Thursday, August 31, 2006

Rainbows & Ice Cream

I guess there isn’t much you can say about a post like that last one, is there? No worries, gentle readers, this post is about shopping, and horses, and rainbows and ice cream.

My husband and I share an unfortunate disease. It’s called shopaphilia. We both love to shop, and this sometimes gets us into trouble. It’s not limited to one passion, like shoes, for example, which is fortunate, since that means that buying just about anything feeds the monster.

I get intensely focused on one item that I.must.have and I can’t rest until I find the perfect version of it. Last week that was a chocolate brown pencil skirt. A simple request, in theory, but in reality it was very difficult to accomplish this shopping mission. That’s because all department stores right now look like Stevie Nicks’ closet. You know what I am talking about: the broom skirt with the lace edge and just a hint of hand-dye distress; the long crochet cardigan with the self-tie belt of turquoise beads; the skinny jeans with the slouchy boot; the tunic top with the empire waist…all of it, just NO.

I also seem to have entered a twilight zone where there are few clothes that actually fit me and are age-appropriate. While I am immensely grateful that I no longer have to see belly-buttons on a daily basis, I don’t think we need to dress like the Amish all of a sudden. America does this in times of stress – we whip back and forth between extremes in everything from clothing to music.

I’ve yet to come up with a good explanation as to why I am buying new work clothes when I am generally only in a client’s office one or two days a week. In my own defense I am replacing pants and tops that I can’t wear because they are too small (ugh) and shoes that are too scuffed and worn to be appropriate for the office anymore. I am actually throwing things away from my closet as I put the new stuff in. I’m also buying on sale and/or at places like R0ss for the most part. Oh what the hell, I can afford it, and as they say, I’m worth it!

On to the horse talk. Once again it was a picture perfect day at the farm for my lesson yesterday. Every single time I’ve been there, every week for going on 12 weeks, it has been sunny with a cool breeze, like I ordered it up from the weather catalogue. I’m beginning to think there’s some sort of wish vortex at work there, a supernatural force beyond the gate that ensures I will have a good experience. Talk about a great marketing ploy!

For the last two lessons I’ve been on a somewhat lazy horse named Huey. It takes a lot to keep him going, even at the walk, you have to really get after him to establish any kind of rhythm, which I am not good at. But, once you get a little pissed off at him and really give him some hard kicks he realizes he’s fighting a losing battle and will start responding to more subtle clues. He does love to canter though! The first time I cantered I felt like my feet were flying out of the stirrups, so this time I shortened them up a notch so I would be pushing down harder, which worked wonders! I had several short stretches of time at canter when I felt completely in control and in the right position, a wonderful, if fleeting, feeling.

I had my first scary moment on horseback yesterday. Huey got spooked by someone coming out of the barn while at canter and pushed into a gallop with a little buck, just for a second. It was enough to send me soaring up out of the saddle and I came down hard, leaning way forward and grabbing at his mane. He calmed right down and I was able to regain my balance without falling, but my heart was in my throat. My teacher congratulated me for staying on the horse and attributed that to my balance. I attributed it to good luck and my deep desire not to break my arm or my back or anything else.

Speaking surrogate California family have had a run of bad luck lately, in which Mom has broken both an arm and a leg (by falling off the washing machine in the garage), Dad has had a pacemaker installed and Aunt broke her arm while ice skating. Today I got a call from J, he was in the ER with 5 year-old Wonder Boy -- he broke his arm and dislocated his elbow falling off the monkey bars at kindergarten. I can't tell you how thankful I am that I've avoided this trend.

Sorry, I lied before, there are no rainbows or ice cream in this post. I hope you will forgive me and keep reading.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Breaking the Cycle

Last night I watched the Dateline special about “outsiders”, although it could have been called “Sexual Abuse is Rampant in America”.

The first story was about an Amish girl who was raped more than 100 times by her brothers and cousins. Here’s a good article on the whole awful story. She escaped and prosecuted her brothers and other members of her family who assaulted her, but they got such light sentences it’s almost laughable. In one court appearance the brothers were disputing their sister’s recollections, not of the events in general, but about the number of times they had raped their. Mary said between 100 and 150, they said it’s more like 75 to 100. Are you screaming into your computer yet?

