“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.

letter from a summer kitchen


As soon as I heard that Olia Hercules was publishing Summer Kitchens: Recipes and Reminiscences from Every Corner of Ukraine this spring, I asked our local bookseller to order me a copy. It arrived a few weeks ago but somehow I didn’t have time to open it and savour the recipes and the photographs.  But in the past three days, I’ve read the book cover to cover and although I have a few small quibbles—the notes for making uzvar, for example, have been cut short—I love this joyous testament to tradition and making the most of what one has at hand. To my delight, there’s a whole section titled “Summer kitchen memories”: Hercules appealed to Ukrainians from everywhere to send their experiences of this lovely phenomenon: a rustic building set apart from the main house, meant for preserving and social activity centered on food. These are small essays in themselves: “A secret attic and the foam from the jam pan”; “Homemade butter and dried apples”; and the gorgeous “Rhubarb buns and hailstorms”.

This time last year I was preparing for a trip to Ukraine with my husband and my daughter. We chose a company specializing in small cultural tours because honestly? I felt out of my comfort zone without any Ukrainian and unsure of whether I’d feel ok with renting a car and driving the rough roads in search of my grandfather’s village. I’ve never been on any kind of tour before but this one was stellar. There were just 7 of us and most of the time we were driven in a van by Roman, who was flexible and kind of unflappable. Our guide, Snizhana, was lovely and also unflappable. When 8 members of my grandfather’s family turned up at our hotel to meet me, she spent hours with us, helping us to make family trees to determine just how we were related. We made a video call to Forrest in Ottawa (also unflappable) to ask for some information I knew he had at his end. But what I really wanted to say here was that Roman drove us daily for 4 days up and down a steep road in the Carpathians to our hotel and we passed a couple of farms and there was a smell in the air, like wine-y fruit, like smoke, like summer becoming autumn, and one morning at breakfast, there was a jug of something called uzvar and it tasted like that smell. Earthy and smoky and I couldn’t get enough of it. The recipe is in Summer Kitchens.  A dried fruit infused drink made with pears or apples or cherries (or all three, with plums maybe), and in this book there’s even a recipe for how to dry the fruit (which would have been dried and smoked in the wood-fired masonry oven called a pich) in a warming oven, then smoke it on a barbecue with fruitwood chips. For the past day or two I’ve been wondering what to do with the 60 pounds of Merton Beauties John picked the other day, an apple with a spicy pear-ish edge to its flavour, and now? I’m going to dry some and make uzvar.


I realize too that the farms on that steep road had summer kitchens. The families were sitting under trees at wooden tables and chimneys jutted from small buildings near the main house. We’d drive up or drive down and I’d press my face to the window by my seat, wanting to know everything about their lives because I felt that I might find myself there, another version of myself, the granddaughter of a man who stayed and married and who knew what to do with the bushels of pears and cucumbers. A woman knew how to make fresh cheese and horseradish horilka and who would take apples to the market to sell from a basket at her feet.

Today in my summer kitchen I made 3 peach pies (unbaked) for the freezer with some of the 20 pound case I got in Sechelt the other day, I sliced and froze 8 pounds more of the peaches to wait in ziplock bags for a winter dessert, and I made a double batch of pesto, also for the freezer. I don’t have a pich but I do have a maple worktable and lots of light and the otherworldly voice of Rhiannon Giddens to make the work go well.

On that road in Ukraine, the air held the smoke of fires preserving fruit for winter and this book holds that too. And so much more. Recipes for varenyky stuffed with berries or homemade cheese, for kvas and borsch (with duck and smoked pears), for sourdough breads brushed with garlic oil. And I’ll remember this man who stopped so we could stroke his gentle horse’s face.


In an essay I wrote about traveling to Ukraine, I used brief passages from folk poems. This one spoke to me so deeply:

My dear mother, what will happen to me if I die in a foreign land?
Well, my dearest, you will be buried by other people.

But they would still be mine, wouldn’t they? The women in their summer kitchens, fermenting tomatoes in big jars, the children gathering windfalls, the dogs asleep in the dust.


