A Modern Fairytale
I have three photographs of my grandfather. Three. Too small a number really and already yellowed at the edges, to show me the still-smooth angles of his young face. Three images to build from whispered rumors (and from his papers, shrouded in linen and hidden in a trunk for as long as I knew my grandmother) the lost pages of his story.
The first picture I share with pride, pulling it from the forefront of my mind as a mother might flaunt glossy snapshots of children. Tall and proud, he stares out at the viewer from the grey tones of a formal portrait. His clothing, strangely foreign with its onerous European patterning, is the one thing which jars me from the connection. But I know this face - his face - the pale blue eyes staring back at me, the pensive tautness that pulls his brows into a rigid line, his head tipped back slightly as if to ask: who am I to search for him?
Our features link us. The Nordic blond hair combed back in childlike smoothness, wide, high cheekbones – also mine – whose shape like a ruler, separates my mother from her half and full siblings, and the broad planes of his face. But beyond all the physical connections, what draws me to this portrait is its sense of hope.
The prospects of Nester’s life lay open, an untrodden field of fresh snow on a glorious, bright morning. It is a life of tomorrows, like nesting Ukrainian dolls stacked one atop the other in an endless line of ‘may be’ futures. Nothing is known for certain, and in that way everything is still open to the man sitting patiently in a portrait studio in Russia, being photographed for a passport that will, in the very near future, take him to Canada, to a still-beautiful and carefree Anne Roszko, to his children (one of whom he will never see born), and too quickly afterward, his death.
But at the time that the shutter snaps shut, capturing for me this picture of a serious young man, looking at me with recognition and knowing, this is all in the future. He stares out at all of us, welcoming the promise and potential of times to come. And somehow in this moment, despite my utter certainty that this story will always end with tears, I want to join him in his optimism. There is hope for all things to come: for love, for happiness, for the future.
Yes. This is the Nester I wish to know.
“Show me the next picture,” you say, fingers reaching for the second tattered emblem of my grandfather. But the second is harder to share, for it pulls us to the middle stage of his life, to so many other twine and burlap-wrapped troubles. I turn the picture away, hiding it in the folded corners of my heart, so I may weave it back into the lines my face shares with him.
“Take these instead,” I say, and pull from my parcel of memories his papers, written in two languages. “Look here, at this stamp.”
And there on his passport, a stamp appears, ink still blue and legible, bearing the name of a ship: Alaunia. This is the first gap in Nester’s history. For somewhere between the young man in Russia, and the wedding portrait I cover with my hands, there is another story. And the stamp is not all.
Sifting through his papers two voices appear. The stern accent of my grandmother repeats the abridged story I have heard so many times before – Nester Semeniuk of Russia emigrates to Canada, marries Anne Roszko and dies, leaving her to the whims of an uncertain future. But there is a second voice now, quieter, yet no less insistent. This voice has a story too, and it forms atop the simple weaving of the first. Like bright red embroidery on a white expanse of raw linen, it stitches for me a complicated pattern of living which means more than those dry facts rattling around the bottom of my grandmother’s trunk.
Omissions and errors, his papers are full of them. An entire history I don’t know. And so I ask the only person who is left who does.
I met Nester’s sister - the last living member of the Semeniuk clan - on a visit to Vancouver. Wassa Stroshin: an iconic figure in our family. Unlike Nester, Wassa survived to old age – despite war, poverty, rape, and an unhappy marriage – to emerge glittering with wealth like the gold-leafed icon of a church, her success worshipped and prayed for by so many of her immigrant cousins. Every fear of the dangerous unknown had taken place in Wassa’s youth and like the original Grimm’s fairy tales, she served as both a warning story, and a reminder that the worthy were rewarded at the end of their sufferings.
The apartment I visited was filled with the detritus of her working life. The hallway was papered with notes, the kitchen table covered with piles of loose change waiting for counting. Underneath it all hovered a layer of dust, wealth and age. The couch (partially uncovered in my honor) was inhabited by her sole companion – a cat named Suka – a name which my mother later told me, through fits of laughter, meant “Bitch”.
She opened the door and I found myself looking down on the woman from the myth. The first thing which struck me was her size. From my mother’s descriptions, I’d imagined a much larger figure, but Wassa, in person, was tiny. With a jolt of surprise I realized I was looking at an older version of my mother; her dark hair, spry, muscular body and wise eyes engulfed by a sea of wrinkles born not only through time, but of pain and suffering.
