I got one more chance to re-visit Kuty, birthplace of my maternal grandfather, home of my maternal grandparents and birthplace of my aunt, Julia.
I had wanted to see my eighty-year-old cousin, Zenovyi, one more time before my return to North America. At our initial meeting, Zenovyi very touchingly asked me, “Can I hope that you will be a brother to my son, Viktor?” Viktor is his only child.
With all the patriarchs and matriarchs of the family deceased and other relatives scattered, Viktor has only his wife and grown children. Zenovyi, a widower and every inch the loving father, is concerned that his fifty-five-year-old son s alone. Would I step into the role of a brother to his beloved son? I had answered yes.
Hence, my second trip to Ukraine before my departure from Europe. I had wanted Zenovyi to be assured that his son would no longer be alone, that I would now include Ukraine on my visits to Europe when I go to see my birth father’s family in Italy.
Viktor had not told his father we were coming. Zenovyi, enthusiastic about a visit from me, nevertheless becomes somewhat self-conscious. What should he say? He doesn’t speak English and his new American cousin doesn’t speak Ukrainian. So many questions flood his mind, but when he sees me, his mind goes blank.
I had purchased éclairs as a treat for Zenovyi. Viktor’s daughters told me that he likes cakes with cream in them. Éclairs seemed perfect. When we arrived, I saw Zenovyi’s smiling face. He’s very whimsical and is always making wise cracks, causing everyone else to laugh, except me. Christina, his granddaughter, explained to me that the translation would not make sense to me. Nevertheless, comments that I can understand through translation endear him to me more.
After arriving, we once again went into his little living area, immaculately appointed with art deco-style, solid wood furnishings polished within an inch of their lives. The house is tiny by Western standards and lacks indoor plumbing. A container near the stove is always filled with water for cooking. Viktor took me outside and we poured a cup of water over each other’s hands to wash before we ate.
About thirty yards farther behind the house is the toilet, inside a wooden stall. This home, built by Zenovyi’s father, Viktor’s grandfather, has been without plumbing since it was built. Viktor told me that, throughout his childhood and teenage years it was common to pump the well, bring it in the water and heat it up for bathing. I couldn’t picture eighty-year-old Zenovyi maneuvering the pathway during the frigid Ukrainian winters just to answer the call of nature. No matter. He travels to Viktor’s flat in Lviv during the cold months.
Inside Zenovyi’s living room the three of us chatted. Viktor’s lovely wife, Luba, and his daughter, Christina remained in the kitchen to prepare a meal. Our conversation covered much of what we discussed during the first meeting and I realized that we were cementing our memories of what we talked about.
Eventually Luba appeared with bowls of steaming borscht and a plate of bread. Plates of boiled potatoes and a fried, breaded river fish that I cannot begin to pronounce, let alone spell, followed. Wine flowed. After that, we enjoyed a cream cake with gelatin inside along with strong coffee. The éclairs were saved for later in the evening.
During my visit, neighbors had arrived to harvest potatoes from Zenovyi’s garden. Roughly four large sacks were filled. Zenovyi’s lot is roughly an acre and he still cultivates it, despite his advanced age, prosthetic leg and five past bouts of cancer. His tomato and pepper plants were laden with fruit and his raspberry bushes were five feet high. I couldn’t believe how he could be maintaining such a prolific garden.
Standing in the back yard, Viktor regaled me once again with the story of how the Nazis had commandeered Zenovyi’s home when they marched into Kuty during WWII, initially pushing the Russians back. He pointed out the location of the underground kitchen the Nazis had created for food preparation. The Germans were well fed and the house was stocked with cheeses, sausages and various meats. Liquor abounded and chocolates gorged upon.
I had misunderstood Viktor’s initial description of Zenovyi and his siblings waiting around to be favored with a candy late at night. As it turned out, the Germans rarely shared any of their largesse with Zenovyi and his family. The children would hang about until late, hoping the Nazis would offer them a treat, but they were always disappointed.
When the Russians started their advance, the Nazis retreated leaving Zenovyi’s home and family very abruptly. Zenovyi said he and his family covered over the underground kitchen with dirt so no one could see it. I didn’t ask why, but I got the impression it was to hide the evidence from approaching Soviet forces, lest they be accused of treason.
Zenovyi added a few details, telling me how, when the Russians re-took the territory, he saw planes flying overhead from the Red army. In the distance he could see the retreating Nazis blown up by Soviets.
