“The sound of huge bodies crashing into the woods”

morning
some of the herd, last winter

This morning, around 6:30, we were lying in bed, talking, Winter the cat at our feet, when the cat suddenly jumped onto the windowsill, alert. He was watching and listening. And listening, we heard a squeal. Elk, I bet, said John, and I went downstairs to see what I could from the still-dark living room. Yes, elk. I saw two of the great golden shapes, sort of smudgy in the near-light, where our cleared area meets the woods. And on the deck off our bedroom, John saw a couple more. They crashed into the woods.

By the time I came to my desk, I’d forgotten about the elk. I’m working on some essays, lyric essays I guess you’d call them, and right now they’re all over the map. I mean this literally. One of them yearns for the rivers of Bukovina, the Prut and its tributary the Cheremosh. One of them explores the trees of Horni Lomna, one of them remembers the MacKenzie River and my father, who worked on steamships on the river as a young man; and others are located here, including one called (provisionally) “Bitter Greens”. This is the essay I opened this morning, trying to find a way to weave a couple of narrative strands together, trying to find the music in plants, broken fences, and, what? Elk. So they were here all along and that sound, the squeal, should have alerted me to the dangers of trying to keep a garden safe when I’m not the only one hungry for greens.

Red Russian kale, Scotch kale, Tuscan kale, Siberian, Redbor, some unknown or unnamed marriages between two or more of these varieties. Garden arugula, field arugula, wall-rocket, red dragon, all self-sowing. Lamb lettuce (or corn salad, depending…), buckshorn plantain, dandelions (the new leaves for salad, the more mature leaves for pizza or green pie), lambs quarters with its dusty leaves the shape of goose feet, chickweed. How I long for them after a long winter, though I usually have tubs of kale close at hand so I can fill the blender most mornings for a green tonic. But a salad gathered in a big colander, scissors snipping the new leaves of this or that, sorted (because slugs like them too), then dressed with good oil, lemon juice or a light vinegar (balsamic is too robust for the early salads), maybe a tiny smudge of Dijon mustard, the one green with herbs, and it’s a meal I could eat every day.

Looking out the window as I washed dishes, I saw a golden rump and a darker body behind the woodshed. An elk calf, half-grown, eating the suckers from the base of the Kwanzan cherry. I quietly went to the utility room window, the one opening directly to the little deck beside the tree. Five more elk, adults, pulling at boughs, a huge cowwas she actually inside the vegetable garden? Something had come the previous night and nipped all the new growth on the kale plants that had already been grazed by elk (the same elk?) while we were away in Ottawa a week earlier. And a week before that, grazed by the blacktail doe that comes every year with her fawns, yearlings last year, twins this year. My heart sank. But I opened the door and rushed out, shouting. The sound of huge bodies crashing into the woods, more than 5 (that was only what I could see), and everywhere the smell of them, like horses.

“…only searching for my roots.”

cheese strainer

One of the nudges that led me to believe I should and could visit Ukraine was William Kurelek’s book, To My Father’s Village. The book details Kurelek’s efforts to reach Borivtsi, the village his father left in 1923; the son’s journeys took place in the 1970s, the last in 1977, not long before he died too early of cancer. Borivtsi is not far from the village my grandfather left in 1907, eventually arriving in Canada a few years later. Looking at the wonderful drawings and paintings in Kurelek’s book gave me a sense of where at least one important node or rhizome of my own life began. The pigs and chickens, the garden implements, the last of the old thatched houses—these seemed to me to be coded messages, both invitations and sorrowful obituaries. This is also you, I read in the careful lines of the drawings; you need to know this because this is land where your dead lie waiting to be remembered.

We made plans to go in September. I’d arranged to be taken to my grandfather’s village for an afternoon. Arranged for someone in Chernivtsi to try to determine if family members still live in Ivankivtsi so that I could meet them. My older son Forrest studied the metrical records for the village a few years ago and I had some names—family names, of course, but also the names of the men who were my grandfather’s godparents, the name of the midwife who delivered him.