The second story was about the arrest of Warren Jeffs, the so-called prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which has polygamous communities in Arizona, Utah, Texas and Canada. He’s wanted in Arizona and Utah on felony sex charges in connection with polygamous marriages involving minor girls. These girls are expected to produce a baby a year as their “duty” to their husbands, who in almost all cases are 3 or 4 times older than their child brides.

The third story was about a 29-year-old named Ricky “Davidito” Rodriguez, who was born into a group called The Family (aka The Family International, Children of God, or God’s Salvation Church). From The Wave magazine: “Started in the ’60s in Oakland as a community devoted to sexual liberation (they even claimed that sexual relations could exist between adults and children, until public scrutiny forced the group to issue a declaration of condemnation against pedophilia in 1986), the Family promotes awareness of the impending apocalypse in which Family members will lead the battle against Satan as Jesus Christ returns. Today, the Family boasts 8,000 “full-time missionaries” in more than 100 countries. [One of the scariest sentences I've read in a long time.]

Ricky stabbed a Family board member to death before killing himself in an attempt to track down the secret location of his parents. Turns out he wanted to kill them, too, in revenge for raising him amidst alleged rampant sexual abuse. Rodriguez claimed that by the age of nine, he was having daily forced sex with scores of women to prepare him for becoming a group leader. In a video he made the night before the murder, Rodriguez is seen loading bullets into his gun and saying, “Anger does not begin to describe how I feel about these people. I’ve seen how ugly humans can get.”

Being abused changes you. You can rise above it if you are lucky enough to have a good support system and are willing to face the pain of healing, but for some people there is no escape other than to hurt themselves or others.

All this on the heels of the dropping of charges in the JonBenet Ramsey case against the now infamous John Mark Karr. Have you heard the recordings that are allegedly Karr speaking about JonBenet and how it would feel for the killer? Creeeee-py. At least California is willing to prosecute him for the child pornography charges he fled the Bay Area in 2001 to avoid. Where did he go? To Thailand, one of the world’s biggest playgrounds for pedophiles.

Angela Shelton’s words never rang so true: you can’t tell what a person is like or what they’ve been through just by looking at them. This is doubly true for perpetrators. I generally try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but if I had a child, all bets would be off when it came to protecting them.

*sigh* There is still so much work to be done to break the cycles of abuse and sickness that pervade our society.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Roots of Riding

All my family live in Canada, most in BC but there are others sprinkled across Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario as well. I'm one of those people who feel the need to be in contact on a regular basis, with both friends and family (my mother excluded). I'm much better at it than anyone else I know, which is often disappointing. But, it's not about what I get back, it's about what I give. Since riding has become a passion of mine I've been sending pictures and updates and the universal response I've gotten back is "Who knew?". I don't know why this irks me a little. I realize that I wasn't a horse-crazy pre-teen with a poster of Black Beauty above my bed, but I don't think it's so far out of the realm of possibility that I would enjoy horses and riding.

In fact, I come by it quite naturally. I've always been a huge animal lover and always been athletic. My crazy grandparents had horses on their farm in Manitoba and I’m quite sure my paternal grandparents had horses on their sheep farm in Northern Ireland. Here’s a photograph of my aunt Anne at about age 10 standing on the back of Prince, with the mare Jessie in the background. Today she raises Arabians and her daughter also raises and trains horses.

My teacher called this morning to postpone today’s lesson to Wednesday. I’m bummed. I was so looking forward to entering that idyllic place where all my cares vanish as the gates open and I catch my first glimpse of a flick of a tail or hear a whinny in the wind.

According to this site, horses make six basic sounds: snort, squeal, nicker (three different kinds), neigh, roar and blow. Go to the site and listen to all the sounds, they’re fantastic, especially the Ranch Cat and the Turkey.

One thing I’ve already done some research on is going on a vacation that involves riding. I found one in Tuscany called the Centro Ippico della Berardenga (the Riding Center of the Berardenga). Make sure you check out the pictures on their site. For $150 a day you can stay in a renovated farmhouse, take lessons in the morning, a trail ride in the afternoon and spend the evening wandering through the narrow medieval streets of Siena, enjoying a glass of Chianti at its birthplace, the Castello di Brolio (pictured below).

*sigh* A girl can dream, can’t she?

