I hear a hidden history

In November I wrote about seeing William Kurelek’s painting Green Sunday in the National Gallery in Ottawa. Kurelek’s father came to Canada from Borivtsi, a village in Bukovina (or Bukovyna), in 1923. Seeing the painting was a kind of gift. My own grandfather came to North America from Ivankivtsi, also in Bukovina, in 1907. I believe he came to New Jersey and worked at Franklin Furnace and then eventually made his way to Drumheller where he met my grandmother and married her around 1920. Franklin Furnace was an extensive iron-making operation and it attracted immigrants from all over the world. I don’t know if my grandfather worked as a miner in Bukovina and was thus attracted to Franklin Furnace for its opportunities or if his time there was serendipitous. Other Kishkans (or Chişcanucs) had come to North American before him. A cousin had immigrated to Saskatchewan (he was the father of the great Toronto Maple Leaf goalie John Bower, whose true surname was Kishkan). I don’t know how close family members were before they immigrated or the degree to which they kept in touch afterwards. My grandfather sent money to Bukovina to pay for the passage of another cousin. My father remembered that his father had been raised in the home of grandparents — my great-great grandparents — with other cousins. I don’t know if this was because the parents of the cousins were unable to care for them or because (perhaps) they needed help or could provide opportunities unavailable in Ivankivtsi. Sometimes I think these things will never be known and sometimes they appear to hover just beyond my consciousness, enticing me to work harder, dig deeper.

I’ve tried to find out about Ivankivtsi. A few photographs —

ivankivtsi3ivankivtsi 2–some parish lists in the LDS metrical records, one or two names. But the farther I get from my grandfather, in time, the less likely it is that I’ll ever know much about his life in Europe and his reasons for leaving. Even the family members he left behind.

After seeing the Kurelek painting in November, I discovered that he’d gone to his father’s village twice — for a four hour visit in 1970 (the days of the old Soviet bureaucracy) and then just before his death in 1977. His father had drawn maps for him and he found them surprisingly accurate. He found cousins, simple houses, many geese and ducks, and ancient pear trees. He drew the farm tools and kitchen implements, simple arrangements of sausages and bread spread with bacon fat, the fields and gardens, the sheaves tied for winter. He made beautiful paintings based on many of these things and it’s clear that he intended to make more; he died just a few weeks after he returned from the second trip.

I discovered a book based on William Kurelek’s trips to Borivtsi: To My Father’s Village: A Final Search to Understand (Tundra Books, 1988). I meant to order it and forgot in the busy weeks around Christmas. But then I remembered, found a copy online, and it arrived the other day. I’ve been immersed in it ever since.

I think Borivtsi is quite close to Ivankivtsi. Both villages are in the Chernivtsi oblast (and Chernivtsi itself has a fascinating history. I highly recommend Gregor Von Rezzori’s gorgeous The Snows of Yesteryear, a memoir of his childhood in that city, as well as his novel, An Ermine in Czernopol, a thinly-disguised portrait of Chernivtsi in its Austro-Hungarian glory). Reading Kurelek’s letters home to his wife Jean in which he describes his father’s village are in a way palimpsests. I hear a hidden history, my grandfather’s, in his words. “Three-hundred year old pear trees such as my father used to hide in if caught stealing.” “There was the pich and even the place on it where father said they used to sleep. The cheap calender icons, the little windows, the loaf of bread on the bed, the pail of slops.” (The pich was the traditional oven.) This could almost be my grandparents’ home in Beverly where we visited them as children.

Maybe this is the way we discover our ancestors. They are short syllables in the stories of others — a stove, the brushes for whitewashing the walls of the two-roomed houses, a few ducks by the edge of a pond. I wish for more but am grateful to have at least this much.

green poplar

A few snow flakes falling in Ottawa but I`ve come from the National Gallery with a new sense of my own love of spring. A painting, William Kurelek`s beautiful Green Sunday 1962, a woman in a room, with soft green boughs around her. And the text tells us that the work commemorates Zeleni Sviala, the first Sunday in May when poplar branches would be placed in all 4 corners of a living room to welcome spring after a long hard winter. The woman is wearing the costume of Kurelek`s ancestral Bukovina (also my ancestral Bukovina, on my father`s father`s side). Somehow I recognize the moment, the bringing in of green boughs, a man playing music to one side, and a calendar high on one wall to keep the days in their order. And I know the word, too — zeleni, so close to Czech zelene, the name of one my favourite Moravian wines.

