March 21: Of Villages, Archives and Belonging

One month of war.

Mariupol. Kherson. Irpin. Chervone, Bohdanivka, Putylivka, Schvaikivtsi.

All the countless villages, the selos of folk song lore, of our warped diasporic memory, Those memories handed down to us like sealed letters, by our mothers and fathers and grandmothers. Memories that are honey and bile, sweet and bitter. The roads lined with birch trees, sunflowers, and thatched roof cottages. The mysterious deaths that happened: an uncle who got shot (probably by Russian saboteurs) just as he was planning to leave for Canada.

The stories showed us roots that were gnarled and indecipherable. Which root do you follow, and will it lead you home?

Some of us in the diaspora have gone ‘back’ to the selo. We always say ‘back’, even if we’ve never been there, a Freudian slip of the tongue. Because in fact, psychically, we never left. We were born into an absent presence. Letters written on blue airmail paper, by relatives we’d never met. Photos of strangers: aunts, uncles, cousins, in outdated clothes, standing stiffly in front of a kylym. Hissing records, the dark booming voices of all male choirs. The dusky taste of pitpenky mushrooms, mailed from Ukraine, savoured only on Christmas Eve, in borscht. The aroma of memory and loss that filled our suburban Canadian house like a kind of vapour. Incomprehensible for a child – so she lives with a constant sense of imminent doom. Nazis, Bolsheviks, Russians, Germans, Poles. So many enemies! Any one of them might knock on your door in the middle of the night. And that village, that you knew so well, with its verdant fields, its small, domed church? You’d never been there.

I did make it to Schvaikivtsi, just the once. A pre-industrial paradise, full of hard lives. Horse-drawn carts, and herds of geese. Whitewashed cottages, verdant fields: check and check. My great aunt Olena in her flowered scarf and her beautiful wrinkled face, so full of goodness. The way she crouched on the stoop of her cottage, the way the village children swirled around her. The words she said when she me for the first time, as she kissed me on the cheeks: ridne, ridne, ridneРідне, ріднє, рідне. Meaning, native. Belonging to the territory of one’s birth.

I have never belonged anywhere as much as I belonged to that village, that sweet June morning.

That village is a metonym, in my mind – for all the villages that the Russian terrorists have damaged, or shelled into ruins. Those selos full of the elderly living out their bare-bones lives with their chickens, and their geese, and their honey bees. In May they should be planting potatoes. There is actually a special weekend for this. Does Schvaikivtsi still even exist?

When I visited – almost twenty years ago now!- the elder villagers shared stories about my grandfather, his big ideas of entrepreneurship, his swagger. They remembered when my parents came to visit in the 90’s, just after independence. They knew who I was. They knew, and they remembered everything.

The villages are a vast organic archive. The birch trees whisper stories; the storks huddle atop them, brooding. The graveyards know too much. Рідне, ріднє, рідне.