Saturday, August 26, 2006

I Prevail

If you’ve been reading for a while you know that I am an incest and rape survivor. This isn’t something I shout from the rooftops, but I am not ashamed or embarrassed to tell people my story, and when the situation is right, I do. I’ve been reading Angela Shelton’s blog for a while now. If you don’t know who she is, here’s part of your biography from her site:

"At the age of twenty-seven, writer and actress, Angela Shelton, who had already received accolades for her previous movie, Tumbleweeds, set out to create a documentary during the Writer's Strike. Her goal was to survey women in America by interviewing the women who shared her name. She threw a party to raise funds and convinced a crew of four to go on the road for 60 days in a rented motor home.

As Angela started interviewing other Angela Sheltons she found that 70% had been victims of rape, childhood sexual assault and/or domestic violence. This surprising journey also led Angela to confront her own abusive past and her pedophile father on Father's Day. The multi-award winning documentary Searching for Angela Shelton has started a grassroots movement of healing for survivors of abuse of all genders."

This should be shocking: 70% of this random selection of women had been sexually assaulted. Unfortunately, it is not, at least, not to me. Too often when I tell my story, the person either tells me they were also victimized, or at the very least, they know someone who was.

Yesterday I watched the video Angela recently posted on her site of a speaking engagement at NC State University. For a half hour I laughed and cried while she told her story and invited a woman from the audience to tell hers. I highly recommend watching it even if you aren’t an incest or rape survivor. She promotes some very important concepts that we could all use.

You can’t tell just by looking at someone what their background is. If you run into someone who is angry and hateful, they are probably fearful and hurting – show them some love.

Deal with your own stuff and don’t “litter” the world with it.

Tell your story.

Stop hurting yourself. I often ignore the most basic signals my body gives me – I’m hungry – I’m thirsty – I have to pee. Somehow whatever I am doing is more important than taking care of my own needs. I never resorted to cutting or burning, but I’ve been a life-long nail bitter, which is just a more acceptable form of self-mutilation. I’m a lot better than I used to be but I still fidget with my cuticles and often draw blood. I can’t count the times I’ve lain in bed trying to fall asleep while my fingers throbbed, my body trying to heal itself by pushing extra blood to the damaged tissue.

Don’t carry about anger, get it out (in a controlled and safe environment).

If the people who hurt you deny it or it’s affects, you will never be able to change them. Make peace with your relationship with him/her/them and find people who are healing.

Finally, she says -- don’t just survive, prevail.

Photo by Dan Beigel
The Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, Inc.
Annapolis, Maryland

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Book Review & Vocabulary Lesson

I just finished reading Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

Synopsis from Amazon: A sixty-ish Milanese antiquarian bookseller nicknamed Yambo suffers a stroke and loses his memory of everything but the words he has read: poems, scenes from novels, miscellaneous quotations. His wife Paola fills in the bare essentials of his family history, but in order to trigger original memories, Yambo retreats alone to his ancestral home at Solara, a large country house with an improbably intact collection of family papers, books, gramophone records, and photographs. Yambo submerges himself in these artifacts, rereading almost everything he read as a school boy, blazing a meandering, sometimes misguided, often enchanting trail of words. Flares of recognition do come, like "mysterious flames," but these only signal that Yambo remembers something; they do not return that memory to him. It is like being handed a wrapped package, the contents of which he can only guess. Illustrated with the cartoons, sheet music covers, and book jackets that Yambo uncovers in his search, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana can be read as a love letter to literature, a layered excavation of an Italian boyhood of the 1940s, and a sly meditation on human consciousness.

As I mentioned when I started this book, I’m a little embarrassed to admit I didn’t know of the author, although I had heard of “The Name of the Rose”, at least the movie based on the book.

There are a few prominent plot points that are a bit contrived, not the least of which is the fact that the main character is an antique bookseller, and all he can remember is what he’s read. This is a book where very little happens in real time, it’s all back story. After spending a lot of time rummaging through his history and putting together a few important pieces, fate deals him another blow and he isn’t able to do anything with the knowledge that he gains. In this respect the ending of the book is bittersweet, but none of these minor criticisms took away from my enjoyment of this book. I could have done without a rather lengthy discourse on religion and politics in the middle, but I was particularly delighted with the full-color plates of many of the books Yambo discovers that were included, even in the paperback version.