I wonder more each year about family, where we come from — and why, how… And then a painting offers a moment of deep recognition.


wild and pruned

I’ve written three books that are autobiographical in nature. Two of them are collections of personal essays which explore family stories, the natural world, history, and landscape. And one of them — Mnemonic: A Book of Trees — does those things too but through a particular lens, using a structure which provides a (loose) through-line. The book is a memory grove and the narrative takes place among trees past and present, wild and pruned.

I’m not a user of social media, apart from this irregular blog. Mostly it’s because I don’t understand the parameters. And I don’t much like the language.  Twitter, “friend” used as a verb… About a month ago I asked my daughter to help me set up a Facebook page, thinking that I was somehow not participating the cultural conversation. Within an hour I had many friends. I had messages. I looked at photographs. Every time I walked by my desk, I’d think, “Oh, I wonder what’s new with my Facebook friends?” I’d check. I still hadn’t learned the code about status updates or likes or any of that so I was a bit confused but I realized that one could waste spend a lot of time in the Facebook world.  That night I was awake for hours wondering what on earth I’d done. So I got up in the wee hours and did whatever one does to unsubscribe or unjoin Facebook. I felt such relief! We all have a line in the sand, I guess, and who knew this would be mine? I think it’s my metabolism. I want long relationships, in person, or conversations on the phone. I want to walk with my friends or give them dinner, not *heart* something they’ve said on Facebook. But I also realize that I’m very much among the minority in this respect.

I really enjoyed a recent piece in the New Yorker: “A Memoir is not a Status Update”, by Dani Shapiro. She writes of the difference between living out loud on Facebook, “sharing” every breath we take,  and the methodical work at the heart of writing a memoir. “I worry that we’re confusing the small, sorry details—the ones that we post and read every day—for the work of memoir itself.”


For the past two years I’ve been working on an extended work of non-fiction, a memoir of sorts, and it’s a very slow process indeed. One frayed thread takes me to the Beskydy Mountains in the Czech Republic, one tangled thread to Bukovina and the dense information in the metrical records of my grandfather’s village, one sad thread to Cape Breton Island, and one to the intricate and mysterious world of mathematics. And then there’s the actual thread, the spools of cotton I use to stitch together the quilt that accompanies this work.

“We live in a time in which little is concealed, and that pressure valve—the one that every writer is intimate with—rarely has a chance to fill and fill to the point of explosion. Literary memoir is born of this explosion. It is born of the powerful need to craft a story out of the chaos of one’s own history. One of literary memoir’s greatest satisfactions—both for writer and reader—is the slow, deliberate making of a story, of making sense, out of randomness and pain.”

I get a little notice on the sidebar of the screen I use to compose these posts, asking me to refresh my connection to Facebook. But I’m not going to, not yet. I think it’s more important to keep my attentions focused on that slow deliberation, on the basket of thread I sort through regularly to see what colours I have to work with and what I might need in the future.

log cabin





the metaphysics of time

In my memoir, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees (Goose Lane, 2011), there are many brief meditations on time. As I was writing that book, my parents and parents-in-law were fading, and then dying. In the fall of 2009, my father (with whom I had a complicated but not unloving relationship) was in the process of leaving the earth. Well, he was, and he wasn’t.  I’d left my home on the Sechelt Peninsula several times in early fall to visit my mother in Victoria and assist her with arrangements for my father; he’d gone into hospital with a whole lot of medical issues (prostate cancer, dementia, plain ill-humour…) and with my help, and (more usefully, I think) the help of my brothers, we were trying to find a placement for him a long-term care facility. This coincided with a trip John and I had planned for ages — two weeks in Paris, a week in the south of France, and two weeks in Venice. My older brother Dan urged me to take the trip. We had a plan in place and there wasn’t much I could do — and it seemed that he might go on until the New Year in any case. I went to Victoria, held his hand (though he didn’t know me at that point), helped my mum with some stuff, and then went to France. I called at regular intervals and by the time we were in Venice, it seemed that my father was truly dying. It was strange to try to figure out the time difference and the logistics of who would be where at a particular time of the day. Should we phone my mum? Or my brother Dan (who was in Victoria)? Or my daughter Angelica, who lived in Victoria and who was helping her grandmother? Should I fly back to Canada? They all said no.  (Do I feel guilty about this? Oh yeah.)

