Sorting Through Family Stories and Finding My Place – Part 1

One of the benefits of travel is that what was once only a name becomes a real place, with sounds and smells and stories. If that name already has a history, then “travel” can turn into “pilgrimage.” The difference between a traveler and a pilgrim is that the traveler observes, experiences whatever presents itself, while the pilgrim has a destination and a search. I’m speculating here, trying to understand how it is that Rückenau and Neukirch, former names of small villages now inhabited by people who are not my people, are still part of who I am.

 The connection was first made in my childhood. My Mama and Papa talked so often of their birthplaces, back in Ukraine (they called it Russia) where, in the late 1700s, Catherine the Great had granted Mennonite immigrants from Prussia generous tracts of land—and freedom of language, education, and religion (including exemption from military service). Beside the Dnieper and the Molotschna Rivers, they farmed the land and built their villages, estates, and institutions. According to stories told by the refugees who fled after the ravages of WWI and the Russian Revolution, that self-contained Mennonite world was idyllic. Undoubtedly, it now seemed so.

With only a few sepia-toned pictures to help me, I tried to imagine my parents’ world of watermelon plantations, communal pig butchering, church weddings, skating parties on the river. The Mennonite foods were familiar to me, but everything else seemed as remote as the strange “Englische” worlds I read about in library books. All I absorbed, really, was profound sadness and unacknowledged prejudices.

photo of house-barn combination in a Mennonite village in Ukraine, ca
Photo, originally in Diese Steine by Adina Reger, now in Bilder Rueckenau –

 In my early adulthood, Rückenau and Neukirch re-entered family conversations. In 1972, my father’s older sister slipped through the Iron Curtain to come to Canada, leaving behind one son so she could join her other son, not seen since WWII. Five years later, my father gathered all his courage and flew back to Russia to visit the family he’d left behind fifty years ago. He returned a changed man. Having reunited, at last, with family he thought he had lost forever, he had been freed to express affection to his family here. Nevertheless, all the hard stories had to be told again, because he had finally heard their epilogues, some tragic, some miraculous. I listened, with adult ears this time.   

Meanwhile, Rudy Wiebe’s first novel (1962) had opened the floodgates of Mennonite story-telling for the English-speaking public; descendants of Russian Mennonites reclaimed and reshaped the narratives of an unwillingly nomadic people. I read eagerly, eventually making Mennonite fiction the subject of my PhD dissertation. Unfortunately, in my years of study, both my parents died, first my father who had fled Neukirch alone as a young man, and then my mother, who had left Rückenau as a 12-year-old, with her entire family. All my newly acquired historical, sociological information, my increasing understanding of their once-baffling attitudes toward Russian peasants or “other” Mennonites, I had to sort through without their help. That loss still stings, twenty-five years later.   

 Was it even possible for me, born in Canada, to comprehend the cultural and religious forces that made my parents who they were?  More and more, the effort to imagine the land they walked on, the soil they tilled, the schools they attended, the stories they heard in church seemed irrelevant, a squandering of emotional energy.   

 A disconnect settled into my bones. I would read no more traumatic Mennonite stories. Enough already. I felt no longing to see the “old country” that had shaped my people. Until, that is, we learned about a Russia-Ukraine tour focused on Mennonite history, just when we had concluded that one major travel adventure would be possible after all.

Rückenau and Neukirch are no longer just names. I’ve walked down pot-holed dirt lanes between ancient brick houses, a few of which are still Mennonite handiwork. Although the subsistence gardens, grape vines, chickens, and occasional cow remind me of my parents’ descriptions, I don’t delude myself that this is what the villages were like when my parents lived there. Were those homey little benches in front of almost every house a Mennonite custom? I don’t know, but my heart warmed to see that neighbourly closeness still mattered.  

Yet how much of this history of those once prosperous small kingdoms, destroyed first by marauding bandits and competing armies, then by forced collectivization and seasons of hunger, belongs to me? Am I actually rooted here, where I’ve never been before and will never be again?

Admittedly, I wept before the monument built to remember the far too many dead; those dead include family members. I was surprisingly moved by the now abandoned Mennonite church in which my grandfather once preached, and even more by the old railway station from which some Mennonites departed west toward freedom and some departed east, to Siberia—to disappear.  

Monument in Chortiza, Ukraine, to remember the Mennonite missing and dead from the Russian Revolution and the Stalinist era.

 The problem is that the stories of Rückenau and Neukirch and all the other villages that were the whole of my parents’ world have been changed by a more complex awareness of place. For I have walked also in the palaces and streets of St. Petersburg and in the Red Square and the Kremlin; I have seen other remembrances of the dead, from ornate crypts for the czars to mass graves of the innocent and helpless. The Russian and Ukrainian peoples also endured bitter suffering as events and choices utterly beyond their control overturned their lives and ended their dreams.  Mennonites have no corner on pain, not even on religious persecution.

 My parents’ stories of pastoral security and unfathomable loss are now set beside the losses of the Russian peasants who also dreamed of a better way of life on land they deeply loved. Rückenau and Neukirch—the Winter Palace and the Kremlin: how shall I hold these names in my mind, with their interwoven stories? I still do not know.        

