Meditation on This Stage of Life

May 7, 2012

I am old now.
I like it.
I don’t mind the memory gaps:
they diminish the importance of self
and dim the rush of time.
What I don’t like is
losing words and phrases
as if in preparation for something
I don’t remember agreeing to.

Floors become treacherous,
stairs fearsome,
doors get in the way and
things rebel and will not be picked up.
Can’t say I enjoy being clumsy again,
stumbling through these last years
like some daft teenager.

We play children’s games now,
being too tired for work.
Sometimes I wonder about that.
Mostly I just play games
and find that the eternal human quest for meaning
is well served by softball.

Diminishing expectations
have their virtues.
I can stop running now;
there is nowhere to go.
I can stop working;
I’ve done my share
with fifty years of hard labour,
having seen it is the community
not this or any individual
that makes the world a good place.

Sometimes I look at pictures
of people now dead.
I talk to them, sometimes.
High tolerance for pain now.
Hardly any surprises any more,
although there are some
about the many ways god finds
to torment suffering humanity.

Anger diffused now
into bemusement or mild indignation.
Bitterness sinks down
below memory of joy
and satisfying work
like weeds disappearing
in the compost.

I am blissed now
by sunsets and snow,
the miracle of plants,
all the people I know
and their grandchildren.

I am old now:
everything important happened
a long time ago.

And as my body slowly dries out
and senses fade,
views and sounds disappear
into dim half known shadows.
The assistance of mechanical aids
is invaluable
although limited in scope and imagination.
And every day and every day
I lose a little and then
a little more
along with the friends
once vital and supple and round
and filled with blood,
now creaking along slower than me
or rotting in graves
where all mortals end one day
no matter how beautiful and graceful
were our lives.

Still the grass is green
and the flowers sweet;
and there is time to contemplate
that which passed in a blur
so long ago.

I am old now.
I like it.

Helen Potrebenko
January, 2011

Another Silly Typing Error

October 19, 2010

The nature of typing is such that
there are none but silly errors to make:
renowned only for pettiness and an appearance of stupidity.
I don’t want to make silly little errors;
I want to make big important errors.
I want to make at least one error
which fills my supervisor with such horror
she blanches and almost faints
and then runs to the manager’s office.
The manager turns pale and stares out the window
then resolutely picks up the phone
to page the big boss at his golf game.
Then the big boss cones running into the office
and the manager closes his door
and hours go by.
The other women don’t talk,
or talk only in whispers,
pale as ghosts but relieved it isn’t them.
An emergency stockholders’ meeting has to be called
about which we hear only rumours.
I am offered a choice of either
fourteen years severance pay or early retirement,
to make sure I don’t accidentally
get a job with a subsidiary, allied company, or supplier.
A question is asked in Parliament
to which the Prime Minister replies by assuring the House
most typists only make silly typing errors
which only rarely affect the balance of trade.
The only time I get to talk about it
is when I am interviewed (anonymously) for an article
about the effect of typing errors on- the economy.

October, 1986

Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit

Would You Mind Typing This For Me?

May 7, 2010

(first printed in Walking Slow, Lazara Press, 1985)

Of course, I wouldn’t mind.
I am a typist;
I am paid to type.
I will not, therefore, fix your bicycle,
reupholster your couch,
wash your windows,
serve you tea,
drive you to the airport,
or prune your apple trees.
But I shall certainly type this for you.

May, 1981

Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit

To Reach the Unreachable Star

May 7, 2010

(first printed in Walking Slow, Lazara Press, 1985)

God, she says, this is Linda.
It’s Friday afternoon down here;
I’m trying to type a perfect report.
It doesn’t matter really
except to me
and maybe to you
if you’re not too busy watching sparrows fall.
So tell me, God,
how you’re supposed to take it
when you set yourself a certain goal
and blow it?
This report was to have been free of errors –
why does it have two errors?
Am I being punished?
Or is it that I have, perhaps,
overreached myself –
aimed too high?
Maybe only some of us are fated to dine with the gods;
the rest of us must settle for
fixing typing errors.

June, 1983

Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit

On Getting Fired

May 7, 2010

(first printed in Riding Home, Talon Books, 1995)

I can’t remember their names any more;
I can’t remember their names any more;
they came and they went, never asking what for,
and got eaten by the people eating machine,
while money runs like blood to secret coffers.

