Lament For Ukraine

The recent events in Ukraine brought to mind vivid memories of Ivan Shepel, my father-in-law.  Surely, there would be tears in his eyes and hurt in his voice.

On Jan 23, 1997 Vera’s father, Ivan died. We found him sitting on the couch in his living room, facing the television, dressed in his undershirt, breathless. He died of heart failure, overnight, following many years of heavy smoking and drinking, with plans for a spring garden formulating in his mind. 

Dad (I addressed him as Dad, even before Vera and I married) grew into adulthood living in Ukraine, under Stalin. He remembered 1932, when (Holodomor) millions died from starvation. Like so many of his generation who emigrated here following WWII, Ivan turned his backyard into a vegetable garden.  It wasn’t just a raised bed or a patch. He, like so many fellow refugees, plowed furrows in almost the entire lawn. He grew tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbages, potatoes, even corn all without using pesticides. He would point to strategically planted dill and proudly explain, in his inimitable style, “the old way is best, Geef.”

In early spring, he would travel to Taborski’s farm for a bushel of (7 year old) horse manure, which he would dig into the soil with a shovel. He would work all day, then nurse several beers and numerous cigarettes, as he marvelled at the prospect of his creation. The garden produced wonderful food, more than he needed, so he gave some of what Heaven had given him to his neighbours and, occasionally, he would invite them to his garden for barbecues during the summer.

He was a complicated man, yes, but a loving man. His great grandson James Ivan Peter was named with affectionate thoughts of him and an understanding that Ivan’s heart began its downward trajectory much earlier than that fateful day in 1997, perhaps years earlier, when his son Peter, just 14, learnt that he had MS (Multiple Sclerosis). Ivan shook empty beer bottles at Heaven and lost a vain battle to avenge a God, whom he could not quite understand; a boy so young just seemed too unfair, too much to accept.

Russia’s attack on Ivan’s childhood home would provoke memories of Holodomor, a hungry childhood, a sister, and parents and a world war that ripped up eastern Europe, then turned him into a refugee who emigrated to Canada.  He found work at Carleton Place, near Ottawa, at a foundry that manufactured the famous Findlay ‘Oval’ wood stoves.  He met his wife, Aniela, and his life began a second time.  He would remember these events, and many more of home that he kept to himself, and grieve for a nation he once knew.

Geoffrey Brittan


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