On the first page of the first chapter, as he awakens from a coma, all he can remember are quotes, in particular, quotes about fog, which he has been collecting his entire life. “Where fog hovers between the towers like incense dreaming? A gray city, sad as a tombstone with chrysanthemums, where mist hangs over the facades like tapestries… My soul was wiping the streetcar windows so it could drown in the moving fog of the headlamps. Fog, my uncontaminated sister..."

I was hooked.

I read on the book jacket that Mr. Eco is a university professor of semiotics. If I had known what that meant I would have been better prepared for his writing style. This was the first of many, many words I encountered in this book that were unfamiliar to me. I don’t think I have ever read a book that contained more words I didn’t know, and I consider myself to have a half-decent vocabulary. Not just words that I didn’t know the meaning of, words I had never SEEN before. I kept wishing I had a dictionary on my nightstand, after the first few sessions I should have put one there. After an extremely cursory flip through the book I put together the following list of new words, in no particular order. How many did you know?

Semiotics: a general philosophical theory of signs and symbols that deals especially with their function in both artificially constructed and natural languages and comprises syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics. Um, yeah, that explains things, doesn’t it?

Callipygian: having well-shaped buttocks. "Her gown clung damply to her body, clearly revealing her callipygian curves, and the entire shapely length of her legs." This one is worth remembering for the next time you see Matthew McConaughey.

Plantigrade: of a mammal walking on the soles of the feet like a human or a bear. "By this point, for both Ada and myself, our beloved plantigrade was a painful sight" In reference to a stuffed bear.

Deuteragonist: the person second in importance to the protagonist in a drama. "A deuteragonist in that little drama, I had a moment of doubt."

Proglottidean: from proglottid, each segment in the strobila of a tapeworm containing a complete, sexually mature reproductive system. "My memory is proglottidean, like the tapeworm, but unlike the tapeworm it has no head, it wanders in a maze, and any point may be the beginning or the end of its journey." Isn't it redundant to say your memory is like something, and then use that same something as a synonym? I'm just askin'.

Asphodel: any of several chiefly Mediterranean plants of the genera Asphodeline and Asphodelus in the lily family, having linear leaves and elongate clusters of white, pink, or yellow flowers; in Greek poetry and mythology, the flowers of Hades and the dead, sacred to Persephone. “…Ophelia floating upon a blanket of jonquils, water lilies, and asphodels.” From the context I knew it was a flower, just one I had never heard of, and of course, he's got to get that symbolism in there.

Syncretism: the combination of different forms of belief or practice. “…characters ranging from the maned Lion Men to the Hawk Men and Blue Magic Men of Queen Azura, all of them dressed with an easy syncretism…” In reference to characters in comic books.

Brachycephalic: short-headed or broad-headed with a cephalic index of over 80. “.. a survey of hooked noses and unkempt beards, of piggy, sensual mouths with buckteeth, of brachycephalic skulls and scarred cheekbones…” In reference to images of Jews during wartime.

Baobab: a broad-trunked tropical tree (Adansonia digitata) of the silk-cotton family that is native to Africa and has an edible acidic fruit resembling a gourd and bark used in making paper, cloth, and rope. “…I glimpsed, among the scant vines and the trees that rose at the hill’s edge, a baobab…”

Babirusa: a large wild swine (Babyrousa babyrussa) of Indonesia. “I kept expecting to see a nice babirusa pop out from between the rows of vines, perfect for roasting over a spit…” Again, by the context I knew it was an animal, but one I wasn’t familiar with.

Pulverulent: consisting of or reducible to fine powder; being or looking dusty. “…an attic promises a rather threadbare paradise, where the dead bodies appear in a pulverulent glow…”

Hyperborean: one of a people known to the ancient Greeks, living in a perpetually warm and sunny land north of the source of the north wind; of or relating to the far north; very cold; frigid. “Most of the action takes place on icy seas covered by hyperborean mist.” Once again he throws in that symbolism, for those of you paying attention.

Avolate: to fly away; to escape; to exhale. He doesn’t actually use this in a sentence, its one of a very long list of words he learns from a childhood book, including baccivorous, cacodoxy, cerastes, grangerism, lordkin, pasigraphy and vespillo. Look them all up if you have the time.

And read this book.

