by Pat Seman

Maria Vasileyevna. Tall and firmly built, she wears a bright yellow, floral headscarf. Immediately I see my father in her, the shape of her mouth, her eyes.

She’s waiting for me in the small council office of the Ukrainian village where I’ve come in search of my family, and already I’ve learned that half the village bears my grandmother’s surname. Maria, as teacher at the village school and local historian, is a fund of knowledge when it comes to the genealogy and blood ties of this close-knit community. She’s here to help me trace my family.

“I’m a Semenyuk too, on my mother’s side. We’re all one big family here.” Blood is strong,” she tells me, “it pulls you back to the earth it was fed on. The earth of this village is a magnet. It has brought you back to us. Welcome to Vasyliv.”

She sits down with us, puts on her glasses and studies the photograph I’ve brought with me, then takes out a notebook and begins to write.

The next day she phones to tell me she’s found my family.

In the spring of the next year, 2010, I was back in Ukraine, working as an English teacher at a language institute in the main provincial town, Chernivitsi. I wanted to stay longer this time, explore the country, go for long unhurried walks through the lanes and tracks of Vasyliv and, above all, I wanted to get to know my family. At weekends I’d take the local bus to the village. Long afternoons spent with cousins and second cousins, their children and grandchildren, often taken from house to house and at each house another meal spread before me. Eating and drinking and talking until the early hours of the evening. Whenever I could tear myself away from my family’s infinite hospitality I’d visit Maria, who by now had become a firm friend.

Maria lives in a small two-roomed house. There’s a courtyard with a fenced off section for her animals—two baby goats, some chickens and a big gobbling turkey. In the middle of the courtyard stands a well and further back, near the entrance to her garden is a wooden hut, which serves as the outside toilet. When I arrive she always has food waiting for me—blinis, borsch, fresh boiled eggs with crunchy spring onions, a dish of chicken or succulent kid. I sit at the table in the corner of her room with its two beds against the walls and picture of the Virgin Mary hanging above the wood stove.

“Eat, eat! I promise you’ve never tasted anything as good as this before. Everything’s my own produce, fresh from the land. Here, take some more bread. Everyone must eat. That’s the way it’s always been. You can’t work on an empty stomach.”

Maria is a history teacher at the local village school. Every morning she’s up at dawn to tend her garden, her cherry and apricot trees, vines and flowers. By 8 o’clock she’s at school ready to begin her first lesson. From my own experience, teaching English to school children in Chernivtsi, I imagine her sitting at her desk on a raised wooden dais in front of the blackboard as the children, neatly dressed, file in quietly, hang up their jackets in a wardrobe at the back of the classroom, take their places at old-fashioned wooden desks lined up in straight rows. A classroom with white lacy curtains at the windows, pot plants on the windowsills, pictures and maps hanging on the white walls. The room clean and tidy, everything in its place. It has a typically Ukrainian atmosphere of domesticity; warm and comfortable.

But Maria tells me proudly that in her school instead of blackboards they now have white boards and that the old coal stove central heating system has been replaced by electric convection heating.

“It’s so warm in winter now that the temperature may even reach 24 degrees and the children can sit and study without having to wear their jackets! We have a special computer room and in each classroom there’s an overhead projector that can be connected to a laptop.”

She comes home in the afternoon to more work, hard, manual work this time on her land. Everything she does herself; follows the tractor as it ploughs the earth, pulling out weeds and stones; plants the potatoes, corn and vegetables; weeds and harvests them.

“In everything I do, I find something special. I give it my best.”

One afternoon as I’m walking along the path to Maria’s house I pass a bridal procession making its way towards the church. My attention’s caught by two children who go before the bride and her family, one carrying a large decorated loaf and an icon, the other a long, white, embroidered towel. When I tell this to Maria, “Ah, the rushnyk!” and she disappears into the next room, returns with her own beautifully embroidered example.

“Here. This is my rushnyk. A rushnyk symbolises life’s journey, so it must be long and beautiful. It’s with us at all our most important moments—birth, marriage, death. See the red thread running through it? Red is for life itself, fertility, joy. The bride you saw today will take her rushnyk into the church with her. She and the groom will stand on it during the ceremony. And here”, she lays out on the bed a long-sleeved, embroidered white blouse. “A blouse, woven and embroidered by my great-grandmother.” With her hand she traces the paired motifs that rise in dense formation up each sleeve; a red rose for life and fertility, a black rose for the earth, repeated time and time again. Each pair, she explains, represents an ancestor, going back as far as the seamstress could remember.

She brings out a dress made for her by her mother; a long, white woven dress with crocheted hem and cuffs, the top and sleeves all closely sewn with tiny beads in a pattern of large red roses against green leaves. She insists I try it on, kneels at my feet to roll up my jeans, adjust the hem, squeezes my feet into a pair of her daughter’s tight, pointed shoes, then wraps a long black apron skirt around my waist, bright with tiny beads that glimmer and shine in a pattern of flowers as varied and rich as those in her garden. The dress feels heavy, almost regal in its weight and flow and, tottering out to have my picture taken amongst Maria’s tulips and sweet-smelling narcissus, I wish I’d inherited just some of that poise and elegance that I’ve seen in so many young Ukrainian women, immaculate in their high heels and tight skirts, strolling along the streets of Chernivtsi.

Out through her garden and onto a wide sweep of land that curves gently down to the river, I follow Maria as she strides over the tilled earth, down along a track between plots furred with tiny green shoots.

“There, those are potatoes and over there corn, here beetroot and cabbage. The earth is dry. We need more rain and soon, if they’re to grow.”

