“Our house has a garden at the front…”

8.grandma's house and fields

If you’ve visited this site before, you’ll know that one of my abiding interests is family history. When I was younger, I wasn’t particularly interested, or at least I couldn’t imagine finding out much beyond the little my parents knew (or didn’t know) about their families. But I realized when my own parents died that I could see myself as a woman who looked for the family stories, who puzzled through their details, and who shared what she discovered. I didn’t have much to go on. A few photographs, a few names, a couple of dates. But somehow I’ve learned so much about the places my ancestors came from and even more important, who and what they left. Who they left. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to the villages my paternal grandparents left and through the wonders of the best kinds of internet connections, I’ve also found possible family members. A woman in the Czech Republic who is distantly related–her grandfather was a cousin of my grandmother–took some photographs of my grandmother’s family farm in Horni Lomna in summer and it gives me a clear locus for the work I’ve done in determining some of my grandmother’s early life.

10.house in its place

When I went to Ukraine in 2019, I was lucky enough to visit my grandfather’s village, Ivankivtsi, and then a few days later, some relatives who’d learned I’d been there–at the time no one could direct me to possible family members but the priest who came to show us the church said he’d tell the worshippers that Sunday and see if any of them knew of Kishkans–drove a great distance to meet with John, Angelica, and me in a hotel in the Carpathian Mountains where we tried to determine our relationship. They brought gifts of sparkling wine, chocolates, and a rushnyk I used to hold the bread for a meal when my children were here. I’ve kept in loose contact with one of them and she wrote yesterday to resume our joint project to determine how the branches on our particular family tree should be drawn. A niece in Quesnel has indicated an interest in learning more about our family and I’m hoping to meet a first cousin three times removed late next week (her great-grandmother was my dad’s half-sister); she has been working some of the same trails as me and we’ve been sharing our work.

In my forthcoming book, Blue Portugal and Other Essays, the title essay gathers together strands of my grandmother’s story, red threads, green leaves, and phrases of Moravian folk poetry woven into the music of Leoš Janáček. There are ways to make family history. Some use charts, databases, boxes with dates and relationships. I use some of these too. But mostly I try to write the places and people into some sort of living text that will hold them, hold us, as tenderly as branches hold their leaves against the wind.


Our house has a garden at the front…

It has fruit trees, a hollow that could be a creek, a fence to keep animals close to the house. A pig? Some sheep? Perhaps a cow. My grandmother learned to make cheese before she came to Canada, fresh curds my father loved; she made butter to sell, and noodles golden with eggs from the chickens that ranged through the yard of the house in Drumheller, even entering the house for crumbs or the cool shade of mid-day in summers. Did she ever sing the songs I am listening to now, the folk poetry of her area, did she hum as she made cheese, did she dream of a true love coming from the mountains as she washed clothes in a big tub behind the house, within the sound of the Lomna River?

The river will flow away,
and nor is love here to stay,
it too will pass forever,
like a rosemary leaf it will wither.

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