redux: Churchbells in Horni Lomna

7 years ago yesterday, I saw the house where my grandmother was born, grew up, was married from, and perhaps even lived in with her first husband before they left for a new life in Canada. I’m writing about her now and was reading the old post this morning.


On February 24, Petr and Lenka took us from Ostrava to my grandmother’s village of Horni Lomna in the Beskydy Mountains near the Slovak border. I have such scanty information about her life before my father was born to her and her second husband in Drumheller in 1926 but I’ve always known where she came from, and when she was born — 1881, though her naturalization papers say 1883; I will believe her birth certificate which accords with my father’s memory… When my father died in the fall of 2009, my mother gave me a small bundle of papers which included these things and after her death in 2010, I found a few little bits and pieces, including this photograph of my grandmother, Anna Klus (or Anna Klusova as she would have been here), with her first husband, Joseph Yopek.

Petr had been calling the office of the mayor of Horni Lomna for a week to find out about accessibility. Last week there was a severe snowfall — 2 metres — so we couldn’t have gone then. On Friday the mayor’s assistant said that yes, there was snow, but people were getting through, so Petr was willing to give it a try. Bless him. As we got closer to the village in its narrow valley, the snow was astonishing, high drifts on either side of the road. But then we were there:

Horni Lomna is a village of fewer than 500 people. At the village office, the mayor’s assistant explained to Petr where the house, number 26, was located. We couldn’t drive — the road was deep with snow. So we left the car and began to walk. The village was strangely familiar with its wooden houses and tall conifers, mostly spruce, and a skittering of small birds. We’d been told to take a road that veered off the main one and we were to watch for a bridge over the Lomna River (Horni means “upper”; there is also a Dolni, or “lower” Lomna, nearby). We wouldn’t be able to get right up to the house (no longer occupied), the woman had explained, because of the snow, but we would be able to see it from a neighbouring house.

I thought of my grandmother walking this road — to school, to church, to her wedding to Joseph Yopek, and perhaps even after saying goodbye to her parents in 1911 before she left with Joseph and their five children (four more would follow) for Antwerp where they boarded a boat for North America.

And then we saw her house.

Every winter it would have looked like this, tucked below its hill in the narrow valley of the Lomna River, not far from its headwaters. Those are fruit trees around it, but what kind? Plums? Apples? Her birth certificate tells me her father was a farmer so there would have been crops of some sort and this is sheep country so no doubt they would have raised sheep and maybe a pig or two. So much I don’t know, and perhaps never will. But seeing this house, in snow, gives me a sense of where she began, and in a way it’s where I began too.

Walking back, we heard churchbells announcing noon. The same churchbells, the same road, the deep snow carrying the sound as far as the heart can travel.

a badlands antiphon


The one essay in my forthcoming collection that’s giving me trouble is a long one about the search for my grandmother’s first home in Canada. Or, more correctly, it’s about the search for a homestead taken out (in theory) by her first husband, Joseph Yopek, who came to Canada around 1911. His name appears on the Alberta Homestead Records, a guide I used to try to find out information about the place he prepared for my grandmother’s arrival from what’s now the Czech Republic in 1913.

The editor for this collection has rightly observed that the essay doesn’t quite work. All the parts are there but they don’t add up to a finished piece. I know she’s right. When my publisher wondered in the fall if I might have enough essays for a book, I thought I didn’t. And then I went through a series of medical tests that indicated I could be facing a fairly serious health situation. I thought to myself, You need to finish the work you’ve begun because your days could be numbered. Well, of course all our days are numbered but there you have it. And I confess I sort of rushed this particular essay. My hope for it was something other than the way I put it together. So my challenge right now is to find its true shape. In the beginning I wanted it to be an antiphon. Not necessarily the sort I knew, where a choir or group of voices (or sometimes even a single voice) responds to lines of a psalm or other liturgical text. But I wanted to call across the years to the man my grandmother married, a man who seems to have disappeared from any kind of recorded memory, and I wanted him to answer. I wanted to engage in a kind of song with him. But then I let the writing take me elsewhere. Into the dry archive of land grants and the Department of the Interior. Men writing to other men in the language of early 20th c. bureaucracy.

Yesterday I worked for most of the day on other essays. Their editorial requirements were pretty straightforward. Commas. Clarity. Eliminating all those parenthetical asides, or at least thinking about them in a different way. I enjoy this work. I want this book to be as good as I can make it.

But in the middle of the manuscript is this long brooding shadow. I kept scrolling past it to pretend that fixing it would be easy enough, why didn’t I simply leave it for a bit? And in the night, I was awake thinking about it and it suddenly seemed so clear. Return to your original vision. Sing to Joseph Yopek and maybe he will sing back. Never mind that he would sing in Polish, a language I don’t understand. Music can take us beyond language, can’t it? After all, the liturgy of Joseph Yopek’s church would have been Latin and surely he didn’t understand Latin, apart from its context. And when you think about it, liturgy is not confined to the Catholic church. The word itself is a Greek composite, λειτουργία, or leitourgia, meaning “public service”.  The liturgy I have in mind would be service to my family, our own particular music. And his part has been lost, this man who died in 1918 and whose grave I couldn’t even find in the small-ish Drumheller Cemetery.