The house, tiny as it is, was still outfitted with a basement that was used during air raids. Near the Catholic Church is a very large cemetery with what can best be described as a large gazebo-like structure. It is very grand and very ornate and appears to be some sort of structure built to revere the deceased. However, its dual purpose was that of a bomb shelter where residents of the town would congregate when the warplanes hit.
This visit to Kuty found me once again taking videos and photos. And this time around I found myself retaining more of the information offered to me. The first visit had been overwhelming with everything happening so quickly—arriving in Kuty with my brother and chatting with the village priest on Saturday, the priest making an announcement of my arrival at mass on Sunday, a call from Viktor late Monday, meeting Viktor on Tuesday, meeting Viktor’s family for dinner at his home on Thursday and then back to Kuty on Sunday to meet Zenovyi. My brain had been on overload, unable to accommodate everything.
Now, I could relax a bit and soak in the atmosphere of this tiny village that so vividly spoke of life in the Soviet system. The one lone street was pockmarked, worse than any street, including logging roads, I had seen in Oregon. Many homes were abandoned, their inhabitants having died, the youth moved on to greener pastures in the big cities or overseas where opportunity awaited. There was no reason to keep up the property because no one would come back.
Many of the homes that were occupied had windows and doors that were crooked, tin roofs and sagging walls. Yet, despite this, several homes were quite modern and would have looked quite comfortable in some American suburbs. I reasoned to myself that these homes were probably owned by pensioners with affluent children in the city. Many pensioners are reluctant to leave their hometowns. Zenovyi is one.
Viktor had pointed out to me places where he had gone fishing. One river was completely dried up, another victim of climate change. Viktor indicated spots where his family would picnic and where the best and biggest mushrooms flourished.
Even though our two childhoods were vastly different with his spartan life in the Soviet Union and my life in relative Western affluence, we still had some commonalities from growing up in a rural area, savoring the simplicities afforded by such an existence.
Viktor told me that he was ten years old before he saw a television show for the first time. Via radio, they would listen to the scratchy radio stations from the West that the Soviet Union tried to block. Viktor was around forty when he met his first Westerner and he peppered the man with questions.
Much of life was what Westerners might consider subsistence. Every woman knew how to sew and crochet and every home had a garden. These gardens fed the vast majority of the population not just in Kuty, but also throughout the Soviet Union. This is verifiable fact. The moribund Soviet system, with its twisted view of socialism prevented accumulation, resulting in an inefficient agricultural apparatus that never was able to feed the population. Today, driving through the countryside and through rural towns, one still sees a garden at every home.
The landscape surrounding Kuty is flat as the Plains, only with more trees. In the distance are occasional hillsides. From Kuty, one can see Olesku Castle, a grand structure that needs some tender loving care. Built during the Polish Empire, the castle features a separate torture area with devices that vividly show the depravity of the human mind.
The land in Ukraine is famously fertile, one of the reasons that Russia has always hungered for the territory. Russia’s climate and growing season is not as friendly to food production as Ukraine’s and Ukraine was, for decades, Russia’s breadbasket. Ukraine still produces vast amounts of food and, if it plays its cards right, could become a breadbasket for Europe and the Middle East.
While visiting, Zenovyi once again reiterated his concern that he might not see me again. I chuckled to myself because his assertions reminded me of Italians and their penchant for the dramatic. However, I understood that, as a newcomer into this family, a Westerner living on the West Coast of North America, he could understand that I might rarely, if ever, come back.
Viktor and I affirmed to him that we could keep in contact via Skype and email. When Zenovyi stays with Viktor during the winter, I will make sure to Skype with him so he can experience the brilliance of technology and how it lessens the miles.
I also told him I would come back during my next trip to Europe. When would that be? He wanted to know. I told him at least a year, depending on how quickly I could find work and what the rules of vacation time would be. He focused on the words “one year”.
The next day, Viktor came to pick me up to take me to the Lviv Airport for my flight back to Italy. He, too, reiterated “one year” and his face was serious and ashen at my impending departure.
As we walked into the airport terminal, I was surprised to find his entire family already there waiting—wife, children, daughter-in-law and granddaughter—to see me off. I was taken aback for a few moments as I looked at this newly found family that has so completely embraced me, a stranger from a distant country. Their expression of affection in coming to say one last goodbye covered my heart with a toasty-warm aura of acceptance and love.
We chatted for a while until I had to leave for Passport Control. Embracing each one individually, they all clutched me tightly. Luba whispered a thanks to me. Viktor, seriousness in his eyes, held me firmly and told me to stay close to God.
I walked through Passport Control and the airport search. As I rode the escalator up to the second floor to the gate for Ukrainian Air, I waved goodbye to another new family and another new chapter in my life.