New Design

It's finished! I am so happy with the way the design turned out. I had Amy at Quixotic Pixels spruce it up and she did a fantastic job, don't you think?

I have several posts brewing. Work has been crazy and I've been working with Amy on the design, so expect a flurry of posts very soon.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Horsing Around

Yesterday D and I went to our first horse show. It was in an extremely tony area and the rich folks were out in force. At this particular show (what is referred to a hunter/jumper show) they even judge the tack rooms. The farms where the various horses are from put up these amazing portable stalls and tack rooms, at the front of each is a seating area under lovely cabanas, complete with fountains, gorgeous flowering plants and monogrammed directors’ chairs. Some even brought their own sod so the area in front of the cabana would look fresh and green, and put down expensive carpeting under the teak furniture.

The winning farm also used expensive wood (mahogany?) for the individual horse’s tack boxes. You could literally smell the money. There was a huge covered viewing area for sponsors only, but they were nice enough to set up smaller covered bleacher seats for the riff-raff.

Vendors of high-end tack, riding clothes and jewelry were there to take your hard-earned money. I was lusting over a pair of butter-soft Ferragamo riding boots that cost more than most of the shoes in my closet combined. The age range of the competitors was from about 7 to about 55; the smallest children rode ponies. The entire time I kept wishing that I had had the chance to start riding so much earlier in life. Not that I would have necessarily competed, but I wouldn’t still be learning how to trot as good as a 7 year-old.

There has been so much going on in the news lately, and I’ve consciously avoided blogging about it. Partly because this isn’t a political blog, and partly because I don’t want to deal with the fallout from the crazies who troll blogs looking for key words so they can write hate-spam. One of my favorite bloggers, Helen at Everyday Stranger, lives in the UK and heard the news of the arrests of the would-be terrorists hours before we did here in the US. She wrote a post detailing her feelings on travel and her despair at the state of the world. It didn’t take long before part of her post was copied by a widely-read political blogger (who I refuse to link to here) to show the “moonbat” perspective. Of course it was taken out of context, but that didn’t stop the hateful trolls from inundating her comments and email with insults, anti-American rhetoric and even a few death threats. Because of this exchange she was also invited by Fox News America to come on their radio show as a guest to share her perspective, which she bravely did.

This all made me very angry. Not only because I love Helen, but because I strongly feel she has every right to say whatever the hell she wants to say on her own blog without fear of someone threatening to slit her throat. If we all start censoring ourselves, what are we left with? Of course, we all must live with the consequences of our actions, but once again, if you don’t like what you are reading, you’re welcome to leave.

One of my favorite talk-show hosts is a guy from LA named Karel. He’s the first openly gay host on KGO, which is consistently rated the best talk radio station in America. I don’t always agree with everything he says (although I do more often than not) but I do agree with his feelings on the situation in the Middle East. Here’s a link to a recent post of his that says it better than I could.

In unrelated news, I hired a professional blog designer to spruce up these digs a bit. Watch this space for a new, improved design shortly.

Friday, August 11, 2006

One World

Let peace begin with me
Let this be the moment now
With ev'ry breath I take, let this be my solemn vow;
To take each moment and live each moment in peace eternally
Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me

Lyrics by Sy Miller and Bill Jackson

Eiffel Tower through the Peace Monument
Paris, August 2000
Photo Credit: D

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

As Time Goes By

With all due respect to Louis Armstrong, “a kiss is just a kiss” isn’t true in my story. On August 10, 1989 in Ashland, Oregon, I received a kiss that changed my life.

I’ve told the story before…I was in a doomed relationship but had only been married 9 months when I signed on as an instructor for a local marching band in February 1989. As luck would have it, they were going to Vancouver, BC on tour in August and I was terribly homesick, having left the only home I’d ever known the previous summer. D was the drum instructor. I remember the first time I ever saw him, he was on the other side of the practice field, holding hands and walking with one of the girls in the band, which I thought was a little bit odd, frankly, that sort of thing is generally frowned upon.

As the season progressed the staff became closer, as you would expect, but there was no spark between us, at least not coming from my direction. I actually felt a lot closer to J, who was D’s best friend, the band’s director and a fellow instructor. I became a bit of a substitute for his wife K, who was on tour with another group (I had in fact been hired to take her place as an instructor).