In Mnemonic, I wrote this, in a section called “In Venice, a death”:

O the metaphysics of time: that I could stand at a phone kiosk on the Campo San Pantalon, calling my mother on a Saturday evening in November to reach her as she drank her morning coffee. “I won’t lie to you,” she told me. “He has a cough that the nurses say means he will probably die this weekend.” Her weekend was beginning was mine was half-finished.

I remember that time so vividly. I’d never been to Venice before though John had and it was so beyond what I’d ever imagined. People talk about the smell. In November there was no smell, beyond the drift of strong coffee from the little bars, the rich dense scent of history in every church or palace, the beautiful odour of gardens on Torcello as we walked from where we’d been let off by the vaporetto and then the dim smell of stone in Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta (built in 639) and the 12 c. Santa Fosca where I lit a candle for my father (he was a very lapsed Catholic but candle wax is a powerful link to him and his religious paradoxes).


And when I called again, from the Campo San Pantalon, which was just opposite the little pension where we were staying, with its own glorious church, it was to discover that my father had died the night before. But what day? It was night for me, morning in Victoria, and they were talking about the previous night. I tried to grapple with my sense of time. What had I been doing? Where was I? Were the candles in time, or too late? Did the smoke mean anything in the cool November air on Torcello where cats prowled as we walked the path and where we stopped for a glass of prosecco for the pleasure of sitting at a small table and writing into our respective notebooks?

Time is again on my mind as I wait for the birth of my first grandchild, due any time now. I think of the baby’s father (my son) and how I was so impatient for his birth. I wrote a poem for him, which was printed on his birth announcement, and in it I confess to impatience:

Every day I vacuum and clean,

make sure your clothes are ready.

Please come. I wake in the morning

from dreams of you, I love you,

you are curled up back to my heart…

Today a note from the grandchild’s mother assured me she is comfortable and relaxed. So I tidied the linen shelves, sorted out what I wanted to keep and what I no longer needed (single sheets from the years when my children slept in bunk-beds or their own narrow pine-framed beds). I aired and refolded the sweet-smelling linen (sachets of lavender!) and organized the shelves for the next chapter of our lives.

How quickly those previous chapters have concluded themselves! My father five years gone, some of  his ashes under a copper beech I planted in honour of his father’s birthplace: Bukovina, “place of beeches”. My mother who followed him, exactly a year later, and some of whose ashes have joined him there. I still see the tiny bone fragments when I water. My children gone out into the world, their pine beds given away, and now the old sheets tucked into a bag for the thrift store. And in the thread of time that is always now, we are waiting for the new child to join the family, a basket of blankets and quilts ready for its bed.

Searching (still) for John Kishkan but perhaps a little closer to finding him

I’m not sure why I’m so preoccupied with finding traces of my grandparents. I’ve almost given up on my mother’s biological parents, having tried to obtain her birth certificate which (she once told me) detailed both parents’ names. My mother was given up at birth to a foster mother who raised her. She never knew her biological parents and after she died in November, 2010, I was determined to try as hard as I could to figure out something about them. It turned out to be far more difficult than I imagined. I wasn’t allowed to have a copy of her birth certificate though whom Vital Statistics in Halifax thinks they’re protecting is beyond me. My mother was 84 when she died so the likelihood of her birth parents still being alive is pretty remote. However, regulations are regulations. Any other route I’ve tried has led to a deadend. The surnames of her birth parents were McDougall and MacDonald — names that abound in Nova Scotia, particularly Cape Breton Island where my mother was born on February 8, 1926.

