Vasylyna Benzar – Tsofichka: living history
She gladly invites us to her little old house and we immediately learn that it becomes too small when the wedding season comes. Then many people come to her, and they can barely fit in these two rooms, but Auntie Tsofichka is happy for everyone who crosses her threshold. She has decorated her house with what she likes and in the way she likes it. She is attached to every thing, and she feels best in this little universe of hers. She proudly shows us her small exhibition of paintings, full of photographs from different periods of her life, with all the people dear to her. Here she lived with her husband, who passed away. From the time she got married and until her last “wedding”, i.e. leaving this life, she wanted to stay here. The woman remembers with nostalgia the time when weddings of relatives or neighbors were arranged in this house, as it was a custom before, and everything was arranged according to the tradition of this community of Ukrainians.When she starts listing what she can do, you start to wonder where she got so much energy and patience from. Whether it’s sewing, embroidering, weaving, painting eggs, making postolys (shoes), vests (keptars) or other traditional items used on different holidays, Auntie Tsofichik’s tells about each with the same passion. She just can’t sit still and is always working on something. It has always been so and will be so long as she can. She wakes up very early and goes to bed very late, because «… work is never done alone. I have a few keptars there, but I need some material and I’m waiting to go to the market to buy more, because I didn’t have enough. Here are the postolys. There’s a keptar for a child, for my niece»,she explains, pointing to a pile of different colored material stacked on top of each other, waiting patiently for their turn.
From an early age she learned to do everything, because those were the times and it seemed natural for her to learn. She comes from a large family, in which everyone knew how to do different work, and they were taught from a relative, from a neighbor, or from each other. However, she did not live with her siblings because she was adopted and raised by an aunt who had no children but always kept in touch with her family. Her aunt had a lot of land and animals to take care of, she had to keep a big farm, so little Vasylyna also had a lot of household chores. After finishing some, she took on others. She always made a living by doing what she knew.
She is known and sought for especially the green wreaths she makes – a real ethnographic symbol of the Ukrainians of this area since ancient times, but also for her vests, keptari. She remembers with great accuracy the moment when she watched her mother make a wreath. She came to visit little Vasylyna, and while they were talking, she started making a wreath for someone. Vasylyna was fascinated by what her mother did with her hands, and asked to teach her too. It was a time when it was difficult to find scarves, and all the girls wore wreaths for the holidays. They were part of their attire, and it was fashionable for all girls to wear wreaths, not just for brides or girls from religious processions. At first, she started making wreaths for herself, and was very proud when she managed to make it the way she wanted. Then, at the insistence of her friends, she began to make wreaths for them, and in a relatively short time she had more and more orders, she even had to make wreaths for girls for church processions, and then for weddings.
In those days, weddings were large, with many pairs of godparents, bridesmaids, a large number of relatives, and for each had to prepare wreaths or flowers, as required by custom. There was a lot of work. After a period when traditional weddings were held less frequently, this custom returned, and in recent years she has had a lot of work to do. She would not have been able to deal with all the orders without her reliable helpers: her daughter, daughter-in-law, granddaughters, which she taught everything she knows, in the hope that they would continue the tradition.
The green wreath from Polyany is unique in the world due to the way it is made from periwinkle and thuja leaves, with flowers from colored threads or fresh flowers. As Auntie Tsofichka explains, it is also important that the braiding of girls is done in a French braid, starting from the ear and gathering strands of hair so that the head is covered, which means humility and prudence of girls. Often this braiding is done together with a wreath to turn out the way Auntie Tsofichka wants. A red ribbon is added to the wreath – a symbol of chastity.
The work of making a wreath is quite meticulous, but if she has everything prepared, then she manages to finish it in 2-3 hours. It is based on willow bark that has been prepared since summer, when it is easy to remove. This bark is softened before use so that it can be sewn on. First, periwinkle is sewn, five leaves at the top and bottom, and then thuja is placed in the middle, followed by flowers made of colored threads or fresh flowers. Depending on the size of the head, about 1000-1,500 periwinkle leaves are used. To fill a wreath well, you need about one full bowl of thuja or even more. The woman already has its sources of thuja and periwinkle: either from the church garden, or from various women who once wore wreaths and grew the plant for their own needs, and now continue to grow it in memory of those times.
She adapted the keptars. She used to make them from leather, but now people don’t want them because they are too hard, so she started making them from oilcloth and other softer materials. She makes different models, depending on what they want from her. She rejoiced like a child when she came across an old worn-out vest that had been thrown away and she had saved it. In this way, she was able to borrow from her the old patterns she had known since childhood and reproduce them on the vests she makes now.
Auntie Tsofichka lives on the Romanian border with Ukraine in Polyany, Maramures County, which is the largest settlement of ethnic Ukrainians in Romania, with more than 10,000 inhabitants. The tradition is still very well preserved here, and in almost every family you can find clothes or other traditional items that are kept in a place of honor. She makes wreaths for processions, for all three Orthodox churches in the area, as well as for the Catholic Church and for weddings. Many girls from processions and brides wear not only her wreaths, but also the keptars and fasts made by her. For many years she has been going in processions to church temples in various settlements and even visited Ukraine, and proudly speaks about her creations, which were appreciated and admired at all events. And the repertoire of her church songs is not inferior, especially since the music fills her soul and she always liked to sing and compose songs.
Nature is her second home. She toured all the surrounding places, so mountains and forests were a real refuge and a source of inspiration for her work. Everything became much easier when she was on top of a mountain or on a meadow. The stories themselves came together in the song, and the ideas came up on their own.
«I have so much work to do that I don’t have time to die», she tells us, continuing to look for something among the things on the old stove, which no longer works, but is a good place to store various materials. She mentioned that she still had something to show us, something very beautiful.