“…only searching for my roots.”

cheese strainer

One of the nudges that led me to believe I should and could visit Ukraine was William Kurelek’s book, To My Father’s Village. The book details Kurelek’s efforts to reach Borivtsi, the village his father left in 1923; the son’s journeys took place in the 1970s, the last in 1977, not long before he died too early of cancer. Borivtsi is not far from the village my grandfather left in 1907, eventually arriving in Canada a few years later. Looking at the wonderful drawings and paintings in Kurelek’s book gave me a sense of where at least one important node or rhizome of my own life began. The pigs and chickens, the garden implements, the last of the old thatched houses—these seemed to me to be coded messages, both invitations and sorrowful obituaries. This is also you, I read in the careful lines of the drawings; you need to know this because this is land where your dead lie waiting to be remembered.

We made plans to go in September. I’d arranged to be taken to my grandfather’s village for an afternoon. Arranged for someone in Chernivtsi to try to determine if family members still live in Ivankivtsi so that I could meet them. My older son Forrest studied the metrical records for the village a few years ago and I had some names—family names, of course, but also the names of the men who were my grandfather’s godparents, the name of the midwife who delivered him.

Wrapped around the trip to Ukraine, five days in Ottawa to meet a new grandchild due in late July, more than a week in London (and tickets to a performance of “The Winter’s Tale” at the Globe), the prospect of concerts, and rambling along Regent’s Canal.

We were so looking forward to this trip. Both of us have had some medical adventures over the past 18 months, strange encounters with mortality, and it seemed that we were finally out of the woods. But then a visit to the doctor the other day for what he thought was an inner ear situation resulted in John spending an afternoon in Emergency, hooked up to various machines and monitors. The short version is that he will be fine but we won’t be able to travel outside the country because our travel insurance wouldn’t cover what might happen. So he spent most of yesterday on the phone and online, cancelling all the arrangements he’d so carefully made. (He is the most amazing organizer and leaves nothing to chance.)

So we won’t be visiting my grandfather’s village. Not this year. I might be able to go next year if all goes well at home. But time and health are too precious to jeopardize at this point. And love is too precious to squander, which is what traveling alone would feel like. I take solace in Kurelek’s efforts to reach his ancestral home, the gardens and storms and houses where his family began. His trips took place during the Soviet years and it seemed that everything conspired to keep him from actually arriving. Visas, roads, recalcitrant bureaucracy…For us, it’s something more physiological, a heart valve that wants to flutter instead of beating steadily. The right medication will help the valve to do what it should be doing. It just needs time.

There are hints in To My Father’s Village of my own story. “Kurelek’s father came to Canada following a visit to Borivtsi by a member of the Cunard Shipping Line.” A few years ago I read a book about immigration from Bukovina (and unfortunately when I changed computers, the file I kept didn’t travel to the new computer; I’ll have to do some sleuthing to find that source again) that mentioned my grandfather’s village specifically and detailed the numbers of men who left in a wave before the First World War. They didn’t leave because hings were good at home. They didn’t leave because they wanted to, necessarily. They were poor and hungry and they came for a better life. That improved life sometimes skipped a generation. Or two. In some ways I am the beneficiary of that sacrifice.

Maybe we can both go next year or maybe it will be me, maybe even in the company of one of my children. And in the meantime. there is so much to be grateful for. Immediate and good health care, a doctor who called last night to make sure all is well, the love of our children who rallied around their father with phone calls and texts, and the prospect of a trip to Ottawa to meet that grandchild as planned. (Health insurance will be valid for that!)

On Kurelek’s last visit to Borivtsi, he went to the fields to paint and a child found him with his face in the dirt. “I’m alright,” Kurelek assured him. “I’m only searching for my roots.”

I hear a hidden history

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 —

ivankivtsi3ivankivtsi 2–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.

green poplar

A few snow flakes falling in Ottawa but I`ve come from the National Gallery with a new sense of my own love of spring. A painting, William Kurelek`s beautiful Green Sunday 1962, a woman in a room, with soft green boughs around her. And the text tells us that the work commemorates Zeleni Sviala, the first Sunday in May when poplar branches would be placed in all 4 corners of a living room to welcome spring after a long hard winter. The woman is wearing the costume of Kurelek`s ancestral Bukovina (also my ancestral Bukovina, on my father`s father`s side). Somehow I recognize the moment, the bringing in of green boughs, a man playing music to one side, and a calendar high on one wall to keep the days in their order. And I know the word, too — zeleni, so close to Czech zelene, the name of one my favourite Moravian wines.

I wonder more each year about family, where we come from — and why, how… And then a painting offers a moment of deep recognition.

poplar