My cousin. My new cousin. Viktor.
We had a seven hour chat today. I called Viktor at 12:35 p.m. He answered his phone with an enthusiastic “Robert!” Turns out he lives in Lviv and said we could meet at my convenience. I suggested 1:00 p.m. and he told me to meet him at the Town Hall in front of the lion statues.
I didn’t realize that I was giving myself no time to prepare. I ran some water through my hair in an attempt to arrange it in a presentable manner, grabbed my MacBook Pro full of photos and ran out the door.
As I walked down the landscaped median of the boulevard my mind raced. What did he look like? What would he be like? He sounded very excited to meet me. Everything was, once again, happening so quickly, so easily.
I reached the Town Hall and stood in front of the lion statues guarding the entrance. I looked at every man standing alone. Approaching each one, I inquired “Viktor?” They shook their head. I continued looking. I searched for someone who looked like he was looking.
Then out of the blue he walked up to me. A bit shorter than I am, he smiled broadly and shook my hand heartily. We hesitated for a minute. Should we embrace? We’re blood. But we’re strangers, so we resisted the impulse.
I said, “Hello, cousin” and Viktor smiled again. He immediately pointed to my full head of hair and pulled off his cap revealing a bald pate. I laughed. His English was quite good and we understood each other well. Viktor asked if I wanted to go for coffee or wine and I chose the latter. He took me to a Jewish bistro where we nursed a glass of wine and a cheese and salami plate. Viktor insisted on calling me “Robert” because, he said, “Robert” is one of his favorite names, along with “Richard”.
We had so much to share. His father, Zenovyi, is my first cousin and Viktor is my first cousin, once removed. Viktor is an only child. His only other sibling, a sister, died at a very young age. He doesn’t remember her. In June of 2012 he lost his precious mother. With no siblings or nieces and nephews, he is quite lonesome for family.
Viktor is a successful professional photographer. His wife is a history professor at the university in Lviv. He has a married twenty-nine-year-old son and his twin twenty-four-year-old daughters are both currently working on their master’s degrees.
We talked for hours. He told me that it was a huge surprise to hear that a family member from North America was inquiring about “Bakuns”. At Greek Catholic mass on Sunday, a close friend of Zenovyi had heard the priest, Father Stepan, announce that I had arrived in Kuty asking about a Teodor Bakun who had moved to Canada in 1912. This friend immediately went to Zenovyi’s home to give him the news.
Zenovyi, at eighty years of age, has experienced a lot of hardship the last three years. In 2012 he lost his beloved wife and his brother and sister. All his siblings are now gone. In 2013, half his leg had to be amputated due to poor circulation. Yet, Viktor said, his mind is sharp and he is interested in linguistics. He is happy to know of another member in a family that is rapidly dwindling.
Zenovyi is the grandson of my maternal grandfather, Teodor Bakun and Teodor’s first wife, Maria Michalishyn. Teodor and Maria had a daughter, also named Maria. Teodor’s wife died in 1909 at the young age of twenty-four from a digestive ailment. Two years later, Teodor married my grandmother, Carolina. Upon doing so, he abandoned his daughter, Maria, for his new wife and the first child they produced in 1912, Julia.
Maria was taken in by another man. I must admit that I do not recall who the man is; I have to clarify this with Viktor. But Teodor continued to communicate with his first daughter. Apparently, Zenovyi, Maria’s son, has the letters sent from Teodor to Maria that are postmarked from Canada.
As Viktor relayed to me, over the years, Maria would lament that she had no family. Her mother had died, her father abandoned her, remarried and moved to Canada. She felt alone. But it made her strong. As the years passed, she along with untold millions suffered from the scourge of wars and totalitarianism.
During the Communist era, she had hid her two sons (including Zenovyi) in the ceiling between the two floors of her apartment. Lying flat on their stomachs in a twelve-inch-high space, her sons held their breaths as Communist soldiers poked the ceiling with poles, listening for sounds indicating an occupied space. Finding them in hiding would have resulted in immediate execution. The soldiers, in an effort to catch Maria off-guard, exclaimed they had found someone. Maria, stoic, wisely refused to react, effectively calling their bluff. The soldiers left and her sons were saved.
Throughout her life, she brought out the letters from her father in far-off Canada. Eventually, Teodor’s letters fell off and she was left without any correspondence. She would forever wonder about the family that had continued without her in the safety and prosperity of Canada.
After her death in 1988, Viktor told me that interest in distant family members in North America dissipated. No one ever harbored any idea that there might be any connection between the two continents. Everyone in Canada had their own lives. Everyone in Europe had theirs. Death and distance exacerbated the separation. There was no connection.
Then Father Stepan made his announcement on Sunday.
When Viktor’s father, Zenovyi got the news, he called his son immediately. Viktor called my host, Ed. Ed’s wife took the call and wrote down the information. Ed called my iPhone which was, of course, dead. I finally spoke to Ed around 8:42 p.m. on Monday. And I called my new cousin early this afternoon.
Viktor commented several times how touching it is that I made the decision to come all the way from the West Coast of North America to search for them in Ukraine. In his mind, my efforts are laudable. More than anything, though, I got the strong impression that he is glad to have more family to love. And to possibly love him back. The loneliness factor for him has lessened tremendously.
After seven hours of talking non-stop, we parted. He shook my hand firmly and smiled. Then he threw his arms around me. “We are cousins.”
I cannot write anymore.