The Parcel from Chicken Street and Other Stories
IT’S DIFFICULT to put a precise date on when I first met Ludmilla Bereshko. It seems as though I had always known her, ever since I came to Canada, and yet, despite the fact that I saw her frequently enough in the neighborhood, often listened to her, and even read some of the letters she received from home, I can’t truthfully say to you that I ever really got to know her, in any personal sort of way. She was tall and not at all fat, and she had a wrinkled face. Though she often expressed her gratitude to Canada for taking her in, she couldn’t entirely adopt North American habits of food and dress, and went about summer and winter with a kerchief around her head. Ludmilla often railed against the behaviour of priests and politicians, but never ventured out of the house without a little bottle of ‘blessed’ water and made sure to vote whenever she had to for it was important to exercise her ‘democratic rights,’ as she called them. Ludmilla said she couldn’t wait to die, yet she refused to travel by metro because she insisted she would be in that dark eternity under the ground soon enough, and so it was better to see as much of the sky and sun while there was still the chance.
When Ludmilla wasn’t hard at work, her favourite pastime was talking to anyone who would listen. She spoke about life in Ukraine, life in the new world, and the people she knew, back there, and now here, emigres, exiles, and refugees like herself. Sometimes her stories reached such moments, that in my youth I tended to think what I was hearing was all a touch surreal; however, the fact is that whenever I talked to others, at church bazaars and weddings, similar sorts of things would come out. Eventually, I began to comprehend a little of what they were saying. It should be pointed out though, that whenever Ludmilla told a tale, it was done in a very modest way, with a sense of resignation perhaps, but always with a tone of tolerance and sympathy to others no matter what. But I must admit, what she described often did upset me.
It is Ludmilla Bereshko’s anecdotes then, and at times those of other people, that form the basis of these stories. Even though I often got to hear her opinion on world affairs, and hear her express compassion for those living in troubled spots on the globe, the focus here is on a handful of families—parents and children, who arrived in Montreal after World War II, just as Ludmilla Bereshko had and whom she knew in one way or another. Some were Galicians, like Omelko Budka and Tetiana Bahriy. These people had come from Ukrainian lands which had been until the war under Polish rule, and thereafter under Soviet domination. Some of the others, like Semmen Syrovatka and Ludmilla Bereshko herself, had come from the Eastern parts of Ukraine which had been incorporated into the Soviet Empire in earlier days.
Though these are, it’s true, Ludmilla’s tales, I have had to add to them here and there. So be sure it is I that you blame for the shortcomings you find here and not the wonderful Ludmilla Bereshko or those other venerable souls I mentioned earlier. Also, I recognize myself that many voices in these stories are marred by mistranslation, and, in addition, by my partial understanding of what these people really endured in their lives.
Perhaps a brief biographical sketch about Ludmilla Bereshko would be helpful. She was born on the banks of the Dnipro River, some time around the first revolution, either in 1905 or 1909, into a khliborob family—people who plant and harvest wheat. Circumstances were such that she did receive some schooling. Therefore, she knew both the country and the city. Of course, travelling across half the world during the war taught her more about all that too. She also knew the years of fear and terror— forced collectivization, deportation, and the artificial famine of 1933. Shortly after came more terror with the German occupation of Ukraine, when she was taken into forced labour in Austria. She never saw her husband or sons again and was never able to find out if they were dead or alive. They seemed to have disappeared without a trace. In Canada she married again, to Mykola Haydchuk, though not legally.
“Zhyttia hirke, ale treba zhyty,” Ludmilla often said to me. Life is bitter, but one has to live. She sighed a good deal, that’s true, but I noticed and appreciated quite an interesting quality she had. In admiring the beauty of vegetables, flowers, trees, or a pleasant day, she always managed to find a sunny spot for herself, and though she wasn’t really left with that much more than she came into the world with, she continued to retain an unselfish love for everyone and everything.
I should add that her real name was Bereschenko. That was her first husband’s name. She herself was born Ludmilla Vasylivna Storchak. People with long names, however, will understand her situation immediately. Documents, bills of all kinds, application forms—everything seemed to arrive with a letter missing here, two or three there, and no one could ever pronounce her name correctly. What usually came out was something like Bereshko. What could she do? If this was easier, so be it. That was how she became Ludmilla Bereshko, although her own continued to call her Baba Bereschenko.
I so much enjoyed visiting Ludmilla, at first in her small house in Rosemount and later when she was forced to move to her trailer near Beauharnois. I was always greeted with open arms, a fresh poppy seed cake, and a pot of mint tea. Such a cheerful trailer it was too, with embroidered cushions on her bench, on the wall above her table a huge picture of Taras Shevchenko which she had cut out of a calendar and framed, more plants than you can find in a greenhouse, and always on her little stove a pot of steaming borscht or cabbage soup. Nevertheless, she did often say to me that it was so far out of the way, she rarely got to see people any more. Still, Ludmilla had so much to show me whenever I arrived—the state of her garden, photographs from relatives, letters, caster eggs she was working on, or newspaper articles about the situation at home. And it was while I was examining all these things that she talked to me about vse i vsia, as they say, everything under the sun.
But despite all these fine moments, one could not say that Ludmilla Bereshko had been born under a lucky star. Imagine for a moment the shock that must have greeted her when on the day of her husband, Mykola Haydchuk’s funeral she discovered that the title to the house in Rosemount (which was in his name, but which she had paid for too, by cleaning houses) was now going to Haydchuk’s grown children in the USSR. Ludmilla contested this situation, although she did say that only God himself perhaps really knew the extent of anguish and pain that for all these years must have wracked old Haydchuk, unable as he was to help his children properly or ever to return to his native land. In the end, the court decided that she should be entitled to half of the money that came from the sale of the house.
It turned out to be little. The legal costs had to be covered by her. A cheque did go to a Soviet official. Soon after she received a letter from Haydchuk’s sister in Ukraine who indicated dismay at what had happened and stated that for some reason not a great deal had ended up coming their way. Had it been worth it selling a house for such small gain and so much trouble?
One other question you might have for me is why I bothered to write down some of the things Ludmilla told me. I suppose the answer is that I can’t seem to forget the sad eyes and gestures of such people as Ludmilla Bereshko, her humility, and the fact that I never really heard her complain about her life. Whenever I said to her, and to so many of the others, “You’ve lived through so much,” the answer I always received was, “Others have endured more.”
Unfortunately, there is no way I can guarantee that these stories will entertain you. At most I can only hope that you will find a little bit of something here to amuse you. It would be nice if I could welcome you with bread and salt, as is the custom of my ancestors, but the best I can do is to familiarize you with a saying that is connected with this tradition: siisia, rodysia, zhyto,pshenytsia ta vsiaka pashnytsia! Let yourselves be sown, rye, wheat, all kinds of grain! Spring forth!