Theresa Kishkan
photo: Alexandra Bolduc

The fall of Mariupol coincides with this article from Theresa Kishkan, whose new book, Blue Portugal and Other Essays (University of Alberta Press, 2022), has an essay about her time in Ukraine. Below she writes about then and now.
In addition to Blue Portugal, Kishkan has published 14 books, including Euclid’s Orchard, a collection of essays about family history, botany, mathematics, and love (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017) nominated for the Hubert Evans Non-fiction Prize in 2018, and a novella, The Weight of the Heart (Palimpsest Press, 2020), in which a young graduate student attempts to create a feminist cartography with the works of Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson. Kishkan and her husband live on the Sechelt Peninsula.

Ivankivtsi Dust by Theresa Kishkan

These spring mornings, with the news dark and frightening, I am thinking of September, 2018, when I travelled through Western Ukraine. I’d intended to go before that but somehow the stars never quite aligned. My husband and daughter travelled with me, happy to follow my lead as I searched for traces of my paternal grandfather, John (or Ivan) Kishkan, who left his village in Bukovyna in 1907 to come to North America. When my father died in 2009, he left a small hoard of family papers, and I’d tried to figure out things about his parents and the places they’d come from, Ivankivtsi for my grandfather, on the plains below the north slope of the Carpathian Mountains, and my grandmother’s village of Horni Lomna, in the Beskydy Mountains, part of the same spine of mountains stretching from what’s now Ukraine in the east to the Czech Republic in the west. They grew up in the shadows of the same mountains, in the same imperial enterprise (the Austro-Hungarian Empire), but didn’t meet until 1919 in Drumheller, Alberta.

I’d written about my search for my grandmother and I was finishing a collection of essays about family history and travel; in my mind, there was an essay-shaped space left in the collection and it would be about my grandfather’s roots in Bukovyna. I didn’t have much to go on. There were three photographs: one of my grandfather; another of two women, one of whom resembled him; and a third of a beautiful woman in a traditional vyshyvanka, her neck hung with beads. I also had some notes extracted from archival records for Ivankivtsi by my son. The John Kishkan baptised in 1879 didn’t quite share my grandfather’s birthdate and the names of his parents weren’t the names recorded on my grandfather’s marriage certificate. Maybe it was him. Or a relation, long dead, but perhaps with offspring who stayed. 
In Kyiv, we visited Orthodox churches, historical sites, and Kyivo-Pechers’ka Lavra with its bell towers and cave systems, monks walking in the quiet gardens. At the Holodomor Museum, there were huge photographs of victims and survivors of the intentional starvation of millions by Soviet authorities and a complex archival history of the famine. I remember I needed some time to sit with my notebook.

I found the house of the poet Taras Shevchenko on a lane near our hotel, a low wooden house with a small orchard, cherry trees, and apples, and kalyna heavy with fruit. I sat on a bench in sunlight. Not far away, in the Maidan, there were bullet holes in the sides of buildings from independence rallies in 2013-14; farther back in time, the entire Khreschatyk Street was blown up by the retreating Red Army in 1941; but the wooden house survived and in the poet’s garden, a feral cat led her kittens through a hole in the fence to the keepers of the museum, two older women, who patted their laps to welcome the kittens while the mother cat ate some bread soaked in milk.

From Kyiv to Chernivtsi by train. I was introduced to Vasyl who drove us to my grandfather’s village, about 30 kilometres away. Over the Prut River, past houses with potato beds, tiny roadside chapels, faded signs, until we were turning off the main road, slowly, slowly, the narrow dusty road to Ivankivtsi bumpy. Vasyl stopped to ask a woman if we were near the village, and did she know Kishkans: yes, and no. She was carrying a bucket of water with three apples floating on top, and leading a cow by a rope tied to its curly horn. At the village office, the mayor arranged for the priest to meet us at the church yard. What happened there, those I met and what we said, is described in the essay I wrote, “Museum of the Multitude Village”, published in Blue Portugal and Other Essays.

A few days later I spent a wonderful evening with a carload of Kishkans who tracked me down after hearing of my visit to the village from the priest and who drove two hours to the hotel where we were staying in the Carpathian Mountains. I’d been told they were on their way and I bought a bottle of cognac and two bottles of wine. They — Mykola the patriarch, his daughters Lyuba, Luda, Nadya, and his grandson, also Mykola — arrived with champagne and a gift of rushnyk. With the help of a translator and the rudimentary English of one of the Kishkans, we determined that we were all related through the twists and turns of a group of cousins who were born in Ivankivtsi, some who left for North America and one who stayed. I knew about my grandfather, of course, and his cousin, the father of Toronto Maple Leafs goalie, Johnny Bower. The others, though? I almost remembered a couple of names through research my son had done and to make sure, we video-called him in Ottawa, introducing him to the group in the hotel lounge, faces peering into my daughter’s phone, and the relations excitedly drawing possible lines between names on the paper the translator was quickly filling with notes.

When we saw them off in the dark, all of us hugging and writing our email addresses onto any scrap of paper we could find, Lyuba said, mostly in Ukrainian but a few words in English too, and strangely I could understand everything, “When you come back, you will live with me. No more hotels.” Her sister Nadya said, “We will teach you Ukrainian.” And I replied, “And can you teach me to make varenyky?” That set them all off, laughing, their hands wildly rolling imaginary dough, pinching the seams. That night I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t stop crying. My husband held me for hours, saying how he wished my father was alive so we could tell him about his father’s family. He had selfishly guarded the tiny hoard of papers and information, fearful of… well, what? I wished we’d talked about his father, whom I remember from my early childhood, a man with a big moustache and a heavy accent.

In the months afterwards, I wrote the essay about my travels in Ukraine, the discovery of my distant family, and I wrote to Nadya. I’m still not sure what degree of cousin we are but she, who has sisters, called me her sister. She was beginning to do some research in the archives in Chernivtsi and I’d also arranged for a researcher to look both there and farther afield. Then everything was shut down because of COVID-19. My essay collection was accepted and working on the revisions and editorial suggestions became a deep solace during the long months of isolation. Nadya and I kept in touch. There was COVID in Ivankivtsi, a relation of hers died (and I’m not sure if that person was also a relation of mine), the younger Mykola contracted the virus and was sick but recovered. I told her I hoped I could return. I remembered the promise of Ukrainian lessons and I imagined making varenyky with the women I think of now as my family. I imagined walking through green poplars, learning to stitch poppies in red thread on the sleeves of a vyshyvanka.

On the morning of February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. I felt helpless. I calmed myself by sending money to a United Nations crisis relief fund. The next morning my husband and I drove down to the little town where we do our grocery shopping and he said, “I think we should offer your Ukrainian family a place if they need one.” It was what I had been thinking myself and I wrote to Nadya. She thanked us but said her place for the time being was in the village where she is head teacher at the school, though if things changed, she would be in touch. Every week I write to her and assure her we would welcome any or all of them. They have extended family in other parts of Europe too who have offered them a home. For now they are safe.

The occupations, the wars, the famines: my grandfather left Bukovyna in 1907, never to return. He was illiterate and never wrote letters home. His only child, my father, never knew there were living branches of our family tree still in Ivankivtsi, low green boughs over the soft fields where a woman grazed her cow, a worn rope tied to its horn, a bucket of water at her side. Nadya writes to say there are air raid sirens sounding in the night and I am fearful for their future. Our future. Like my grandfather, I carried village dust across the ocean to Canada, flowers embroidered on cotton to wrap my bread. In Lyuba’s house there is a bed for me, graves to decipher in the overgrown cemetery, a century of names to say and remember.


Posted by Debra Martens

author, editor