But I actually knew my paternal grandparents — they were elderly when I was a child — and they left a very small and faded paper trail which I am trying to follow as best I can. My grandfather was born in Iwankoutz / Ivankivtsi in Bukovina in 1879. I have his naturalization certificate, issued in September, 1936, and the actual date of birth given is the 14th of June. But I’ve found that dates are as easily changed as the spelling of names — and maybe even the names themselves. I recently joined a Bukovina listserv and its members have been very helpful. As I know his birth village, it was suggested that I order microfilms of the metrical books (church registers of births, marriages, and deaths) from the Family History Centre of the Church of the Latter Day Saints. Because I don’t live near a Family History Centre, my son Forrest in Ottawa offered to do it and to make scans or copies of relevant material. I was so excited on Saturday to receive this email from him:

“The microfilm of the Ivankovtsy birth registers arrived yesterday and I
think I’ve found your grandfather (the year is right but the date of
birth is about a month and a half later than other sources would
indicate). He’s at line 367 of the attached. With the help of a little
Latin and Google Translate, I managed to work out the bilingual (German
and Romanian) column headings, and the handwriting of the
Romanian-speaking priest:

Year: 1879
Month and Day of Birth: 6 August
Month and Day of Baptism: 8 August
Name of Baby: Joan [Romanian for John]
Gender: Male
Religion: Eastern [the only options her are “Eastern” or “Western”, i.e.
Greek Catholic or Roman Catholic]
Born with benefit of wedlock
Name, Alias, Occupation, and Residence of Father: Onufrei Chiscan alias
Alecsei, peasant of Ivancauti [the Romanian name]
Mother: Anna née Fedoriuc [Romanian approximation of the Ukrainian
Fedoruk] of Ivancauti
Names, Alias, Occupations, and Residences of Godfathers: Nicolai Vegera,
Simon Krepincu, Georgi Rudacu, all three peasants of Ivancauti
Name, Alias, and Residence of Midwife: Rosalia Inravschi of Ivancauti
Certified correct by priest performing baptism: Emanuel Nichitovici, Vicar

Aliases are apparently common among Ukrainians, but it is unclear to me
what function they serve (they appear to be an extra Christian name
rather than a reference to an occupation or attribute).

I looked through June and July to see if there were any other John
Kishkans and there weren’t, so I think this must be him. I have the
reel until October so I can check again, and also look at other years
for possible siblings, perhaps even the parents. There is one other
Kishkan on the same page, Maria Chiscan (parents Dimitrei and Anna) –
perhaps a cousin?”

Kishkans — or Chişcanucs (English transliteration: Kishkanuks) — appear in the census for Ivankivtsi (Ivancăuţi in Romanian, Iwankoutz in German, I gather) in the late 1700s so this really seems to be where one of my roots is buried. How deep, though? And how far does it grow laterally? I still have no idea of siblings. But maybe I’m closer, thanks to the Bukovina listserv and to Forrest.

I only have a couple of photographs of my grandfather. This is him as a young man — maybe as he was leaving Bukovina or shortly after he arrived in North America in 1907.

john kishkan

And here’s a photograph of the mysterious ladies, part of his small archive. The one on the left is surely a relation?

the mysterious ladies

Searching for John Kishkan

I’m reading Myrna Kostash’s All of Baba’s Children, in part to find out something about my grandfather’s early experiences in Canada and in part to find scraps of my father’s childhood. All of Baba’s Children was first published in 1977 and has never been out of print. It’s an investigation into the experiences of the Ukrainians who came to western Canada and went through both the process of assimilation (whatever that means) and also the kind of uber-nationalism that people who’ve left a beloved place often devote themselves to in the new country. The farms, the schools, the communities, the newspapers — I read in a kind of wonder, as though I’ve found something important to me and my own family’s history but I’m still not sure how we fit into this context.

