Saturday, November 10, 2012

Land of the Free

The other night, Kevin and I sat and watched Anthony Bourdain's show "No Reservations."  It's not a show I watch often -  I don't find Anthony Bourdain particularly interesting, but Kevin seems to enjoy seeing what cuisine from around the world can be like.

The episode that unfolded focused on the Ukraine, and specifically, Crimea.  This piqued my curiosity since my great grandmother was a Russian Mennonite missionary from Crimea, and it seemed like the show could be interesting so instead of scoffing at his choice and trying to steal the remote control, I stayed and watched.  Realizing that this could be the ultimate teachable moment, I brought up the wikipedia page about Russian Mennonites and read bits and pieces to Kevin during commercial breaks.

Where I come from, at least on my Dad's side (I know little about my mother's), has fascinating roots.  My grandmother was the daughter of Russian Mennonite Missionaries, at a time where it was not uncommon for them to leave the children behind with strangers and continue their work of establishing a mission far away.  My great grandparents, Heinrich and Anna Unruh, established a mission in Jangoan, India, that apparently still exists today.   I cannot even fathom how crushingly hard life must have been in the late 1800s.  So hard, in fact that my grandfather died of typhus when he was 44, and my great grandmother passed 10 years later from the famine which gripped the Ukraine during World War 1 and the Russian Revolution.

My Grandma was 23 when she came to Canada with her siblings, after being sponsored by an uncle during the second wave of emigration from Russia.  As I read through the article about how the Mennonites were treated in the Ukraine during World War I, and how hundreds were murdered, robbed, and raped during that time, it became clear what a grit and determination my Grandmother must have had to survive.  Can you imagine surviving growing up without your parents, making it through famine, and war, only to emigrate as a young adult to a country where you don't even speak the language?

We sat, side by side, my Canadian born son who has never known war or hunger, comparing notes between wikipedia and the other linked article, and marvelling at how they matched up.  Kevin, having studied World War 1 in school, was floored that our roots were so interesting.  We studied the food on Anthony Bourdain before looking up recipes for Ukrainian Mennonites ourselves, and suddenly the puzzle pieces began to fit.  Crepes, perogies, cabbage rolls, borsht, and those New Year's Cookies from my childhood suddenly all leapt off the screen at us with real recipes.  I could make them, I thought.

We will make them together, I said to Kevin.

The next day I stood in a school gym for a Remembrance Day ceremony, and as we sang O Canada, suddenly I was overwhelmed with gratitude.

I have the privilege of living in the land of the free, home of the brave, protected by soldiers who, in the 1920s, let in a young, scared woman in to have a shot at life.  I'm not sure it was ever an easy life, but she lived until 93 and was surrounded by many children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. I had no idea how in reality, I'm only second generation Canadian on my Dad's side.  Grandma never spoke about her days in Crimea, and I suspect they were days she only wanted to forget.

Land of the free, indeed.

Thank you, Canada.

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