She reached up and caught me in a tight embrace made awkward by the difference in our sizes.
“You look like Nester,” she whispered.
The story I’ll tell you now is a fairy tale. It is not the real story of the Semeniuk family, though I think that story is now so long ago, and far away, that even the truth would sound like a fable. In this story, Nester and his father have careers high in the Russian army - based in fact, I think - but also wishful thinking. Pennies thrown to beggars who have nothing left of him but wishes. We want this to be true of Nester, and in our need, it becomes.
Once upon this gilded, forgotten time things were good: the Semeniuk family had money, happiness, pride, the crops always came in, swaddled babies were always wanted and warm, and the world was at eternally peace. But this is not really a memory, it is a fairy tale, a warning story. Before the words “ever after” can pass our lips, a shadow emerges from the darkened heart of Russia; the fist of Stalin reaching out to strangle the members of the old guard.
Nester is one of them.
With boldness built of terror, the family plans escape – and this is the point where the fairy tale alters – the remaining pages burned away by the very hands who wrote it. But this purging of fire is still in the future. Let us pause, and see them in the instant of leaving.
There is no photograph of this moment, but I can imagine the family gathered in the watery pre-dawn. The clothes they wear are thick and unyielding. Jewelry fills the linings of their coats; money pads the soles of their shoes. In this imagined moment, the house is dormant, door still ajar, releasing the smell of polish and candles and last night’s borscht. Beds have been made, clothes folded, dishes dried one last time and put away with care. All of it waiting for a family that will never return.
The vacation to the Black Sea is the first precarious lie on which their lives hang, like the sheet left flapping on the clothesline that runs to the back of the yard. The truth? They will travel – not just to the sea – but further. First to Southhampton, England, and then, on the ship Alaunia, to Canada - the very edge of the earth as they know it. And there, in a world unknown and unforgiving, they will start again from nothing.
In the distance, the bell on a gold-domed church begins a slow steady peal, announcing the coming of morning. The sound urges the family on its way. They draw breath, lift heavy suitcases and step away.
With the faint smell of burning papers, one life ends and another begins.
With a frown, I slide a picture across the table to you now: the second photograph. Now is the time. Sharing the raw and hopeful beginning to this story has freed me to show this picture which I so often, and sadly, wish to hide. There is more to Nester’s life than the bookends of start and end. I sense you nod, in knowing, as your hand settles over the tattered emblem of my grandmother’s first, ill-fated marriage.
You pause, then draw yourself into the second photograph: the wedding portrait.
Nester Semeniuk and Anne Roszko, stand together on the stairs leading up to the unpainted front of a country church. In another time, the image of that faded raw-wood façade would be quaint and beautiful, but in this picture it has the threat of want, scant years after the Great Depression.
The two of them, arm in arm, stand in strange counterpoint. Anne, beautiful in her youth, is enshrouded in a cocoon of lace. It is easy to fall in love with her, to feel the confidence and excitement of this marriage: a love match rather than a planned union. Anne’s hopes and joy dance across her uplifted face and full curving lips. She cannot see the storm about to break around her.
My eyes wander to Nester, my grandfather.
The difference is startling. Beside this hopeful young woman stands a man - only 28 years old - who carries in his bearing the dark and weighty sadness of an old man. Nester, still young, has been discharged from the Canadian army for medical reasons.
“What reasons?” you ask, looking up from the photograph. But Nester’s papers don’t say, though I suspect I know the answer.
So perhaps, did Nester.
Anne’s impassioned optimism glitters brightly beside his dourness. It is his wedding day, but Nester does not smile. The weight of his wordless struggle is carved into every line on his face. His shoulders slump downward, his clothes hang loosely on a much-too-thin body. His head – so optimistically jaunty in the first portrait – is weighted by secrets. Secrets which even Anne, at this moment, does not know.
From my distant vantage-point seventy years onward, I stare into Nester’s eyes, begging him to share what dark knowledge is eating away his happiness before it has even had time to begin. I know that Nester’s demise cannot be stopped, but perhaps Anne can still be protected from the blow.
But my knowledge of what this story becomes does not stop or change the events. It cannot. And I must remember that the fable being told is Nester’s alone to write.
