The Dying of Old Dreams

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My Irish grandfather came to Canada from Northern Ireland so he would “no longer have to carry a pistol in his pocket.”

He had joined the Orange Order in Ireland. He told me that he was the youngest member who had been inducted into the order. In Ireland, the Order was a political and military power. When I was a young boy living in Gimli, Manitoba people knew about the Orangemen but, nowadays,in North America, the name doesn’t mean anything to most people.

The Orange Order was founded in 1795. Its purpose was to protect and support the Protestant faith and, also, to protect Protestant privilege.

When I was growing up, once a year on Orangeman’s day, my mother and brother, my grandmother and I, would stand on Main Street in Winnipeg to watch my grandfather march by. Parades are always exciting for children. To me, it wasn’t any different from watching the Santa Clause parade at Christmas. There were the fifes and drums, the kilts, the colorful banners and, for a moment, my grandfather marching past wearing his sash.

At the head of the parade there was a man in a red coat, wearing a white wig and riding a white horse. Everyone applauded as King Billy rode past. After the parade was over, we went to a local park for a family picnic. There always was a stage from which some men made speeches but none of us ever sat close enough to hear what was said. We were more interested in potato salad, chicken, green salad, apple pie, and lemonade. The men’s drinks often had a bit of whiskey added to the lemonade.

I never thought to ask who King Billy was or why he led the parade. Or why, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, we were applauding a man on a white horse. Once the day was over, my grandfather put away his sash until it was used the following year.

In Northern Ireland and Scotland, King Billy was revered by the protestant population because in 1688, he invaded England, got rid of the Catholic king James II and became the king of England, Scotland and Ireland.

My grandfather often praised the Battle of the Boyne but, again, no one explained what it was or its historical importance. Or why two armies were fighting.

The Catholics were fighting for Irish sovereignty, toleration for their faith and the right to own land. When Cromwell (two of my ancestors were officers in his invading army) conquered Ireland, he took the land away from the Catholic upper classes and redistributed among his followers, including those two ancestors. He also took away a Catholic’s right to hold public office, practice Catholicism or be elected to Parliament.

From this distant perspective, Cromwell’s behaviour seems excessive and just about guaranteed rebellion. If someone came along and said I’m taking your house, you can’t be Lutheran anymore, and you can’t hold any political office, I expect that I’d be rebellious. However, much more was afoot. There were Catholic ambitions in France. There were previous conflicts in which people had been slaughtered. Everything comes with a history.

Nobody told me any of this. All I ever heard from my grandmother was that there was a book in Ireland with a hand written account of our family, that said that one of the two brothers who came with Cromwell thought so little of the land he was given that he traded it for a fighting cock (rooster) and went back to Scotland. The brother who stayed is the Irish-Scot who founded my mother’s family.

But no one ever mentioned Cromwell and, I, for my part, living in Gimli, Manitoba in the 1940s and 50’s despised history because all we seemed to do was memorize the dates and names of England’s kings and queens. The town was predominately Icelandic surrounded by Ukrainians with a few Germans and Poles. We lived a hardscrabble life. The area was the poorest in Canada except for Newfoundland. When we heard any history at home or on the street, it was Icelandic and Ukrainian and those stories were nearly always about the tragedies and triumphs of our fairly recent immigration. Nobody cared about or knew about the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Nobody cared about the Orangemen. It wasn’t our circus and they weren’t our monkeys. Well, it was our family’s circus a bit and we were monkeys in this circus, but we were barely on stage.

The only Irish elements in my life were my grandparents’ thick accents, the occasional Irish lottery tickets (which were illegal), the annual parade and my grandfather, if he’d had a few drinks, declaring “Down with the Pope.” But there, too, no one bothered to explain who the pope was. There was no TV in those days. Radio news didn’t provide any clues as to who he might be. In any case, I was much more interested in rushing home from school at noon hour to hear the beginning of The Happy Gang and to have soup and a sandwich before I rushed back to school to kick around a soccer ball.

As well, I had good friends in Gimli who were Catholic. We went to school together, we played together, we shared holiday meals like Christmas and New Year’s and we went to each other’s birthdays. If someone had said that Catholics should have houses taken away from them or that they had no right to go to church or be on the town council, I would have thought that person was a monster.

Over the years, the Orange parades, once long, became short, the young men became old men and, gradually, there were fewer and fewer of them. King Billy’s soldiers were conquered by age and by the fact that Ireland’s conflicts weren’t Manitoba’s conflicts. The present gradually pushed aside the past. Public schooling can take a lot of the credit for that. Play on a hockey team, curling team, soccer team, baseball team, sit beside someone all day in the classroom, get crushes on the opposite sex, go to dances together, it all helped make the present matter and the past largely irrelevant for my generation.

There have been attempts to hang onto vestiges of the past. Romantic nostalgia. In Gimli, we’ve had decades and decades of the Islendingadagurinn that became the Icelandic Celebration that became the Icelandic Festival and which will probably morf into the Gimli cultural festival or the pickerel festival and be more concerned about bringing business into town than preserving an Icelandic heritage. It’s harder and harder to get volunteers. A lot of people are like me, a mongrel: half Irish, three eighths Icelandic, one eighth English.

The same is  happening to the descendents of the Ukrainians, Poles and Germans.

The Northern Irish were assimilated quickly, became part of the mainstream. When my grandfather came to Winnipeg, his accent got him a job at Eaton’s. Those days are long gone. Eaton’s, once a powerhouse, is long gone. Companies are often multi-national with employees posted around the world.

