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.”