When I was in Ukraine in September, I was entranced by the markets. Unlike those in France or Italy, where everything—pyramids of cheeses, perfect apples, peaches, plums with the bloom still on their cheeks, fish on ice, olives arranged in tubs on Provençal cottons— is arranged like a still life, lit from within, the market in Kosiv was untidy, smoky, loud (ducks in cages, a few sheep baaing), and so filled with life that I didn’t want to leave. Old women sat at tiny tables with their soda bottles of milk, their buckets of fresh cheese that they’d scoop out with their hands and put into a small plastic bag if you wanted some, and men sold their homemade mouse-traps, their battered tools, tomatoes so ripe they cracked at the stem, and apples that would win no beauty contests but that were spicy and delicious eaten from my hand as I walked around the stalls.

The meals we ate reminded me of summers in Edmonton with my father’s family. He was one of 9 children (8 of them half-siblings), much younger than the others. So my cousins were as old as my parents but their children—first cousins once removed?—were plentiful. There was no fatted calf to kill for the visit of the only child who’d actually moved away but the visit was a series of feasts anyway, the kind that take a whole day to prepare. My aunts and my mother, with my grandmother nearby in a rocking chair, made pyrohy, cabbage rolls, salads of cucumbers and tomatoes and dill, dressed with soured cream, yeast buns, stuffed breads, maybe some chickens stuffed with herbs and onions, and all of this was accompanied by laughter and tears. The food wouldn’t have been from any single ethnic group. My grandmother was from what’s now the Czech Republic. My grandfather was from Bukovina, now Ukraine (but Austro-Hungarian when he left in 1907). My grandmother’s first husband, the father of the other 8 children, was Polish. One aunt married a man from Syria. The neighbours, who were part of the meal preparation and feast, were Hungarian.

I’ve been thinking about this food, how it sustained us, allowed for social interaction, for secrets, for tears as one aunt or another recalled a relative now dead or a baby stillborn or the hardships of my grandparents’ early years in Canada. Cooking and eating are part of how we preserve our history and so much of this preservation—the details, the hows and the whys, as well as the actual preparation—is what we think of as women’s work. The men have a part in it, of course. Certainly the outside cooking of meat is a man’s province, poking at steaks and smoking fish and turning great slabs of ribs on slow fires. But rolling out the thin dough for dumplings, pitting cherries for pies, peeling potatoes and making fresh cheese to stuff in the dumpling dough, souring the cream for smetana, mincing green dill for pastries, soaking walnuts in honey—those things tend to be done by women. And a child watching learns about the work and the nature of women’s relationships. The aunt married to the Syrian was always given a job she could do sitting down. This was because her husband abused her. No one challenged him or reprimanded him (it was the early 1960s….) but they did what they could for her.

So I’ve been thinking about the food and wanting to know how to prepare some of it now that I am the oldest woman in my immediate family and realize that I need to keep certain traditions alive for my children and grandchildren. I knew about Olia Hercules, mostly because of the articles I’d read in the New Yorker over the past few years. I ordered her first book, Mamushka, and it arrived on Tuesday, the same day I was mailing out copies of the little book I’d made to give to my family and friends as a gift to commemorate my 65th birthday.


The subtitle is important: Recipes from Ukraine and beyond. In the introduction, she tells us

Despite my strong Ukrainian identity, I have always cherished and taken pride in the cultural diversity that we were so lucky to enjoy in Ukraine. My paternal grandmother is Siberian, my mother has Jewish and Bessarabian (Moldovan) roots, my father was born in Uzbekistan and we have Armenian and Ossetian friends.

In it, the most beautiful recipes, many of them familiar, though perhaps differently accented. My grandmother’s pyrohy fillings were a little different from those made by the Ukrainian women whose sons married my father’s sisters. Her sweet dumplings were filled with yellow plums, because that’s what she had access to, whereas we ate gorgeous cherry vareniky in Ukraine. Similar dough, and the smetana we lavishly spooned on top was the same as my grandmother’s.

I look forward to cooking from this book. Right now, though? I’m feeling the loss of a large extended group of women at my side as I think about rolling out dough or simmering bones for broth, but maybe they’re here still, just in another way. In my hands, my wide hips, my love of growing vegetables and herbs and bringing them to the kitchen with a little soil clinging to them. Tomorrow night I’m making the Azerbaijani chicken with prunes and walnuts. I have other dishes in mind too. When my children come in the summer, we’ll choose a menu for a feast to honour this particular strand of their multi-textured family history. By the woodstove, the Black Krim tomato seeds are nearly sprouting, those huge pink fruits with cracked shoulders that are called for in many of these recipes. And I have the memory of those Edmonton summers, lying in the grass under the trees, lulled by women’s voices.

