I remember when I first named you: “sister,” your sisterhood, a gift to me: you, sitting on the edge of the claw footed bathtub in the crowded bathroom of an old Milwaukee flat, crying. Smaller, I sat without a word, until we laughed - again. Then, I knew: You are my sweet, sweet sister, Sue. I remember you, 8 months pregnant – another baby! - your deep voice, your laughter until dawn in the Carolina night, the light from your cigarette, bright in the darkness. During the day, you were Mom. I remember you, marching with me to find the classical CD’s in the back of Barnes and Noble. You bought me Beethovan. I listened, all spring long, to the minor notes, mourning another Sue. Now, these notes are for you. I mourn for you. Sweet, sweet Sue: Your love was there: a simple melody in the background of my life. Your love, that spanned the miles, the years. I remember, Sue, sweet, sweet Sue. I remember you. “I don’t know when I’ll see you again, Sue,” I said into your silence, your deep hug. I remember your silent wave: "goodbye." (I watched you in the rear-view mirror). You knew, you knew, you knew, my sweet, sweet sister, Sue. You knew.
The alarm clock in Mom and Dad’s room went off every weekday morning at 6 am, all year, except for weeks when Dad had vacation from the steel mill. Mom, who was never a good sleeper, would jump out of bed at the sound of the alarm, pull on her bathrobe, summer or winter, and head into the kitchen. In the kitchen, she reached to the top of the refrigerator to turn on the electric radio, and she started to make Dad’s breakfast – bacon and eggs, every morning. And coffee – Dad liked his with evaporated milk and a spoonful of sugar. As part of her morning routine, Mom made sure these were on the table, ready for him.
I listened to this routine over the course of my years as a child, and on through my college years, when I commuted to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
On winter mornings, the routine had an added wrinkle: after my dad dressed in his work clothes, I’d hear him open the door from the kitchen into the back hall, then I’d hear his footsteps start down the steps that led from our second floor flat, past the door of the flat that was home to another family, right below us, and down another flight of steps into the basement. There, Dad shoveled coal from the coal bin into the furnace, stoked the fire, and climbed the steps again to find his breakfast waiting.
Sometimes now, I miss the heavy, heavy blankets that covered me in my narrow bed, pushed up against my sister Suzie’s narrow bed, the heavy blankets that kept me cozy warm. I miss the smell of the heat coming through the register in our room, making the room cozy, too.
I miss snow days, too.
We grew up hearing stories of the Winter of ’48 – before I was born, when the snow lasted for days, cars were marooned miles from home, covered with snow and parked in a snow bank. Some would not be discovered by their owners, who walked home that day, until the snow had melted enough for them to be seen. Pictures of that winter storm are still available to see on the Internet. (So, it was true…)
One day, I listened and listened to the school closings on the radio, waiting and waiting for “The Milwaukee Public Schools” to be called. They never were. Still, the wind was blowing, the snow was falling, and it was cold – real cold. So Mom told us we didn’t have to go to school. From the window of our living room, I watched the kids who still went to school that day, saw my friend Nancy, her head down as she faced the wind, walking from her grandparents’ house, two blocks to the east, to our school on 28th and Clarke Streets.
That was unusual for us Mid-westerners, though: if our school system had not made the list on the radio that morning, we’d be up and getting ready, like any other day.
After Dad had gone to work, Suzie and I got up and dressed for school in the warm room. When we got to the kitchen, our breakfast dishes and choice of cereal was waiting for us: cold cereal with milk, a glass of orange juice. While we ate, Mom stood at the kitchen counter, making our lunches: cold cuts on white home made bread, slathered in butter, an apple or a banana, and if we were lucky, a home made cookie or piece of cake – all wrapped in wax paper and carried to school in a brown paper bag.
After the storm days, on cloudy winter days, we children walked to school on the snow banks that stood four feet high between the street and the sidewalk, left there by the snow plows. At the end of the block, we’d take the steps that had been carved out in the snowbank by the children who’d walked there ahead of us, and climb the snow bank when we’d crossed the street, walking high above the sidewalk, taller than any adult, all the way to school, where we’d take off our layers of winter wear and park them in the cloak room between the classroom and the hall, along with all the other children’s winter trappings. All day, the cloakroom smelled of wool from the warming coats hanging there.
For a long time, I didn’t miss cozy, here in Northern California, but sometimes now, when it’s hot and dry – even in January – something deep in my memory yearns for that time and place, the warm house, the smells, the sounds of slushy roads, the scrape of folks shoveling snow, even the bleak, gray skies. I see my parents in my mind’s eye, as if they were from another time – indeed, they were – and I miss them. I even miss the cold, the gray. And the cozy.
Liga was my mother’s godfather. Whenever he arrived at our house, he was dressed in a suit coat. He looked like a retired businessman. I remember his presence, quiet, and he seemed kind. I don’t think I ever had a conversation with Uncle Liga. When he couldn’t work any more, he rode the Milwaukee buses in his suit – always a hat, with a top coat in the winter. In his final years, he lived in an old, narrow apartment close to downtown. The place was dark, made darker by the sounds of traffic on the busy street it faced.
Liga died in the bathtub of that old apartment. At that time, after Dad had retired, my mother and father went to check on him every few days. When he didn’t answer the ring to his doorbell, the apartment manager unlocked the door of his place. My father found Liga, dead. Later, Dad said he couldn’t sleep for several days after he found LIga. “I loved Liga,” Dad said.