She points back towards the ridge we’ve just come from, with its scattering of low-roofed, wooden houses. “That’s where your great-grandfather’s house was once, there where they’re now building a big brick house. Your grandmother worked on this land, in summer she and all her family were out in the fields together hoeing from dawn to dusk. Hemp used to be grown here, great stretches of it. It had to be picked, soaked in the river, then laid out to dry. Your grandmother would have spent the long winter evenings spinning and weaving it into carpets and blankets for her trousseau. And she would have embroidered – bedcovers, pillows, and a pair of white trousers and white shirt for her future bridegroom to be worn at their wedding, and of course, her rushnyk.”

Maria and I are sitting by the river cracking sunflower seeds. She’s laid out a blanket for us just clear of the sheltering trees. Nearby some goats and a tethered cow graze on the grass verge. A stork sails by, skimming the opposite shore, which is steep and wooded, its green reflection wavering in the water’s steady flow.

We talk about the recent elections. Yanukovitch, with his connections to Russia, has come to power. Maria tells me that one of his first acts has been to deny that the terrible famine of the 1930’s, in which at least 7 million people starved to death, was an act of genocide committed by the Soviet Union upon the Ukrainian people.

“The Soviet Union stripped the Ukraine of all its harvest leaving our people to starve. They even skimmed off our rich, black Ukrainian earth, took it away by the trainload.” She tells me that this part of Ukraine, Bukovina, escaped this catastrophe; it didn’t become part of the Soviet Union until 1940. But in 1944 collectivisation was introduced into the village. Any peasant who protested against the confiscation of his land was deported to Siberia. The grain too was confiscated, even the seed grain. Soviet agents were sent into the villages to search from house to house for hidden stores of food. Many people died.

“There on the other side of the river,” she points to the steep, wooded bank, “the situation wasn’t so bad, they had rain. The people of Vasyliv would go there with whatever they had and barter it for bread. Just downstream from here there’s a spot where the river runs shallow, that’s where they would cross over. There was a woman; she was pregnant. She was coming back weak with hunger, exhausted, clutching a bag of flour. She’d just exchanged it for her embroidered, beaded blouse. She didn’t make it, couldn’t keep her footing. The swift current swept her away. “These are our stories, our history, written down in every school text book in Ukraine. I am a history teacher. What am I to tell my pupils now? That what they’ve read, what I’ve told them, given them as their history, is not true?”

Vasyliv was once an important town in the rich and flourishing principality of Kiev Rus. Situated on the River Dniester, it was part of the crucial trade route that linked the Baltic to the Black Sea and Constantinople. With amber from the Baltic shores and rich brocades, wine, oil and perfume from the Black Sea and beyond, ships sailed into harbour and traded for the local produce –honey, wax, fur, grain and pottery. It had numerous churches, monasteries and a castle, the residence of Prince Vasili, grandson of the Grand Prince of Kiev, Yaroslav the Wise. But its prosperity was short-lived. In 1241 an invading horde of Mongols burnt it to the ground.

I know all this because Maria has taken me along the river, shown me the site of the ancient harbour, the trading post and the large ploughed field nearby where once stood the Prince’s castle. She’s given me a tour of the village museum of which she is curator, with wave of her teacher’s rod, guiding me through the carefully executed plans, diagrams, archaeological drawings and finds that tell the story of Vasyliv’s long history, reaching back 7,000 years. And together we’ve been to the site of the White Stone Church on a rise at the edge of the village with its remains of 12 stone sarcophagi, where princes and boyars once lay; where during the excavation in and around the site, skulls were found.

“So many skulls, here and in other parts of the village. Piled high they were. When the experts examined them they proved to have exactly the same proportions as the skulls of our present day villagers.” Hearing this I wonder, if my skull were put to the test, would I too turn out to be a direct descendant of these citizens of Ancient Rus. Could my connection to this place and its people really go back so far?

Whenever I can, I go back to Ukraine, to my family and Vasyliv. The last time I was there, as always, I sought out Maria. I found her at the bottom of her field of vegetables down by the river, which was swollen and seething after several bouts of heavy summer rain. She was hanging onto a tree branch, leaning over the fast flowing water, trying to catch a long branch floating by, her face shining with sweat from the effort. She told me that her daughter had gone to find work in Poland. She’s a qualified teacher, but there’s no work in Ukraine for young people and no motivation to study, since a degree is no guarantee of a good job; it’s only money and the right connections that count. The crisis in Ukraine was making the situation even more acute and forcing many of them to seek a better future abroad.

“Ah,” says Maria, “there are so many places to see, so many countries I’ve read about, talked about to my students. If I only had the money, could leave this country, travel, I’d go to Germany, England, Canada, Brazil, India, Greece … a trip round the world! Maybe I’d live abroad for some time, Canada or Sweden, probably for five years, and then I’d come home. For me there’ s no better place to live, my roots are here, here in this earth of Vasyliv. I plant the seeds in its rich earth, they absorb its goodness, grow into the food I eat: the potatoes, the carrots, the cabbage, the beetroot, the sweet corn.

Wherever I am in the world
I won’t forget Vasyliv.
When I think of it, my heart misses a beat.
My Vasyliv, my Vasyliv.

We walked back up the hill in the late afternoon light following the track through Maria’s long field of vegetables, the corn hip-high, potatoes, carrots, beetroot, beans laid out in neat rows, every inch of soil used. On into her garden, which was a tangle and explosion of green. There were roses and lilies of all colours, tall yellow irises, peonies ready to burst their buds, flowering beds of strawberries.

It was time to leave. Maria disappeared into the house, came back with a large jar of preserved cherries and a bowl of eggs, each one individually wrapped in newspaper.

A last hug.

“Come back soon. Don’t forget us!

As if I ever could. AQ