On the kindness of strangers

For the past week I’ve been sending badly written Russian emails to strangers all over Siberia. In them I explain that I will be arriving in Tomsk with my cousin in August by train, that we are looking for the village where our grandmother lived and worked for seventeen years, that I am a Canadian writer of English-language books, and that I would appreciate any help they could offer in locating Brovka.

Amazingly, some of these strangers respond.

This is not the first time I’ve imposed myself and my odd sense of what’s worth writing about on people I don’t know. I’ve arrived in small American towns asking strange questions about saints’ relics, place-names and local history and I’ve shown up in French villages inquiring after long-forgotten WWII prison camps.

Perhaps it’s because I’m obviously harmless and seem a bit naive. Or maybe it’s just because I’m genuinely interested in hearing stories about these out-of-the-way places. But strangers tend to be kind and generous to a writer looking for a story, and people from forgotten parts of the world want to share what they know.

So, over the last week I’ve struck up a friendship with a woman in Tomsk who is the president of the region’s Lithuanian friendship society. Her father was a Lithuanian exile who married a Volga German, also exiled to Siberia. Svetlana was born in town on the Mongolian border and moved to Tomsk to study at one of the city’s five universities.

She has already done a great deal of research on my behalf: making phone calls and passing on information to archivists (more kind strangers) who have taken it upon themselves to search for traces of my grandmother amongst old census documents. We write to each other in different languages: I, in Lithuanian, and she, in Russian. We manage to understand one another, and there is a warmth to our communication that I would never have predicted, though perhaps should have, bound as we are by the memory of exile.

For Svetlana, exile has become home. She lives in Siberia not because she must, but because it is where she was born, where she studied, and where she works.

I can’t wait to meet her. I suspect she’ll have a lot of stories to tell.

[Photo: Daniel Gasienica]

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Siberian photographs: on home and exile

A couple months ago I took my son to visit my Aunt Birutė to talk about family history and my grandmother’s exile. She gave me some extraordinary photographs during that visit, including several from Siberia. More than I expected.

One small photograph, dated 1957, shows my grandmother’s house. Made of logs and with a straw roof, it stands on fenced property. Both look bigger than I would have expected. I’d always imagined the house surrounded by forest, but the land all around her house is flat.

Another shows my grandmother and her sister Magrieta standing in the garden, up to their knees in lush leaves. They wear matching shirts and skirts made from fabric sent in care-packages by faraway daughters. On the back, in Magrieta’s handwriting: “The cabbage garden, beyond it that you can see the potatoes and fence.” I’m struck by how happy my grandmother looks in these photographs: strong and ruddy, she could be an early American pioneer. (In the above photograph my grandmother sits on the left. She has several teeth missing, knocked out in an accident with a combine harvester.)

For the last few weeks, I’ve been singing a new song to my son Sebastian at bedtime. We call it “The Bird Song.” I learned it at summer camp as a child.

Like birds returning home
Lead us too, oh Lord.
From the sad road of exile,
Gather us up.

The song was written by my grandmother’s generation about returning to the place they fled or were forced to leave. Now, as I sing my son to sleep, it is these photographs of my grandmother in her cabbage garden that appear in my mind’s eye.

Home: I wonder if it felt like a homecoming when my grandmother returned to Lithuania after seventeen years. Can there be home without family? Her children were grown and far away; it would be another seven years before she saw her family again, when she emigrated Canada. But is family enough to restore home? Surely this country wasn’t home either: the language and customs remained strange to her until her death.

Did exile rob my grandmother of her home in more fundamental way than mere displacement? By taking her away by force, did her captors kill the very possibility of home?

Most people still die within a few kilometres of where they were born. Not so for my grandmother. Not so for many of us who move often and far either by choice or necessity. So what are the ties that bind the landless far from loved ones?

What is home to the exiled?

[Photo: Ona and Magrieta in Brovka, Siberia, 1957. Photographer unknown]

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On the Value and Meaning of Work

I’ve been reading my friend Margaret Paxson’s book, Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village. Paxson, an anthropologist, watched, interviewed and listened to the villagers of Solovyovo for many months to learn how they related to each other, to their land and to the past.

