among schoolchildren

in school
two schoolchildren, one with a black eye.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance? —William Butler Yeats (of course)

Here in Edmonton I am caught in a wrinkle of time. Every day I walk over to spend time with my grandchildren, the two that live here and, until yesterday, the one visiting from Ottawa. This neighbourhood, Strathcona, isn’t one my family lived in. When my grandparents moved to the area from Drumheller, in the late 1930s or early 1940s, they moved to Beverly. I’ve written in previous posts about the bill of sale from the Prins family for a small house my grandfather relocated to a piece of property in Beverly; and I have a file of bills and receipts for materials that indicate my grandfather also built a house on the property. I remember sleeping in a small house with a tin roof, separate from the main house, and how my brothers and I raced to the other house during a hail storm where we found my parents and my grandparents drinking coffee and talking.

The other day, some of us drove out to the Ukrainian Cultural Village Museum. I’d been before but wanted Forrest in particular (a historian who works in a museum) to see the churches, the train station, the Bukovyna house that must be something like the one my grandfather lived in before he came to North America. The grandbabies loved the chickens and pigs and spent a lot of time picking dandelions while Forrest, Manon, Cristen, and I tried to see as much of the historical material as possible. I think there’s something missing at the site (thank you, Myrna Kostash…)—from my explorations in Drumheller last year, I know that the Ukrainians in Canada were involved in the labour movement, and yet there’s not a whiff of any of that history at the Cultural Village Museum. My grandfather was a coal miner and so was my grandmother’s first husband, as was her brother. But still we had moments in the Museum, walking to and from the churches, watching a man scatter seed for the hens, hearing the price of cream (with and without freight charges) at the train station, where I had some insights into the lives of my grandparents in those early days in this province. And when we went to the Russia school (so-called because of transcription slips between the Cyrillic and the Latin alphabet), two of my grandchildren sat at a desk to scribble on slates and I remembered something my father once told me about his mother. It’s included in one of the essays in my forthcoming collection of essays.

Your parents barely spoke English. You said your mother attended school with you when you were six so she could learn to write, her large body somehow fitting into the chairs in a primary classroom. Of course this brings me to tears. Your parents were struggling to make a living so you were raised mostly by your grown half-sisters. They adored you, gave you every attention, and made you into one of those boys convinced of their superior authority. —from “Herakleitos on the Yalakom”, forthcoming in Euclid’s Orchard, September 2017.

“it will all become clear to me”

Yesterday we left the Word on the Lake Festival in Salmon Arm after two intense days of workshops, conversations, much merriment, some interesting connections and reconnections. Myrna Kostash, for instance, read from a work-in-progress about her Ukrainian grandparents and old photographs and the urgency she felt to find out and record what she could of their lives. It was beautiful work. We talked afterwards about the stories we never heard as children but how we feel compelled to tell them now, though they’re in tatters and fragments.

John and I drove to Canmore for a night and then along Highway 1 to Cochrane, taking quieter highways until Olds and the journey north to Edmonton where our sons were gathered with their wives and children, ready for a building project that will happen this week. John’s family drove often from Calgary to the mountains in the years after their arrival in Canada from England in 1953. The road was windy and slow. It’s a route I took also as a child, though in the opposite direction, with my parents and brothers, traveling from Vancouver Island to my father’s parents who lived by then in Beverly and a little later to Edmonton itself after my grandfather’s death when my grandmother went to live with one or another of her daughters. My father would drive us to Drumheller to try to make peace with his earlier life there and there was so much he didn’t say, didn’t tell us, though the past hovered in the air as light and as fierce as mosquitoes. Once we stayed in the Rosedale Hotel and my mother made us sleep on top of the beds on our sleeping bags because the sheets were stiff with dirt. This wasn’t the Rosedeer Hotel in nearby Wayne, a little gem where John and I stayed for a night in the honeymoon suite last April and woke to frost on our window and the sound of magpies. For ages I didn’t think much about those earlier years but now it seems I am haunted by them and the decades that preceded them, when I was not yet born or even imagined.

I keep thinking that if I just pay attention, it will all become clear to me, the old house, how close it was to the Red Deer River, who slept where within its small dimensions, and how to find my own way to it, dreaming or awake. The place on the bridge where my father fished, his line taut in the current, his eyes green as the water. Dragonflies stung the surface of the river, wings like nets. — from “West of the 4th Meridian: a Libretto for Migrating Voices”, part of Euclid’s Orchard, forthcoming in September 2017.

I looked over from my dinner under the maples in Brendan and Cristen’s backyard to see my older son Forrest playing with his niece Kelly and her cousin (Forrest and Manon’s son Arthur).

Forrest, Kelly, and Arthur

The lumber behind them will become a porch and a deck this week, if all hands are willing. And we will eat our dinners under the trees while overhead the magpies in the nest Manon and Arthur spotted yesterday in a big spruce make their sociable chatter. We don’t know how many there are but maybe by the end of the week we’ll see more of them.

Long walks through the ravine where we went today to see frogs (who remained hidden) in a tiny pond surrounded by lily-of-the-valley. Stories — I read five bedtime stories to Kelly (Arthur had already gone to bed at the little apartment his parents are staying in for the week) and looked over to see Brendan reading to Henry:

brendan and henry

These are the days, the nests, the babies and young children, the meals under leafy shade, and an urgency to record it also. To keep it all alive.

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