In 1939 my mother received a black-edged letter from Beachy, Saskatchewan. Her beloved Grandmother Siemens had passed away. Grandmother had been an important person to my mother in the village of Herzenberg and had made the escape to Canada in the ‘20s with the rest of the Siemens family.
The only knowledge I have of my grandparents comes from brief stories my parents told us over the years, and because death had come early to most of them, the stories were often of those sad events. The exceptions were the stories my mother told of her carefree very early years of her warm relationships with her Siemens grandparents in the intimate community life of a small village in the Ukraine near the Dnieper River. She told of running over to Grandmother’s house, being lovingly welcomed, hearing stories, sitting in the orchard in the secure embrace of Grandma’s arms.
My father told of the respect his father had for him. He was the only son that was privileged to go, very briefly, to residential high school in Crimea. When, in northern Russia, his father, in failing health, read in the local paper that a teacher was required in a nearby village, he respected his son so much that he encouraged him, then only sixteen years old, to apply for the position. The response was that a farmer from that community arrived at my father’s home to take him directly to his new assignment.
There is a sad element of that story. His father died on the day he left for his first teaching position. His mother died years later during the Stalin era of forced deprivation while my father was already safely in Canada. Both grandparents are vague, distant people known only from these flashbulb stories and from one sepia toned formal portrait.
Mother’s mother died of TB when Mom was twelve. She is remembered fondly, and her death ended a time of love and acceptance. She was replaced promptly by a twenty-year-old aunt, the sister of a woman who had borne five children. The new mother promptly carried on the tradition by carrying six more children, the last of which was born brain damaged because of a failed knitting needle abortion attempt. Mom’s father died of an unknown illness when the family made a failed attempt, as refugees from Communist Russia, to settle in Mexico. Mom always spoke with deepest respect of her loving father. He was known, it’s been said, for the wisdom of his insights expressed in community meetings.
The theme of loss, uprootedness, bereavement, and grief, pervade the snapshot stories of my grandparents. The photo album of their history has many empty pages.