In the belly of the beast,
you can hear young women laughing,
laughing, laughing….
In the belly of the beast,
you will never hear them cry.

I like me, I’m strong; I can live here all right.
I’ve worked here two years, a week, and a day.
It keeps me off welfare and food lineups,
while money runs like blood to secret coffers.

They came from Toronto, the young hatchet women.
And I thought I was getting hard.
Geez, you know, I thought I was getting hard!
I am but a novice
fit only to crouch at their stone feet,
yearning after their stone heart.

In the belly of the beast,
you can hear young women laughing,
laughing, laughing….
In the belly of the beast,
you will never hear them cry.
No, you’ll never hear them cry.
Nor me either.
You won’t hear me crying.

February, 1988

Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit

To Be Unemployed So Early

May 7, 2010

(first printed in Life, Love and Unions, Lazara Press, 1987)

To be unemployed so early in the morning
seemed the most bizarre aspect.
After all, there must be two million of us now;
who was I to think myself different?
Did I think I would just grow arthritic and complacent
while others paid?
But still, so early in the morning?
Before coffee even?
Monday was my coffee day
and there I was, instead of making coffee,
crunching through the snow
headed for the oblivion of poverty,
unpaid mortgage, drunkenness, divorce;
a story so common or so evil
nobody writes about it.
But so early in the morning?
I had left early for the bus that morning
because of the snow,
wearing boots, with my shoes in my bag.
(I never got to change into my shoes.)
In my bag too was a vase of weekend flowers
(three daffodils and a tulip)
for my desk, to cheer me up.
But I had no desk,
and with my shoes still in my bag,
I clutched the vase in confusion,
finally putting it on Linda’s desk.
Then I went out into the snow
to find the rush hour wasn’t over yet.
I walked through the snow
thinking they could have waited until after coffee,
thinking what a freak I was
to never have anticipated
being unemployed
so early in the morning.

February, 1986

Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit

The Unknown Child

May 7, 2010

(first printed in Riding Home, Talon Books, 1995)

You have all heard praise of war –
for God and Country we send forth
killing men and killing machines
and afterwards build monuments
to battlefields, to generals,
to the unknown soldier.

Let us now build a monument
to the unknown child;
the one who died of hunger,
of war,
of epidemic disease,
of poverty,
of massacres,
died because it was born to parents
living in Tigre, Nicaragua, Haiti,
Chad, Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan
of some other obscure and war-torn,
poverty-stricken nation.
The wise child knows to be born
to rich white parents;
the unwise choose the Amazon regions,
choose to be Bushmen
or Aborigines.

Let us now praise children
and build for them monuments.
Perhaps while building monuments,
we will remember the natural order –
that the older die before the younger;
that the younger must be nurtured
so they can grow and strengthen
and maybe some of them will know
some day
a way to live
without war and famine.

October, 1988

Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit

Every Rich Man

March 8, 2010

Every rich man is sure
somebody is else is getting more.
No matter how much he has,
someone else may be getting some
and he wants that too.
It’s either women or Indians or Asians
or blacks or Jews
or the Anthropophagi
who might be getting something,
the rich man wants.
If the poor are thrown a crumb,
the rich howl with rage.

April, 1990

Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit

A New Job

March 8, 2010

Now I’ve got a new job
and a new boyfriend
so I do what I’m told.
I dress carefully,
speak softly,
and I am always polite.
If “pleases” were pavement
women workers would hardtop the world.

August, 1978

Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit

How I Became a Canadian

November 6, 2009

(from No Streets of Gold,, New Star, Vancouver, 1977)

My father asked me to fill out the application for his old age application and to accompany it with a letter explaining that his original passport was taken away from him when he was about to be deported, and it wasn’t returned when he got his naturalization papers.

How could they deport you and make you a citizen at the same time? I asked.

He started with a long explanation of how a zhorna works, consisting of two specially ground rocks with holes in the middle. In English, the rocks comprising a zhorna for grinding grain into flour are called millstones and they were run by water power or electricity. However, poor people had to turn the rocks manually.