Yesterday, shortly before going to a dinner party with some other writers, I read a section on currency, debt and exchange.

In a village where people grow their own vegetables, raise animals, keep bees, produce their own alcohol, fetch their own water, and build their own houses, it’s fair to ask what the value of money is. In Solovyovo, one needs money to buy things like grain, heating fuel, radios, televisions, but cash is not the primary, purest or most “comfortable” form of currency. Rather than pay one another in rubles, Solovyovo’s villagers prefer to exchange meat for vodka, honey for cheese, or milk for a few hours of help in the potato field. Debts are settled through deeds and other goods. Money, as much as possible, doesn’t enter the calculation.

So, with my friend’s description of this alternate economy in mind, I set off to my writers’ dinner party.

Over food and wine, shared our stories: we told what had brought us to writing, how we organized our workdays, and we outlined the decisions each of us had made to create room for writing in our lives. Finally, toward the end of the evening, the talk turned to finances and the concept of work. The discussion was sparked by the description of one author as a “working mother,” when she practiced no profession other than writing. Was this a fair description of a woman who writes and raises kids, but who may not earn a whole heck of a lot?

Several questions arose for me as a result of that discussion: Is writing only “real” or “valuable” or even “work” if it pays the rent? Should an author’s work conditions be taken into consideration before we judge a piece of writing? Does it matter, in other words, whether a writer’s life is tough or cushy? (Tolstoy was rich; Kafka was relatively poor. Should we care?) Is the sum of one’s life’s work measured only in dollars, or is there another currency we can use?

What can the villagers of Solovyovo teach us in this regard?

[Photo: napugal]

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Two Stories of Ona

True story: A researcher at the archives at Kent State University stumbles on the transcript of an interview with her grandmother. This is what happened to me in 2001, when I made the trip from Chicago to Kent, Ohio to look at two boxes of uncatalogued Šimaitė papers. Inside one of the cartons was a black notebook labelled “Father Juozas Vailokaitis (1880-1953) in Siberia.” A note fixed to its cover read: “This Lithuanian material was found on a shelf in the Archive, unidentified, on January 2, 1994. It has been placed with these other materials in hope that the next researcher can identify it for us.” I almost fell out of my chair when I saw what was inside. It was a seventy-two-page interview with my grandmother.

I saw Krzysztof Kieslowski’s film The Double Life of Véronique when I was a teenager, and I remember loving it, but not understanding it. What was the connection between the two women who shared a name? How did their mirrored lives interact? Why did one live and the other die? These were questions I couldn’t answer.

Recently, this film has come back to mind with each new mirroring I find in the lives of my two Onas, who shared not only a first name, but second initial. Ona Šimaitė and my grandmother, Ona Šukienė, were born in Lithuanian villages within five years of one another. For both, 1941 was a pivotal year that changed their lives forever: this was the year the Nazis invaded Vilnius, and the year the Red Army deported my grandmother to Siberia. Fragments of both life stories ended up in one box in an American archive to which neither had any connection.

But when I visited my aunt a few weeks ago to talk about family history, I discovered yet another shared biographical detail: both Onas had unofficially adopted daughters named Tanya. Šimaitė’s Tanya was a young Warsaw woman whom she smuggled out of the ghetto; my grandmother’s, a Russian girl in Brovka who reminded her of her own daughters.

I’m not yet sure what to do with this constant doubling. What does it tell us about life? Are we to understand, perhaps, that there are only handful of “starter lives” handed out every generation, and then each individual must do what s/he can with a given template? Have I stumbled upon two variations on the theme of  “the Ona Š. life”? Does this mean that I am living “the Julija Š. life,” and that, if I leave enough behind, someone will find my double in an archive after I’m gone?

I’ve written about the find at Kent State in more detail in an article called “Brovka: Reconstructing a Life in Tatters (My Grandmother’s Journey).” You can read it via this link. (No subscription required)

[Ex libris plate by Žibuntas Mikšys; Photo by Julija Šukys]

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