Whenever I look at this photograph of my grandparents, I want to ask them what they are thinking. What drove you and your family to leave your home and travel to an unknown country, with a foreign language you had never even heard spoken before? Was it the tyranny? Was it the poverty? Or was it more? What are your dreams? What trials have you overcome to get this far? There are just so many things I would like to know. There is, however, one thing I do know. I owe a great debt to my gido — grandfather — and baba — grandmother.
They came to Canada as teenagers at the turn of the 20th century. They had grown up in the same village in what is now western Ukraine, were reacquainted in their new land, and married in 1907. Together they overcame the hardships of pioneer life and brought 16 children into this world. Having travelled halfway around the globe, they spent the rest of their lives living on the homestead they first settled. They never became famous and were known only to family and friends.
However, to me, their lives were most remarkable. The picture shows them in front of their first house, taken perhaps six years after they were married. In that short time, they cleared land, built a home and had their first two daughters — standing on the right. Food was scarce. They often depended on nature to supplement their diet. Rabbits, wild berries, partridges and prairie chickens were all essential to keep the family from starving. Money was scarce, but necessary to purchase such things as plows and oxen. With no paid work available nearby, Gido would spend summer months working on the railway, as far away as Banff.
In spite of the hardships of pioneer life, Gido realized life was more than just survival. His determination and enthusiasm for his new country led him to learn English quickly. He took an active part in establishing a school for the district and served as school trustee and chair for several years. Later, three of his children would become teachers. He instilled his children with pride in their country. Two of his sons served in the Second World War and one received the Distinguished Flying Medal. Along with a number of others, in 1911 he paid a precious $5 to purchase land for a community cemetery. Always willing to help those who had even less than they did, the cemetery sponsors also committed to burying any “poor man who didn’t belong to the cemetery group.” Similarly, no stranger was ever turned away from my grandparents’ home without being fed. That’s just the way it was. Mind you, if no stranger ever went away hungry, family and friends could expect a feast.
This story cannot be complete without mentioning Klemko, my great-great grandfather. Although well over 70, he joined the family when they emigrated to Canada. A skilled builder and craftsman, he did much of the construction for the farmstead, including the house in the photo. He carved cradles for the new babies. He could also work stone and used native granite to make grindstones to mill grain from the first crops.
Why am I in their debt? For the same reason most of us owe a debt to our ancestors. They worked hard to create better lives, not only for themselves, but for their children. Of that I am certain. More than that, however, they retained and cherished those things of their past lives which were truly important. The region east and south of Edmonton, for hundreds of miles, is dotted with the onion-shaped domes of Ukrainian churches. Those pioneers had faith so strong, they often built primitive churches even before their own homes were completed. Sometimes they would build a church with no certainty of when, or even if, a priest would come to celebrate a divine liturgy in it.
My Gido is a relatively young man in this picture, perhaps 30 years old. Wearing a Canadian-style suit, he stands proud and upright. By the time I knew him, however, the years of unbelievably hard labour, cold, and hunger had taken their toll. He walked with a limp and his hands were gnarled. Yet he managed to find strength to give his grandson a bouncy ride on his knee. When we were leaving after a weekend visit, he would always dig into his change purse so we could buy ice cream on the drive home.
None of us are able to see the future; some would say mercifully. So what were you thinking, Gido? What were your hopes for your children? Did you even have time to think about grandchildren? If you did, what sort of world did you want for them?
Whatever your thoughts may have been, I do know this. You worked hard all your life, you kept your faith close, and somehow I am the beneficiary of that. I am indeed in your debt.
Vichnaya pamyat. Eternal memory.
Kostyniuk, who lives in Edmonton, has a bachelor of theology from Newman and is a freelance writer. He and his wife Bev have been married for 37 years and have eight grandchildren.