Time betrayed my grandfather as it betrays us all. Gout kept him from marching and then there were no marches, no fifes and drums, no King Billy on a white horse.

It’s not just the Irish, of course. The people of Icelandic descent in what is called New Iceland who are FBis (full blooded Icelanders) grow fewer and fewer. Our children marry people from every tribe and race. The world has grown smaller with immigration and travel. We live in a society divided by classes determined by money but not so much by ethnicity or history. The conflict in the Middle East with people murdering each other over differing views of how the world was created or what clothes women should wear seems like something from Medieval Times but it wasn’t so long ago that my ancestors were murdering and being murdered by their neighbours.

It’s interesting and amusing to know that somewhere in the distant past, one of my Irish relatives is supposed to have led King Billy across the Boyne River, that relatives fought with Cromwell but it is irrelevant to my daily life. I’m more concerned nowadays with global warming, with conflict in the Ukraine, with conflict in the Middle East, with the price of oil, with drug dealling, with the stock market, with the degradation of the environment, with poverty in our society.

This is the circus in which I perform every day.

Laxness and the Holdomor

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Chapter 9

When I was a kid, my father took us to Seven Sister’s Falls. There’s the hydro dam, the river, islands, we went for a hike, had a picnic lunch, but what I remembered most about that trip was that because it had rained heavily the previous two days, there was a lot of erosion on the trail on which we walked. My father, never one to miss a chance at educating us, stooped down, signaled with his finger for us to squat beside him to study something on the ground. It was a fragment of pottery.

“Aboriginal,” he said. He picked it up, turned it over in his hand, then gave it to us to hold. He told us not to move. Where there was one piece of broken pottery, there would be more. We squatted there, studying the eroded trail and quickly found half-a-dozen pieces. Before we were finished looking we had pockets full of shards. “Black Duck pottery,” he explained. “This was a major trading spot. Lots went on here.”

When we got home, we managed to fit some of the pieces together. We Crazy Glued them together and I wished that we had searched for more, enough that we could actually see what the pot had looked like. Later, when I had my driver’s license, I went back and added to my stash of shards, always trying to get enough to see the vessel’s shape and the pattern that had been cut into the clay.

In my investigations, I also found ten stone arrowheads. I mounted those in a shallow box.

When I’d bring the pieces home, my father would nod and smile but always ask, “What do they tell you? What information do they contain?” What information do things contain? What can we learn about native culture from the fragments left behind? Objects aren’t just objects, he’d say. They contain large amounts of information. He taught me the same about writing. If you put a brass ring or a gold ring in your poem what story does it tell? Any time I showed him a story, a poem or an article, he always hi-lighted the objects. Beside them he’d add “Connotation? What is the story of this object?”

I used this advice in looking for stories for my book. A large, circular stone on a farm, something I hadn’t seen before, turned out to have been used for grinding grain. It now sat on the ground, nearly hidden by grass and weeds but, after asking, discovered it had been so precious that the original farmer carried it on his back for thirty miles. Not all at once but because it was so heavy, a little at time. It meant his wife could grind their grain without their having to go all the way to town and pay to have the grain ground.

A straight handled scythe nearly hidden in the corner of an unused barn had a blade brought from Bukovina, had been carried by foot, by train, by ship, by train again, by wagon, to sixty acres of bush in the Interlake. It’s handle was made from local ash. A pole cut from birch with a handmade chisel head lay in a shed on what had been an Icelandic farm close to the lake. The chisel head had been pounded into shape by a blacksmith’s hammer. The blows of the hammer could be seen in the metal. Winter fishing, before motors, before automatic drills, required men to chisel through four feet or more of ice. When the Icelanders came to the Interlake, they had no experience fishing through the ice. They had fished the ocean for cod. Everything had to be learned, everything had to be imagined and made. The owner of the chisel had taken a dog sled of frozen fish to Gimli, traded them to a blacksmith who fashioned the heads of three different kinds of chisels, then took his dog sled along the lake, around cracks and pressure ridges.

My father was right. Every object, no matter how humble, had a story. Kings and Queens, the rich, the one percent, kept gold, diamonds, precious jewels, art by famous artists. The people of the Interlake, at one time the second poorest area in Canada next to Newfoundland, found different items precious.

Dmytro brought out a squirrel skin and put it on the table. I picked it up. The skin was like parchment.

“It is a reminder,” he said. “When we get too proud, we bring it out. When the children used to complain about not having something, we’d bring it out.”

I put the squirrel skin back on the table. Dmytro picked it up in his left hand and gently stroked it with his right.

“When my great grandparents came, there was no help in desperate times. English people could get welfare but if you were an alien and you asked for the five dollars a month, you would be deported. Your children were crying with hunger but you did not dare ask for help because you would be shipped back to Ukraine. Cows and horses could feed themselves on grass. Why not Ukrianians?”

He ran his hand gently over the fur.

“Every time I see a squirrel, I say thank you,” he said. “When there was nothing, my great grandfather borrowed a twenty-two single shot. He managed to buy some bullets. He’d heard that the store would buy squirrel skins. He’d been in the army and was a good shot. He and his brother shot squirrels all winter. They ate the squirrels and sold the furs. The price of squirrel skins went up all that winter. They paid for groceries and lamp oil and shoes.”

“Did they show Laxness this squirrel skin?” I asked.

“No,” Dmytro said, “it was Natalie’s family who had Laxness as a guest. They showed him something else.”

