The Cultural Curator

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The ‘Old’ Country

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A few years ago, at my father’s urging, I got out my video camera, wrote down several questions, and prepared to interview my grandparents. It occurred to me that I had only ever known them as adults, but that they had lived entire lifetimes worth of memories independent from me.

Though my grandparents had been born and raised in Canada – Montreal, specifically – their parents had emigrated from the ‘Old’ Country – Russia, Ukraine, and England. That, however, was the extent of my knowledge. My family’s ancestry had, up until that point, remained a mystery of sorts to me.

When I sat down with my maternal grandparents (my paternal grandparents had already passed), it became evident to me that there was so much I hadn’t known. My grandfather’s father had immigrated to Canada from Ukraine to find work and secure a better life for his wife and two daughters, who followed him to Canada shortly after, several years before my grandfather was born. My great-grandfather worked day and night as a deliveryman (of eggs), while my great-grandmother assumed the traditional role of homemaker, always ready with chicken soup and Mandelbrodt. They kept a strictly Kosher, Orthodox Jewish home, and, as education was of the utmost importance to the family, my great-grandparents and great aunts made sure that my grandfather was a studious and dedicated pupil who would eventually be amongst the first Jewish people in Montreal permitted to earn a university degree.

On my grandmother’s side of the family, her mother had emigrated from England at a young age and later married my great-grandfather, who had come to Canada from Russia. My great-grandfather owned a local hardware store, and was widowed early on when my great-grandmother died from post-surgery complications, leaving my grandmother to take on the role of ‘caregiver’ to her younger siblings.

Eventually, my grandparents met, mingled, and married (while my grandfather was completing his accounting degree), and as they say… the rest is history. 62 years later (and counting!), they remain very(!) happily married, and I’ve been blessed with two very(!) wonderful grandparents.

Knowing my family history, however, has not stopped my nomadic mind from wandering now and again. I’ve done a considerable amount of traveling in my young life, with two stints living in Europe (first in Austria, and then in England), and every so often, I contemplate what life would have been like for me and my family had we never moved away from Europe.

I’m not big on ‘what if’s’, but I have several born-and-bred European friends, and sometimes, when I think of them, and I look at my life in North America, I can’t help but think of what the alternative might have been.

When I interned in Vienna and completed my Masters Degree in London, was I navigating the same streets as my great-great-grandparents? If I took a freeze-frame of those streets a century ago, would I have seen my great-great grandfather peddling milk or my great-great aunts and uncles walking to Synagogue for Shabbat services?

My accent is (clearly) very Canadian, but what did my ancestors sound like? I know they didn’t speak English, and I can only imagine they had heavy European accents, whatever language(s) they spoke, but had it not been for my great-grandparents making the decision to emigrate, would I have spoken English today? Would my parents? My grandparents? Would we be educated? Would we be well traveled? I would presume the answer to be ‘yes’, given the evolution of our society and our access to education and technology, but just how different (if any, really) would our lives have been, as a family, if we had never left the ‘Old’ Country?

Life, back then, was inevitably far different than it is for us today. There were no televisions, no Internet (those poor souls!), and most definitely no social media. There were no ‘Top Ten Places to Visit’ travel websites. People didn’t go abroad for excitement and pleasure; they couldn’t look in the newspaper to find special tours, or go online to search for seat sales. Travel, most often, was out of necessity, people fleeing persecution from their home countries. Routes were often long and treacherous but, on the other side, was the hope of a better, more prosperous life. This genre of ‘travel’ still exists for many individuals and their families to this day. My family did not leave Europe because Air Canada was having a great seat sale or because they heard that the skiing in British Columbia was just fabulous; they left because the alternative was a bleak one. And because they left, who knows how many of my family’s lives had been saved from the jaws of Hitler and his Nazi troupes?

But today, I look at myself and I do see Eastern European ‘features’. Would I have looked identical to the woman I see in the mirror had I been born in Russia? Ukraine? England? Have some of my features been ‘Canadianized’ as a result of being born a third-generation Canadian?

During my studies in Britain, I had many Eastern European classmates. I’m sure they saw me simply as the ‘North American Canadian girl’. And that I am. Not once did I think to elaborate by saying, “I’m actually of Eastern European descent, as well!” But I cannot deny my roots… where my family before me came from…. and the life they built for me here.

For so long, when others have asked me what my ‘background’ is, I’ve declared, “I’m Canadian!” with a great sense of pride. Like most other Canadians, however, we have generations of family members who have come from ‘somewhere else’. I believe it is both our privilege and our responsibility to find out where our ‘somewhere else’ is.

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This entry was posted on March 15, 2013 by in Family, Life, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
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