Life truly is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get

The alarm went off at 9:00 a.m. and I dragged myself out of bed after only four hours of sleep. Tossing and turning all night, I could only picture in my mind what possibly awaited me in Kuty.

Hadn’t I been here before? Vancouver, British Columbia 1978. Villa Pigna, Italy 1997. Now Kuty, Ukraine 2015. Yup, it was all feeling familiar, with the same excitement and anticipation.

I made sure I was waiting outside the apartment of my host with time to spare. Sitting on the steps of the apartment building I savored the warm sun on my face and allowed my mind to free-associate. My cousin in Kuty, Zenovyi, had been preparing for my arrival. At eighty years old, he had canvassed his little house in Kuty for photos and letters and notes, anything that he felt might be relevant to me. His son, Viktor, my first cousin once-removed, had told him we were coming.

Viktor arrived precisely when he said he would. He was elegantly attired in a dress shirt and print slacks. I was wearing Levi’s 501 jeans, black leather shoes and my Ukrainian shirt adorned with traditional Ukrainian designs. Looking at Viktor I asked him if I was woefully underdressed. We were, after all, attending services in a 365-year-old church, the church of my ancestors. As I only had casual clothes, I opted for the Ukrainian shirt to give me some semblance of respect. After two and a half weeks in Ukraine I had become quite aware of how reverently the locals dress when they go to worship.

Viktor waived aside my concerns. “You look fine. Very modern. You have much hair, no scratches (wrinkles). Beautiful like a model.” I’m beginning to love Viktor.

As we wove our way through the streets of Lviv to reach the main highway for Kuty, Viktor apologized for the car. His classic Volvo is in the shop, awaiting a rare part and he had to borrow this particular vehicle from a friend who was visiting Slovakia. He felt the car wasn’t clean enough. I told him not to worry.

Swerving onto the highway to Kuty, Viktor told me that his wife and twin daughters were already in the town. They had taken the train the night before and would be waiting for us. The drive was roughly seventy-five minutes, but Viktor, driving upwards of a hundred miles an hour, got us there in about an hour.

Along the way, I peered out the window again at the landscape. How could it be that it felt so comfortable when I had only seen it once before? How was it that I could remember particular onion-domed churches, brightly-stenciled houses and Soviet-era abandoned buildings after only one previous visit?

Again I marveled at the rich, dark soil that had fed empires while the citizens starved. I wondered at the fields where armies fought for centuries, drenching the earth with blood. Why was it so comfortable for me to be in this foreign land?

I asked Viktor as we drove if he had told anyone other than his father that we were coming. He answered no. I was relieved. I told him I was concerned that if villagers and the parish priest were expecting me it might detract from the reverence of the worship experience. Once again, he waived aside my concerns and I relaxed.

We arrived in Olesko, the closest town of any significant size to Kuty. Viktor asked if I wanted a coffee. We stopped at the base of the hill where Olesko Castle is located. Vendors and kiosks were selling knickknacks, trinkets, drinks and snacks. We had an espresso and continued down a pockmarked road for Kuty.

Driving around and over enormous potholes, the car swooned to the left and right. I heard Viktor muttering under his breath when he hit a hole. Within minutes we reached Kuty and the freshly-painted green Greek Catholic Church. A gentleman emerging from the building told us the service had started.

Upon walking in I found all the worshipers standing and singing a liturgy. Having never attended a Greek Catholic church I wondered how the service was conducted. Father Stepan, dressed in his religious finery with flowing robes intricately embroidered with Ukrainian colors and designs, responded to the liturgical call in a plaintive voice.

Viktor and I stood near the back listening. I watched parishioners making the sign of the cross, bowing and sporadically walking up to place offerings in the tithing box. Father Stepan came forward holding what appeared to be a Bible with gold-leafed icons on the front. People formed a line to kiss the markings. Viktor whispered if I wanted to kiss an icon and I nodded.

Stepping into the line, we made our way to the priest. Viktor kissed the book and I followed. We then stepped back and I found myself, with Viktor, standing at the front of the congregation near his family. I felt out of place and conspicuous, especially considering that I was a good four to five inches taller than everyone in the building. Along with my Levi’s 501 jeans and my self-conscious Ukrainian shirt with the designs, I fairly stood out.

Father Stepan, reverent and regal soul that he is, barely acknowledged that I was in the service. He conducted the entire liturgy and sermon with respect and aplomb. Toward the end, he acknowledged that an American was in the audience and he offered a special benediction for me, asking God to bless me and my time in Ukraine and hoping that I would return again some day. I teared up and sniffled.