“Everything I am remembering is burnished with moonshine…”

I am preparing some gift boxes to mail to the children I won’t see this Christmas. What goes into them: small gifts, boxes of buttercrunch (to be made this afternoon), gingerbread (made this morning),


some homemade items, and this year, rushnyk from Ukraine. Rushnyk cloth is used for rituals and ceremonies; when we arrived somewhere, we would be met with a tray of tiny glasses of horilka, or moonshine, a little bowl of salt, and a loaf of bread wrapped in the most beautiful cloth embroidered with symbolic elements I learned to decode, or at least some of them. They speak a language I sometimes understand. A little. In churches they draped the ikons. They were also a means for women to communicate. They hold wishes, dreams, history, and the cycles that bind us to each other and our homes: fertility, childbirth, harvest, marriage, death, the afterlife.


Sometimes I can’t believe we were actually able to travel to Ukraine and I’ve dreamed of the moment when my relatives came in the door of our hotel, presenting us with champagne and a beautiful rushnyk I’ll use to wrap bread the next time my family is here. Somehow these threads become more important to me as I age and as the occasions for my family to gather become more complicated. The final essay in the collection I’ve mostly finished is about Ukraine—what I hoped to find there and what I did find.

Everything I am remembering is burnished with moonshine, the taste of cherry-filled varenyky, sweet butter on dark bread. Mornings I swam in an unheated pool, the bottom littered with drowned insects, while all around me mist rose from the valley below our mountain slope. The mountains above me, source of the Dniester, Tisza and Vistula Rivers, the upper streams of the Black Cheremosh and the White, the Prut. I thought of those mountains forming a long spine to the Beskids in the Czech Republic, where my grandmother was born, 2 years after my grandfather, though they didn’t meet until 1919, in the badlands of Alberta, she a widow, and him? I have no idea of his romantic history, though in his small archive of papers there are two photographs, one of two women, taken in Chernivtsi, one of whom resembles him enough to be a sister, and another of a woman with a generous mouth, dressed in a fur vest like the Hutsul women wore. Everything I am remembering, burnished with light too faint to read by, like the moonlight that came through my curtains at Sokilske, haunting the room like old history.

–from “Museum of the Multiple Village”, part of Blue Portugal.

“In the Crow River, a mature sun overhead..”

the point

Yesterday John came back from the mailbox with a package: a book by a Ukrainian poet, Oleh Lysheha. He’d ordered it without knowing anything about the poet but wanted to read poetry rooted in the country we are about to visit next week. He opened the book at random and read a poem aloud. It was “Father” and it couldn’t have been more beautiful. Here’s the opening:

Oh, he liked to bathe..
Best in late summer,
In the Crow River, a mature sun overhead..
—Once, there was a deeper place here—
He entered patiently, his turn of wrist,
The elbow high, slipping the hand into the water and out,
As if still dry—in the manner no one sees anymore—
Swimming to a shallow place:
—Would you wash my back?

Almost every day we swim, early, in the lake nearby, and we’ve noted that we can tell it’s late in the season by the later rising of the sun over the mountain to the east of the lake. I wouldn’t have thought to call it “mature” but that’s a perfect adjective for the sun at the end of August.

Reading on, to himself, he kept saying, There are poems for animals and birds! Fish! John’s own new book arrived earlier in the week, This Was the River, with a cover detail from Tintoretto’s painting “The Creation of the Animals”, chosen because a sequence of poems named for the painting is at the heart of the book.

john's river

I’ve been looking into Oleh Lysheha’s poems (translated by the poet and James Brasfield) and find in them something rich and mysterious, anchored in the earth, but also filled with divinity. A horse dreaming of escape to the mountains, an old dog in the woods, “His skull a cobweb of veins” (the poet imploring, “Young nettle, be kind to him—listen—/His heart can’t endure any more the arc of your leaves..”).