Dmytro took away the squirrel skin and when he returned, he was carrying a baseball bat. I thought I would hear a story about how popular baseball had been locally. I’d seen pictures of the local teams. They had a league and walked or rode in wagons from village to village. Schools had baseball diamonds. Teams played baseball at community picnics.

Dmytro laid the baseball bat on the table.  It lay there, it’s wood gray with age.

“These were special baseball bats,” Natalie said. “The rich people in Winnipeg gave them to the special police they hired to beat the strikers in Winnipeg.”

I had been going to pick up the bat but I stopped, withdrew my hand, and clenched my fingers. The bat suddenly felt that it might have been made of poison oak.

“During the war, there was a shortage of men to work in the factories. Swift Meatpacking advertised for men. Peter walked to Winnipeg. It was a hard job but it meant regular money. When the soldiers came back, they thought they would be heroes. They had lived through hell in the trenches. The war was over. The war factories were shutting down. There was lots of unemployment. The soldiers said it was the fault of the aliens, the bohunks, the Bolsheviks. They marched to the Swift plant and demanded that the aliens be fired. They attacked businesses run by Europeans. They smashed their equipment. They burnt the piano and the books from the socialist office.” She stopped and took a deep breath. The baseball bat lay like a dark stain on the table. It had been passed down four generations.

Valdi had sat silent. Now, he looked up from the bat and said, “You will need to read lots about this. It is not just a Winnipeg story. It affected everybody.” He shook himself like he was awakening. “The strike was between the English workers and the English rich people who owned businesses. The English workers rebelled at being paid badly, treated badly. Inflation had suddenly gone crazy and people were seeing everything they made being stolen at the cash register. Goods up forty, fifty, sixty percent.”

“Like now,” Natalie said. “I wanted to make stuffed peppers. Peppers used to be ninety-eight cents a pound. Now, they are three dollars and ninety-eight cents. A chocolate bar is the same price but is twenty-five percent smaller.”

“The rich English in Silver Heights controlled everything. Thirty thousand people went on strike. Telephone operators. Electricians. The police didn’t go on strike but they wouldn’t sign an agreement saying they wouldn’t so they were fired. The rich panicked. They hired eighteen hundred thugs and gave them baseball bats like this. They attacked men and women. The Mounties were on horses. You want a raise? You want better working conditions? You want to be treated with respect? We will give you a lesson with these baseball bats.,” Dmytro said. “The mounties had guns. They shot and killed two men. We know who they work for.”

Natalie had been listening, watching him, her face concerned. Now, she added, “Peter was downtown. He’d gone to see what was going on. But he had to be careful. If the veterans noticed he was an alien, they would hit him and threaten him. They’d make him get on his knees and crawl and pledge allegiance to the Queen. Suddenly, the mounties attacked and the special police who weren’t police at all but criminals, many hired from Minneapolis. They attacked the protestors, hitting them with baseball bats. They drove people into sidestreets and trapped them there so they couldn’t escape. Then they beat them. Broken bones, broken heads. One attacked Peter. My great grandfather wasn’t big but he was strong. He got this baseball bat away from this special constable and used it on him. The others saw him with a bat and thought he was one of them. He gave them a surprise. He broke some of their heads before he got away.”

“You think there is much difference between those rich English in Winnipeg and the oligarchs in Russia today? Did you watch the Olympics in Sochi?” I said I did and Natalie, said, “Did you see the Cossacks beating the women in Pussy Riot? Do you think rich people in Winnipeg in nineteen nineteen and Russia today are any different? Oligarchs yesterday were no different than oligarchs today.”

I was staring at the baseball bat. If it had turned into a rattlesnake and raised its head to strike, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

“Did they show Laxness this baseball bat?” I asked.

“Yes,” Natalie said. “They gave it to him to hold. They described the peaceful strikers, no violence. The strikers even arranged for bread and milk to continue to be delivered. They asked the police to remain on duty. They told him about the two men shot and killed. Twenty-eight more wounded. Why? Because they didn’t come to Canada to work fourteen and sixteen hour days for not enough money to live on.”

“And us aliens,” Dmytro said, and it was like he spit out the word, “the capitalist owners hated us, the strikers hated us, the soldiers hated us. The railways wanted us so the owners could get rich but they wanted us to make them rich in silence. No complaining. Many who protested against the way they were treated were deported.”

“Like the Chinese,” Valdi added. “Except for them, it was worse.”

“Yes,” Dmytro said with a bitter smile. “It is good we have the Chinese. It’s always good to know you were not treated the worst.”

We were sitting in the Romanyuk’s kitchen under a picture of Natalie’s great great grandmother. Her photograph had been taken at the railway station in Selkirk, Manitoba. She is standing with two other women, a young man and two children. There is a stack of trunks, bags and bedrolls. The women are wearing babushkas, blouses with wide sleeves, long, dark skirts but it is impossible to say what color they are because the picture is in black and white. One of the women is wearing a long, embroidered vest. They are all laughing.

After Dmytro’s statement about the Chinese, we were silent. It was like a barrier had gone up, no one could talk about the baseball bat on the table anymore. Dmytro stood up, took the bat and said, “Years later it was used for baseball. When they hit the ball, they pretended it was the head of a special constable.”

