by Marika Washchyshyn
We almost missed the sign that announced our arrival to Vizhomlya, a tiny village 31 miles due west of Lviv, Ukraine. Our driver, Stepan, coaxed his 20-seater mini-bus in and out of gravelly, pothole-ridden roads, pulling over so my family members could take a photo with the demarcation.
We were home.
Something buzzed throughout our group as we stood beneath the village limits sign, something caught between anticipation and anxiety. What would the village look like? Would cousins and uncles and aunts remember my father and uncle, who had made the journey almost a decade ago? Would my young niece and nephew handle the lack of sophisticated plumbing we were sure to encounter?
We made small talk, snapped a photo, and got back on the bus to head to the church, the epicenter of Ukrainian village life.
My paternal grandparents, Hryhoriy (Gregory) and Olena (Helen) Washchyshyn, or as I knew them, dido and baba, emigrated to Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada in 1948. They were part of the great western expansion which brought many peasants from war-torn Eastern Europe to the prairies to further settle the country. In their stead came my aunts, aged 10 and 7, and uncle, aged 3. My father would be born two years later, in 1950.
My family settled in Toronto, Ontario, while my uncle’s brood made a home in Winnipeg, Manitoba. No one from my immediate family would visit our homeland for 62 years, long after both my grandparents had passed. The memories of the war were too painful for my aunts, and my father and uncle found other excuses to delay the trip – families, work, distance. They had listened to tapes of my baba’s life story and shared them with the family, and for awhile, that had been enough.
But finally, in 2010, my parents and my uncle and his wife joined a tour group in search of their roots and their culture. They never dreamed they would stumble upon first cousins when they sought out the little village where our family’s lives began.
During that first visit to Vizhomlya, they stopped at the church as Sunday mass was letting out. Churches were, for centuries (and remain so), the heartbeat of Ukrainian villages. It’s not just where weddings, baptisms, and funerals are celebrated, but where village records, notices, and announcements are recorded. Thousands of churches were destroyed leading up to and during the war as an act of ethnic cleansing. The old church in Vizhomlya still stood, while alongside it a new one was being built. On its donor wall, the name Washchyshyn flashed frequently.
“You are Washchyshyns?” a churchgoer asked my father and uncle. “I am a Washchyshyn. I will take you to the others.”
My parents and aunt and uncle were shuttled from house to house, meal to meal, as cousins and second cousins came out of the woodwork to greet family from Canada. One cousin even pulled out a tattered photograph of my aunts – my father’s two older sisters – and my baba and dido from her wallet, saying: “I’ve been waiting for you to come find us.”
With full bellies and not a dry eye in the crowd, my family departed the village and vowed to return. Seven years later, they kept that promise.
Thirteen of us, including three generations of my family, had planned for many months to make the pilgrimage to Ukraine. When close friends invited us to celebrate their wedding in Lviv this summer, we didn’t hesitate to plan the family reunion.
We got off the bus at the church, and immediately, memories came flooding back to my parents and uncle and aunt. They pointed out the newly constructed church, now finished, and told stories of where my grandparents entered the old church, now approximately 450 years old, on their wedding day. The priest showed us the same donor wall, laden with Washchyshyns, and proudly showed us the new church. We sang a prayer, most of us coming undone at the gravity of standing where dido married baba.
My second cousin Ihor and his family were waiting for us this time. Ihor, my grandfather’s brother’s grandson, is the spitting image of my eldest aunt’s son. I had seen it in photos, but laughed out loud in person – no doubt, these were our relatives.
Ihor’s wife, Olya, presented all of the women in our family with welcome gifts. Each side of our family, my father’s and my uncle’s, received a beautifully hand-beaded and embroidered cloth – a rushnyk – traditionally used in religious ceremonies. I attempted, rather unsuccessfully, to muffle my sobs as Olya handed me one of the rushnyky, knowing full well that, someday, her handiwork would have a place in my wedding ceremony. Olya and Ihor’s granddaughter, eight-year-old Yana, wore her best dress and handed gifts to my niece and nephew, aged 9 and 12.
With the exception of organizing a group photo, we regarded it mostly in silence. It was enough to just try our best to take it all in, the feeling ineffable.
I had never been to Ukraine until this summer, but not for lack of wanting. Over the years, many friends had made trips to attend camp, to watch Euro Cup soccer matches, to to teach English. In 2003, I had an opportunity to tour with my dance troupe, but thought I wouldn’t appreciate it; I thank my insightful 13-year-old self everyday for stalling. Having my parents and my closest family there, with my English-Irish-Canadian boyfriend by my side, learning toasts and taking the ‘when is your wedding?’ barrage in stride, was the only way I wanted to make that first trip.
Life has a funny way of letting you know when the timing is right for you to do that thing, take that trip, feel that feeling. As we walked into Cousin Zenia’s yard, geese squawking, dogs barking, chickens running willy-nilly around the house, my terrified niece’s hand cutting circulation off from mine, I chuckled, and knew this was mine.
Though life goes on, Vizhomlya and its villagers seems frozen in time. Zenia fetches water from a well and boasts about the goose she killed just that morning to provide her guests of honor with fresh liver pate. Tatiana Stech, from another branch of the family, spots me wandering through Zenia’s garden and pleads with me from next door to bring the family over to her house – she was unintentionally skipped seven years ago, though she remembers it like yesterday. Ihor, Olya, and the younger generations have moved on to cities like Yavoriv to the north or Lviv to the east, village life having little to offer them.
But some stay, like Maryna, the matriarch of the family, whose ailments have kept her mostly sequestered to her tiny compound with only her dog, Fluffy, as company. Yet despite her weariness, the nonagenarian skips like a schoolgirl and smiles a wide, toothless grin when she sees our convoy approaching. Her mind is sharp as she reconnects with my father and uncle and hugs every one of us like we were her own children.
I could feel Maryna’s heart breaking as she watched our bus retreat down another downtrodden path, quite convinced she would not live to see us visit again.
“They’re so poor,” she notes, not in disgust but in awe. Though my life was nothing like this growing up, I can remember simpler times that this generation will never know. It was refreshing to not only experience that realization myself, but to see it sink in with the kids, too.
More stories were shared, and more gifts were given. The children were especially fawned over. There wasn’t a house we went to where the newest generation wasn’t gifted sweets or enveloped in a wrinkling arms’ embrace; perhaps an unwillingness to let go, to see us return to our privileged lives, to risk losing the new-found family connections.
By sheer luck, my dido’s branch of the family were the lucky ones; with just two young children to his favorite brother’s six, my dido was able to escape the war and start a new life – a new life that, as generations grow older, will have much more opportunity, much more mobility, than our cousins in Ukraine. How do you accept your lot in life without feeling guilty? I expected to feel that way, but what I didn’t expect was their sheer happiness to share whatever they had with us that short, magnificent day. They weren’t jealous, bitter, or sad. They were welcoming, loving, and happy.
Are they the lucky ones?
I almost wanted to miss the flight coming home two weeks later. And yet, stepping off the gangway in Toronto brought that familiar comfort of being back where you belong, knowing much better where you originally came from.
We were home.