It’s women’s work, my father said, but as a youth I helped my mother grind. I would take off my trousers, leaving only my shirt on, and it would flap when I moved my arm to turn and blow fresh air on my body. It’s hard work and takes a long time.

Have we got to Canada yet?

Yes. The last farmer I worked for in Lamont during the harvest of 1930, just before we went to the homestead, offered to give me his zhorna, which he no longer needed being a first-wave immigrant. But I said we had come to Canada to find a better life and if we must still grind with a zhorna, then we may as well have stayed at home. So we went to the homestead without the zhorna.

We moved to the homestead, and you know all that, about how we built a house and started clearing land, and we had no machinery and no money, and there was no market for grain even if we had been able to clear and break enough land by hand. Besides, the crops were no good in the 30’s even if we had been able to grow some, which we didn’t. So every year I had to go and look for work, leaving your mother and first one baby, then two, alone in the house. You remember the house, the one we later used for a chicken coop.

Yeah, I replied, and I didn’t think it was big enough, even for the chickens.

In 1934, my father said, I didn’t earn anything on the harvest. I left home with 96 cents and I earned $6 and things were pretty grim. And so they said they were going to deport us because we were communists. You should know about the history of your country. Of stories such as this is your history made up.

Very well.

It’s the fall of 1934, my father said. Your mother cooked a chicken and some bread for me and I rode the freight to Edmonton.

That year the police were beating freight-riders something awful. But when my father and Selevich got to High Prairie, they met up with a group of Sunset House people, so there were no more worries. There were a lot of them and the men from Sunset House were communists and stuck together. They rode the freight like hospodars, not like bums, because no one could touch them.

In Westlock there were normally only two RCMP officers. The freight had to stop and take on water there, and someone must have wired ahead because the RCMP had reinforcements and there were five of them waiting for the freight.

Four of the mounties pointed guns out the police car windows, while a fifth was sent to beat on the men. But the first four men they met up with were my father, Selevich, Alexiewich, and Wasyl Shewchuk. The policeman looked them over and then started talking instead of swinging. He persuaded them to get off the freight to talk. The freight was manoeuvring, picking up cars and the like, so they thought they could easily get back on. But after the train took on water, it backed up for about half a mile and then whipped by them so fast they saw only sparks from the wheels flying by. And policemen laughing.

The RCMP were going to arrest them so they took them to the station. But there were a lot of them and jails were overflowing in the 30’s so the police only wrote down a few names and lost heart.

There was a flower garden outside the station and the men dropped their packs on the flowers as they went inside. It was a kind of petty revenge since they couldn’t think of anything else to do. The after the police told them they could leave, they sat around eating and talking for a while. Finally they decided to leave. They had to walk all the way from Westlock to Edmonton with a police escort. A priest in a car stopped to pick up some of them but the police spoke to him and he drove off empty.

In Edmonton, the men learned that the crop in Saskatchewan had been a disaster and there was no use going there.

There was a concert at the AUUC hall (then called ULFTA), my father said, and I don’t really like telling you this part but I have said I will tell you the truth. I had 96 cents, you will remember, and the concert cost 25 cents. But workers’ organizations are always collecting money for some cause and this woman came to sit down beside me and do a pitch for money. I told her I understood money was needed to build a workers’ organization and I told her I was a communist, but I had a wife and two babies on the homestead, left there without a penny, and they would die in the winter unless I brought home some money. The woman persisted. Finally I held out the 71 cents I had left and said: Look, this is the total wealth of a man, a woman, and two children – take it if your conscience permits you. She took it. Selevich looked over to see what had happened. Ti korova nischasna, he said, you poor cow.

They went south on a freight. My father remembered a town called Mirror where they were given water to drink but not allowed to get off. They got off at the next station, for by then it was obvious there were no crops to harvest.

My father also remembered one night when Selevich, who was a heavy sleeper, asked my father to wake him early in the morning before the sun came up so they could steal some potatoes. The provisions they had brought with them were used up by then. My father let Selevich sleep and got the potatoes himself which surprised Selevich who didn’t think my father would do that sort of thing. My father got about three-quarters of a bushel of potatoes, enough to give to all the freight-riders. But there was no work, so they returned to Edmonton and then Selevich went home. My father didn’t want to go home empty-handed, and he knew that in Lamont there would always be crops.

