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Family Photos
by Olga Stein

One day, viewing our family's past will be a matter, not of sketching a family tree or looking at rare, faded photographs, but of opening a digital file-the exact sound of our ancestors' voices, every nuance of their character captured and conveyed via the miracle of digital technology. One day, perhaps, our ancestors may even appear before us as life-sized, holographic projections. Such perfect reproductions of our loved ones may leave few questions unanswered, but they will also leave too little to the imagination.

For now, however, the past must be reconstructed the hard way. Old photographs materially manifest the fading of familial memory, the great temporal divide between those who look and those whose image is looked upon. More often than not, old photos convey the sad fact of just how little they offer as opposed to how much.

In her biographical account of her family's history, Honey and Ashes, Janice Kulyk Keefer writes: "To write of the dead, to conjure them through love into even momentary being, is an enormous task." Old photographs figure prominently in this task: Keefer describes, analyzes, and speculates about them aloud. More importantly, she lovingly subjects them and the individuals whose memory they are meant to preserve to the workings of her imagination-not the kind that invents or falsifies, but the kind that casts light on disparate, long-passed moments so that the joys and suffering of those no longer living become, for the reader, immediate, palpable, and meaningful.

"Imagination is bound up with memory," Kulyk Keefer writes. Memories, too, are imperfect. It takes the work of the imagination to translate them into meaningful images. And it is this very process of re-envisioning that renders memories coherent and, occasionally, yields real insight and deepening understanding. Honey and Ashes, a story about the lives of the author's grandparents and their two daughters in pre-World War II Poland (now part of western Ukraine) and Canada, moves from one such insight to another. In writing this book, Kulyk Keefer is driven, it seems, not merely by a desire to record, but also by the admirable need to discover and to understand: "What can I offer my dead, the ones I loved so dearly, and the ones I never knew? Is the blood we pour out for the ghosts only our endless longing for them? Or is it also curiosity in its most intense and dangerous form? The desire `to walk with the dead and yet see them with our own eyes, from our vantage point.' To disenchant them, or diminish the mythic shapes they once held for us, but also to reveal their difficult, remarkable, profoundly human lives."

While Kulyk Keefer's grandmother, Olena Solowski (née Levkovych), is in labour with her first child, her vindictive mother torments her. Olena has done the unthinkable: she has married the wrong man. Gentle and loving he may be, but Tomasz Solowski was not the man Olena's parents had intended her to marry. "In the Old Place," Kulyk informs us, "people marr[ied] not for love, but land... Land [was] your one defence against poverty and hunger." By marrying despite family opposition, Olena and Tomasz forfeited the opportunity to acquire land through marriage, and they were left without any long-term prospects for themselves or their children. Olena's outraged mother, who had always been distant (she had wanted a son instead), abandons all pretense of maternal affection. The following passage sent shivers up my spine: "The rancour of that woman who folded her arms outside her daughter's door, her daughter's pain.... All joy, all desire, all freedom come to this: a gaunt, black-kerchiefed hag crowing at the threshold of your heart... [I]t was her own daughter she cursed, folding into her malice the only person who'd ever shown that daughter anything like gentleness. You wanted Tomasz, you've got Tomasz."

Kulyk Keefer makes apparent here that there are not only forms of cruelty which defy natural boundaries and human comprehension, but that not even the greatest love can shield against it.

In having her story written, Olena herself does not escape the scrutiny of her granddaughter, Janice Kulyk. She was too proud, is Kulyk Keefer's verdict. Having only moments before given birth to her second daughter, Olena, who knows the priest is on his way and knows, too, that he will tell everyone about her unwashed floor, gets down on her knees to scrub it, leaving the newborn to struggle for every breath. Such pride is a dangerous thing. "I can see two things," Kulyk Keefer writes. "One is my grandmother's gift for disabling fear, forestalling grief. But the other is the kind of pride that digs its own pit and tosses you inside. You know as you scrub the floor that your newborn child may be dying, alone, in the bed still warm from your body... You never look too closely at what you've accomplished and what might have happened instead. For pride-despite its endless care for what others might see when they steal their envious looks-pride is blind."

Olena thus becomes an outcast within her own family. Her daughters, too, bear the burden of that unyielding resentment. While dispensing honey to his own children, a relative gives none to the two little girls he knew were watching and wanting. Kulyk Keefer writes: "Cruelty, it's been said, is only fear disguised. In the Old Place, in Olena's dealings with her children, it seems to me that cruelty, or harshness is love in hiding. But how do we name the cruelty shown by a grown woman to her small nieces, denying them a handful of plums, a bread crust scribbled with honey? The kind of cruelty that fills the mouth with ashes."

This is not the worst form of cruelty depicted here by far. There is also that nameless, incomprehensible collective brutality. In the second part of Honey and Ashes, Kulyk Keefer examines the larger, historical context of her family's stories. She examines the Ukrainian-Polish conflicts (1918-1919 and 1930s), the suffering of Poles and Ukrainians at one another's hands, and the catastrophic fate of Jewish civilians who were brutalized by all parties-Poles, Ukrainians, Russian armies fighting for and against the Revolution, and later Nazis. There are forms of cruelty which cannot be explained and so, in this section, Kulyk Keefer provides facts, but offers no insight. Upon hearing one sad account in which a Polish woman and her small daughter are spared but her Ukrainian husband and seven sons are murdered by other Poles, including the woman's own relatives, Kulyk Keefer can only comment, "I think of how lucky my grandparents were to escape from Poland when they did."

Ultimately, Honey and Ashes is an emotionally powerful tribute not only to Kulyk Keefer's own family, their perseverance in the face of all manner of difficulties, and their success, but also to the country which adopted them. For despite the fact that 1930s Toronto was an "unjust city" in which immigrant labourers had no rights and immigrants in general were treated like second-class citizens, it is Canada that offered her family a future with all the benefits that hard, honest work can bring. It is Canada, with a political and social system superior by far to what existed and still exists in Eastern Europe, that offers her family, by the author's own admission, what they would otherwise have known only through fairy tales-a happy ending.


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