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:
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.