The fairy tale beginning has ended on those faded wooden steps, while the dark, heavy clouds of future sadness loom in the near distance, the rising wind of imminent demise blowing gusts of decay into their happiness. At the back of my mind, a threatened headache clouds over with the story of Peter and Tekla, which will so quickly take over in a drama all their own, though not yet.
Nester lives… but not for long.
Despite the outward illusion of a life heading to the future - the birth of one child, followed quickly by a second pregnancy - Nester’s health wanes. Neighbors, not understanding the urgency or Nester’s inability to sleep, gossip and whisper. Superstitious old women cross themselves to sign away the devil when Nester’s skeletal form is seen in the fields at night, fencing by lamp-light as he prepares the farm for his inevitable departure. The days of the ill-fated marriage are measured out by the size of the tumor, lodged like a fist in his brain. Nester is desperate. Each new day, like a funeral dirge, summons the end nearer.
I resist the writing of it, the telling of those ghastly secrets.
Instead, what I want is for Nester to speak, to argue this all away, to explain to me how such an optimistic beginning came to end so horribly on that winter night. During her life, my grandmother never spoke of it – could not speak of it! And if those blood soaked images had been hers alone, then this story would have disappeared with her death. But there were too many others who knew and saw. And in the intervening year I’ve heard enough of this tragic ending - from Wassa, my own mother, my great-grandparents and from those lost papers hidden in Anne’s trunk - to imagine Nester’s voice begin to tell it.
If I close my eyes and listen, he is there.
Сколько лет, сколько зим! [How many summers… how many winters…] So many years have passed since that day. You think you know me, child, but you do not. Do not guess at who I am, or what I knew. Those days are over and better left forgotten. Anne knew this, and I too, and so, by now, should you.
The story you want is the story of the end, of those last bitter hours. Я не понимаю [I don’t understand it myself.] It wasn’t supposed to end that way. I tried everything to be healed. Lived on hope, as much as bread. But in the weeks before I died there was much too much to do – far too much for me to finish.
Anne would need money when I was gone.
An auction was planned for our farm, but my mother, Tekla, put a caveat on that sale. We owed her money on the property, and my mother, with her tight-lipped smile, and angry words, wanted the farm for herself. There was no way out. We could not sell. Death was coming, but my mother – my own mother! – wanted to take away what little I could do for my family.
In a stupor, I begged her to meet with me privately, so I could argue my case. Alone, my mother turned on me. Screaming and spitting angry oaths. How could I forget our family? What she had done for me? How she had brought me into this world? Couldn’t I see it was her money, her farm, I was taking away? This was wealth she had rebuilt with the toil of her bare hands in the meager years since we’d fled Russia!
What could a man do at such a time? Это твоя мама! [This was my mother!] Bonds of childhood tied me down and held my tongue. There was no way I could explain how I feared the light of each day. No way I could expect a woman so cruelly pragmatic - trained in the Old Country to both bring in the first breath of life and squelch it before it began - to understand my own fear of death. I was a little boy before her, waiting to be whipped with a willow branch. She railed against my silence, until shamefully, tearfully, I agreed.
Oh my shame.
I knew in that moment, I must take my life. For who knew what other evil my mother would do as I lay dying. If I was this weak, unable to convince her to care for her own grandchildren, what would I be like in those final raving hours in a sanitorium?
Death was far better.
The night I died was cold and still. As for so many days and nights before, the headache raged; my head pounding in time with my heartbeat. We ate supper with Anne’s parents at their farm. Peter, her father, clapped me on the back and insisted I drink a tumblerful of vodka with him. It steadied my nerves and gave me strength.
As we prepared to go, I insisted we leave the baby, Lorretta, for the night. It was too cold, I said. Anne argued that the ice had barely frozen on the creek, but I promised we would come back for Lorretta first thing in the morning. The alcohol eased my tongue through these wicked lies, and with a final glance back at Anne’s parents waving from the doorway, Lorretta’s small body curved into her grandmother’s arms, I bustled Anne into the sleigh, and headed for home.
I remember that drive. Ice crystals hung in the air by the horse’s nostrils, stars gilding the night sky. The air was still, and echoes of sounds carried for miles: the moan of a train whistle, the yip of a dog. Full of warm supper and tired with the early days for pregnancy, Anne leaned against me, her head nodding as we took the final turn to the farm.