After the service, Father Stepan spoke to Viktor. He specifically requested a photo with me. Viktor, a professional photographer, had his camera slung over his shoulder. Stepan disappeared behind a curtain and re-emerged with something that resembled what can best be described as a crown. I felt like I was standing next to the Pope.

He stood next to me regally and Viktor snapped several photos when Father Stepan turned to face me. By this time, my eyes were filled with tears and as he offered his hand, I grabbed it with both of mine.

Choking back emotion, I looked at Stepan and said to Viktor, “Please thank him for helping me find my family.” Viktor repeated my words to the priest. Father Stepan looked at me and gave me a warm smile as he wiped the tears from his eyes with both hands.

Is it a sin to make a priest cry?

After leaving the church, I contained myself and we piled into the car. We drove the several hundred meters to Zenovyi’s house down a street that resembled a Mt. Everest sherpa trail. It was only minutes before we pulled up in front of a tiny, gray cottage.

Knocking on the door, Zenovyi answered and we were introduced. I could see a very definite resemblance between him and Viktor. Despite several years of ill health including five cancer surgeries, an eye surgery, and leg amputation, he was amazingly spry. Even after losing his sister, brother and precious wife within the space of a year in 2012-13, he was quite animated and very aware. He beckoned us in.

We walked into his immaculate living area where a table awaited us. We all sat down and immediately started talking. The words tumbled out. There was so much we wanted to discuss. Did I know Teodor, my grandfather? Did he know my great-grandfather or great-great-grandfather? Where did I live?

Viktor interrupted and said we could talk after eating, but we kept yakking. Eventually, Viktor’s two daughters and his wife, Luba brought out lunch. We dined on green borscht, mashed potatoes, gravy and mushrooms and bread washed down with a glorious Ukrainian red wine.

But for me, I couldn’t wait to talk. I wanted to know so much. And so did Zenovyi. As he spoke no English, Viktor ran interference for us. Zenovyi called me “Robert” because, according to Viktor, “Robert” is one of Zenovyi’s favorite names, along with “Richard”. Viktor and his son also preferred to call me “Robert”.

Zenovyi periodically pointed to my full head of thick, brown hair and commented about how “beautiful” I was. He would then point to Viktor’s head and his own and remark, with a twinkle in his eye, how I had more hair than I needed.

Zenovyi and Viktor think very similarly. Zenovyi explained quite movingly how he had no other children and that his beloved wife had died in 2012. He said Viktor was alone and so was he. But he was happy to have another member of the family. And he was especially happy to know that Viktor now had a brother.

I felt a clutch in my throat.

Continuing on, he brought out a five-inch stack of letters he had been keeping for decades. These were letters that had been sent by my grandfather, Teodor, from Canada. They were addressed to Zenovyi’s mother, Maria, Teodor’s first daughter by his late first wife, also named Maria.

In these letters, Teodor implored Maria to follow him to Canada. Throughout the years, Teodor had sent gifts, letters, and money to help Maria and her husband. After his first wife’s death, Teodor had sent Maria to live with an uncle, believing she would be better cared for.

In 1911, two years after his first wife’s death, Teodor married Carolina, my grandmother, and they produced a daughter, Julia in 1912. Immediately after Julia’s birth, Teodor immigrated to Canada, following the lead of a sister who had earlier settled on the Canadian plains in Winnipeg. He was pursuing what he believed would be a pathway to greater prosperity, especially with potential war brewing in what was then his native Austria-Hungary.

In 1914 WWI broke out in Europe and Teodor, as an Austro-Hungarian immigrant, suffered discrimination and found it difficult to obtain work. It would be four long years before the war ended in Europe and another two years before Teodor would save enough money to bring his wife, Carolina and daughter, Julia to Canada finally, in the summer of 1920.

He had begged Maria to come. However, Maria, had already married in 1920 at the age of fifteen and opted to remain in war-torn eastern Europe. Teodor continued to write and implore, but Maria stayed put as her homeland changed its name from Austria-Hungary to Poland to the Soviet Union during her lifetime. A fiercely staunch Ukrainian nationalist, she didn’t live to see Ukrainian independence.

Hearing this story softened my heart. I had mistakenly assumed my grandfather had cruelly left his first child alone to be with a new family. Now I found it was not the case. Maria had decided on her own to remain in Europe. Teodor had done his best for her.