I knew many people from Lamont, my father said, since that was where your mother and I had worked, so I thought that if I hung around Edmonton for a few days, I would see someone I knew and get a ride with them. But no one appeared. You couldn’t get on a freight in Edmonton right then because the railway cops were being particularly vicious and patrolled the yards with dogs. All of us men carried blankets on our backs and slept wherever we could. I slept under the steps of the Immigration Hall since that was one building I knew. There were, you understand, a great many men like me walking around Edmonton and a great many women caring for lonely homesteads, waiting, but there were no crops to harvest. They gave us food at the Immigration Hall. Twice a day we lined up. First you picked up a bowl and a spoon. The first man gave you some oats porridge in the bowl. The second put two spoonfuls of sugar in the bowl and the third filled the remaining space with milk.

After two days, my father continued, I was weak and found that I could no longer eat this oats porridge. Strange. There it would be sitting in front of me, and I couldn’t eat. I simply couldn’t eat. I think it’s because of so much sugar, and maybe oats doesn’t have much food value. I gave up hope of finding a ride to Lamont. What I did then was walk around to the bakeries in Edmonton and explain my situation. The first four refused. By the fifth one, another man with the same idea had joined me and this fifth baker gave us a loaf of bread. I took my half loaf and started for the highway to Lamont.

For a long time, my father said, I stood on the highway with my thumb stuck out but no one stopped. There was a great deal of traffic on the road and dogs riding in some of the cars passing by. But I was only a man so I walked.

After a time I was tired and hungry. I stopped in a farmer’s yard, a rich farmer, judging by his possessions, and asked the man in the yard if he would give me some food. He went away and presently a woman came out carrying a can full of skim milk which she set down in front of me. I didn’t want to carry the can away because it looked like a new one, so I sat down right there and pulled out my bread to eat with the milk. The farmer had many turkeys and chickens and geese and you know how curious those birds are. They all came over to where I was sitting – and there I sat, banqueting on bread and skim milk, surrounded by cackling, gobbling, honking poultry

Then I set out walking again. By night time I had reached Fort Saskatchewan. The prisoners there worked on a large farm and they had just stooked sweet clover. I scattered some of the stooks, made myself a bed of sweet clover, and slept.

The next morning, I continued walking. About noon a broken-down truck passed me going in the other direction, then stopped and backed up. In it were a farmer and his son. Will you stook for a dollar a day? the farmer asked me. I replied I would and he motioned me to get on the back of the truck. We went to Edmonton. There I waited while they did their business and by evening we were back at their farm, which was near Gibson.

$1 a day? I asked. But you have told me that in 1928 you were working for farmers for $2.50 a day.

That was 1928, my father said, and now I’m talking about 1934. The farmer owned two binders, one of which he ran himself, and the other one his son worked on. There were two workers to do the stooking: a Czechoslovakian named Stefan and myself.

My father was very weak from walking and lack of food. In the morning his nose started bleeding and bled slowly all day. He stooked 16 hours, dripping blood on the bundles. In the evening, he spoke to the farmer.

Listen, he said, when I said I would stook for $1 a day, I meant for a normal 10 hour day. Are we going to work 16 hours every day?

We will work as long as necessary until the harvest is finished, the farmer replied.

Then you must pay us more.

Don’t start demanding things, man; you stooked only about a quarter as much as Stefan.

I know that. I am weak and my nose bled all day but I did the best I could and I stooked for 16 hours. I’ll settle for a dollar a day for a ten hour day, but for every hour over ten, I want another ten cents a day. Today I earned $1.60.

The next morning the farmer gave him breakfast and told him he no longer worker there.

All right, my father said, but where is the $1.60 I earned yesterday?

You’re getting no money, not even a dollar, the farmer replied. You didn’t do enough work.

My father started walking down the road. But the farmer’s wife yelled and then his son joined in, so the farmer came out and threw a dollar after my father. My father came back to pick up the crumpled bill and kept walking towards Lamont.

Near the river there was a large farm with many bundles lying on the ground. The farm was owned by a Frenchman who was harvesting with a tractor. My father waited for the man on the tractor to come around to his side of the field.

You’ve got a lot of stooking to do, he said to the farmer. Will you pay a dollar a day?

