the Museum of the Multitude Village

house plan

Looking for something else this morning, I found the plans John drew for the house we built almost 4 decades ago. I thought the plans were somewhere else but I wanted the file of information on our property, our well, and anything else that would help me remember the process of day-to-day building. I am working on something about my grandfather, using a file of receipts and scraps of paper related to the house he built in Beverly, Alberta, in 1946. I am also trying to find information on the house he might have grown up in, a house in the village of Ivankivtsi, near Kitsman, in what’s now Ukraine. I’m not sure I’ll find that house but down the rabbit hole of searching on the Internet, I came upon a site devoted something called Museum of the Multitude Village, located in Valyava, not too far from Ivankivtsi, and it seems to have been founded by a man called Vasily Kishkan, who was a writer. Here’s one of the exhibit rooms of the museum:

museum of the mutitude village

What does this mean? I’m not sure but maybe I’m on the trail of…something. In trying to reconstruct the process of building our house, of my grandfather building the house I took my granddaughter to over Easter, maybe I will be able to build something new that uses materials from both these constructions. Something durable, with an old comforting patina.

I see from the copy of the drawings John did for our house and then the additions we built in later years that the language of building is a language dense with meaning, if you need it to be.


I will have to determine the scale appropriate to this strange compulsion I have to find my grandfather’s life in two countries, or three, if you count the US, where he first arrived from Europe, and worked, before drifting to Alberta. And I will also have to figure out the code.

to code

Seeing this stamped on the plans reminded me that everything we did had to meet the building code and when we went to lumber yards or talked to plumbers or other tradespeople, the term, “to code”, came up so often that it lost its mysterious context and just became part of our regular speech. Is it to code? Has the code changed?

Yes, I think the code has changed but I’m determined to figure it out, at least with enough familiarity that I can understand what a museum of the multitude village might be.

“…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.”

“the long roots of her mother’s mint”

great grandmother's mint

First thing tomorrow, we’re heading off into the wild blue yonder. First stop: Word on the Lake in Salmon Arm for a weekend of readings, workshops, and editorial sessions with aspiring writers. From there, to Edmonton where most of our tribe (we’ll miss Angelica!) is gathering for a week-long building project at Brendan and Cristen’s house. The lumber’s been delivered, the sand for settling foundations, John has filled the trunk of our car with tools (because most mathematicians don’t have power saws, assorted levels, a plumb-bob, crow-bars for prying an old porch off the side of a house, and various other implements collected and used in the long process of building a home here on the Sechelt peninsula). Forrest, Manon, and Arthur are coming from Ottawa so it will be a week of animated conversation, many bottles of wine (we’re bringing some of those too), and, for some, mojitos. I think of cocktails as Mother’s Ruin (it doesn’t take much) so won’t partake* but my contribution will be 2 pots of mint. As I’ve weeded this spring, I’ve kept the volunteer mint to take to Edmonton. Some of it already travelled to Ottawa and is part of a garden there where a small boy will be told one day, “Your grandma brought this and guess where it came from originally?” John’s mother used to visit and in the trunk (or boot, as she called it) would be many cuttings and roots of plants from her garden. I’ve written about this in “Ballast”, one of the essays in Euclid’s Orchard.

She carried rooted shoots of the original family wisteria in turn from her mother’s garden in Suffolk, wrapped in damp paper in her suitcase after one of her annual summer visits to her mum. Have you anything to declare, I imagine her being asked, and like me (who carries acorns and interesting cones and seeds from everywhere I visit), she took a deep breath, keeping inside every important reason for children to continue their parents’ gardens, and said no. In her suitcase, the long roots of her mother’s mint, the perennial geraniums.

And it will be a week of little trips too to places that speak to me — to us — of our family connections. Two springs ago, John, Brendan, baby Kelly, and I drove out to the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, east of Edmonton. I don’t know many details about my grandfather’s life in Bukovyna but somehow seeing the Nazar Yurko house gave me some insights into the domestic culture of his village (Ivankivtsi).


We’re planning to drive out the open-air museum again this trip, with all the grandchildren strapped into their car-seats. They’ll see the house with its adjacent garden, where I remember drifts of ferny dill that the young woman weeding told me self-sowed everywhere. (I wanted to lift a little clump and tuck it into my pack. Maybe this time I’ll be bolder.) They’ll see the church

church at Ukrainian Village Museum

and I’ll show them a photograph of the church in their great-great-grandfather’s village and they might hear the echoes that I hear when I enter these buildings.

church in my grandfather's village

And then their fathers can muddle the mint that came from their great-great-grandmother’s English garden (via their great-grandmother, and then their grandmother) and make a jug of mojitos. So the world is remembered, mint and rum and the bells of old churches.

*I mean cocktails, not wine. I’ll drink more than my share of the Wild Goose Pinot Gris but mixed drinks catch up on me sooner than I’d care to admit.

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.

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

five generations

I’m reading James Salter’s memoir, Burning the Days, as beautifully written and thoughtful a book as any I’ve ever read. Last night, just before I turned off my light, there was this:

“We know at first hand, as witnesses, perhaps five generations, most brilliantly of course our own; in one direction those of our parents and grandparents, in the other, children and grandchildren. In my own case much was lopped off. The past is haphazard. I think of the remark of the English cabinet member who was retiring to the seventeenth-century Cornwall farmhouse that had always been in his family. It is the men without roots, he said, who are the real poor of this century.”

In the falling light, I thought of this, while tiny bats passed the windows — I hadn’t pulled the curtains — and I thought of it again immediately upon waking. Most days I look at the materials (and they are meagre at best) my parents left and try to think of other ways to interpret them. I’ve written queries to the places named on my grandmother’s birth certificate, tentative testings in English to people with my grandmother’s maiden name, her mother’s name. In the tiny village she came from and the small town nearby, I suspect someone sharing those names is connected to her, to me. But no word comes back. I’ve sent messages to the offspring of my grandmother with her first husband — the children and grandchildren of my father’s half-sisters and brothers — but again, little or nothing. Who were they in their daily lives? What stories did they tell? Who did they leave behind, in Horni Lomna, and Ivankivtsi in Bukovina? I want roots, yes, but also the sound a stone makes thrown into the past, echoing and re-echoing, the widening music finally including me.

On this travel document, my grandfather’s surname is Kiszkan.