Wrapped around the trip to Ukraine, five days in Ottawa to meet a new grandchild due in late July, more than a week in London (and tickets to a performance of “The Winter’s Tale” at the Globe), the prospect of concerts, and rambling along Regent’s Canal.

We were so looking forward to this trip. Both of us have had some medical adventures over the past 18 months, strange encounters with mortality, and it seemed that we were finally out of the woods. But then a visit to the doctor the other day for what he thought was an inner ear situation resulted in John spending an afternoon in Emergency, hooked up to various machines and monitors. The short version is that he will be fine but we won’t be able to travel outside the country because our travel insurance wouldn’t cover what might happen. So he spent most of yesterday on the phone and online, cancelling all the arrangements he’d so carefully made. (He is the most amazing organizer and leaves nothing to chance.)

So we won’t be visiting my grandfather’s village. Not this year. I might be able to go next year if all goes well at home. But time and health are too precious to jeopardize at this point. And love is too precious to squander, which is what traveling alone would feel like. I take solace in Kurelek’s efforts to reach his ancestral home, the gardens and storms and houses where his family began. His trips took place during the Soviet years and it seemed that everything conspired to keep him from actually arriving. Visas, roads, recalcitrant bureaucracy…For us, it’s something more physiological, a heart valve that wants to flutter instead of beating steadily. The right medication will help the valve to do what it should be doing. It just needs time.

There are hints in To My Father’s Village of my own story. “Kurelek’s father came to Canada following a visit to Borivtsi by a member of the Cunard Shipping Line.” A few years ago I read a book about immigration from Bukovina (and unfortunately when I changed computers, the file I kept didn’t travel to the new computer; I’ll have to do some sleuthing to find that source again) that mentioned my grandfather’s village specifically and detailed the numbers of men who left in a wave before the First World War. They didn’t leave because hings were good at home. They didn’t leave because they wanted to, necessarily. They were poor and hungry and they came for a better life. That improved life sometimes skipped a generation. Or two. In some ways I am the beneficiary of that sacrifice.

Maybe we can both go next year or maybe it will be me, maybe even in the company of one of my children. And in the meantime. there is so much to be grateful for. Immediate and good health care, a doctor who called last night to make sure all is well, the love of our children who rallied around their father with phone calls and texts, and the prospect of a trip to Ottawa to meet that grandchild as planned. (Health insurance will be valid for that!)

On Kurelek’s last visit to Borivtsi, he went to the fields to paint and a child found him with his face in the dirt. “I’m alright,” Kurelek assured him. “I’m only searching for my roots.”

“What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.”

two women, postcard Czernowitz Hauptstrasse 16, Atelier Riveria

A couple of months ago, on a Sunday, I was making dinner and listening to Writers and Company on the CBC. The host Eleanor Wachtel was interviewing Philippe Sands, a British/French lawyer with a specialty in international law. The conversation was interesting and I was glad to be listening as I prepared vegetables, checked the roasting chicken. It was when Sands said the word Lviv that my ears really pricked up.

He went on to talk about the background for his book East West Street, an account of his attempts to trace his family story within the historical context of WW11 and the larger story of the Nuremberg trial. Maybe I forgot something important for the meal because I couldn’t move from where I stood as I listened.

As soon as the interview ended, I ordered East West Street and it’s been waiting for me to open it. Which I did, yesterday. During a cloudy period, after transplanting arugula seedlings and weeding the garlic bed, I sat in our living room and entered a world I know I will remember forever. Because in a way it’s my world. My family background, unlike Sands’, is not Jewish; my Ukrainian grandfather was Eastern Orthodox (I guess). But like Sands, I grew up not knowing the family secrets. And how prescient the epigraph for East West Street: “What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.” This is taken from an essay, “Notes on the Phantom”, by the French psychoanalyst Nicolas Abraham. (And of course I’ve ordered his book.) At the beginning of East West Street, after receiving an invitation to give a lecture on the origins of international law to students at the university in Lviv, Sands spends time with his mother looking through two old briefcases filled with his maternal grandfather’s papers.

