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.