As he went to put the bat away, I asked about the picture of Domka. I could see why the photographer would have taken her picture. She was young, beautiful, laughing, exotic. Natalie said it had been published in a newspaper and someone had given Domka a copy. It had been passed down the family along with the story that her great great grandmother, when she was in her eighties, had said when they looked at the picture, “This was the last time I laughed for many years.” Domka had not yet gone by boat to Gimli, not yet walked through the agony of black clouds of mosquitoes, not waded through swamps and hiked over gravel ridges to a dugout with a roof made of saplings and bulrushes.

Years later when Laxness and Valdi’s father had stumbled through the door of Domka and Peter’s house, there was a door to stumble through, whitewashed walls, a stove, benches for sitting and sleeping on, a shanty barn for the stock, chickens, a garden that was in the process of being drowned by days of relentless rain.

“This Laxness was unhappy that his clothes were ruined with mud. He said he didn’t mind being wet. In Iceland, he was always wet,” Natalie said.

“Clothes were very important to him. He would spend money on expensive clothes even if he then had nothing to eat,” I said.

“He was fortunate,” Dmytro added as he came back into the room, “because the hens were laying. They were able to give him two eggs for his breakfast and the end of a loaf of bread. A few years before he would have got some rabbit bones to suck on.”

“He was going to be a big shot in the movies,” Natalie said. “Rich in Hollywood. Did he become rich in Hollywood?”

“No,” I answered. “Many Icelanders went to Hollywood. Everybody wanted to be a movie star. Most became carpenters or chauffeurs or unemployed. It was dream city.”

“Ukrainians, too. Broken dream city,”Dmytro said and I thought about my own dreams, dreams I didn’t talk about, dreams beyond getting a better teaching job, dreams of writing successful novels, having them turned into movies, making enough money to live on, being a star instead of a high school teacher who was publishing stories and articles in magazines that didn’t pay anything except two copies of the magazine. You can’t eat magazines, not even with lots of catsup my wife, Jasmine, had said. She thought we should spend all our spare time dancing. You work all the time, she said. The ant and the grasshopper, she said, don’t make a happy couple.

“Why did he come here?” Natalie asked.

“No one knows for sure,” I answered. “Maye he thought he could borrow money from these immigrants who had come to the land of plenty. He borrowed money everywhere. He didn’t think of it as a loan to be paid back. It was an investment in his talent. His job was to write and it was up to others to support him.”

“It was a strange place to come for money,” Dmytro said, shaking his head. “Everyone here was poor. Many farmers lived in shacks. They raised their crops. The fishermen lived in shacks. They caught fish. When my father was a boy, the fishermen used to come with sacks of frozen fish in winter. They wanted to trade for anything the farmers had. Cream, butter, eggs, vegetables, meat. He remembered them coming to the door. Frost on their beards and moustaches. Wrapped in coats and scarves, coming with a horse and sleigh. He remembered them saying to his mother, ‘Missus, you want to trade for fish?’ Sometimes my father had a quarter of a deer to trade. They sometimes had scurvy because they didn’t know to eat vegetables.”

We all fell silent again. We sipped our coffee and tea. I helped myself to another piece of poppy seed cake with white icing. I wondered if Natalie might offer to give me a slice to take home. My ex-wife would never have made a poppy seed cake. It would mean she was being exploited. I had negotiated some things with her, if you do this, I’ll do that. It proved to be too aggravating. It was easier for me to do t hem myself. I hadn’t made poppy seed cake but I knew how to make chocolate cake and bundt cake. Jasmine had not objection to eating t hem after I’d made them. As she chowed down on a third slice of bundt cake, she didn’t say, see you’ve just allowed yourself to be exploited. However, I think when she went to bed at night and while she was lying in the dark, she added up all her points for the day to see if she’d won. After a while I began to feel exploited, and I was less interested in watching her dance in her harem pants. Who would have thought bundt cake could get in the way of sex?

“The Winnipeg General Strike,” Valdi said. It was like we had tried to put away the topic with the baseball bat. Left to ourselves, we would probably have talked about hockey or farming.

“War isn’t bad for everybody,” Dmytro said. “Poor people’s husbands and sons get the front line. They get killed. The smart guys, the connected guys, the guys with friends in Ottawa don’t get killed. They make lots of money. In Winnipeg, the factory owners loved the war. They never wanted it to stop. They got rich on government contracts. The government helped them get rich. They passed a law against pay raises but not against raising the price of what they made. More and more profits as they raised prices with no more expenses. Good Anglicans who went to church every Sunday.”

“Now, the same kind of people move their factories to other countries where there are no laws protecting their workers. It is the same thing over again. Fourteen, sixteen hour days, dangerous working conditions, starvation wages. The next time you go shopping for clothes look to see where they are made. If you ask one of these company executives, will he tell the truth, will he say, our factory is in Bangladesh or Vietnam because that is where we can abuse workers the most?”

“The Bible says the poor will always be with us,” Valdi interjected. “It should say that the one percent who exploits them is always with us. The one percent in Iceland were hogging all the good land, making deals with the Danish authorities, betraying their fellow Icelanders, charging outrageous interest on mortgages. If someone managed to buy a small farm, he had to have sheep or milk cows. The rich farmer who sold him the farm leased him the animals and charged big interest, maybe sixteen percent. The rich farmers took care of each other. They made the law so they stayed in control. They beggared the people and then they punished them for being beggars.”

“Thomas, you need to read lots about this,” Dmytro said. “The Russian Revolution was over in 1917. Two years later when the workers in Winnipeg said they wanted raises and better working conditions, the rich people who controlled the government in Winnipeg screamed Bolsheviks. Bolsheviks, what Bolsheviks? They were just ordinary people, firemen, policemen, telephone operators, electricians, steel workers. They wanted to be properly paid.” He slapped the palm of his hand onto the table.