the moirs box

I thought of the Moirs Happiness Package. I found this in my parents’ apartment after they’d died and I brought it home with me, along with an assortment of materials I’d never known about. There’s not much—some photographs of unknown women, my grandfather’s travel papers and his army book, two rosaries— but in a way what I have has filled me with a fierce desire to piece together my grandfather’s story. In the Moirs Happiness Package is a small photocopied map of Bukovina, the province my grandfather came from, and so I know my father must have wondered about his father, wondered if a map would help him to figure out things about the place and its history. But that was as far as he went. I know a little more than he knew and in the way that these things work, I’ve already booked a trip to Ukraine in September and the final city of my travels there will be Lviv. So this book, right now, is the book I need to read. Philippe Sands explores Lviv with three maps: “…modern Ukrainian (2010), old Polish (1930), ancient Austrian (1911).” I will take the little map my father used and try to locate a cadastral map as well. I’ve given a researcher in Chernivtsi other details—names and dates from the parish records kindly decoded for me by my son Forrest—in the hope that there might be people remaining who are related to me (my grandfather left in 1907).

One thing that Sands finds in his grandfather’s briefcases is a Fremdenpass, or a travel pass. In the Moirs Happiness Package, I also found one of these:

his travel paper

A small object, stained and brittle, but I hope it will help me to travel backwards, across water, across the Carpathians, to a village where a midwife named Rosalia Inravschi delivered my grandfather in 1879. Going back, we find ourselves waiting, waiting, for the moment when the maps show us everything, the gaps between then and now, every season unfolding and the years opening for us, including us in the old family story.

planting daffodils

planting bulbs

Yesterday, during a break in the storm, I planted daffodils with my granddaughter Kelly. She’s 3. We had a bag containing 50 bulbs and we planted them all in rough areas where I want a bit of colour next spring. She used a small trowel and fork to begin the hole and then I used a bigger garden fork brought from England by John’s mother after her mother died in the early 1980s. It’s a fork that travelled from Sheffield, where John’s grandparents lived and where his mother was born in 1920 and where John was also born in 1947, to Felixstowe on the Suffolk coast where Grandmother Mabel went to live after she was widowed.

When the holes were deep enough for the bulbs, I scattered a handful of bone and kelp meal and Kelly placed the bulbs in, rooted end first, three or four in each hole, and then we covered them up with the soil and moss we’d dug up. I was surprised at how patient she was. Her mum and dad said she wants to be a gardener when she grows up and she certainly has the stamina for it at this point in her life, because part-way through our planting, it began to rain again. Digging, placing the bulbs, covering them up…and walking to the next area. I’ll take a photograph of them when they’re in bloom, I promised her.

We planted ten bulbs in the little enclosure where I put a copper beech tree the summer after my mother died. I planted it in memory of my parents, in memory of Bukovina, where my grandfather came from in the early years of the 20th century. Bukovina means “place of beech trees” and this tree will outlive us.  Its leaves are the most beautiful coppery brown and they have a lightness to them.

While we were planting daffodils, Auntie Angie was walking around with her brother Brendan (Kelly’s father) and Henry, who is 1. Angie showed her nephew and niece a tiny salamander she found under a rock.

 

salamander

It warmed up in Angie’s hand and was eager to return to its rock. I thought of a poem by Denise Levertov, “Living”, which somehow was about our day, our lives:

A red salamander
so cold and so
easy to catch, dreamily

moves his delicate feet
and long tail. I hold
my hand open for him to go.

