In November I wrote about seeing William Kurelek’s painting Green Sunday in the National Gallery in Ottawa. Kurelek’s father came to Canada from Borivtsi, a village in Bukovina (or Bukovyna), in 1923. Seeing the painting was a kind of gift. My own grandfather came to North America from Ivankivtsi, also in Bukovina, in 1907. I believe he came to New Jersey and worked at Franklin Furnace and then eventually made his way to Drumheller where he met my grandmother and married her around 1920. Franklin Furnace was an extensive iron-making operation and it attracted immigrants from all over the world. I don’t know if my grandfather worked as a miner in Bukovina and was thus attracted to Franklin Furnace for its opportunities or if his time there was serendipitous. Other Kishkans (or Chişcanucs) had come to North American before him. A cousin had immigrated to Saskatchewan (he was the father of the great Toronto Maple Leaf goalie John Bower, whose true surname was Kishkan). I don’t know how close family members were before they immigrated or the degree to which they kept in touch afterwards. My grandfather sent money to Bukovina to pay for the passage of another cousin. My father remembered that his father had been raised in the home of grandparents — my great-great grandparents — with other cousins. I don’t know if this was because the parents of the cousins were unable to care for them or because (perhaps) they needed help or could provide opportunities unavailable in Ivankivtsi. Sometimes I think these things will never be known and sometimes they appear to hover just beyond my consciousness, enticing me to work harder, dig deeper.
I’ve tried to find out about Ivankivtsi. A few photographs —
–some parish lists in the LDS metrical records, one or two names. But the farther I get from my grandfather, in time, the less likely it is that I’ll ever know much about his life in Europe and his reasons for leaving. Even the family members he left behind.
After seeing the Kurelek painting in November, I discovered that he’d gone to his father’s village twice — for a four hour visit in 1970 (the days of the old Soviet bureaucracy) and then just before his death in 1977. His father had drawn maps for him and he found them surprisingly accurate. He found cousins, simple houses, many geese and ducks, and ancient pear trees. He drew the farm tools and kitchen implements, simple arrangements of sausages and bread spread with bacon fat, the fields and gardens, the sheaves tied for winter. He made beautiful paintings based on many of these things and it’s clear that he intended to make more; he died just a few weeks after he returned from the second trip.
I discovered a book based on William Kurelek’s trips to Borivtsi: To My Father’s Village: A Final Search to Understand (Tundra Books, 1988). I meant to order it and forgot in the busy weeks around Christmas. But then I remembered, found a copy online, and it arrived the other day. I’ve been immersed in it ever since.
I think Borivtsi is quite close to Ivankivtsi. Both villages are in the Chernivtsi oblast (and Chernivtsi itself has a fascinating history. I highly recommend Gregor Von Rezzori’s gorgeous The Snows of Yesteryear, a memoir of his childhood in that city, as well as his novel, An Ermine in Czernopol, a thinly-disguised portrait of Chernivtsi in its Austro-Hungarian glory). Reading Kurelek’s letters home to his wife Jean in which he describes his father’s village are in a way palimpsests. I hear a hidden history, my grandfather’s, in his words. “Three-hundred year old pear trees such as my father used to hide in if caught stealing.” “There was the pich and even the place on it where father said they used to sleep. The cheap calender icons, the little windows, the loaf of bread on the bed, the pail of slops.” (The pich was the traditional oven.) This could almost be my grandparents’ home in Beverly where we visited them as children.
Maybe this is the way we discover our ancestors. They are short syllables in the stories of others — a stove, the brushes for whitewashing the walls of the two-roomed houses, a few ducks by the edge of a pond. I wish for more but am grateful to have at least this much.