“In the narrative that follows, then” (Myrna Kostash)

single woman

It was May, 2017, when Myrna Kostash and I were both guests of the Word on the Lake Writers Festival in Salmon Arm. We’d met several times over the years and I remember we’d talked of our shared Ukrainian heritage. Hers was a daily living part of her. She knew the language, knew the Ukrainian Orthodox religion and its saints; mine was something I was just beginning to discover. At the gala event, I remember Myrna read something from a work-in-progress about finding an unknown ancestor, a writer, in a photograph and trying to trace both the image and its story. John leaned to me and said quietly in my ear: You have so much in common. He knew I’d also discovered a name, my surname, attached to a writer in a village not far from where my grandfather had been born, a writer who founded a small museum. Myrna and I had a drink together on the sunny patio a day or so later and she encouraged me to travel to Ukraine. She’d been several times, maybe more, and I remember she mentioned the company whose name had been given to me as a sort of secret password at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, east of Edmonton, in 2015, a moment that is part of “Museum of the Multitude Village” in Blue Portugal & Other Essays.

You were walking just beyond the pigsty, beyond the wide shorn fields with stooks of hay standing like men waiting for winter, you were pushing the stroller with your baby granddaughter, your husband and son (the baby’s father), when a wagon drawn by two horses turned onto the narrow road. Would you like a ride, asked the woman sitting on a bale of straw, scarf tied neatly under her chin, and an apron over her skirt and rough cotton blouse. Of course you wanted a ride. The horses stood quietly while, between the three of you, you hoisted the stroller onto the wagon, and then you climbed on too. Where do you come from, asked the woman, and you knew the rules at this living museum: she was in character, a Ukrainian immigrant from the 1930s, and she would act and talk as though the years between then and now hadn’t yet occurred. Ivankivtsi, you replied. And then she whispered, Have you been there yourself? And you whispered back, No, no, I don’t even know how to begin to find it. Cobblestone Freeway, she said in a low voice, a woman passing on information best told in secret. Then she was herself again, joshing with the driver, talking about the harvest.

Myrna said she’d gone to her family village, Tulova, as part of a Cobblestone tour. That set the wheels in motion, not for the next year, though we booked a tour for fall, 2018, but had to cancel because of health issues, but the year after that, 2019, 6 months before the pandemic, and well before the Russian invasion, wagon wheels, train wheels, the wheels of the car that took me to my grandfather’s village, the van that drove us to Tulova, Myrna’s village, where lamps glowed on the graves in the cemetery, to Kolomyia, Kosiv, to Tiudiv, Bukovets, to Kryvorivnya where a priest kissed a gospel already worn thin, though not to Valyava, where the Kishkan who was a writer had lived. When I met my grandfather’s relations (my relations!) later, unexpectedly — they’d learned of my visit to the village where I wasn’t able to find them and had tracked me down to a hotel in the Carpathian mountains–, I asked about Vasily Kishkan. They weren’t sure of a relationship, though probably there was one, and Nadya, who called me her sister, said, He wrote a book, though she wasn’t sure what kind of book.

Last week Myrna’s new book arrived at Talewind Books in Sechelt. Ghosts in a Photograph. I’ve been trying to read it slowly, savouring each word, even waking in the small hours to read just a few more pages before trying to sleep again, my head filled with stories, hers and my own. In her Foreword, she talks about the form her books takes, using fragmentary bits and pieces of source materials, song lyrics, hand-drawn maps, biographies, autobiographies, conference papers, scholarly works.

In the narrative that follows, then, my voice echoes different sources and takes different forms–straightforward narration, storytelling, intervention in other people’s texts, speculation, second-guessing, and argumentation, often with my own previously published texts.

As I read this, I was agreeing with my whole heart. Sometimes this is what we do. Sometimes we’ve written what we know, what we can guess, and then later, we find out more. Does that make what we’ve already thought deeply about, and written about, wrong? Or is what others have written, with knowledge of the photograph, the map, the newly discovered letters, wrong? Nope. I think of it as an ongoing and living history, a hybrid history, always changing a little, evolving in a way. One generation hides or submerges the story, to survive. Another generation discovers and attempts to decode. Twice now I’ve published books with versions of my family stories and maybe there will be a third book because I keep finding out new things. The essay “Tokens” in Euclid’s Orchard, for example: it’s about my mother, who never knew her biological parents, apart from a few strands of, well, not story, exactly, but hearsay. A year or two after I’d written the essay, I submitted a DNA sample to one of the companies specializing in that sort of thing. And a year or two after that (maybe a year after the book came out), I found out who my mother’s biological father was. My mother is dead; but she has living relatives. She had two half-brothers, now deceased, and they had children. I’m not ready to begin that particular adventure yet but one day, perhaps.

So I’m half-way through Myna’s book, a wonderful and meticulous work of love. And as I read, I’m remembering the photograph I found last fall, a group of men, several women, and even a baby in front of the Ukrainian Hall in Drumheller:

ukrainian hall

That man, second on the right in the back row: I’m almost certain he’s my grandfather. When my archivist son was here last February, I showed him. We compared it to the small hoard of photographs I have of my grandfather, and Forrest said, Yes, I think you’re right.

The photograph at the top of this post is a ghost who has become part of my daily life. I don’t know who she is. This image is one of only a handful of photographs left as part of a small secret hoard of my grandfather’s papers  I took from my parents’ home after they died. I say “secret” because I didn’t know about them until it was too late to ask but my father kept almost everything about his early family life secret. Or at least he didn’t — wouldn’t— talk about it unless he’d had a few too many whiskys and he’d become maudlin. Was this woman a sweetheart my grandfather left behind when he came to North America in 1907? I showed her to my new-found relatives in Ukraine but they didn’t recognize her. She’s become the focus of part of a novel I’m working on but maybe she needs to be more.

What is it I want? I want everything. I want to know the long line of my family going back centuries, I want to know their houses, their gardens, their sorrows, their hopes, the names of each and every one of them. I want to know about the feuds and the weddings. When Myrna finds a baptismal certificate for her maternal grandfather and a historian friend helps her to read it (it’s in both Latin and a form of Ukrainian unfamiliar to her):

Suddenly, out of the void I had assumed was my grandfather’s genealogy, I have great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents, Ivan, Hryhori, Mykhailo, Anastasia, Anna, and two Marias.

I want this also. I want their names, the colour of their eyes, how it felt to go out in the mornings when frost was still on the tall grass, how it felt to smooth the hair of a beloved, how it felt, how it felt, all those years ago that are my years too.

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