Each minute the last minute.

the shells of morning

I want to write about the light and cool of this August morning, how I looked just now at the shells John hung above the summer table, how they have something of heaven in them as they shimmer together– their sound echoed in the Adagio of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez which I am listening to before going out to do the watering, the vegetable gathering (beans! Savoy cabbages like Dutch still-lifes! Cucumber skins opaque with dew!).

shells of morning.jpg

Last night we returned home from the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts to hear something large crashing over on the other side of the garden and this morning we know that it was an elk breaking down a small chestnut, gorging on the leaves, shattering the branches, and then disappearing into the darkness. On Thursday, in the afternoon, we saw a huge bull elk up at the edge of the grass, eating ocean spray. He had the biggest set of antlers I’ve ever seen, six points on each side, and still covered in golden velvet. In the particular light of mid-afternoon, his antlers seemed to be growing out of the copper beech between him and us, the copper beech under which my parents’ ashes are scattered (beech for Bukovina, my paternal grandfather’s place of origin; and for book; the book of my own origins). I could smell the elk from where I watched on the upper deck. The bulls are readying themselves for the autumn rut and in the past I once heard two of them bugling at each other in our woods, vying for harems. And this morning you can smell him again in the cool air, his breath green with chestnut leaves.

 

“I tasted my way back to the long table…”

fruit.jpg

From “Ballast”, a work-in-progress:

In the thatched house at the Ukrainian Cultural Village Museum near Edmonton, some rough linens, lengths of bright woven cloth on the benches of the good room where guests would be brought, where a wedding was celebrated by 70 guests eating and dancing, the “owner” told us, a man from Bukovina whose daughter-in-law worked in the fenced garden. There were potatoes, beets, feathery fronds of dill everywhere, self-sown, a hardy variety: did it travel with the family from Bukovina, a twist of paper containing its seeds, its beloved flavour, the flavour of home? Along with Black Krim tomatoes, Koda cabbages (from Polish relations), the Viktoria Ukrainskaya peas? Seeds traded with Mennonites for their own hoarded heritage, with Sudeten Germans and Croatians and Armenians for cucumbers, along with Lyaliuks from Belarus. We ate cabbage rolls and cucumber salad green with dill at the snack bar and I tasted my way back to the long table set up in the backyard of my aunt and uncle where my father’s family gathered every time we visited Edmonton, the woman in the kitchen all morning rolling dough and filling pedeha with soft mashed potato and cheese curd and sliced green onions so strong my eyes watered. Slices of hard sausage dark with caraway, and rolls with hard crusts. My uncles held a fist of bread and a glass full of something clear which they drank down, grimaced, then laughed. We had our own drink, raspberry juice with a whiff of vinegar, compot it was called, and was poured from the quart jars, murky with floating fruit, we were asked to bring from a certain shelf in the cellar where spiderwebs draped the windows. Sometimes we pretended to be the uncles, drinking deeply and dancing with our glasses raised high, laughing and slurring our speech. We didn’t know what sorrows they carried in their pockets, hidden away at times like those, but tolerated by their wives who cooked and wiped at red faces with a tea-towel damp with steam.

what we leave

When we leave home, even for a few days, we leave the watering for a kind neighbour. And because the temperatures were up in the high 20s, low 30s, she certainly saved our tomatoes. And our peppers and eggplants! The Black Krim tomatoes are nearly ripe and I bet the peppers will be delicious.

black krimpeppersWe left a pot of white violets tucked in around a hart’s tongue fern and came home to discover deer had come onto the patio to feast on the tender leaves.

eatenAnd what did we leave in Edmonton yesterday morning? A family, happily settled into an old house in a neighbourhood of huge elms. Here they are just before we walked out for brunch on Sunday morning:

let's eat!And what did I bring home, besides photographs? An envelope of ornamental thistle seeds (maybe a cirsium, though I’ll have to spend some time looking through my garden books) from a border beside the stairs to Brendan, Cristen, and Kelly’s front door. A little bag containing three painted wooden eggs from the Ukrainian Village Museum. And a new lead to follow for the research I’m deeply involved in, trying to figure out things about my grandfather John Kishkan, who came to North America from Ivankivtsi in Bukovina. On the horse-drawn cart at the Ukrainian Village, as we passed a church, fields soft with grass, the Orthodox church, a woman quietly told me about the Cobblestone Freeway, a research service for those trying to gather information about Ukrainian ancestors. And this is how everything has come to me thus far — a small phrase, a photograph, seeds (thistle, Black Krim), a date, passed from one hand to another, one ear to another.