Originally published in Prairie Messenger, March 29, 2017

Hunting for the Perfect Souvenir

Okay, there is no perfect souvenir—at least not one that can please everyone without insulting either a particular vacation spot or our entire environment. Yet we keep hunting and buying. That’s why every major tourist attraction is surrounded by a village of souvenir shops, each stuffed with key chains, decorative spoons, moustache mugs, t-shirts and pyjamas, ash trays, paper weights, thimbles, fridge magnets, and other little do-dads that are designed to sit on shelves just to announce to all and sundry, “See where I’ve traveled.”

 The motive for buying cheap trinkets as gifts for others is somewhat different. Likely back when travel for most people was rare, the notion arose that if a traveler had money enough to visit some exotic location far away, said traveler should have money enough to bring back gifts to all the family and the house-sitter and various friends. Let the shopping begin.

 And we can’t ignore the human instinct to collect. Sooner or later, whether as child or as young adult, the traveler declares, “I will buy a souvenir spoon from every place I visit” or key chains, or pennants, mugs, letter-openers, salt and pepper shakers. As any collector knows, the collection must then be displayed. Remember when kitchen and dining-room walls were decorated with spoon racks, plate racks, or little shelves on which to place thimbles and tiny dolls?

            I point no admonishing finger here—I have bought my share of souvenirs. However, there came a day when I stared at our three full spoon racks and asked myself, “And just what will our children do with those spoons when I die?” Who will care two figs for dozens of coffee spoons, too fragile with their glued-on miniature shields to be used or ever washed? My disillusionment, which ended my collecting, had two other sources. One was the ongoing nuisance of replacing spoons on the racks when someone or other had once more knocked several onto the floor – to say nothing of washing and polishing them.

 The other was an awareness of diminishing returns. When I began, it was a way of reminding myself that yes, I had indeed spent time at Lake Louise and I had seen Craigdarroch Castle. But, given that we typically camped and hiked in the Rockies, there was no need to buy a second spoon from Lake Louise. Meanwhile, extended family had taken note that I was gathering spoons and suddenly they knew what to give me. How convenient. So I began to “collect” spoons from places I had never visited and likely never would be able to. The spoons were no longer reminders but temptations to jealousy and resentment. Of what possible use or meaning was it to me to own a spoon from Arizona or South Africa?

 A few years ago, when we re-did our kitchen, the spoons were packed away to become playthings for grandchildren, and the racks went to Value Village to take their place among thousands of other knick-knacks that had lost meaning for their original owners and would have zero meaning for anyone else.

In my university student days, I had had the good fortune to spend two summers working in a tourist town. Jasper was small – I could hardly walk anywhere without passing souvenir shops—all of them cluttered with plastic or ceramic or paper stuff, most of it made in China, all destined eventually for some landfill. But there were other shops as well, and I began to see the difference between appalling kitsch and carefully crafted original art. Fifty years later, I still wear, with pride and tender memories, a gift from my roommate who worked in the local gem shop—a star-shaped goldstone necklace.

photo of the star-shaped goldstone pendant necklace

 So, the perfect souvenir? Here are the three principles that now guide my purchases of souvenirs—yes, I still do buy a few! First, always choose something locally made. Tourism does bring substantial economic benefit. Make sure it goes to local residents. Often the simplest choice is something consumable, like local jams or syrups. If it isn’t welcomed by the recipient, then at least its disposal will cause less harm than other items.

Choose something genuinely useful. My most valued souvenirs are two shawls I bought in Russia, one from a street vendor in St. Petersburg and one from a shop in Moscow that prided itself on well-made, artistic goods. I have worn those shawls many times, each time remembering my conversations with the local women who sold me the shawls. Someday someone else will enjoy those shawls, whether they know the stories about them or not.

photo of author wearing a Russian shawl.

When neither the consumable nor the useful is just right, choose beautiful works of art, made by local artists. Such gifts can hold meaning for the recipients as well as for the travelers. I treasure the small wall hanging made of tufted moose hair that our daughter-in-law brought us from Yellowknife, because I am both grateful for the gift and awed by the traditional skills of the local artist who created the work.

photo of wallhanging made of tufted moosehair flowers.

These principles will mean spending more money than what it costs to buy imported snow globes or jokey postcards. Maybe we need to consider buying less, overall. That’s the best option for the environment, surely. Memories can be treasured through other means than more stuff. Could we learn the art of telling good stories? Could we practice being entirely present in the places we visit? Take time in our vacations to chat with local people who serve the tourists, instead of hustling from store to store?

I have not forgotten the kindly people I served lunch and dinner to in Jasper, all those many years ago. Admittedly, I was not very patient then with stupid questions about why Mt. Edith Cavell had sand on it (had they never understood that tall mountains have snow on them?), but I was grateful for those who saw me as a person, asking about my experiences or telling me about the meaningful moments of their day, like seeing fawns in the forest or being awed into silence at the top of the ridge they’d just climbed. In the end, it is the relationship among people that matters. Let’s put that ahead of more stuff.

At some point in life, the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint, or even remember it. It is enough.

Toni Morrison