In the summers the front yard is overgrown with wildflowers, herbs and ornamental grasses. It’s a beautiful disorder. Natural and wild.
Much like its resident, Ulyana Maystrenko, who embodies the perfect confluence of practical and eccentric.
“Some see me and think I’m flaky,” she says.
Maystrenko, 61, is a massage therapist, world traveler and contra dancer. She’s been teaching massage at Lansing Community College for 17 years. She has a bachelor’s degree in dance and secondary education with a minor in biology. (“But that’s another story,” she quips.)
Her New York accent is unquestionable and undiluted even after more than 33 years out of the city.
“I was born in Brooklyn,” she says. “I’ve lived in Staten Island and Long Island. I like to say I’m a triborough kid.”
She adopted Lansing as her home 28 years ago after living abroad almost by accident.
“I went for three months and stayed for five years,” she said of living in Germany, first with her grandfather and eventually in a travel office at an Army base.
She speaks English, Ukrainian, German, Spanish and French.
Under someone’s thumb Even as a young lady working at the Rosedale Fish Market in the Upper East Side, Maystrenko wanted to travel.
Her parents, Levko and Halyna Maystrenko, were Ukrainian refugees from World War II who met in New York.
“They were fleeing from the Soviets,” she says. “They were sandwiched between the Soviets and the Nazis.”
Maystrenko grew up in a strict Ukrainian language-only home. She attended Ukrainian school on Saturdays. Her father was an atheist and her mother Greek Orthodox.
She said it took her to age 40 to love her culture. Her spirit was free range.
“Ukrainians have always been under someone’s thumb,” she says.
She made peace with her culture as she raised her own family and began celebrating Ukrainian Christmas with a big meal she shared with a rotating group of friends. No one got invited back-to-back years.
She makes varenyky (not pierogies), kutya (wheat berry poppy seed pudding), borsch (not with a t), ponchiki (not paczi) and kompot, a dried fruit drink.
“It’s not a religious thing, it’s a cultural thing, it’s about the food. I invite as many people as I can fit in the house.”
The tradition blossomed after she divorced her husband and started raising her daughter as a single parent.
She had been worried she couldn’t support herself and a child doing massage.
One could say the universe provided.
“But I’m not into all that woo woo stuff,” she said. “But that’s another story.”
Less is more
Maystrenko lives for the experience of living and feeling.
She has no cable television, no cell phone.
“I drove my old car to death. It was a 17-year-old car,” she says.
She buys wholesale and cooks mostly at home.
She massages out of her home and doesn’t need to advertise for new clients.
“It’s not like I’m suffering,” she says. But the lifestyle has allowed her to live the life she wants to live, and lately that’s traveling.
Maystrenko goes to another country once a year for at least several months.
About seven to eight years ago after four friends died of cancer, she said, “I knew I had to do my bucket list.”
She went to Ecuador and Peru for two and a half months.
“After that, almost every winter I go somewhere in Central or South America.”
She’s even gone to Thailand for massage training.
To Maystrenko she’s just now emerging comfortable in her own skin.
That includes moving in it.
The dance closet
“I feel like I’m coming out of my dance closet,” she said of her passion for contra dancing, blues dancing … any dancing.
“So, there’s a skeleton in my closet,” she says. “I was in the School of American Ballet. George Balanchine. I know half the people in dance documentaries.”
Maystrenko performed in “The Nutcracker and “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” in the Lincoln Center.
From ages 8 through 13 she was in the professional dance school.
“A couple of hundred kids audition and get whittled down to 30,” she says. Her school principal was a famous ballerina, Diana Adams.
“I got my toe lessons for free,” she says. “They saw potential in me.”
“But I had no confidence.”
She said she did modern dance in high school but couldn’t get certified to teach dance, which is what she wanted.
Letting go of dancing affirmed her sense of not fitting in.
“I always felt like I never belonged anywhere,” she says. “We were weird because we were Ukrainian and we accepted everybody and we weren’t super religious and we hated Ukrainian girl scouts and we lived in Brooklyn. In school I was weird because I was in ballet and I was Ukrainian and my mother made me wear a little embroidered shirt to school occasionally.”
“I was weird,” she says. “Everywhere I went I never felt like I ever really belonged.
“But I belong here,” she continues. “Now I feel like I belong here. I feel like I have a nice community here in Lansing. Which is kind of funny, New York, Munich, Paris, Lansing.”
Being who she is
As she starts to slow down her teaching schedule, Maystrenko is giving time and attention to the things that fill her spirit.
“I am being who I am more and more and more,” she says.
It’s been a hard expression to accept and release.
“This tells you who I am right here,” she says. “I’m four years old going to the Ukrainian musical nursery school, practicing curtsy on the subway platform on the way. My mother has me go over it over and over. ‘Ulyana Maystrenko, pleased to meet you.’
“We get there and the teacher says, ‘What’s your name little girl?’” Maystrenko doesn’t pause, takes on a youthful glimmer in her eye and an impish grin.
“Princess fairy violet ballerina, pleased to meet you,” she says.
“My mother was horrified. I told them exactly who I was. All my life, I’ve been trying to be that person. I’ve learned to be who I am.”