Zenovyi also produced a small pile of of letters from Canada. He kept inquiring about a “Lulia and Heinrich”. I had no idea who he meant and just shrugged. Then it hit me: “Lulia and Heinrich” were “Julia and Henry”. Julia was Teodor’s first daughter with Carolina and “Henry” was Julia’s husband.

Over the decades my Aunt Julia had been in constant contact with the family in this area. I had never known this. Julia had been open about communicating with, and sending Care packages to family members living under communism in Poland. Nothing had been said about Ukraine. Was this the family Julia referred to or a different one? Why had I never been told? Was some sense of shame felt because Maria had been left in Ukraine?

Zenovyi gave me all the letters he had. Some dated back to the 1930s. Luba, Viktor’s wife, promised to photocopy them at her office in the university where she works in the history department. Zenovyi also produced a small box of photos. I took photos of each one for my own archive.

It was at this point that Viktor remarked about a comment Father Stepan had made to him that morning. Two years earlier a Canadian woman had arrived in Kuty inquiring about “Bakuns” and in Rozwaz (birthplace of my grandmother, Carolina) inquiring about “Dlugoszs”. I did not put two and two together until I considered the letters from Julia.

I reasoned the woman from Canada must have been my cousin, Gloria, Julia’s daughter. Apparently, her search led to nothing as I now have all the family information–letters and photos. I did not understand why Gloria was not able to find Zenovyi. Perhaps she did not have an interpreter with her as I did when I first arrived. Perhaps Father Stepan was preoccupied and did not think about Zenovyi. Perhaps she arrived when Zenovyi’s wife died and everyone was too torn up to think clearly.

Whatever the reason, I now have precious pieces of my history to complete the puzzle. I am anxious to have the letters translated. I am going to contact my former host in Krakow and hire him to translate the letters from Julia that are written in Polish. I will need someone to translate the Ukrainian letters for me. I don’t know if I should ask Viktor’s family to help. In one week a new family member intruded into their lives and things were turned upside down. How can I ask them for anything more?

As we sat around Zenovyi’s table and I held the letters in my trembling hands, I had to cover my eyes. Viktor’s daughter put her hand on my shoulder. Once again, I was awash in emotions. I had received more than I had bargained for and I was unable to accommodate so much in such a short time. As with every other aspect of this quest for family and answers, I received so much so quickly and so easily that I felt I was sinking under the weight of knowledge.

And inside I pondered and I questioned. What right did I have to intrude into all these lives? Canadians, Italians, Ukrainians. Who am I, this illegitimate bastard? Couldn’t I leave well enough alone? Did I have to barge into the lives of strangers to satisfy some need in me? Yes, they are all my blood. But shouldn’t prudence be considered? It was Viktor’s wife, Luba, who interrupted my thoughts with instant clarity.

Quite simply and succinctly she said, “It was good that you did this, Robert”.

And I think she’s right. I made the tectonic decision to charge my way up Interstate 5 to Vancouver, British Columbia to meet my brother and father and learn of my history at the age of nineteen. I agreed to fly halfway across the world in 1997 to the Marche region of Italy to be introduced to my birth father’s family in another culture, speaking another language.

And I took the plunge when my brother offered me his Italy apartment last July during a visit to him in Moscow. Initially, I thought I would go to Italy and become more acquainted with my relatives there. I also thought it might be “cool” to take the initiative and do a little digging in Ukraine to find family information. Maybe, just maybe I thought, there could be some distant family members to meet. Perhaps I would be able to find information about our mother’s side–a family unit about which we had precious little knowledge.

In each instance, the experience resulted in more than I could have ever bargained for. And now, as I sit in a cafe in Lviv, Ukraine reliving April 26, 2015 on my  blog, I see that these searches have provided knowledge, clarity and closure for so many, not just for me.

Zenovyi now has questions answered about the family in Canada. His mother went to her grave without this knowledge. But at least Zenovyi has it and he can close that door. He knows who “Lulia and Heinrich” are, finally, after decades of wondering. He knows about the lives of distant aunts and uncles in Canada, now deceased. He hopes we can stay in contact and see each other again. I assured him we will remain in touch and I will visit again before I return to North America. He is comforted that Viktor has, as I put it in an earlier posting, another family member to love.

And to love him back.

There’s more to write. There’s more to ponder. There’s more to “report”. It will be fodder for the next few postings. As anyone can imagine, a day like this one is multidimensional emotionally.

But for now, I think that 2751 words is more than enough.

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