“you have not forgotten about us”

This weekend I’m working on last-minute tweaks of my novella Patrin. This is the last chance I’ll have to make sure everything is in order before the file goes to the copyeditor next week, followed by the book designer in early June. (Patrin will be published by Mother Tongue Publishing in September.) Mostly when I edit, I am looking at sentence structure, the flow of the narrative from one section to another — and because I’ve written this book as a series of “stanzas” rather than chapters, and because the schema is not consecutive or linear, I want to make sure that the transitions are smooth, that the reader moves from one to the next with a sense of inevitablity rather than confusion.

This morning I was reading for another reason: I wanted to ensure that a few thematic elements were highlighted at important moments in the narrative and then gracefully stepped into the background when they’d had their moment. They appear again and again, like a refrain, but I don’t want them to be too garrulous or repetitive, like the dinner guest who keeps telling the same story in the same old way.

I’d forgotten (in the way one does when writing “fiction”) how much of my own life and habits appear in this book. It’s not my story, exactly. Patrin Szkandery is a little older than I am. And her background is not mine. But we went to the same parties in Victoria in the mid-1970s. She worked in the bookstore I loved to visit for its faded oriental carpets and wonderful selection of antiquarian books. Our travels echoed one another’s, though she fell in love with a musician in Greece and my love was a fisherman/taverna owner.

But we share one important thing — which is the reason I began this book in the first place. We both long to know more about our family history in Central Europe in the early years of the 20th century. The more I tried to find traces of my paternal grandmother’s family, the more disappointed I became. And the more attention I paid to other histories that were almost as shadowy. When the writing I was doing became more and more fragmentary, when the gaps became wider and more unfathomable, Patrin came to me as a gift. Her quest was similar to my own but I could allow her to discover things that were not mine to find. I gave her my great-grandmother’s family name as a surname so the exchange was not entirely one-sided.

If I was twenty years younger, or thirty, I wonder if I would have the same difficulties finding the quotidian details of my family’s history? Later in the 20th century, people took more photographs, their names appear in more records (even the ship’s manifest listing my grandmother and her five children as they sailed from Antwerp to Saint John in 1913 got salient details wrong), bureaucracies won’t leave them alone, and by the early 21st c. people began to consciously dedicate themselves to their own personal archive by zealously recording every thought and adventure on social media.

I’m grateful to have access to these details, though I’m reluctant to participate much myself. The other day in Ottawa, my daughter-in-law Cristen and I went shopping for a dress for Kelly to wear to a wedding in Montreal. I bought the dearest little dress the colours of a Monet garden and Cristen bought a tiny cardigan (or shrug) to go with it. And this morning, because I’m not on Facebook where I know there are lots of images for a distant grandmother to pour over (if she could just make herself sign up), Cristen very sweetly sent me some photographs of Kelly in her finery.

kelly in her dressI wonder if mine will be the last generation to try so hard to find so little about family history? Or if subsequent generations will simply feel too burdened by the heavy load of information? My grandmother kept a strange assortment of things — every receipt for building materials used to build a house in Beverly, Alberta; mass cards; the few letters my father wrote to her as a young sailor in the 1940s; photographs of my brothers and me sent by my mum during the years of our childhoods. But there are only one or two pieces of correpondence from her former home in Moravia. My friend Lenka translated one letter for me, sent to my grandmother from someone who is obviously her godchild.

Dear godmother, thanks God for your letter since you have not forgotten about us and after all you wrote us. We were very much looking forward to your letter and we have read it several times and we learned about your life and success. We thank God that you have your own dwelling and a piece of field, so you are luckier than us as we do not have anything, neither dwelling nor own piece of field, not even work. Dear godmother, yet we do have something – faith and trust in God that He has not left us yet and we hope that He never will as long as He wants us to be in this world.

Dear godmother, a few years ago nobody would have thought we would live such a life because this is beyond description what poverty it is here in the old world, not only in our Czechoslovak Republic but in the whole Europe.