I have been trying to learn a few phrases in Ukrainian but wish now I had time to commit one or two of these poems to memory. That father, in the Crow River, “He walked out like a blind man/and fell face down into grass, in sunlight..” and the horse who remembers,

…the day
A man outlined
In red on the cave wall
Shadows of my friends
Coming down slowly,
One by one, to water flowing
From a subterranean river..

a year later

what's new

This morning, because it’s cooler and I don’t have to rush out to water everything that droops, shrivels, or turns brown overnight, I was looking at posts from this time last year. In a way, my blog is my journal. Between it and my datebook, I am able to keep track of what happened when. On this day last year, my publisher Mona Fertig sent me two photographs of the advance proof copy of Euclid’s Orchard. I wrote about that here. As I’ve said before, it was a book I hadn’t expected to write. Or at least I hadn’t expected it to come together quite so quickly. I’m very glad it did. I’m very glad the reasons I wrote most of it—facing a potentially devastating health issue—have resolved themselves. The year leading up to Euclid’s Orchard‘s publication was filled with appointments and tests and the year leading away from it had some of those but also the relief that comes with knowing that the thing I dreaded was almost certainly not going to happen. At least not yet.

reading copy

It was a good year, this past one. My book took me to various places for readings and festivals. People wrote reviews and letters with such generosity. My book took me to the B.C. Book Prizes Gala because of its place on the Hubert Evans Award shortlist and that was fun. Some of the writing has led me to new work and for that I’m grateful. This is one of the best things about the essay form: it can be truly open-ended and you don’t have to think of it as “finished”.  It turns out “West of the 4th Meridian: A Libretto for Migrating Voices” was only the beginning of the stories I was listening to in the night as I came down to my desk to work during those weeks of waiting to learn if I had metastatic lung cancer. I’d sit in the dark with only the glow of my laptop light and the tiny desk lamp to one side and feel the presence of my father’s family around me. There is no logical way to explain this and I won’t but it was a source of comfort and now that I know a little more about them, I want to  explore their lives. In “West of the 4th Meridian”, there’s a line from Ovid’s Tristia, the letters he wrote in exile in Tomis: “I wish to be with you in any way possible.” To this end, I’m reading books about the Holodomor, about the politics of early 20th c. Ukraine, about the waves of emigrants who came to North America any way that they could. I want to find out who this woman was, the tiny image that was part of my grandfather’s archive. She is somehow familiar.

single woman

Time and the essay are related, I think. Spacious and widening, circling back on themselves when necessary, asking questions, pausing to listen to music, to take the air, remembering to keep the mind and the heart open to chance, to love, to the complexities of what a sentence can hold and also to what it can let go.

the Museum of the Multitude Village

house plan

Looking for something else this morning, I found the plans John drew for the house we built almost 4 decades ago. I thought the plans were somewhere else but I wanted the file of information on our property, our well, and anything else that would help me remember the process of day-to-day building. I am working on something about my grandfather, using a file of receipts and scraps of paper related to the house he built in Beverly, Alberta, in 1946. I am also trying to find information on the house he might have grown up in, a house in the village of Ivankivtsi, near Kitsman, in what’s now Ukraine. I’m not sure I’ll find that house but down the rabbit hole of searching on the Internet, I came upon a site devoted something called Museum of the Multitude Village, located in Valyava, not too far from Ivankivtsi, and it seems to have been founded by a man called Vasily Kishkan, who was a writer. Here’s one of the exhibit rooms of the museum:

museum of the mutitude village

What does this mean? I’m not sure but maybe I’m on the trail of…something. In trying to reconstruct the process of building our house, of my grandfather building the house I took my granddaughter to over Easter, maybe I will be able to build something new that uses materials from both these constructions. Something durable, with an old comforting patina.

I see from the copy of the drawings John did for our house and then the additions we built in later years that the language of building is a language dense with meaning, if you need it to be.


I will have to determine the scale appropriate to this strange compulsion I have to find my grandfather’s life in two countries, or three, if you count the US, where he first arrived from Europe, and worked, before drifting to Alberta. And I will also have to figure out the code.

to code

Seeing this stamped on the plans reminded me that everything we did had to meet the building code and when we went to lumber yards or talked to plumbers or other tradespeople, the term, “to code”, came up so often that it lost its mysterious context and just became part of our regular speech. Is it to code? Has the code changed?

Yes, I think the code has changed but I’m determined to figure it out, at least with enough familiarity that I can understand what a museum of the multitude village might be.