the signatures

Last week, while in Edmonton, I posted a photograph of the house I believe my grandfather built in Beverly, in 1946. I knew I had some files of tax records, building materials receipts, and other miscellaneous  papers related to the property my grandparents moved to from Drumheller, so this past week, at home, I’ve spread out the stuff on our dining table (we’ve been eating by the fire, our plates and glasses on a small bench between our chairs….) and tried to piece together a story. I’m still in the very beginning stages of understanding anything much about this period in their lives but I’m planning to continue and also planning to collect what information I’m able to when John and I travel to western Ukraine in September in search of my grandfather’s roots.

I was surprised to find a big blueprinted page of a subdivision plan allowing my grandparents and two other couples — Peter and Pearl Pawliuk, and John and Jennie Walrich — to divide up a large parcel of land. (The survey took place in 1953 and the final plan was approved in 1954.) I will try to figure this out but in the meantime, I was looking at my grandparents’ signatures on the plan and realized that they both looked identical. Hmmm. I knew my grandmother attended school in Drumheller with my father in the mid-1930s; she sat in his classroom, at a small desk, because she wanted to learn to read and write. And the story about my grandfather was that my father taught him to sign his own name at some later date. I think my grandmother signed this document for both of them. I found another document, the bill for the survey itself, with my grandfather’s name on the back, painstakingly signed in blue ink, one clear signature (my grandmother’s?) and two quavery ones. (Someone else signed for the Walrichs with a note asserting it was His Mark and Her Mark.) Was this a practice run for all the legal stuff to come? I have only three photographs of my grandfather. Only a few faint memories. (I was 3 when he died.) I am trying to piece him together, his past, his life as my father’s father, and every small detail has to mean something in the process. It’s all I have.

signatures

Postcard from Beverly, Alberta

IMG_20180331_101228118

My grandfather built this house in the early 1940s, I believe, when he moved with his family from Drumheller to Beverly, now part of Edmonton. There was another small house behind this one, purchased from the Prins farm, for $200, and moved to this lot. I have a file containing all the receipts  for materials used in the construction of this house, as well as the bill of sale, handwritten, for the smaller house, and it was odd to look at the place this morning, my granddaughter in the car, trying to think of the way a landscape holds us in the plain details as well as the grand ones.  Five generations and a river between my Ukrainian-speaking grandfather and a little girl singing of trains.

in place, over time

Canada is a huge country. When I was a child, my family drove across it, from Victoria to Halifax, and then back again two years later. In every province we travelled through, I lost my heart to small towns, imagining living there, wondering why we had to always live in the same places: Victoria, Matsqui, Halifax. What about Golden? Or Carberry? Or Annapolis Royal? When we lived on the west coast, we drove to Edmonton many summers to visit my father’s mother. While his father was alive, we visited both grandparents, but my grandfather died when I was two or three so I don’t remember much about those trips. I do remember sleeping in a small house with a metal roof behind the slightly larger house where my grandparents lived in Beverly, not far from the North Saskatchewan River. I remember hail on that roof and running with my brothers to the safety of the larger house where our parents were visiting with our grandparents and assorted aunts and uncles. I remember the heat of those summers and the great body of the river as it made its way from its home glacier in the Rockies to Saskatchewan.

And now my son Brendan lives in Edmonton with his wife Cristen and their daughter Kelly. Cristen’s father grew up in Edmonton so there are family connections on both sides. It’s not why they chose Edmonton — their decision had more to do with Brendan’s work (he’s a mathematician and he teaches at the University of Alberta) — but there’s something about the way places draw us, I think.  Over time they draw us. I hadn’t thought about Edmonton in years until my son moved there, bought a house with his wife, and began a family. Their family is already rooted, in a way. They are already familiar with winter, for example, and the sound of magpies. Their street is thick with elm leaves right now and Kelly will know the pleasures of walking through dry leaves in October before the snow comes.

In 1946, my grandfather bought a house from Jacob Prins. Here’s the bill of sale:

bill of saleI know, it’s hard to read. But for 200 dollars in February, 1946, my grandfather John Kishkan bought a house located on the Humberstone Farm with the understanding that the house would be moved on or before July 1st. My grandfather paid in cash. I think this was the little house we slept in. In the papers I found after my father’s death in 2009, there was a box of receipts and so forth for house-building materials, all dated late 1946 and 1947. I think my grandparents must’ve lived in the little house moved from the Humberstone Farm to their lot on 111th Avenue in Beverly and then they built a larger house on the same lot. Nothing grand. This is the house (photo taken by my auntie Ann’s great-granddaughter a few years ago):

their houseI am wondering about the stories contained in these papers and this house. My grandparents moved from Drumheller where they had a small farm (I believe it was land taken out by my grandmother’s first husband Josef Yopek in 1912) to Beverly. Did they sell the farm? Did one of my grandmother’s grown children keep it? (She had 8 children from her first marriage and they were mostly adults by the time my father was born in 1926. My father lived with one of the grown sisters in Edmonton for a time and perhaps as my grandparents aged, it was felt that they too should come to be closer to their family. Although the children were not biologically related to my grandfather and he certainly didn’t adopt them, I note that they are listed as his daughters and sons in his obituary.)

And I wonder why my grandfather bought a house from Jacob Prins. There’s so much I don’t know about my grandfather’s early life but when I read about the Humberstone Farm, which Jacob Prins bought sometime after 1927, I discover that it was not only a farm but also a coal mining operation. The Humberstone family bought a 1/2 section of River Lot 42, east of 34th Street and south of 118th Avenue, nestled in a broad bend of the North Saskatchewan River. The farm took up part of the land and as well as a coal mine, the Humberstones also ran a boarding house for coal miners. My grandfather’s history before he met my grandmother is sketchy. I know he was a miner, I know he worked in Kananaskis and Phoenix, B.C. and Franklin Furnace, New Jersey. But was there also an association with the Humberstone Coal Company?

So many questions — and no real possibility of answers. Anyone I could ask is now dead.

my grandparents

We walked a little through the river valley this past weekend while we were in Edmonton and I thought how beautiful the landscape was with the golden aspens and the mountain ashes laden with clusters of red berries and the noisy magpies gliding in and out of the trees. It’s not my place but I have ties to it, over time, and those ties are strengthening all the time. I was a child over on the other bank of the river, walking with my mother in the dust of summer, and now I watch another young family take pleasure in the seasons.

a family

A little Seferis to put things in perspective:

If pain is human we are not human beings merely to suffer pain;
that’s why I think so much these days about the great river,
this meaning that moves forward among herbs and greenery
and beasts that graze and drink, men who sow and harvest,
great tombs even and small habitations of the dead.

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.

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