The farmer said he would. My father stooked there until the field was done which took five days. Now he had $6 but his clothes were ragged.

Freshly cut bundles are relatively easy to stook as they are greenish and damp. But bundles which have been laying on the ground for a while are heavy from the moisture they have absorbed from the ground on the bottom. They are dry on top. They can’t be stooked fast because if you grab them by the twine, they’ll fall apart. You have to grab them by a handful of the stalk each time and be fairly careful. The dry stalks are scratchy and destroy clothing. At the end of five days, my father’s denim jacket and overalls were a mess.

And still he had only $6. It started to rain, a heavy rain which looked as if it could last for days. What to do? The only way to pass rainy days was to find a friendly farmer who would let you sleep in a barn or grainery out of the rain. But there wasn’t anyone who would feed a worker when there was no work to do. And after the rain stopped, who knew if there would be more work? People were saying that even for threshing, the pay was only going to be $1 a day.

My father decided he had better take his $6 and go home. But how were they going to live through the winter? What were they to buy salt and sugar and flour and kerosene with?

He was near Kostyshyn’s. Four years earlier, Kostyshyn had offered to give my father his zhorna, but my father had refused, saying he had not come to Canada to live like that. Now he went to see Kostyshyn again. Kostyshyn even gave him lunch. Would he still give him the zhorna? Sure he would, but how was he to get it home? The bottom rock weighed about 70 or 80 pounds and the top one about 200 pounds. A train ticket from Edmonton to Rycroft cost $14 just for the passenger, and my father had only $6. Kostyshyn called to his son to harness the horses. Since it was raining, they weren’t doing anything anyway, so the son drove my father and his zhorna the 14 miles to Lamont.

In Lamont, my father went straight to the store of the Ukrainian Jew named Tarnov. Everybody went to Tarnov. Ukrainians who were virulently anti-semitic in the old country discovered when they came to the new one that the only people who would help them were Jews who had arrived before. On their side, the Jews were hated in the new country the same as in the old, and they were pleased to find among all the strangers some who spoke their language and were familiar with their culture.

Tarnov had a small business consisting of a store, a restaurant and other minor ventures. He put people up when they needed it, fed them, kept their mail for them, advised them about legal matters, wrote letters, and did whatever else was necessary. He was always scrupulously honest and did not ask people for payment when they had none.

My father slept the night there. Tarnov advised him in the morning to go to the stockyards nearby since there was stock being shipped to Edmonton. Almost as soon as he arrived at the stockyards with his zhorna, my father found a Ukrainian farmer who was taking pigs to Edmonton. The farmer told my father that he could come along if he paid him $5. My father said he had made only $6 on the harvest and Edmonton was still a long way from home. They finally settled on $1.25, so now my father had $4.75 left.

The farmer was taking the pigs to 101st street in Edmonton, which is the street the Immigration Hall was on. He left my father and his zhorna there. My father hid the smaller rock under the stairs of the Immigration Hall and putting the other rock wrapped in a blanket on his back, set off for the Dunvegan freight marshalling yards five miles away.

Two hundred pounds is heavy and it was getting dark. Walking by some elevators, he stopped to rest by leaning back against the crossbar on the door to ease the weight of the rock. Down the way he saw a flashlight, but ignored it until the person approached him.

What are you carrying? the voice behind he light asked.

Gold, my father replied irritably, starting to walk away.

The man seized the rock and since it was heavy, my father was knocked over. Lying on the ground, he started cursing, but he couldn’t speak English well enough to do it properly.

What language do you speak? the man asked.

Ukrainian, my father replied and to his surprise the man started speaking Ukrainian. He turned out to be a trilingual German from Bruderheim who was in the RCMP. My father told him about how he hadn’t made much money on the harvest so he had been given the zhorna and was taking them home.

How will you get them home?

I’ve already got that planned. I tie them onto a place under the train I know about while the freight is still in the marshalling yard, then I will jump the same freight and get to Rycroft that way.

What if you can’t? What if you try to jump the freight carrying the rock? It is difficult enough for an unencumbered man to jump a freight but if you try it with a heavy weight on your back, you’ll fall under the wheels and be cut in two.

I’ll take my chances, my father said. I don’t have much choice.