I’ve read some of Myrna’s other books — the wonderful Bloodlines, the unforgettable Frog Lake Reader — but for some reason, I left this one unopened. What was I afraid of, I wonder? Last night I kept putting the book aside to try to figure out how my grandfather’s own voice might have sounded in the passages of interviews Myrna uses to introduce chapters. Peter Shevchook, for example: “My father came over in the spring of 1899. He came over for the forests. You understand, he came from a regime where you had to pick up every twig and ask the lord for everything. He went out to the Mundare area and picked out the bushiest land he could find.”

But that wasn’t my grandfather’s story, or at least not what I know of it. He left Bukovina in 1907 — or at least that’s what his little travel book indicates. He may have gone to Franklin Furnace, New Jersey. He shows up in Phoenix, B.C. in 1911 — but that might not have been him (there were cousins with similar names). He was a miner. He didn’t own land until he met my grandmother who had a small farm in Drumheller (she’d come to Drumheller in 1913 to join her first husband).

He wasn’t interned during the First World War as many Ukrainian men were but he was sent away from a mine in Kananaskis — or at least this is family lore. But where did he go? So many gaps and silences.

Myrna’s book is detailed and passionate. It’s filled with material that feels and sounds familiar — the meals, the hardships, the role of the Orthodox Church in sustaining particular aspects of culture and community, the stubborn allegiances to the language and music that told people who they were in the face of the Anglo class structures that marginalized immigrants from Europe and elsewhere. I’m only half-way through All of Baba’s Children and am savouring every word.It’s taken me so long to begin my own tentative investigation into this part of my history and I’m grateful to have such a great guide. I post photographs of my garden, my quilts, our little rambles here and there, news of my books, and yet this also is mine, even if I know so little about it.

Julia Kishkan's funeral
Julia Kishkan’s funeral

Under Giotto’s ceiling

June 14, 2011

Ever since I saw Giotto’s beautiful ceiling in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua a few years ago, I’ve wanted something of that beauty in my daily life. To sit under a lapis sky studded with golden stars, angels and Madonnas looking down to bless those below.

Last winter I went to the hardware store with a book about Giotto in hand. The woman at the paint counter helped me match the blue (something called “Electric Storm”) and I brought home enough to paint the ceiling of my small study – it’s perhaps 9 x11, with a big window looking out to a covered porch. Right now the wisteria climbing the porch’s post is in full bloom and I love looking up from my desk to watch hummingbirds at work in the flowers.

The paint sat in the workshop for more than a year. I couldn’t bring myself to begin to paint. So much was happening in my life and there never seemed to be time to drape old sheets over the shelves and furniture and actually bring this particular project to life.

A few weeks ago, I finally applied three coats of “Electric Storm” to the white ceiling of my study. To say that John helped is an understatement. My style is careless and his is meticulous. He followed me, repairing my mistakes.

Then we spent a week or so trying to figure out the best way to paint on the stars. Would we use gold leaf? A stencil? Freehand? At one point, I desperately considered stickers.

I decided on a particular eight-sided star, partly influenced by Giotto and partly by the painted monasteries of Bukovina (you will be able to read about these in my forthcoming book, in a chapter where I try to find traces of my paternal grandfather who came from Bukovina). John cut a careful template and plotted the best way to arrange the pattern on my ceiling. There would be ten stars altogether, in four rows, two of two stars and two of three.

He measured and marked the placement with green painters tape. He held the template and I traced the stars with a white pencil crayon. I waited a day and then mixed some paint from those little containers you can buy in a craft shop – I have many of them for painting flower pots and cloth. (Forrest made me a floor cloth using these, featuring a saint on horseback inspired by the painted monasteries of Bukovina!) I used a matte dark yellow mixed with metallic gold for the first coat and followed that with a second coat of straight metallic gold. I just did the second coat this morning.

So right now I’m sitting at my desk, listening to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing “Cease, ruler of the day, to rise” from Handel’s opera Hercules, under a ravishing blue sky lit by stars. It’s not the Scrovegni Chapel with frescoes on the walls narrating the Annunciation, the Passion of Christ, the Resurrection;  but it’s beautiful and the stories surrounding me — pictures drawn by my children, an elk skull, birds nests, our wonderful dog Lily’s pelvis, books that have taught me how to live — amount to a life. My life, under Giotto’s ceiling.