My ex (as usual) was totally absorbed in his life, his new job, trying to set up new drug connections for his daily marijuana habit – you know, the important things. So I dove into my role and the new people in my life and quickly discovered that there was a different way of living then I was used to.

When you spend 24/7 with someone in a dynamic that is as intense as a competitive band on tour, bonds are created that go deep. The fact that I got to show off my home town to D and J only made the experience that much richer.

I had made plans before we left to meet my ex in Ashland, a stop on the way home from the Northwest, to spend a weekend. As the rendezvous date approached it became clear that I needed an extra day to work with the band and get them ready for the next competition, which I was going to miss. When I called to tell him I wanted to push the date back by one day he blew up. He called me selfish and basically said, “you be there or else”. Although he’d had his moments in the past, this was the first time he’d actually forbidden me from doing something. This could have been because this was the first time in our 5 year relationship that I’d ever asked for anything! Of course, there had been many times in the past when he’d changed his plans, especially when it came to teaching, sometimes things come up, and he should have been OK with it. He was threatened of my new friends and my autonomy, and in hindsight he had every reason to, although I didn’t know it at the time.

On the drive from Vancouver to Ashland I sat between D and J in the equipment truck. Not exactly the most luxurious or comfortable ride, but something happened in those hours – I felt safe, an equal, something I never felt with my ex.

D carried my suitcase up to the room at the old hotel I would be staying in that night with my ex. He’d been quiet all day and I knew he didn’t want to say good-bye, although I had no idea what was coming. He put down the suitcase, took my face in his hands and said, “I’ve fallen in love with you.” He said a bunch of other stuff too, but that was the gist of it. I was dumbstruck. “I’m married”, I stammered back. We talked for a minute about what we should do about this, a question neither one of us had any answers to, and when we would see each other again. As he turned to go, his face a mask of anguish, he gave me the softest, sweetest kiss I’ve ever received.

As he closed the door behind him I sat down on the bed, my head swirling with confusion and emotion. I honestly don’t remember the fight with my ex or any other details about the rest of that weekend in Ashland.

I’m not proud of the way I acted in the next 5 years. I treated both my ex and D badly in turn, and didn’t do anyone any favors by adamantly refusing to leave the marriage until I had checked off every saving effort available, even though I knew it was inevitable.

D gently steered me into therapy to deal with my abuse issues, and was there for me in my darkest moments, even though I could give him no assurances that we would end up together. I cannot thank him enough.

So, happy anniversary my darling, thanks for waiting. God only knows where I’d be without you.

Jonatha Brooke -- God Only Knows mp3

Diana Krall -- A Case of You (live) mp3

Lyrics by Joni Mitchell (partial)

On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
Oh Canada
And your face sketched on it twice

Oh you are in my blood like holy wine
Oh and you taste so bitter but you taste so sweet
Oh I could drink a case of youI could drink a case of you darling
And I would still be on my feet
Oh Id still be on my feet

Oh I am a lonely painter
I live in a box of paints
I’m frightened by the devil
And I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid
I remember that time that you told me, you said
Love is touching souls
Surely you touched mine
Cause part of you pours out of me
In these lines from time to time

Oh you are in my blood like holy wine
And you taste so bitter but you taste so sweet
Oh I could drink a case of you
I could drink a case of you darling
Still I'd be on my feet
And still be on my feet

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Memoir, Part I

Here's the first installment of my long-awaited memoir. This is my mother's history, or, The Dark Side of the family.

Jan Hra_barczuk was born in January 1904 in Kiev, Ukraine. Then, as now, it was an independent republic, an ancient capital city.

Marja Ja_nik was born in November 1909 in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, (what is now called Slovakia or the Slovak Republic), also an ancient capital city of Central Europe.

Not much is known of their histories, although there is a colorful story regarding my maternal great-grandmother Victoria being stolen by dark-skinned Slavic gypsies as a child because it was thought her rarely seen platinum blonde tresses would bring the troupe luck on their travels. [Incidentally, one of my aunts carries on this family tradition -- the platinum blonde part, not the gypsy or kidnapping part.]

I haven’t been able to uncover the story of how the 800 miles separating them at birth was bridged, how they met or where or when they married. I could ask my mother but she has no interest in speaking about her parents, and I don’t want to listen to why. Custom and culture would almost certainly dictate that they would have married before the birth of their first child, Michal, in November 1929 in Warsaw, Poland, where they were waiting for passage to Canada.