Don’t be dumb, man. Go down to the RCMP station and they will give you a permit to ride on the train free.

My father laughed. The police? They are agents of the bourgeoisie. Pahnski sobaki. You wouldn’t help a poor man.

You talk like a communist. Who gave you red spectacles?

Red spectacles! Haven’t I been here for six years, working harder than in the old country and for nothing? My wife and children are waiting at home for me to bring enough money to live through the winter. Someone had to give me red spectacles? Can’t I see for myself?

Oh, things will get better. In the meantime, the police will help you out. He gave my father an address.

My father continued walking to the marshalling yards where he buried the rock , then walked back to get the other one, which he likewise hid. Then he went back to sleep under the steps of the Immigration Hall. In the morning he got in the food line-up, breakfasted on oats porridge and went to address the policeman had given him.

Did you think they were going to help you? I asked him in amazement.

No, of course not. I wanted evidence against the capitalist system.

Oh, you didn’t have enough evidence – with making no money, and that house and the farm and no roads, and…. Oh no! That wasn’t enough evidence, you had to humbly ask for more!

Never mind, my father said, taking a drink from the vodka bottle I had set in front of him. At 8 a.m. I am waiting at the copshop, forty years ago. The German policeman was not there, but instead, some kind of sergeant. What do you want? he says to me. I shake my ragged jacket sleeve at him. Then I lean over and shake the legs, one at a time, of my ragged overalls. Then I pull up my pant leg so he can see my ragged running shoes which I had mended with a piece of twine. In my broken English, I tell him about the $6, my wife and children, and the zhorna. He is very sympathetic, a good man. I even show him the $4.75 I have left. He says he understands and is appalled but that the RCMP have no funds for such circumstances. I can see he would give me his own money if he had any, but the police didn’t get paid too well in those days either. You can’t ride a freight with those rocks, the sergeant tells me, because you’ll get killed. I sympathize but if we catch you tomorrow, we’ll put you in jail rather than let your children be orphans.

The sergeant gave my father the address of the relief office and he went there next. He went through the same routine of shaking his rags and showing his twine-mended shoes. They were also sympathetic but they were the relief office only for the city of Edmonton and couldn’t give him a travel voucher beyond the city. They couldn’t even give him a meal ticket because he had showed them he had $4.75.

They sent him to walk to another place near the legislative buildings. The office had a name on it: Mr. McKenzie. My father went inside and there was a secretary. He shook his ragged jacket, his ragged trousers, and showed her his twine-mended shoes.

Mr. McKenzie! she called over her shoulder.

A pahn came in, and my father began shaking his rags but Mr. McKenzie asked him to please not repeat the story as he had been listening from his office.

How long have you lived in Canada? he asked.

Six years, my father replied.

Are you a citizen?


Why not?

I haven’t had time. I’ve been working at clearing some land, paying back debts, building a house, digging a garden. Nor had I the money for the application.

We can’t help you then. You’re not a Canadian.

But I need help.

We don’t need your kind of people here! I’ll give you a ticket back to Russia.

I need help, my father said, and I will sit here in your office until I get it.

He sat there all day and they pretended he wasn’t there. At four o’clock Mr. McKenzie told him they were locking the office and would he please leave. My father said he wouldn’t leave until he got help.

Oh, you need help, do you? Mr. McKenzie said, and he dialled on the telephone. Soon a burly cop entered the room.

Did you call? he asked.

Throw that man out, said Mr. McKenzie.

Which man, the policeman asked, although my father was the only other person there.

That one, Mr. McKenzie said, pointing at my father.

The burly cop grabbed my father with one hand by the back of his collar and the other by the seat of his pants and pushed him at a fast run down the stairs. My father ran at a tremendous speed to keep from falling, down the stairs and out the door, then finally fell on the lawn. Christ, a man wants to cry at a time like that. Crouched on the grass on all fours, my father said “sonofabitch” through his teeth and finally gathered up the strength to get up.

Well, I said handing him the vodka bottle, you had the evidence against capitalist you wanted.

Yes, I did. And heavy with the weight of this evidence, I walked again to Dunvegan. I crawled into a field near the marshalling yards and lying between the rows so no one could see me, dug potatoes with my hands and stuffed them inside my shirt, the way peasants do, you know, za pasookhu.


