redux: in place, over time

*Note: Some things have changed since I wrote this post on October 6, 2015. I’ve discovered more information about my grandparents and the land they lived on in Drumheller. (My essay, “West of the 4th Meridian: A Libretto for Migrating Voices”, published in Euclid’s Orchard, explores this.) And the young family in Edmonton expanded in 2016 to include Henry.

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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.

“the house shelters day-dreaming”

grandma's house and fields

In a dreamy moment yesterday, I found this photograph of my grandmother’s house online. She came from a village in the Beskydy Mountains, in what’s now the Czech Republic. In 2012, I was lucky enough to see her house, in snow, when a friend took John and I to her village, Horni Lomna. I wrote about that visit here. Hers is the house at the back of the photo, the one at the foot of the hills. That looks like an orchard behind the house, doesn’t it? A few years ago a kind woman in Horni Lomna sent me other photographs of the house and the garden directly behind it. She told me that she thinks the house is only used in summer and it’s owned by several people, one of whom has my grandmother’s mother’s surname, the surname I gave my character Patrin in my novella of the same name. Unfortunately those photographs and the other information the kind woman sent were filed on my old computer, the one that died suddenly. Some stuff was stored on Google Drive but not that. (Oh, the lessons we learn.)

I’ve been looking at this photograph, thinking about it and a girl growing up in it. My grandmother had two sisters whose names are recorded in Horni Lomna’s town hall and I suspect she also had a brother, the man with her original surname who showed up as one of the residents in the squatters’ community my grandmother lived in when she first came to Canada in 1913, the subject of “West of the 4th Meridian: A Libretto for Migrating Voices” in my last book, Euclid’s Orchard. That man, Josef Klus, arrived in Canada a month or so after my grandmother and on the ship’s manifest, in the category detailing reason for travel, it’s noted that he was joining his sister in Drumheller. Josef died in the Spanish flu epidemic, the one that also took my grandmother’s first husband.

So this photograph is compelling to me for all it says and doesn’t say. The landscape is so verdant. An orchard. Sheep probably. Pigs. She left that place for this one:

julia's funeral

This is 1923, the funeral of Julia, the first child of my grandmother’s second marriage. (There were 8 living children from her first marriage as well as a daughter who died in infancy, of diphtheria.) I have no idea if this house still exists. I’ve tried to find out the history of her houses in Drumheller—the one listed as a “shack” in the materials related to the squatters’ community she settled in with her first husband (and 5 children, 4 more quickly arriving); the one that replaced another (the shack?) that burned to the ground. And this is the last house she owned in Alberta, the house my grandfather build in the 1940s. It’s the subject of something I’m working on now. My father inherited this house and sold it after my grandmother’s death. I have one or two memories of staying here, not in this house specifically, but in a smaller house on the same property (I believe it was a house my grandfather bought from the Prins family and had moved to this property either before he built this one or just after.)

house

What does a house contain, what memories does it hold? Gaston Bachelard tells us what a house allows us: “I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” But are we also contained in its continued space, the corner of a street in Beverly, Alberta, near a park where children play, as we played, on the long summer days? And is my grandmother still a shadow among those trees in Horni Lomna or remembered in the small panes of glass gazing out towards the road?

 

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.