Remembering Gramma and The Long Suffering of Eastern Europe

A tribute for a generation of survivors on the occasion of the Assault on Ukraine by Russia 23February 2022, and the deprivation that will surely result..

Aniela (Czechowska) Shepel 12Jan., 1926-17Apr., 2011 During the occupation of Poland in WWII, Aniela was taken by the Germans from school and herded onto a train never to see her family again. She was forced to spend her youth digging fields with her feet, with little food, no shoes, and compelled to witness atrocities that marked her for the rest of her life.

At war’s end, she emigrated to Canada to begin a new life. She married Ivan Shepel, Ukrainian, whom she met in Canada. She mothered three children, Vera, Peter, and John. Despite the deprivation of her youth, she learned English, Polish, Ukrainian, and German. She was quite musical and blessed with a lovely soprano voice. She was friendly, possessed a fine sense of humour, and managed to live her life without speaking an unkind word about anyone.

It was 11 years ago that Aniela died. Her last months passed in a nursing home, suffering from advanced dementia, with the care of nurses and her daughter at her side. She was 85, had lived a full life in the opinion of most people, but she was marked by a misspent youth under Nazi oppression and physical and emotional pain as she built a life in Canada.

I first met Aniela (pronounced with a short vowel as a’nella) in July, 1976. Vera and I had dined in Toronto, our first of many dates that summer. Vera said that her family wanted to meet me. Although Vera and I had been introduced just days before, I knew this was a critical moment. It was like the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which told the story of a young man meeting the family of his Greek girlfriend. I lived every minute of that film, including the first encounter with a future mother-in-law.

It was a sunny, warm Canada Day. As I walked up the driveway, I could hear music. Someone was playing an accordion, just like the movie. It was Vera, laughing and dancing at the same time. There were three barbecues, each with different meats cooking. The aroma was wonderful and the laughter invigorating, as I walked to the rear garden.

Aniela was passing salads through the dining room window, laughing at something someone had said, as someone else took the large bowl from her hands. Her face was etched by life, her hands worn by work, and her smile framed her laughter with a natural glow that defied age. I knew nothing of her story, yet I knew I was in the presence of someone quite remarkable.

The Shepel family had invited all the neighbours for dinner, which I hadn’t expected, and like the lead character in the film, I found myself thrust into another culture. Aniela was Polish, and Vera’s father, Ivan, was Ukrainian. He was a tall, strong man who nurtured a vegetable garden, where most people I had known fussed over manicured lawns. The lettuce, onions, cucumbers, and tomatoes had been picked from the garden and shared with me as if I was a neighbour or family friend of many years, rather than a suitor interested in their only daughter.

That moment has remained with me for 45 years. Every detail is burned in my memory. The smells, the sounds, the food occupy my mind as if that day was yesterday. I was accepted. It was understood, a given, that as long as I didn’t hurt their daughter, I was welcome in the family. They didn’t know me, so they trusted their daughter. I had not experienced that confidence and trust from the families of other women, so like the suitor in the film, I was stunned.

That moment changed my life.

There was always something to eat. Food was a social lubricant, an expression of love, and always plentiful. Aniela’s youth had been so disadvantaged; she had been hungry, always cold, and had worked without shoes by digging furrows with her feet. She intended that her life in Canada would not remind her of the hardships of those early years.

When our first child, Colin, was born, gramma and grampa were quick to volunteer to help us raise him. Vera and I had busy careers. It was remarkable that not once did they cancel their time with our son. Every day, they accepted him, played with him, taught him, read to him, and fed him. It was an extraordinary commitment that continued for Jason, our second son, and through the years that followed Aniela and Ivan were discreetly present, never intrusive.

Vera took flowers to the grave site yesterday (April, 2012). She placed them, cried some, and thought back to the daily struggles that had consumed Aniela’s last months. Her life had been difficult, marked by pain and separation, but her suffering had not made her bitter, unkind, or thoughtless. She had made a life in Canada that had been well lived, without apologies, or excuses, with just a few regrets.

She regretted most the horrible affliction that had tortured her son Peter. He had been diagnosed with MS (Multiple Sclerosis) at the tender age of 14. Ivan raged at God and shook empty beer bottles at Heaven, rending his heart in a vain effort to make God understand the injustice of it. Peter lived to the ripe age of 42, which surprised the medical community and the rest of us. Ivan died of heart failure. Through the years, Aniela soldiered ahead as if she could do nothing else, accepted the vicissitudes of her life with charm, and resisted a temptation to curse a God she could not quite grasp.

I imagine that when she met God, He smiled and after an awkward silence asked her, “Do you forgive me?” She must have smiled in return, cried a little, then taken His hand to hers, offered Him a warm drink with a few pierogies, and comforted Him as she had done so often for us.

Article first published 9th April, 2013, updated and edited 27Feb.2022.

Geoffrey Brittan


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