“Dmytro, maybe you shouldn’t talk about this anymore. You have to watch your blood pressure.” Natalie turned to me and said, “Have another piece of cake, Thomas.” She said it as if it were Toe-mass and I liked that. It made me feel that my boring name had a slightly exotic aura to it. “We are not bankrupt yet. Even if the one percent are stealing most of the money. We can afford another piece. You are too thin. You need a wife to keep an eye on you.”

“I am not such a bad cook,” I said, “but I would like to know how to make hollopchi. I don’t like deli hollopchi.” Cooking was my defence against being dependent. I’d seen too many of my friends get married because they didn’t know how to cook or do much of anything else. They needed to go from Mom to Wife. One of the Phys Ed teachers had split from his wife, had moved into a one room apartment and discovered that he didn’t know  how to do anything but heat food in the microwave. He lasted two months, then crawled back home defeated, humiliated, rumpled, hungry, prepared to put up with a bossy, demanding, snarky wife who know how to cook a roast and how to sort laundry.

“I will show you,” Natalie promised. “It just takes patience rolling the cabbage leaves. I put my cabbage in the freezer to wilt the leaves. It’s easier than boiling.”

“Did Laxness eat the hollopchi Domka gave  him?”

“He must have,” Natalie replied. “It’s not like there was a menu.”

“Never mind hollopchi,” Dmytro said impatiently. He wanted to talk about the Winnipeg General Strike, not hollopchi.

“You can come tomorrow, Thomas. I am making hollopchi. You can learn.”

“The police refused to say that they would not strike so they were all fired. There was no violence. The rich people panicked. They kept screaming Bolsheviks,” Dmytro said.

“Were there any Bolsheviks? I asked.

“A few,” Dmytro answered. “Not enough to fill up a Mennonite van.” He rubbed his jaw with the knuckle of his index finger. He named the Bolsheviks and with each name he held up a finger. “Paul Krat, Popowich, Shatulsky, Ferley, the Narodowtsy group. Robochy Narod was their paper. You see today, even though we are all Slavs, the Russians and Ukrainians do not get along so good. We came to Canada to escape the Czar. We were happy to see him deposed. That did not make us happy to see the Russians take over. Hysterical English rich people who knew no history! They thought Russians and Ukrainians were the same.” Dmytro looked disgusted. He added, “The Mounties arrested ten leaders and took them to Stony Mountain penitentiary. Not many people supported Popowich, Naviziwski or Lototski but when they dressed up as tourists and took the train to Gimli and hid out on the farms, a lot of people thought it was a good joke.”

“I need to check that I have enough rice,” Natalie said, trying to change the conversation. Dmytro’s face had become red. “If not, you will have to bring me some, Thomas.” She got up and went to the cupboard and took out what was left of a twenty-five pound sack. “There’s enough for tomorrow but, Dmytro, we  have to buy another sack next time at Costco.”

“Hollopchi! We are talking about history. Can you only think about cabbage rolls?” Dmytro asked.

“At supper time tomorrow, if I serve you history for supper, you will not be very happy.”

“Do you know that Laxness became a Communist?” I asked. “Hard core. Laxness made speeches supporting communism and he traveled to Moscow many times. My research says that he became a communist because of Upton Sinclair, the American writer.”

Natalie was looking through her cupboard, taking out utensils she would need the next day. She stopped and faced us with one hand on her hip. “Yes, your Laxness gave up praying with the black maggots. It was good because after the strike the black maggots were against unions. Maybe Domka and Peter helped him with that. Dmytro, I can’t reach the roasting pans. You have to take them down.”

Dmytro got up and reached own three blue roasting pans and put them on the cupboard. “I have done this all my life,” Natalie said, “this making hollopchi. Ever since I was before going to school. I like doing it. I hope I can make hollopchi after I’m dead.”

“There were lots of Icelandic communists in the Interlake,” Valdi said. I turned to look at him. My grandfather had mentioned a woman who often stood at the well and handed out communist literature but he’d never said anything about there being lots of Icelandic communists in the Interlake. I knew there were enough communists in Iceland for there to be an organization. “Laxness wasn’t alone in loving communism.”

“He made lots of speeches about how wonderful communism was,” I replied. “Lots of ideals and propaganda about a worker’s paradise in Russia but he refused to look at what was happening right in front of him. Even when his friend Vera Hertzsch was arrested when he was in her apartment in Moscow, he refused to see what was happening. He wanted his books published and his getting published made him choose to be blind.”

“It is a disease that hasn’t been cured,” Valdi replied. “What do you think the CEOs of our Canadian companies in Russia refuse to see?”

“Our people fled from the Czar,” Dmytro said. “They cheered when he was defeated. Why not? They thought now Ukraine will be free. Instead, everything turned into a personality cult. The Russians didn’t understand democracy. They still don’t. They make oligarchs today. They think Putin is the new Czar. They do not understand freedom. Everyone celebrated their new freedom when the Czar was deposed and then Stalin made the Holmodor.”

Natalie turned sharply toward him. “Do not say that word in this house.”

“What will one call it? Eight million Ukrainians deliberately starved to death. This was their freedom. And on the news recently, the newscasters who have never heard anything about this genocide talk about Russia invading Ukraine as if it was going to be a friendly visit.”

