Baba

I attended a networking event 15 years ago in Vancouver when I worked for The University Women’s Club of Vancouver at Hycroft. I met a woman. Blonde, petite, slight accent named Olga. I asked if she was Ukrainian. She was. “Me too”! I replied. She looked me up and down, and remarked with a sniff, “Cathy Burrell doesn’t SOUND very Ukrainian”.

My mom and dad were both Ukrainian. My mom and her younger sister were born there, and came to Canada in 1929 on a ship that arrived in Quebec. Baba, my mother’s mother, didn’t speak English read or write. My mom and her sister didn’t have birthdates. Mom was the oldest. She was born during harvest. My aunt was born during planting. On the way to Canada Baba and Grampa made friends with 3 other families, all Ukrainian. The Oshekoskis, the Novaks, and the Nehliduks. They all settled on half sections of land around the Carberry Hills, near the town of Plumas Manitoba. The eight of them are all buried side by side in a Winnipeg cemetery. Mom told me she felt sorry for grampa, a new farmer in Canada when she would bring him supper in the barn, and found him with blister-covered hands, most likely bemoaning the fact that he had so many acres to manage and only a wife and four girls for help. Mom told me that Grampa’s profession in Ukraine, was ‘horse-trader’. He spoke English, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian, and could read and write in all 4 languages. She also told me he had been a soldier. My mom told me farm-stories of her and her sister leading oxen pulling a plow, chopping wood, and taking care of animals. They had no heat, no electricity, and my mom’s sister used to put up a curtain, and entertain them with stories and plays in the evening.

Baba and Grampa moved to Winnipeg in 1950 and bought a grocery store in the North End. The family lived upstairs. By the time I was born in Winnipeg, in the North End, they had sold the store and were living in a duplex on McPhillips. Baba and Grampa downstairs, and their son Bill and his wife upstairs. We left Winnipeg just after I was born, and a few years later ended up in Calgary. My mom was 41 when I was born. She had 2 teenaged boys, a workaholic for a husband, and me. We lived in a new house in the Northwest at the base of Nose Hill. I started flying to Winnipeg from Calgary every summer, when I was in grade one. I used to leave just after Stampede, and flew back to Calgary in late August almost every year until my Baba died when I was 15. In those days, mom would walk me to the Air Canada counter and hand me over to someone who would walk me onto the plane, fasten my seat belt, and for the next two plus hours I would stare out the window at the green and yellow patchwork of land that was the prairies. I never knew who was going to be waiting for me at the Winnipeg Airport. I only knew that after everyone had got off the plane, someone would unbuckle my seatbelt, and take my hand and walk me into the terminal. The part I loved was the long escalator ride down into the baggage area where I would try to spy a familiar face. Once someone was spotted, sometimes my Godfather Thor, my Uncle Sam, or my Aunty Mary, my hand was simply transferred into theirs. On the familiar car ride from the airport to Baba’s house-ALWAYS the first stop, I could imagine her in her small backyard garden filled with dill, green onions, and radishes. Or hanging the laundry on the clothesline that stretched above the little sandbox I used to play in while Baba was weeding the garden. As soon as the car came to a stop in the back alley, next to the rickety old garage, I jumped out and ran down the sidewalk that ran along the left side of the duplex. Baba was watching out of the kitchen window that faced the alley, and she knew that I had arrived. I could see the screen door swing open, and before a word was spoken, I was gathered up like a wet pile of laundry into the arms of this big soft women who smelled like face powder, yeasty dough, and whatever she was cooking. She always had a flowered dress on, and an apron, and even on a humid July day, thick flesh-coloured stockings and shoes. When she was finished hugging me she always said the same thing: “Cathy! You’re so SKINNY”!-which I was decidedly not-and she would lead me up the three stairs from the side door landing into her kitchen. It’s fifty years ago, but I can still see every detail of that kitchen. The small window over the sink, and the bigger side window above the little red-patterned formica table and shiny red chairs. The cupboards were plain light wood with big flat wooden knobs. To the left there was a shelf with an opening to Baba’s bedroom. On the shelf sat a curvaceous glossy black, bakelite telephone. I remember the phone number too. Unlike our Calgary phone number, this one had a word attached. If you wanted to reach the Lobchuk residence, you simply dialed JUSTICE 67 067. I remember being told I could only answer the phone when it rang twice, as the phone had it’s own party-line! The kitchen is where I remember Baba the most. I could smell food as soon as I walked in the door and it always smelled so much better than any food we ever ate at our house. In fact when Baba visited us in Calgary, she always had at least one ring of garlic sausage, a loaf or two of rye bread, and of course, Maple Buds in her suitcase. Once I had peeked in the oven window, and had a look at what was in the bowls on the counter, I would sit down at that little red table and she would ask me questions. About my mom and dad and brothers, or about school, half in English, half in Ukrainian. Then it was time to eat. Perogies, homemade chicken soup with homemade noodles, borscht, or cabbage rolls. It didn’t matter. I loved it all. I remember sitting there like the guest of honour at my own party. Grampa, or Sonny-my Uncle Bill who lived upstairs(his sisters called him Sonny because when he was little he looked like the kid on the Sunny-Boy cereal box) would drift into the kitchen, but Baba’s attention was always on me. A couple of words in Ukrainian, and they were gone. It was just her and me. I associated that kitchen with the woman who loved me the most, and I never wanted to leave. She liked to take me for walks down the street to the soft ice cream place. On the way back she used to point to the huge high school across the street from the duplex, and whisper that if I would come and live with her, I could go to school there! I slept with her each night and she would tell me exciting stories that I could only half understand about the old country. About dark nights, hiding under beds,or in hay stacks, and bad men, then she would hug me and tell me to go to sleep. Her living room had a big radio and a tiny tv with an antennae where grampa used to watch wrestling. Baba and I would always look through old photo albums that were on a high shelf in the front hall closet. Baba’s fur coats were in there too. I always wrapped my arms around the coats and took a deep breath. The albums were filled with black pages, and mostly black and white photos of people I didn’t know, but I loved to see my family looking so young. In the photos they looked so happy! Always dancing, or all dressed up, celebrating something, all sitting at long tables in the basement heavy with food and bottles of beer and rye. A few days after I arrived, my aunts and uncles would start to arrive. There would always be a conversation in Ukrainian, and when I look back, I believe she was engaged in a negotiation regarding where I would stay next, with who, and for how long. I loved the rest of my Winnipeg family, but Baba was everything.

She died when I was about 15-suddenly-stubbornly-after a gall bladder operation that had been put off for 20 plus years didn’t go well. My mom wouldn’t let me attend the funeral as it was going to be days of church, and praying, and incense, and crying. Our family wasn’t the same after she died. Grampa sold our cottage at Grand Beach-The Devil’s Inn. He sold the duplex too. Many, many years after she died, I was at a wellness fair in the BC town I now lived in. There was a long line to have your palm read. When it was my turn, the woman looked at my palm, and looked at me and said. “I see a large woman in a flowered dress who wants me to tell you that she is very happy that you keep going home to visit. Does that mean anything to you?” “Yes” I said. “yes, it does”.

#IStandWithUkraine

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