Then I went to a different place and started a fire over which I cooked the potatoes. I really ate a lot of potatoes.

You said before about cooking potatoes. What did you cook them in?

A tin can. There were always tin cans lying around. Most of us carried salt with us, tied in a rag. That was no problem. The rest of the trip wasn’t much of a problem either. I tied the rocks onto a freight going to Rycroft and jumped the same freight, just as I had planned. At Rycroft, I left the rocks with Roslanovsky and walked the 14 miles home. Normally, I would ride the freight to the Burnt River which was a lot closer to home, and jump off it when the train slowed down for the grade, but with the rocks this time I couldn’t do that. Andrew and Sawa Shura owned one horse each by this time, so I stopped by Andrew Shura’s on the way home and asked them to bring my rocks home the next time they were in Rycroft, which they did in return for some work. I still had to carry them home a mile from Andrew’s because there was no road yet over that creek by our place. The same day I bought some salt and some kerosene in Rycroft and spent all of the $4.75.

So we were penniless again, my father said, and winter had not yet begun. Your mother had already been to the relief office and been turned down. Selevich was facing assault charges for being thrown out of the relief office.

Nikolaychuk and I went to the relief office and got a $5 voucher each. Then they told us that anyone who got relief would be deported, so we didn’t go back again.

Well, my father said to Nikolaychuk, how are we going to live?

I know a way, Nikolaychuk replied, but it will be difficult.

Difficult is not impossible.

I know how to kill and skin squirrels, said Nikolaychuk, and I will teach you how. A man cannot go hunting alone, there must be a partner.

Bullets cost money.

I’ve got two boxes of bullets, said Nikolaychuk, and they cost 25 cents a box. I will loan you one of them. Can you borrow a .22?

Sure. Omelyan has one.

A two-bit box contained 50 bullets. No matter how careful a person is, sometimes you miss and it may take several bullets to kill a squirrel. The average was about two bullets per squirrel and the skins were selling for two and a half cents each. The first day they went hunting they killed 25 squirrels and expected to get 75 cents for them. After skinning and stretching them, my father walked to Spirit River – 18 miles away – to sell them at Harper’s Co-op. And for once, a miracle occurred! The price had gone up and he got a nickel per skin. He bought two boxes of bullets and still had 75 cents left over. He doesn’t remember what he bought with it.

We couldn’t tell anyone, my father said, that we were selling squirrels for a nickel each or I wouldn’t have been able to borrow a .22 any more. So Nikolaychuk and I disappeared early next morning and our wives told everyone we had gone to look for work. We stayed overnight this time, until all the bullets were gone. This time Nikolaychuk went to Spirit River. I told him what to buy for me with the money and he bought me what I wanted and gave me some money besides because the price was then seven and a half cents per skin. By spring, squirrel skins were twelve and a half cents each. We got through the winter all right.

What was Mother doing all this time? I asked. There was her and the two children alone most of the time.

She did whatever women do when looking after small children. She was a good mother. There was lots and lots of work to do, all that wood and water to be brought in….

But what did she think about it all? Summer is precarious enough, but winter? All my life she told us we would freeze to death if we once stopped that continuous getting and chopping and carrying of wood. Was she bitter then? Those years that fear was taking over her mind, was she bitter?

I don’t know.

Did you talk to each other?

Oh sure, we talked. But…

He beat her the day he got home from the relief office. He came home tired, hungry, angry. They have each told me different versions of how it started so I include neither version since I don’t think the details matter. In both versions, for no good reason, my father beats up my mother.

I have been insulted and starved and degraded, my father said. None of those pahnni treated me like a human being, but like some beast of burden, but no matter… I was still boss in my own house, and I could still beat the shit out of my wife and so I did.

I started to hand him the vodka bottle but then thought I better have one myself first.

But you’ve already told me…, I said. She was just as degraded and insulted and peasant women always had to work harder than men, and on top of that she had you to deal with? Was she bitter?

Maybe she was, but she was never afraid. I have never known another person like her. She was never afraid. Even, I had gun to her once and she spit in my eye. How are you going to look after the children if you kill me? she asks. She was never afraid.