I delayed as she prepared for bed. Anne knew I rarely slept, so with a final kiss, she headed to bed, falling into what would be the last, unencumbered slumber of her life. I stoked the fire, laid out extra wood for the next day, pumped water for the pitcher, and settled the last few items away. Doing my chores one final time, like a slow pattern of weaving on a loom already in flames.
When all was ready, I walked through the house I had built for us. Now that the time was upon me, I lingered, wanting to remember this all, to bring it with me when I left. I ran my fingers along the red embroidered tablecloth set for breakfast, I straightened Lorretta’s newly pressed clothes, so tiny, laid out neatly atop our dresser, and then sat quietly beside Anne, watching her sleep. She looked like a child, herself, all of nineteen years old.
It was the headache, pulsing behind my eyes, which finally roused me from my vigil.
I remember little of the poison’s horror.
Through red-hued convulsions I scrawled my story onto the wall. When the mind-altering agony grew too much, I fell into semi-consciousness, moaning in anguish. Anne, disoriented and heavy-eyed with sleep, found me in the blood-drenched kitchen.
Terrified, she threw herself into the bitter winter night, hiking out across the fields alone to seek help. She fought through drifts of snow, straining, as one does in dreams, with hampered movements: staggering, falling, lunging forward, falling again. The whole weight of the world seemed to pit itself against her.
Blinded by the storm, she stumbled onto the still-brittle ice of the creek. It broke, dropping her already-numbed body under the deadly black surface. The icy grip of water woke her from the panic, switching her grief to self-preservation. Anne’s blood, already cooling, surged to her core in a primitive effort to preserve life: her own, and the tiny baby floating within her. Their existence hung precariously at the edge of the ice and water.
With newfound resolve Anne pulled herself from the water. Her cries of terror became ones of anger. Inch by inch, she crawled back across the ice, her frostbitten hands like stumps attached to her arms, her legs abraded by the razor edge of ice. Tears glittered and froze on her cheeks as she found her way to solid ground. Through the snow-covered fields she forced herself onward to the neighbors, but it was already too late.
The worst had come.
I am standing in the kitchen of my great-grandparent’s house in Edmonton. This is not the house of the farm, where Anne and Nester ate their last supper as husband and wife, but the kitchen of a comfortable city home, a haven of plenty, filled with the heady odor of perogies and kolbasa, decorated with a sad, bleeding-heart Jesus, porcelain chickens and colorful curtains. I am small enough to stand between the knees of my great-grandfather, Peter Roszko, as he sits in a kitchen chair talking with my parents. These are the favored grandparents of my mother, people who sometimes frighten me a little with their language I do not understand, their strange ways. But this shyness is always short-lived, for as soon as we enter their home, I am swaddled in hugs and kisses. At all times, my mother’s beatific devotion to them is apparent.
My great-grandparents are telling stories, alternating between Ukrainian and English and sometimes a hobbled mixture of both, while my mother acts as interpreter for my father. The four of them drink tea, eat, laugh and talk. I am too little to be part of this conversation, so I stand cuddled between my great-grandfather’s legs, his sinewy arms folded loosely around me. The stories are of the aftermath of that night. While they talk, I follow the long white ridges and shiny puckered skin that pattern the back of my great-grandfather’s hands, running my own fingers along the lines that carry in them another story of the aftermath, like a map of a place that no one wants to revisit.
Imagine, if you can, the day of the funeral...
This memory of Peter’s takes us back to the kitchen once again. Though the blood has been scrubbed away, Anne will never live in this house again. How could she with the ghosts of all she has lost? Children avoid it, neighbors say it is cursed, and perhaps, after all that has happened, it is. The house will lay empty for years, eventually burning to the ground like so many other pages of their story, ashes scattering across the snowy fields.
But on the day of the funeral, the wood-burning stove pumps welcome heat as Anne’s father searches for evidence of what Nester scrawled in his final terror-filled moments: proof that the farm does indeed belong to Anne and her children. The funeral will be starting soon. Fearful, Peter redoubles his efforts.
He pulls open one last drawer and suddenly it is there, just as Nester has described. Years of money transactions prove that although some payments remain on the land, the majority has been paid to Tekla in full. A noise at the door startles Peter from his discovery, and he looks up to see Nester’s mother pulling back her snow-covered mourning shawl. Her wide-cheeked face flushes with anger, the heat of the room oppressive.
