Onion Dome

COVID compounds our losses. In this poem, Jennie narrates to us her own experience of the unthinkable: losing access to her church when she needed it most. We are grateful to Jennie for sharing this intimate, candid journey with the readers of CC.

When you are raised
under an onion dome of a roof,
where icons watch you,
you enter the temple. You do the rituals. You sit with your family.
You bow to a priest and take your wafer as an offering for your sin.
But your mind is elsewhere.
With friends. With having fun. With doing anything else.
You get poked in the ribs for swinging your feet
as you sit counting the dead flies on the window sill.
It is difficult to be small in a church that seems so big.

You pass life and death
sitting, kneeling, and standing,
Sitting, kneeling, and standing
you watch the aisle
……….to peek at the beautiful bride,
…..….the baby with delicate pink toes,
………or the mahogany coffin.
You don’t twitch in your seat.
Your dad refrains from pulling at the foreign tie around his neck.
You are both rewarded with dinner and all the perogies you can eat,
raspberry Jell-O with Cool Whip on top.

a girl with a lighted candle standing in church
Jennie in church as a girl.

When you are raised
under an onion dome of a roof,
when your belly is bulging,
you suddenly grasp at the urge to do what is right for the life that is growing inside you.
Your spine is straighter in the pew,
………your feet don’t sway,
………you listen intently.
You hold your stomach as closely as Mary held Jesus that first night.
You hope that you can do justice for the person that is in you.

When you are raised
under an onion dome of a roof,
you are frazzled.
You have children running about that should be shushed.
You are balancing your candle with hot wax,
trying to fish candies out of your purse for a child who hasn’t quite understood how sacred the moment should be.
At the moment you can’t either.
You are trying to look holy and wanting to scream at your children at the same time,
and you glance at the icon of Mary and wonder if she struggled the same way you do.

When you are raised
under tradition,
you elbow your teenager who would choose to be anywhere else but here.
You make her sit up in the pew anyway.
and her Baba smiles at her for doing the right thing.
Because Baba is smiling at her, she continues to sit up straight.
She kisses the cross, takes communion, and does all the proper things.
Baba hugs her.
Both smile as they leave through the hallowed doors.

When you are raised
under an onion dome of a roof,
you aren’t sure what to do
when your mom is withering in the hospital.
Her breathing is heavy
and her feet are so swollen you can’t get her socks on.
the hospital lets her priest in
………to say a prayer,
………to say last rites,
And you’re not sure
which is which because all the prayers seem the same under the fluorescent bulbs.
You glance at the icon he cradles.
knowing that your mom probably won’t see another one inside the onion dome building.
You cry silently in the sterile bathroom
because this ugly bathroom stall is the only place to weep without being judged in this faceless COVID-masked place.
An icon wouldn’t be fit here,
but you drag yourself in anyway,
looking for humanity.

You are a crumpled heap on the floor
because you are looking at your mom,
Who is now silent and still.
You should honour her in the right way.
For the tradition has significance.
………It has mourning,
………it has family,
………it has togetherness.
there is only distancing, and masks and protocol.
You can’t even cry into Kleenex properly without wondering if you are spreading something.

And you can’t be under an onion dome of a roof
………with women with wrinkled faces who shed tears under kerchiefs with cheerful patterns.
………You can’t have incense spread by a priest’s steady hand.
………No people surrounding you to grieve.
………No sitting, standing, kneeling.
………Sitting, standing, kneeling
………and perogies and Jell-O desserts
Instead a lonely graveyard,
………nine people spread apart,
………a priest too distant to give you resolution,
………an empty church.
And a brave aunt who can’t stand seeing you crying alone and holds you anyway,
even though it isn’t protocol,
and an uncle who is crippled and can’t stand for the service
so you bring a tacky lawn chair for him,
outside in the cold, the only brother left.
You squeeze his crippled hand with all your might
and he squeezes you back with all of his.
You pray for strength
and the wind whips around you like a cruel joke
knowing that under the present conditions you can’t find sanctuary.

When you are raised
under tradition,
you are wondering what to do with your grief,
………without connection,
………without all the old kerchiefed wrinkled faces,
………without the icons to stare at,
………without the people telling you to eat and pushing perogies and red Jell-O on you.
The service that you should have had
is replaced by priests trying to give spiritual guidance
in a place where there is no framework for it.
Instead, in their black robes
and their cantors,
they hesitate
because spirituality is partnered with closeness.
They look longingly at you and the huge pool of grief you are in
and don’t have the ability to bring you out of it.

When you are raised
under a domed onion roof,
under tradition,
you take in a big breath
and you carry on.
Even though you are not under an onion domed roof,
Under tradition,
You know that it will be waiting for you —
………for grief,
………for life.
The priest’s steady hand will hold the cantor,
………when you are sinning,
………when you are repenting,
………when you are celebrating,
………when you are grieving,
because you were raised under an onion roof.


  • Jennie Lewin

    Jennifer Lewin is a loving wife to Joel and passionate mom of two unique and beautiful girls, Sapphira and Vienna. A woman who strives to be present for her family and aware of her own self, Jennifer loves to travel, entertain, and be in community with people that share different views other than her own. When she is not learning from others, she likes to take solace in hiking in her beautiful province of Alberta and watching crime documentaries in her flannel pajamas. She has a wide faith span including Romanian Orthodox, Ukrainian Catholic, and Lutheran. She is one mean cook and can make fried chicken as easily as a Pad Thai. She is constantly looking to be stretched in her boundaries, her recipes, and most importantly in her ideas.

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