Outside the Russian embassy, across the street from where my only child lives, mayhem. Over two hundred protestors, red paint and anger, demands and outrage.
Outside the Russian embassy in this Canadian city, outside the Russian embassies in all Canadian cities, and hundreds of cities around the world. Outrage.
We had thought we were past all this. What good comes of war?
I could speak to you as the daughter of a Ukrainian-Canadian woman, as the granddaughter of a Ukrainian woman, as the great granddaughter of Ukrainian women.
I could speak to you of humanity.
I could speak to you of connection.
Instead let me speak to you of a man.
My father-in-law was born in Ukraine. He grew up in a village where storks nested on the roofs of houses. He was educated by priests, who taught him French, and Latin. His family taught him Ukrainian. He was a gifted musician and dreamed of going to Vienna, to study music and sing opera.
Later, when he worked in a forced labour camp as a machinist making airplanes during the Second World War, he learned to speak German.
After the war, he wandered Europe with three fellow displaced persons and learned Czech and Russian. In the Red Cross Camp where he lived in for over three years, he sang in a makeshift big band and toured other camps, lifting the spirits of the thousands of homeless who existed in post-war limbo. People whose countries no longer existed.
This man tells a story of being on a train with his three friends. The war is over, there is confusion, a state of lawlessness. They have been warned not to go back to Ukraine; people who have “worked” for the Germans were being shot by the Russians. When a Russian soldier boards the train and asks for papers, asks where they are going, where they have come from, my father-in-law pretends he speaks only French. He is convincing and saves lives of his friends.
In what you might call a miracle, he writes a letter to Canada, with only the name of a relative and the province in which they live. In two years, he receives a reply. He arrives in Toronto and makes his way across the country. He learns English.
He meets and marries a woman born in Canada, of Ukrainian parents. They have three children. I marry their middle child. He is the love of my life.
We share a love of family, however imperfect. He learned to speak and write Ukrainian, went to Ukrainian school as a child, worshipped at a Ukrainian church.
I did none of these.
From the women in my line, I learned about gardening, growing food that will heal you, that dill calms a nervous stomach. I learned to not ask questions or dwell in the past. I was shown how to make summer borscht, cheese and potato pyroghy. I learned to speak as an adult in the presence of adults. My mother’s line was not afraid to disagree, believed in socialism and the collective good, of helping neighbours, of practising kindness. They were well-read, education was hard won and prized. They remembered a time when reading a book might cost you your life.
When my mother and her brother started school, walking almost an hour to get there, they were beaten for not speaking English. Perhaps, this is why they did not pass down their language.
But I was speaking of my father-in-law, a promising singer who worked as forced labour during the Second World War, who by a miracle came to Canada.
My father-in-law, who recorded a sleeper of a hit record in the middle part of the last century, while in Toronto; a Ukrainian record everyone assumed was long forgotten until my brother-in-law recently discovered it online. It’s called Hey Ho. You can listen to it here.
It’s a tango, it’s a love song.
This man of whom I am speaking does not look back on his life with anger. He does not blame but instead, feels blessed. I am not sure my faith would have weathered his storm.
He is quiet, but fierce in his belief of freedom of speech, no matter what it is you believe.
So, on this day, as the crowds disperse outside the Russian embassy, when despair is thick in the air, when we wonder how could this happen again, stay a moment in your heart.
My heart aches. Russian soldiers, young people, ordered to destroy and conquer. In Ukraine, every person between 16-60 has been conscripted. Refugees are fleeing. And for what?
This is an end-of-the-Empire war. It’s a last-straw-of-a-war, the war that could end us all.
We have been here before, war is an ancient response to fear. No matter where you come from on this earth, your ancestors have experienced life in wartime. The memory is in our collective DNA.
No one wants a war, that is the old world way, where power is achieved through aggression and violence. We all know what that feels like. Artists, painters and writers and musicians, have interpreted this senselessness for millennia.
For example: The music of my mother’s family is all minor keys, uncertainty, natural beauty and heartbreak embroidered in complex harmonies. It’s often sorrowful, always gorgeous and the human voice is an instrument. It is as if music is medicine, as if singing can heal.
I’ll leave you with one more song, courtesy my father-in-law. In midlife, after a career of selling shoes and running a small business, he started a traditional Ukrainian choir. Yes, he recorded an album. The songs explore themes of love and loss, or the traditional colours of Ukrainian embroidery (red for love, black for sadness).
I was struck by the presence of accordion in many of the songs I listened to as I wrote this. I play accordion and, during pandemic times, picked it up after many years. My mother insisted my sister and I take accordion lessons. It was not until this moment that I thought of the connection to her cultural heritage. She passed on the language of music.
This is a song that (I believe) is about falling in love in Kiev in the springtime.
May we be united in love for this planet and each other, may we have the courage to lead with compassion. May there be grieving and forgiveness.
In the end, we are all family.
From my heart to your heart,