Valdi looked at his watch. “Tom, I think we need to be going. At the nursing home they’ll be sure I’ve become lost again. They don’t like their residents getting lost. They don’t want them dying outside of God’s Waiting Room. They worry about being sued by the relatives.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laxness and the Black Maggots

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When I got to the nursing home, the residents were having dinner. They sat four to a table but one of the people who usually sat at Valdi’s table was confined to her room because of a virus. I hesitated when I saw that there were five empty chairs in the dining room  but it was too late. I’d touched the door handles, I’d breathed the air. However, none of the staff were wearing masks. I took that as a sign there wasn’t a full-fledged outbreak of the kind of bugs that wreak havoc in nursing homes.

I sat down in the empty chair opposite Valdi. The woman on my right was having a difficult time getting her spoon to her mouth. Her hand kept shaking. Her meal had been ground up. Mashed potatoes, mashed peas, ground meat, lots of gravy. There was a dish of stewed mashed prunes for dessert. She didn’t have any teeth. I took her spoon and lifted a spoonful of meat and gravy. She opened her mouth. I put the spoon part way in, she closed her mouth and I pulled the spoon away. She swallowed and opened her mouth. I had got myself a job.

“Do you want some dinner?” one of the aides asked. “We’ve got lots. Some people aren’t eating.”

Valdi’s meal was peas not ground up, mashed potatoes, a hamburger steak with gravy. “Sure,” I said, “just skip the prunes.”

“Never one to miss a meal,” Valdi said.

“The pizza place is closed, the hotel has a new chef who turns hamburgers to charcoal and the pickerel place is shut down for the winter. The last time I ate with you it was canned soup. I’ve got to start keeping classier company.”

The aide put a plate of food in front of me. I alternated feeding the woman with my right hand and feeding myself with my left. It was good I was ambidextrous. She kept opening her mouth like a baby bird.

“If you don’t want prunes, you can ask for ice cream,” the aide said. She stood and admired my feeding rhythm. She left, tapped another aide on the shoulder and pointed to my coordinated feeding effort. They both laughed.

“You called,” I said. I didn’t want to talk because I didn’t want the gravy to congeal on my plate. Hot, it was good, cold, not so much. Besides, the meal was reasonable and I didn’t feel like cooking. My parents were out gallivanting. My mother wouldn’t be making dinner and, even if my father were home, he wouldn’t know how. Thirty-five years married and all he could do was make toast and boil an egg. He also hadn’t mastered the dishwasher, the clothes washer, the dryer, or the vacuum. He did know how to use the channel changer but my mother had to make the popcorn when they watched hockey or football. Because I’d lived alone for a number of years and didn’t want to eat spaghetti or beans out of tins or deli crap, I’d learned to cook. It made me feel superior.

I could tell Valdi was furious about Ulga’s having blocked my earlier visit, not yelling, screaming, swearing furious. His fury was more like the lake after a raging storm and the thunder and lightning have died down, the wind has abated, but the waves are still huge and crash on the shore. I wondered what the scene had been like when the head nurse had been called in even though she was off duty. She was a tough cookie but she was fair. She had to regularly make hard decisions, some of them life and death decisions. She didn’t suffer fools gladly. I wouldn’t want to have been the person in charge who let Ulga bully her into keeping Valdi and me from meeting.

When Valdi and I finished eating, I left the woman on my right to fend for herself with the prunes. Even as I got up and walked away with Valdi she was still opening and closing her mouth and I felt guilty.

“We were having tea,” I said to Valdi. “Natalie was telling me about serfs.”

“I want to be there.”

“I just ate a hamburger steak, mashed potatoes and peas. If I’d stayed at the Romanyuks, they would have asked me to have dinner with them. Potato-cottage-cheese perogis fried in butter with onions, served with sour cream, a piece of red ribbon kubisa.”

“Cry me a river,” Valdi snapped. “I eat this stuff every day, seven days a week. Except the pasta. I won’t eat the pasta.”

“I’ll have to make another appointment with the Romanyuks.”

“We’ve got an appointment,” Valdi said. “We’re leaving as soon as I have a crap.”

And so we did. I helped Valdi get his winter clothes on, then got him into the van. He insisted on using his walker but I put his wheelchair into the van just in case. All I could think of was what if they change their minds, what if they decide I should wait until we can sit in the great grandparent’s house, what if aliens abduct them? I worry a lot.

When we got to the Romanyuk’s, Valdi struggled with the walker. Dmytro had shoveled all the snow away from the steps, swept them clear, helped Valdi inside, yelled to me to plug in the van and pointed to the electrical cord. It was thirty below. Anything more than eighteen below and you had to hook up the block heater.

When Valdi was seated at the kitchen table, Dmytro said, “So, you escaped. You keep breaking out.”

“If Mary was still alive, I’d be at home,” Valdi replied. “Between us we could manage.”

“Yes,” Natalie said as she set a cup of coffee in front of him, “it is very bad to be alone. It is bad in an apartment in town but it is worse bad out in the country. You got two, you look after each other.”

“What will you grow this year,” Valdi asked and the question was tinged with sadness because he would like to have been planting his own crops.

“Flax,” Dmytro said. “Organic. There’s lots of demand from the young people. They want organic. I can sell the straw for bedding. Canola. Beans. Maybe a small amount of corn.”

Natalie shook her head. “Too far north for corn,” she said.

“It’s a new variety. It doesn’t need so many days to ripen. Just a test.”

“Tom says you were telling him about the serfs,” Valdi said, shifting the direction of the conversation.