Liga worked in the foundry with the other men who arrived from Eastern Europe in the early years of the 20th century. They left before the Revolution of 1917, a revolution that brought a new life, but not the life they had hoped and dreamed for their land. When I knew him, he was alone. I have a picture of him, from the pictures my mother saved and gave to me. It looks to have been taken in the “old country.” Liga, a young man – handsome, with thick, black, wavy hair – sits in a chair, dressed in a top coat and tie, looking sternly into the distance. A young woman, also formally dressed, stands behind him, her hand on his shoulder. What happened to her? What happened to him? Where did those beautiful young people go? In my mind, Liga was always an old man. And when I knew Liga, he was always alone.
Many Ukrainians fled Ukraine for work and food and an education for their children. They arrived in the New World, and settled in the industrial cities of the Midwest, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee. Others settled in Canada. They brought with them their hard work, their ability to live with very little – they were descendants of freed serfs – freed to remain landless, illiterate, and poor, apparently – and a need to drink. Oddly, I don’t associate Liga with drinking.
Most holidays, Liga joined us at the holiday table and in the living room afterward. He was there when we enjoyed the Christmas tree lights, and he was there when we tapped together the ends of colored, painted eggs at Easter, to see whose would crack first. The one whose egg didn’t crack was the winner!
Every few months, Liga arrived at the front door of our flat, where he rang the bell and waited for one of us to run down the stairs to answer the door. In the summer, I would often go to open the door for Liga. He would greet me, shyly and gently. Then, he and Mom sat for an hour or two at the kitchen table. She read to him the latest letter from his family in Canada, which had been carefully carried in his pocket. Sometimes a photo – black and white, of a favorite niece – was included in the letter. Then, Liga told my mother, line by line, his answer to the letter. She translated his Ukrainian into English. When Mom addressed the envelope, Liga always handed her a couple of dollars from his pocket, to put into the envelope with the letter. A few dollars from a poor man, sent as love.
When I think of Uncle Liga, a place in my heart is warm.
Only a few weeks ago, the news was not filled with story after story of the War in Ukraine. Only a few weeks ago, we were focused on what the next surge of the COVID virus would bring, what it would mean to this pandemic that has affected the world. Only a few weeks ago, we all waited for the next report: what countries were open to travel? How would life be different after these two years of the global COVID pandemic? Although these were not easy questions, we did not know how quickly and completely the news, our attention, the attention of the world would shift to Ukraine. Like so many of you, I cry every day now.
My mother’s first language was Ukrainian. Mary was born in 1918 to Alex and Frances Markowski – Vlas Markov Srebny and Feodosia Machsuda Srebna – in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Mary was the third living child of my grandparents, after her brother, John, and her brother, Michael. She was the second child to be born in the United States of America. After her would come Anne – Hannah – and Peter.
Like immigrants of all times and places, my grandfather and grandmother must have had their dreams, their hopes, for their new life in their new land. Or maybe it was my grandfather’s hope, and my grandmother, dependent on him, left her home and all she knew in the “Old Country” to come to a land she would not know as her own, as his spouse, without a dream of her own. They brought their first born – Ivan – and their memories of the land they knew, the people and customs of the land they knew, to this unknown place, where life would surely always be a struggle, as it is now, to the poor and the immigrants among us. Maybe my grandfather had a dream, a hope, some sort of light in himself that would surely come to shine in this new land. It did not. All of these thoughts now are speculation, because the poor and the uneducated among us are only numbers, so seldom is their story told.
The memory of my grandparents and how they came to be here is only memory, now. My grandfather died when I was one, and my grandmother, who only spoke Ukrainian in my memory, died when I was 19. Many times in the life I’ve crafted for myself, I’ve wondered about them. And I wonder who else now, in my generation, wonders about them, thinks about what their lives must have been like, what they held in them and with them as they came to this new place. Only questions arise, not many answers. As I think about my family in this country, I think that pieces of the story must exist somewhere, in someone. Who knows?
I’ve always had questions, I’ve always wondered, from the time I was young, about what lives my grandparents had. People who struggle to survive seldom leave deep marks on the path of their lives. Their children and their children’s children – and so on – are all that remain of them. I expect they had a dream, or a hope for this new place. I keep looking for that dream, that hope. I’ve been looking my whole life.
Were they content? Why leave their homeland, then? Why go to somewhere unknown, into an unknown future, with only hopes for something better, and nothing else? Whatever their dreams, they were not fulfilled. “Ukrainians have not done well in the United States,” I once heard a commentator say.
In my search for who they were – who I am – I have turned to DNA research. Several years ago, I connected online with a distant cousin who came from Ukraine, and who now lives in Canada. Through our connection, he had hoped to find a way for me to go to the place of my grandparents’ birth, their home. These days, instead, my cousin speaks daily to his family in Ukraine, helping them decide where to go for safety.
And this same story is being told for millions, millions of people, today.
Now, of course, another dream is lost. The dreams of millions in Ukraine have been smashed to death in just these past couple of weeks. As I write, people who could not think of leaving their home only a few days ago are leaving their homes, hoping to find safe passage to – to where? As I write, a war that started in the mind of one man is dismantling lives and livelihoods, forcing human beings to look for safety somewhere far from home. It’s an old story, older than the scriptures.
“Once I was happily content to be
As I was, where I was,
Close to the people who are close to me…”
– “Far From the Home I Love,” Fiddler on the Roof
Now, as the world watches, the Ukrainian people on the move again, people who were living their lives like the rest of us, just a few weeks ago. We are stunned as we watch, but our discomfort, our tears, our fears are only that. Today, we sit in our comfortable places, lamenting for these other human beings. Their history – their long history, has been full of violence, of turmoil, of poverty, all these things often at the hand of their leaders.
God save us all.
Autumn does, indeed, grace Northern California. Bushes, trees, squirrels, other creatures attest to that!