“A man often died alone”

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? …we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” (Franz Kafka, from a letter to Oskar Pollak, January 27, 1904)

It’s violent language to use about the experience of reading but I understand it. There are books, and then there are books, the ones that break you open and let all the elements batter your heart. Your mind. And I would extend this to the writing of books as well. I write to find out. I don’t work from outlines or templates. I can’t imagine a workshop that would teach me how to do the kind of writing I do. Which isn’t to say it’s particularly original or inventive or important. I don’t mean that. But I mean that it’s mine. When I go into the work, it’s my own strange journey; the baggage I carry is never quite enough or quite right but I couldn’t find a list telling me what else I might need.

The work I’m trying to find my way through right now keeps surprising me. (I’ve put my novella-in-progress aside because, well, I need to do something else at present. And the novella’s time will come.)

I remember asking my dad if his parents had brothers and sisters. “I never asked,” was his reply. I couldn’t imagine not knowing. My brothers were so important to me (still are) and I believe my children feel the same way. Their own children will know who their uncles and aunts are, as I knew my dad’s brothers and sisters. Not well, because they lived far from us and they were the progeny of a first marriage; my father was born late in my grandmother’s life and so his brothers and sisters were much older. (He was born in 1926 and the oldest of his brothers — twins — were born in 1905.)

In the research I’ve been doing after my brief trip to Drumheller the other week, I’ve found a man I believe was my grandmother’s brother. I first saw his name — Joseph (or Jozef) Klus — on a list describing the squatters on Section 11, Township 29, Range 20, west of the 4th Meridian (the land I thought my grandmother’s first husband was granted under the Dominion Homestead Act and instead discovered that no, he and his family were part of a squatters’ settlement on that land). Joseph Klus is listed as occupying Lot 6. (Shack 10 x 15 built into bank $25.00). My grandmother’s family occupied Lot 9. Hmm, I thought. Could he be related to my grandmother, whose maiden name was Klus? Searching for more information about him, I discovered he died in the Spanish flu epidemic on October 26, 1918. (My grandmother’s first husband died two days later.)

From the Drumheller Mail, November 29, 0001 (a mistake, I suspect, but don’t know if it should be 2001, so will simply leave it):

“Even as a man was dying, another was waiting to occupy his bed. A man often died alone, among strangers who could not understand him even when he was only begging for water. Terror of the Black Death kept family or friends from visiting him. Some victims never got to our hospital; they had been abandoned to die in a dugout or shack,” wrote nurse Gertrude Charters, a volunteer who dared to enter the quarantined Drumheller during the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918.


“Drumheller was hit worse than others, partly because the living conditions were terrible. This was an era where Drumheller was called Hell’s Hole because the living conditions were so terrible. Primitive shacks, latrines which were never cleaned and latrines which were too close to the water supply,” says the Atlas Coal Mine’s Linda Digby. “This was when the population explosion had just happened and the infrastructure just wasn’t there.”
The Drumheller Hospital wasn’t built until 1919, with the flu outbreak tapering off around that time.

Last night, talking to my son Forrest (a historian), I told him about Joseph Klus and wondered if I’d ever know if he was my grandmother’s brother. Forrest very quickly accessed the Canada Passenger Lists 1881-1922 online and found Joseph sailed from Rotterdam to Nova Scotia in December 1913 with the purpose of joining his married sister in Drumheller. So yes, almost certainly her brother. (She herself had sailed from Antwerp to Saint John in March of the same year, in steerage, with 5 small children, in order to join her husband who’d come the previous year.)

jozef klus

A kind woman in Horni Lomna, my grandmother’s village in what’s now the Czech Republic, searched the parish records last year and told me that my grandmother had two younger sisters. But nothing about a brother. The passenger list gives his occupation as “farm labourer”. I think of him traveling from the remote Beskydy Mountains, green and beautiful, to Rotterdam, across the ocean, then crossing the country by train, to join his sister in the squatters’ settlement where he built a shack into a bank and settled in to do, well, what? Did he marry? Was there anyone to care for him as he died? I imagine my grandmother was very busy trying to keep her children healthy — there were nine by then — as her own husband lay dying in their own shack. But surely she’d had offered what comfort she could.

I don’t know why I need to know all this and to try to make sense of it a hundred years later, my father dead, anyone else who might have been able to help me figure out this story dead, both Josephs buried near spruces in the Drumheller cemetery, their shacks obliterated from place and memory. In my extended family, no one knew about Joseph Klus. I don’t know why the thought of him makes me weep helplessly but it does. The thought of all of them, hardly remembered.