The war in Ukraine has touched the hearts of millions around the world. Many people have found ways to show their concern. For two years in a row, a group of friends in our community has made comforters to ship to Ukraine. But one reader has a more personal connection.
Let me introduce you to Lisa Cohn, a Portland-based award-winning writer whose work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, Mothering, Yahoo! Parenting, Brain, Child: The Magazine For Thinking Mothers and other publications. Lisa tells the story of how a Ukrainian woman joined her family.
In 2016, Vera Moroz moved from Ukraine to Portland, Oregon to help care for her first grandson. Two years later, her second grandson was born.
Little did Vera know that within a few years, she would acquire one more grandchild, my toddler, Michael. And little did she know that, nearly nine years later, she would become the heroine in a children’s book co-authored by Michael and me.
We first met Vera through her daughter, who lives a few doors away from us. When I began taking Michael to a local toddler meetup group once a week in our neighborhood, Vera was always there with one of her grandsons. She took a shine to Michael, and soon enough, announced that Michael was her third grandchild.
She embraced that role with enthusiasm, babysitting Michael at least once a week, buying birthday and holiday gifts and opening her apartment to all three of her “grandkids” for sleepovers and playdates. She made them pizza created from scratch, took the kids for walks, played soccer with them and watched movies with them. She told everyone in her apartment building that Michael was her grandchild. She was always positive, praising Michael for being artistic and a good singer.
As we got to know Vera, we learned–sometimes through her “In My Country” lectures–about her life in Soviet-occupied Ukraine.
Vera was born in 1942 and grew up in the village of Cherkasy. She never met her father and never learned his name. As a member of the Ukrainian Army during the Second World War, her father had fought against the Soviets. Because of his political views, the whole family could have been sent to Siberia or prison if they were associated with him. He died during the war.
After he died, Vera’s mother worked numerous low-level jobs to keep her children fed.
When Vera was six, the widow next door stole Vera’s family’s goat. The neighbor did this hoping that she would be arrested and her kids would be put in a government school, where they would have food and clothing. The plan worked.
To help keep her own children fed, Vera’s mother planted edible grass, as well as sugar beets.
As an adult, Vera worked in a shoe store, married, divorced, and became a single working mom. At night, after putting her children to bed, she often knit and sewed clothing to make extra money.
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Vera lost all her savings: $10,000. That’s because the Russian banks wouldn’t give Ukrainians their money.
Now living in Portland, Vera studies English and sells home-made food to raise money for Ukraine. But her goodness doesn’t extend only to Ukrainians. During the Covid-19 pandemic, she sewed and donated dozens of masks to doctors and nurses. She liked to say that she used the best possible pattern–a Ukrainian pattern. Michael and I helped her by acquiring difficult-to-find materials for the masks and delivering them to hospitals and other organizations.
Four years ago, when Michael and I released a children’s book we wrote together, we made Vera a character and titled the book, Bash and Lucy Fetch Team Vera and the Dream Beasts. Below you can watch Michael dedicate the book to Vera, wearing a Ukrainian shirt:
When we began writing the next book, Bash and Lucy Say, “Love, Love, Bark!” we decided to make Vera the heroine, a passionate assistant mayor whose mission is to help people get along better. She does this by encouraging people to embrace the goodness of dogs. She creates daily dog holidays, renames her town “Woof-Woof Nation” and invents dog-tention, which converts bullies, troublemakers and naysayers to dog lovers and good citizens.
In the book, Vera says, “By naming the town Woof-Woof Nation, we change everything. We learn how to be good citizens. We teach people to act like a dog. It ees very good.”
She also teaches the main character, Bash, that his sensory sensitivities are superpowers.
“Super sensitive makes superpower,” she tells Bash and his friends.
When we started writing the book, Russia had not yet invaded Ukraine. But when we released the book on April 4–about a year after the war began– we decided to donate 100% of the proceeds in April and May to the Ukrainian Foundation in honor of Vera.
Last week we presented Bash and Lucy Say, “Love, Love, Bark!” to Vera for the first time during an interview with a local newspaper and she read it with tears in her eyes.
As she said during the interview, “Michael grew up in my eyes. I could never imagine life without Michael.”
And we could never imagine life without Vera.
I encourage you to check out the book here. I just ordered a copy, knowing that the proceeds will be going to people in Ukraine suffering from the horrors of war. As a bonus, I’ll have something new for our home library — something I know granddaughter Lydia will love to discover. Will you join me?