“I didn’t tell him about the first year, my great grandparents did not live in the little house. They dug a hole in the ground. Put a roof over it.  My great grandmother,” Natalie explained, “her name was Domka,  said to my great grandfather, Peter, “You did not say we were going to live in a grave when we came to Canada.”

“It is hard,” Dmytro said, “to explain everything so you will understand. In Ukrainian history there are Tartars, Polish nobility, Germans, Russians, wars, wars, always wars in this story. Ukraine has always been fought over. Someone always wanted the land.”

“It would take a year in the little house telling stories for you to really understand. Let us just say that serfs in Ukraine were worse off than slaves in America. They were owned by the land and the land was owned by the rich land owners. If you were a serf and someone bought the land, they bought you, too. Just think if someone came to the bank and bought your mortgage and then he owned you and your wife and your children. In Galecia, only 1500 families owned 42% of the land.”

“Just like it is becoming now,” Valdi broke in. “Ten percent of Americans have seventy-five percent of the wealth. That means ninety percent have only twenty-five percent.”

Dmytro broke in. “The nobles could do anything. They could beat, rape, take anything. Serfs were like their animals. It was not a crime to do anything to a pig, even roast it alive.”

“But,” I said, “serfdom was abolished in 1861. I think I read that.”

“Do you think the nobles paid any attention? In any case the owners of the serfs were given lots of money to compensate them for losing their serfs. Then the serfs had to pay big taxes to the government to cover the debt.”

“The same was done in England,” I said. “The slaves didn’t get any compensation for being slaves. The owners were compensated because they lost their free workers.”

“Some rich land owners owned tens of thousands of slaves. They had huge estates,” Dmytro said.

Obork, barshchina,” Natalie said. “If you are a serf, you pay the land owner obork, money, and work for free so many days a week, barshchina. And,” she waved her finger at me, “it was not just the nobility. The state owned large numbers of serfs. The church, those servants of God, owned large numbers of serfs.”

“Sometimes serfs were used in card games. I will bet five serfs. I will raise you ten serfs,” Dmytro said. “One of our ancestors was owned this way.”

Natalie noticed that Valdi’s cup was empty. She filled it and topped up mine. “They told this Laxness some of these things. He said he’d become a Catholic. He acted as if he was proud of it. Peter said the priests were parasites. They came to live off everyone else’s work. Come and pay me and I’ll forgive you. They were parasites in the old country. They were parasites here. Domka and Peter gave them nothing. Not even water. Your Laxness thought being a priest was all about discussing philosophy and singing hymns. They told him he should be ashamed of himself. Being a priest was about making people afraid and taking their money. The priests came and wanted Canada to be like the Old Country. They said our people had to give free labor, free food. Our people needed their labor for themselves. Their children were crying from hunger. They lived on rabbits and squirrels. When they got some money, they bought four x flour.”

“Four x flour?” I asked.

“The poorest quality,” Dmytro said. “When my great grandfather carried it ten miles from the store, he was ashamed. He hoped no one would see him.”

Natalie was worked up. She clenched her teeth, the flesh around her eyes pulled together. “The men walked sometimes forty miles to find work harvesting or working on the railway. They worked fourteen, sometimes sixteen hours a day. The women went to work in the laundries in Winnipeg, they worked taking care of children. Seven days a week. They got three hours free to go to church on Sunday. Seven dollars a month. My great grandmother walked to Winnipeg, got a job working taking care of children. After three months she wanted to go home. Her English employer refused to pay her. She said her work was not good enough. She gave her a loaf of stale bread and some butter for her walk back.”

Natalie paused, looked straight ahead staring into the distance, then she turned and glared so fiercely into my eyes that I flinched. “Proud!” she repeated. “Your Laxness lived in these palaces for priests and monks. Where did he think the money came from? He should have been ashamed of himself. Eating food taken from the plates of hungry children. Domka said to him, you go to Ukraine some day, open your eyes.”

“He said that he had prayed with some other people so that Iceland would be Catholic again. Was he a fool? These black maggots lived off the bodies of the peasants. I will tell you how it was here. The priest said you have to give me food to save your soul from hell. People had nothing but still they brought him bread. He ate some and he gave the rest to feed his pigs.”

When I first came to the Romanyuk’s, I had expected there to be pictures of Jesus, crosses, The Last Supper, all the traditional Urkainian stuff on the walls but now I understood why not and why the Romanyuks were at home all day on a Sunday.

“My family fed Laxness borscht,” Natalie said. “He didn’t know borscht. They gave him hollopchi. Times were improved. They had food to share. They had chickens, pigs, a few sheep, three cows. The first dugout was now a root cellar. They were growing their own grain and taking it to Gimli to be ground. A precentage for the miller for grinding, some more for staying in the miller’s cabin overnight. There was no cash.”

“But this was not the most important,” Valdi said. “It was the second day and evening that mattered.” He had heard these stories many times before. He wanted to keep everything on track.

Silence fell over us. What Natalie and Dmytro had been telling me had stirred up the Romanyuks’ feelings, memories and I wished now that I had listened to my parents years before when I was just beginning to write when they said that I should talk to people like this, that their family stories that went back generations, back to the time of the settlement of the Interlake, to the time of immigration, to the time before that in Ukraine, were beyond anything I could invent. These were stories that had been passed down from one generation to the other, stories that tied them to the past and to the land.

“Fiction,” my father had said, “is fun. But there are stories in the Interlake that are beyond imagining. If you want tragedy and triumph, it is all there.”

