and smiles.
Then it is Natalia’s turn. She begins her story by crying. She begins by saying that it was not her fault that Maria fell into the pot. That it could have been her. That Maria had done the same things to her. Then Natalia stops.
At that point, Maria asks her, “What happened? What were we playing?”
“And what did you do?”
“I let go of my end and you fell into the pot. You were standing too close. You had done the same to me,” she adds. “You had let go of the rope before and I had fallen. It was your turn to fall. You started it.”
Then in great detail, Natalia recounts how she tried to pull Maria out of the pot, but that the water was too hot. She describes how Maria was stuck to the pot and that the pot was too high for her to reach into. She repeats how she ran up and down the stairs, several times, up and down, all the time afraid to leave Maria alone, all the time calling her mother for help. Natalia recounts how she could not explain to her mother what had happened, as she ran up and down the stairs, until finally her mother understood. Then Natalia adds that it was she who went next door and asked Mrs. Parks for help, and it was she who called the cab that took Maria and my baba to the hospital.
Natalia describes how she stood by the front window of their house waiting, all afternoon, not moving, waiting for her mother and Maria to return. She describes how she told her father what had happened, when he finally came home from work. She adds that all during that time she did not move from her spot, in front of the window, until her mother finally returned, late that night.
Then Natalia talks about the long months that Maria was gone and how she had been told that Maria could no longer speak. She says that she could not understand what this really meant, but that deep down, all the time that Maria was gone, she felt guilty. Then Natalia adds that when Maria finally returned from the hospital, she wore a new cream-coloured satin dress, with smocking on the front, and that she gave Maria a new doll, but that Maria said nothing to her.
* * *
Only when the others have told their stories does Maria tell hers. She starts by describing the day. She talks about its warmth and that she wore a sundress. She talks about the jars of canned fruit that her mother had prepared, how they glistened when they were set on the table. She adds that her mother told her to stay away from the pot, that it was too heavy to lift onto the table.
She talks about the fun Natalia and she had that morning, how they laughed and played and how delighted they were in their disobedience as they called their mother, all morning, just for fun. Then she adds that she does not actually remember falling into the pot, but that she does remember calling out for help. She describes the commotion, the panic around her, but repeats that she felt no pain. She adds that she tried to comfort her mother during their drive to the hospital.
Then she recounts arriving at the hospital and how she expected everyone to be dressed in white, but that they were all in green. She says that the only things that she remembers from the first weeks in the hospital is her mother’s blood flowing into her in the emergency room, how warm it felt, and then the repeated elevator rides—going up and down and up and down, and rolling along the corridors while lying on a bed. She describes how the doctors examined her and looked at her skin and talked about cutting skin from one place and attaching it to another. She always adds that they talked to each other as if she were not there.
When she was feeling better, Maria says that she was placed in the infant ward—infants who cried all day—and how angry she became because she was not an infant. She was three years old. She describes the constant noise of the bottles, being brought in and out, day and night, and the revolting smell of the diapers all around her and that she could not sleep there. She adds how long and hot the afternoons were in the hospital and how lonely she felt, alone in that ward and how she cried, silently, every afternoon until she fell asleep.
Maria tells us that at first she pleaded with the nurses to move her, but that they did not or would not understand her. “They shouted at me to be quiet.” She states that she also asked her mother, again and again, to move her to another place—away from the infants—but that her mother did nothing about it. My baba says that Maria is making this part up.
Maria recounts the afternoon when she became hysterical with desperation and how the nurse came and yelled at her, but that she still was not understood. Maria says that it was that afternoon, after the nurse left, that she finally knew that no one could hear her and that was when she decided not to speak any more.
She tells us about the next visit of her parents and how startled they were when she did not answer them and how they called on Dr. Michalchan, the only Ukrainian-speaking doctor at the hospital, to examine her, but that she would not answer him. “I remember all of them speaking to me, all of them, but I just didn’t answer.”
Lastly, she repeats the story of her godfather’s visit and adds that he spoke directly to her and promised her a gold ring and a gold bracelet when he returned. Maria recounts her godfather’s return, and that just as he had promised he gave her a gold ring and how happy she was. She says that she waited until he was about to leave before she asked: “And where is the bracelet that you promised me?” She adds how excited they both became when she spoke and how her mother laughed her deep throaty laugh and how beautiful she looked.
Finally she describes the day she went home, how she rubbed the new dress her mother had brought her against her cheek—smooth, creamy satin. She describes how beautiful it felt, and how proud she was, riding home in it. Then Maria adds that when she came home, Natalia pushed a doll into her hands and that all her sisters stared at her as if she was from another planet.