The letter was sent from the village of Boconowice, near Jablunkov, which is not far from the Polish border and not far from Horni Lomna where my grandmother was born and raised. (I believe the village is also on the Lomna River, the namesake of my grandmother’s village.) I wonder if the godchild was the child of a brother, sister, or cousin of my grandmother? Sometimes mysteries simply remain unsolved and sometimes you try to imagine an alternate history, an invented story to stand in for the silence of the past. As I read Patrin this morning, I realized that’s what I’ve done. And it’s no surprise that the road between Jablunkov and Horni Lomna is where Patrin finds important information about her own lost family.

a woman dead for five decades (from a work-in-progress)

The dream was as natural as life. She was there, sitting in a big chair, and I sat with her, my daughter (about fifteen) at my other side. I held her hands with their long cool fingers. She had almost no accent. If the dream had been real life, she’d have been about 120.

We talked. I can’t really remember what we talked about but I was sorry I’d left it so long. I didn’t say this to her but I felt it intensely: if I’d known she was still alive, I’d have visited much sooner.

Holding her hand, I turned my face close to hers. I went to Horni Lomna, I told her, and tears ran down her cheeks. I should have brought you a picture. But those trees…

She said, not as an interruption, but as a memory: those were plum trees. The tears coursed their way down her wrinkled cheeks, water finding a route across dry land.

And spruce? I asked. Spruce, on the road leading to the church?

She nodded.

And is it the Lomna River that passes just in front of the house, with the little bridge over it?

She didn’t say anything.

I put my daughter’s hand in hers. This is your great-granddaughter, I said. But she was thinking about something else, her thin hair pulled into a bun and her house-dress faded. Or perhaps couldn’t see us there in the room where none of the dates fit together – her birth, the trees covered with snow in February in Horni Lomna, the age she was when I was born, my own age when she died, and what would a woman dead for five decades be thinking about in a room with two strangers sitting beside her? Maybe the plum trees by that small house, maybe the weather, maybe the years and what they’d brought, and taken.

my grandmother's house

Our daily bread 2

I am thinking that bread must have been made in the house in Horni Lomna where my grandmother was born in 1881. This wasn’t my mother’s mother – I have no idea who my mother’s mother was; or, wait, I have an idea, but I will pursue that a little later on – but my father’s: Anna Klusova, daughter of Adam Klus and Eva Szkanderova. There are other names, a long line of them running across paper like the blue thread of the Lomna River I see on the map in front of me. Her house, just near the river, a small bridge crossing it by the road, and then a path, deep with snow when I visited in late February of 2012. I could see her house from the cleared yard of the house directly in front of hers but I couldn’t cross the white field to peer in the windows where she must have looked out to see what was going on in the world of sheep and spruce trees.

Deer pausing to drink from the river, or maybe a fugitive wolf, or a goshawk swooping down to take up a shrew in its talons. I know these animals exist today in the Mionsi  forest above the house and in those years their numbers must have been considerable. In fairy tales, the young girl walking home alone was often shadowed by a wolf. The church where my grandmother worshipped and was married from is perhaps a mile from her house. I imagine her walking home from Mass with her scarf pulled up over her face against the wind and hearing wolves in the mountains, knowing they would enter her sleep in the bed she surely shared with a sister or two. Or noting the stamp of lynx paws in the snow as they led over the bridge and up into the trees.

So the windows where she looked out: I’ve seen them. And there’s a chimney, so they had fire, and of course they would have eaten bread. My father didn’t cook much but he did make pancakes and he always put buckwheat flour in them. Buckwheat figures in some of the dishes of the Beskydy Mountains so perhaps my grandmother’s father (my great-grandfather: how intimate a term to use for someone I never met, will never know, and yet whose house I yearn for at this great distance: the Sunshine Coast to Horni Lomna; something in excess of 8000 kilometres), described in my grandmother’s certificate of birth and baptism as a farmer, well, perhaps he grew buckwheat on that slope of hill behind the house. There were fruit trees under a burden of snow. Plums? Apples? In summer photographs, the valley of the Lomna River is verdant and lush. I imagine the taste of apples grown there, fed by those waters.

Can a relationship be recreated with such small ingredients? With the possibility of buckwheat, the dream of wolves? Only think of bread – pulverized wheat berries, water, yeast. Salt had to be brought in to the area for sheep and people; they traded plum jam, slivovitz, woollen goods, and cheese. In that small house, I imagine the bowl of dough rising by the hearth, curds in a wooden trough, and jars of plums gleaming on a shelf.