“You!” she shouts. “What are you doing here?”
Peter approaches her as he would a skittish horse. He knows, after all, that money is still owed to Tekla. He offers her half of the farm, more than generous, considering the few payments which remain to be paid. But there is rage behind Tekla’s glittering eyes; she is in no mood to share. Catlike, she stalks toward him, pulling the deed to the farm from inside her shawl.
“I have the deed!” she hisses, a smile on her lips, but not her eyes. “It is already mine.” She slides the papers away, tucking them possessively under her clothing - protection against want – the same as the old days.
Peter gestures to the papers beside him in the desk. Pulling one out, he waves it in front of her. “A good offer,” he warns, “considering that most of the money has already been paid.” The bright color drains from Tekla’s face and her eyes settle on the drawer in sudden realization, seeing the neatly stacked transactions.
Nester has kept every single one.
Like a striking snake, Tekla throws herself at Peter, knocking him off-balance. Her hands claw at the paper, raking the bunch together like so many fluttering leaves and throwing them into the red-hot heart of the wood stove.
Peter’s movements are equally fast, though when he remembers this moment, it seems he is moving in a dream, or underwater – each step paced out in slow-motion There is no time for thought; he simply does what needs to be done. The pile of money transactions has started to burn, the outermost papers in the pile blossoming into flame the moment they touch the interior of the stove.
No time to think.
Heedless of pain, Peter reaches in with bare hands and pulls the burning mess out of the fire and drops it onto the floor. Tekla is shrieking. Dark Russian curses, more ancient and bitter than anything in this bright new world, swirl around them both, words close enough to Ukrainian that Peter might understand, were it not for the white hot pain of his black, blistered skin and the burning paper. Peter hops from one foot to the other, stamping out the stubborn flames, intent on saving as many as he can from destruction.
When he looks up from his task, she is gone. Most of the papers have been saved. Enough that, during the coming court case, Peter will be able to convince a judge that the farm rightly belongs to Anne and the girls. On this day, however, Peter attends Nester’s funeral with hands swaddled in white linen, standing ashen-face and shaking, horrified with what has transpired, across from Tekla, who looks up at him calmly, smiling her cat’s smile, as if this is all in a day’s work. Peter is quickly learning the ways of this woman many call a witch.
But the farm itself, and a life for Anne and her children, has been saved.
“This must be the last picture,” you say, reaching out to touch the final photograph that has appeared, at just this moment, upon the table’s worn surface. It is a death portrait: Nester laid out in his casket, wearing the same dark suit from his wedding.
I am startled by its appearance. I did not bring this photograph to you; it is one I am happy to see worn to dust by the hands of time. And so with a quick movement I flip it over and lay another in its place.
“Why?” you ask. But I find it hard to explain why this image of death is so appalling to me given that I know the dark ending to his life. For a moment, I think of Nester’s optimism and youth in the first portrait and try to draw parallels between that person and this, but there are none. The death portrait is an afterthought, an incident of no importance. Not the real ending of this story at all.
“This one,” I insist, pushing forward a black and white photograph.
It is one of perhaps a handful of images which shows my mother as a baby. This picture is taken on the same day as the death portrait. (Perhaps at the very moment when Peter is fishing the burning papers from the fire, scarring his hands forever.) In this photograph, a teenaged Anne wears the black clothes of a widow, a field and an unpainted wood façade her backdrop. Do you recognize it? Yes, that is the same church where Anne and Nester were married less than two years before. Anne, not yet twenty and pregnant with her second child, has come here today as a widow.
But in this single moment, she is not focused on the final end to a marriage she entered with such blazing hopes. She is not weeping and distraught (though she has these moments as well). In this instant she is focused quietly on her future, for though uncertain, it is there. Anne’s dark eyes are not on the camera, but on the tiny girl beside her: her daughter, Lorretta - clothed in a beautiful white dress and bonnet – fit more for a celebration of survival, than a mournful expression of death.
Through the winter’s chill, sunshine glitters on the snowy fields, a promise of spring no matter how distant. And despite everything Anne has endured, even with the grief and suffering, in this final image, she smiles, her face upturned to greet the sun’s rays.