I had ignored him. I wanted to write about exotic things, about events and people in distant places, places I’d never been and knew nothing about. I didn’t want to write about farmers, truck drivers, fishermen grubbing a living. I wanted to write about palaces in India, princes in Dubai, sexy chicks in the South of France, the kind of eye candy people loved. Not that it would be trivial or anything. There’d be big themes, socially significant events. Yes, I had images of waterskiing beauties and yachts. Straight from TV which was already six times removed from reality.

None of it got published, of course. There was a tsunami of schlock already out there. In any case how much schlock do you get to hobnob with in Gimli or Winnipeg, Manitoba, especially when you are tied down by teaching high school English? A night out was having a few beers on Friday with colleagues and sitting around bitching about the students, the principal and the custodians, mostly the custodians. The custodians were a law unto themselves.

As we sat in the Romanyuk’s kitchen, a round plate of sugar cookies in the centre of the round table like a wheel inside a wheel, I wished I had been at those days and evenings in the little house, crowded together with Natalie and Dmytro and their neighbours, listening, the way someone who wants to be a writer should do, not talking, because in talking all  you do is hear what you already know, listening, hoping that stories would get told time and again so that they get imprinted, laid down in the writer’s brain so they are there forever, ready to appear when they are needed. I imagined the bodies crowded close as everyone squeezed in, bringing stools with them, sitting on boxes, and then someone beginning, “My great grandfather was a Cossack.” or “My great grandparents third child was four years old when he became ill. There was no doctor.” Or, “What do you do when a bear comes to steal your honey and you have no gun?” I already had stories like this on my tape recorder, in my notebooks.

Voices and silences, group therapy, group grief, group pride. As I’d sought out stories for my little book to satisfy my little ambition, to help me to a better job, to make me feel that I was doing something that mattered, I’d stood at forgotten graves beside tumble down houses. Graves for people who had died before there was a graveyard, or who died when the harvest was taking place or when the weather was so dreadful no one could travel, who died when a husband was away working on the railway and the grave had to be dug by a grieving mother, maybe with the help of her father who was too old to walk ten or twenty or forty miles to find work. A grave that was dug with grief and love in every shovel full of earth. One woman said to me, “My great grandmother dug her child’s grave with a spoon.”

“I’ll make fresh coffee,” Natalie said. She took our cups and washed them out, dried them, set them back on the table. She put water in the electric kettle, then turned to Valdi and said, “We don’t make coffee in an old sock,” and we all smiled at the joke. It was a familiar joke, the kind to be shared among friends. Coffee came to Iceland in 1703. Only the wealthy could taste it. At first it was only drunk at Skaholt, the bishopric where the powerful elite lived. Then the rich landowners drank it, for here, in this distant, isolated island, although they had different names for slavery, the few rich landowners made the laws, ruled with an iron fist, and could afford coffee beans brought from distant lands while the serfs ate seaweed and fish heads. At one time Ukrainian serfs had been allowed a two week period every year when they could move to another master. In Iceland, the indentured servants (serfs) had one day a year when they could move to another farm. Gradually, coffee had spread to the furthest, most isolated farms. People roasted and ground their precious green beans.

In Canada, they learned to make coffee with an old sock. My mother still made coffee with an old sock. My father preferred it that way.

It was not actually an old sock, but a copper wire loop with a handle.My father made the loop and handle. My mother took a piece of flannel and sewed it to the loop to make a basket. Most people had changed to a cone and filters but my parents excused themselves by saying that having a poki helped preserve the environment. After each use, it was washed and dried.

What was remarkable about this gentle joke of Natalie’s was that it was being made by someone who was Ukrainian-Canadian to two guests who were Icelandic-Canadian. Immigration had not been easy. The Icelanders got to the Interlake first in 1875. They settled along the shore of Lake Winnipeg and became fishermen. The Ukrainians came later, in the late 1890s. They were farmers and they waded through waist deep swamps toward the West looking for land, land with lots of wood on it for in Ukraine they were not allowed to touch wood in the landlord’s forests, not even if they were dying of cold.

The Icelanders were Lutheran. The Ukrainians were Greek Catholic and Roman Catholic. The Icelanders although desperately poor, were literate because of a home schooling system that taught nearly everyone to read and write. The Danes who ruled Iceland never tried to keep the Icelanders illiterate. They never banned the use of Icelandic. On the other hand, every effort of the Ukrainians to educate their children had been thwarted by the Russians and Poles who wanted beasts of burden not fellow citizens. The Russians banned the Ukrainian language in schools in Eastern Ukraine. Schools were closed down. Ukrainian books were banned. Russia feared a Ukraine with an identity of its own would want independence. The Icelandic immigrants knew no Ukrainian history and so regarded their illiteracy with contempt, instead of with sympathy.

I had heard stories of the first encounters between the Icelanders and Ukrainians. Both peoples living in a hostile environment, desperately struggling to get enough to eat. Sometimes there was hostility, even violence when men came together but, gradually, a few learned to speak the other’s language, to survive they needed to do business with each other, both groups learned to speak English, learned to trade cabbage for fish. When Laxness stumbled into Natalie’s great grandparent’s little house there was still suspicion, conflict, clenched fists, bloody knuckles so it was very much like the story of the Good Samaritan. It was not just that they helped someone in need, they helped someone from a different tribe, a tribe that often treated them with contempt for being illiterate, for being Catholic, for being Ukrainian.