When I first heard the story of their trans-Atlantic crossing I had an image in my head of the type of boat they were on…some god-forsaken ancient freighter filled with rats and starving children. Then I found their immigration record through the Canada archives site, which included the name of the vessel, the Duchess of Bedford, a Canadian Pacific liner, and the fact that they left from Liverpool, England. I have no idea how they got from Warsaw to Liverpool, I can only assume that also was a sea voyage.

Not exactly luxurious, but a far cry from the image in my mind’s eye.

Despite the relative comfort of the crossing, I’ve often thought of how very difficult it would have been to make this journey with a newborn, not speaking the language, having very little money and no support waiting for them at the other end. After a week’s voyage across the Atlantic, Jan, Marja and little Michal became John, Maria and Michael on July 12, 1930 when they arrived in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada. They were 26, 24 and 7 months respectively. The immigration worker also changed the “z” in their last name to an “h”, giving them the characteristic Ukrainian “chuk”.

From the mouth of the St. Lawrence River they traveled by train, settling in Beausejour (French for “good camping ground”), Manitoba, 30 miles northeast of the provincial capital of Winnipeg, with many other Ukrainian immigrants. Today it remains a small farming town, with less than 3,000 residents.

My mother Mary was born in April 1933, to be followed by seven more children, born every two or three years through January 1950, when at 41 my grandmother gave birth to her ninth child, a total of five boys and four girls. This picture is the only one that I know of that shows most of the family except my mother, who, unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately), had already left home. It was taken around 1953.

By all accounts my grandfather was a mean drunk. When one of the older children displeased him in some way, he would choose one of the younger children to beat in their stead, to teach them all a lesson. His children universally hated him; so much so that two of the boys legally changed their names to help rid themselves of his legacy. As the oldest girl my mother bore the brunt of the work of raising the younger children as well as chores around the farm. She also bore the brunt of her father’s rage and sexual appetite, forced to participate in an on-going drinking game in which her father and one of his friends would rape each other’s daughters. He was particularly vicious to my mother’s younger sister Anne and threatened to kill her on various occasions. When she was 16 two of her brothers conspired to spirit her out of the house in the middle of the night and put her on a train to BC and the safety of my parents’ home.

My grandfather died on his farm in October 1976 at the age of 72, probably from a combination of ailments brought on by years of alcoholism. Many of his children, including my mother, did not attend his funeral. My aunt Anne told me recently the only reason she went was to see for herself that “the bastard was dead.”

To my knowledge neither of my grandparents ever learned to speak English fluently. By the end of her life my grandmother was speaking a garbled mix of Polish, Ukrainian and Czech that exactly two people on earth could understand. I never met my grandfather, and met my grandmother only once as a teenager.

I thought at the time she looked like the classic Babooshka on a vodka label. She steadfastly refused to leave the farm until the day she died in March 1991 at the age of 82. One of her sons had continually lived with her since my grandfather’s death, to keep the farm running.

Several of my aunts and uncles are still living in and around Winnipeg, which I visited once when I was too young to remember much of anything. The family was close with Michael and with Anne, the only other sibling who managed to escape to another province. All the brothers and sisters are now estranged; there is just too much history they all want to forget. My uncle Michael passed away in 1994, a lifelong batchelor and railway man. My mother has a shrine to him in her living room, right next to the one to my brother.

Despite the fact that my mother (I believe) suffers from NPD, she hardly ever spoke of her childhood and the horrors she endured. Little bits of stories would come out as examples of really bad situations, in contrast to whatever we were complaining about, my pain trumps your pain every time, so shut up and suck it up. She also forbade any books or TV shows regarding the Holocaust, which did nothing except fuel my interest. To this day I will choose Hitler or Stalin over Seinfeld any day. I haven’t been able to find any link of any kind to a relative or family friend having been involved on either side, although it’s certainly plausible. Perhaps there is a shred of humanity inside her somewhere after all, or perhaps there is something so horrible in her history she cannot bear to revisit even the ghost of remembrance. I’ll probably never know. I do know that she created a dynamic in our house that fostered and allowed inappropriate and damaging sexual behavior by all of its inhabitants.