My sisters and I have hands like our great grandmother. I know this, not because I remember her so well, but because I can see her work-worn hands resting quietly in her lap in a photograph that was taken in 1936. It must have been a Sunday, according to my mother, because they never worked on Sundays, and because she was wearing shoes. Her name was Aksana Shmigelsky and she was married to Nykola Strumbicky, who loved her with all of his heart.
Aksana is sitting in a kitchen chair outside her house at their farm near Vita, Manitoba. Nykola, is standing next to her. They were Baba and Gedo to their many grandchildren and great grandchildren. But to my mother, Mary and her cousins, Aksana was affectionately known as “Fat Baba”, to distinguish her from the other babas: Aksana’s mother and mother-in-law, both of whom were thin.
Kind and hard working, Aksana was barefoot all summer long, unless she was in church. She was known for making bread, cranberry jam, and whiskey, which she only served on special occasions or to important company. The bread was made in an outdoor oven called a pich.
I look at the photos and I think of the work that passed through Aksana’s hands in the harsh winters and blistering hot summers of Manitoba. In the picture with Nykola, she is the same age as I am now.
Some of the work she would have done is familiar to my brothers and sisters and me. Our hands have comforted children, planted marigolds in May, and have even kneaded dough for bread. But her hands were talented in ways that ours are not. Baba’s hands could pluck a chicken, plait garlic pulled fresh from the earth, and make intricate cross stitch patterns in a white cloth for an Easter basket.
My mother was 5 years old in 1936.
She was raised on this farm with her older sister Elsie. Everyone spoke Ukrainian. Mom learned English only when she moved to Winnipeg. The first home she lived in had a thatched roof and a mud floor.
Her grandparents had lived in the traditional Ukrainian style of shelter for more than 30 years before they built their “modern” house when my mother was a little girl. She remembers the new wooden house being built.
She also remembers how wonderful summers were at Vita because her cousins, Bob and Lug Harcott, who were close to her age, would come from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, with their mother, Ann Harcott, to spend the summer at the farm with her.
Canada was deep into the depression in the 1930s, and there were no luxuries on the farm, but there were plenty of good times and they never went hungry.
Some years later, the little brothers would come along to join the gang, Bill Harcott and Bill Bachynsky.
Their mothers, Tillie Bachynsky and Ann Harcott, seen here in 1928, dressed for the camera, remained very close all of their lives.
Aksana and Nykola married in Vita. They had both come to Canada with their families. In the “old country” they were from villages a few miles apart, Zalischiky and Blyschanka in Galicia, Austria, now in the westernmost part of Ukraine.
Nikola came to Canada before Aksana did. He was the eldest of five children and a young adult when his father Petr Strumbicky, then 60, heeded the call of the Canadian Government, offering free land to immigrants with hopes of putting a large “producing population” on the prairie lands of Western Canada. The government was anxious to establish a grain industry, and more importantly, to populate the prairies to prevent the Americans from annexing the region. Free land was offered to the immigrants. For a ten dollar registration fee, each family was granted 160 acres of land.
Petr Strumbicky, together with his wife, Irena Goyman, and their children came to Manitoba with the first group of 27 Ukrainian pioneer families that settled at the Stuartburn Colony, an area more familiarly known as Vita, today. The group sailed on the SS Sicilia, which docked in Quebec City in late July. They traveled by train to Winnipeg and spent a week at the immigration shed on the east side of the CPR station. By the time the exhausted colonists trekked out to their homesteads they had been traveling for two months. It was August and too late to plant a crop. These resilient people put their faith in God and each other. They carved homes out of the earth, and hunkered down to get through the winter with little more than their fierce determination to make it in the new country.
The land they settled had to first be cleared of stones and bush before they could plant crops.
All of the children worked alongside their parents, pulling rocks from the soil.
They suffered many hardships, but they stuck it out. Success was measured by mere survival, and in the small joys of laughing children, hearty meals, and time to visit to sing and tell stories with family and friends.
To this day, Mary, Bob and Lug share stories of their shared childhood. They consider themselves to have been blessed with memories of kindness, generosity and the strength of their grandparents.
In 1993, my parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. I interviewed my mom and her cousins about those summer days long ago, for a family history film, called Korinchikeh. In this segment we get a glimpse of their special times together at Vita.
My mother, Mary (Bachynsky) Krawchenko, turned 80 on April 2. In honour of her birthday, I posted an excerpt from my novel, Ravenscraig. It is a chapter called “Stalwart Peasants in Sheepskin Coats” and is inspired by the story of Aksana and Nykola and their start in Canada.
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