He was only her husband so he wouldn’t know. Like all peasant women, my mother never accepted the inferior role handed to her. But I was her daughter and I knew she was afraid. Afraid of freezing, afraid of starving. No, that’s not right for death itself never held any particular threat for her. What she was afraid of was cold, hunger, illness…

In the spring, my father continued, another one of them pahns arrived. He said we would be deported because of that $5 relief voucher. They couldn’t deport Soviet Ukrainians because of the political situation, but our part of the country was still ruled by the Polish empire at the time. They deported thousands of our people after the Winnipeg General Strike, yet they were still fearful of the poor for they might become communist. Nikolaychuk wasn’t a communist so he wouldn’t be deported but the pahn told me we would be deported. Then we didn’t know what to do. It didn’t seem worthwhile to clear any more land because we wouldn’t be planting it the following spring, and people all around us were being deported. So we just sort of dragged around, still working, but mostly waiting.

In the summer, this policeman arrived, my father said. We had planted a garden but it yielded poorly that year. I was out clearing land, sort of half-heartedly. Who knew what might happen? The policeman spoke to your mother, walked around the house, then pulled out one of the poor carrots from the garden and ate it. Then he came to see me and said: I’ve been watching you for two hours, you know. Oh? All these mosquitoes, the policeman said. It was all bush and swamp, the area around there before we cleared it, and mosquitoes bred in unbelievable masses. Wherever a person went there would be a cloud of mosquitoes so thick you couldn’t see him.

I know, I said. My mother once told me she couldn’t take little Rose outside because she would get bitten by mosquitoes and get infected and babies could die of it.

Yeah, well, I don’t know anything about children, that was her job. This policeman said he had been watching me work, surrounded by mosquitoes. He asked me what I thought about being deported. I told him I didn’t care one way or the other, but that I wished they would make up their minds. The policeman said we hadn’t been deported yet because of the previous police report, but I didn’t know anything about that report.

Why don’t you care about leaving? the policeman asked my father.

You saw my house, my father said, you saw how my children are dressed, you saw what furniture we have, what food we eat? Tell me, do you think it’s possible for life to be any worse?

No, the policeman replied.

Then why should I care about leaving it?

All right, the policeman said, why don’t you want to go home then?

It isn’t much better there. It would be better because we then we would be with our own people. On the other hand, I left six years ago to go to America and if I go back now, they will call me “the American” for the rest of my life and talk about how I left to find a better life and came back ragged and hungry…

I see, the policeman said. We won’t deport you if you sign this form which says you will never apply for relief again.

But my father refused. You do whatever you want, he told the policeman, but I can’t sign any such form. For myself I might, but if my children are hungry, I will do whatever I have to do to feed them.

Soon they received word from Haig, the storekeeper who was also the postmaster, that their deportation had been postponed. They were tired of hanging around like that, not knowing if they would be allowed to live here or not.

I still had some money from the squirrels, my father said, and that summer I went to the court in Grande Prairie and paid the $5 necessary to apply for naturalization papers.

The court was full of people waiting to be called. I was about second. The secretary tells the judge I don’t speak English, but the judge says he will talk to me and find out for himself. He asks me about the relief and I tell him I had made no money on the harvest and had no way to live through the winter. Then I tell him about the squirrels.

Naturally, the judge says, as soon as you had some money you rushed down and repaid the $5 to the relief office.


Why not?

I don’t have $5 to spare. I made only enough money to keep myself and my family.

But you had $5 left over to make this application.

Yes, I judged it important because I don’t want to wait around to be deported.

The judge says I speak very good English and he had enjoyed speaking to me so much that instead of granting me naturalization now, he will ask me to come back later and speak some more. There is a buzz in the courtroom, all the people there having been curious to see how a communist would be dealt with.

I went home and stopped in Haig’s store on my way. You got your papers, Haig says, and I tell him no, and tell him what the judge said.

But I’m a government agent, being a postmaster, Haig says, and I know better than the judge. I know you got your papers.

I tell him he’s crazy. But only a week later when I went to the store, he waved an official envelope at me. He wasn’t supposed to be opening the mail, but he knew what was in it.

And that’s how I became a Canadian.

Naturalization for wives of citizens was almost automatic, so my mother got her papers soon after. And that’s how I came to be born a Canadian about five or six years later.