In the beginning of May I took my significant other ‘home.’ It had been a few years since I had been back and I needed to show her where my hero grew up. I needed to feel the dirt between my toes, the sun on my face, the grasses amongst my fingers and the beer on my lips.
“Home,” as my grandfather and I called it, was the little villages just outside of Zaporozhe, Ukraine. He told me when we would travel there that it was his ‘beating heart.’ Other than his six grandkids, the little towns of Nikopol, Lichtenau and Halbstadt were his everything — they breathed new life into his aging lungs.
I miss him terribly.
So, a day after wrapping up my communications degree, Cait (significant other) and I threw on our backpacks and jumped on a plane over the Atlantic. Twenty-four hours later, we landed in Dneperprotrovsk, Ukraine.
In my book, The Grain Fields, written from conversations between myself and my grandfather about his life growing up during the Second World War, I talked about how strange it was to travel those roads without him.
Early on in our travels I said the same thing to Cait — It was strange to not have his brown leather carry-on around my shoulder as we weaved our way through the Vienna airport, it was strange to not hear his banter back and forth with the flight attendants – how I was his grandson and how ‘I was his big guy.’ It was strange to not have his hand on my knee as we pulled up to his childhood home.
Because of finishing up my degree and publishing the book and the craziness of my schedule I hadn’t really grieved his death. He died in November and I had to kind of roll with his passing. I wanted to hear his voice again and I knew or thought that going ‘home’ again would lead to that.
But like that strangeness I mentioned earlier, I didn’t hear his voice right away. Which led to great frustration — a few sleepless nights when we first arrived in Ukraine.
This strangeness was shown in the frustration Cait and I had when we went to Nikopol and we couldn’t find his childhood house right away. We couldn’t even find his old school and the old city courtyard. Everything looked familiar, but it had been a few years and things were a little hazy.
Eventually we found all of them — the school had been repainted from its original green to a red and turned into a medical school, his house had been purchased and was in the process of being demolished by the new owner. Two days later and the house would have been gone — and I would’ve missed it. Thank God we made it in time, but still, despite that, through everything, there was something odd going on and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I still felt empty – this terrible void that his death had left. It was eating away at me. And most importantly I couldn’t hear him. Even though I was taking Cait to see, feel and touch his history it was quiet. She had heard the stories before — numerous times — she had read my book three times and on our trip read it again, but I wasn’t getting anything from it. Listen to how selfish that sounds, I was sharing his stories to get something for myself. She was able to see his house, stick her toes in the Dnieper River, taste a cold piva and yet I wasn’t feeling his presence.
I was so utterly confused at first — expecting to be instantly comforted once I arrived there, but it took a few days. I was so badly waiting to hear his voice and feel him next to me.
And then it happened ever so subtly, we were talking with the mayor of his birth-town of Lichtenau when it clicked. I had gone to ask for the plot of land where my grandfather’s house once stood to build a clinic for the community — a dream my grandfather had in recent years, but was unable to see it through. He lived in Lichtenau with his family until he was four, when they were kicked out – they then settled in Nikopol. I was introducing myself and talking about my grandfather to the mayor, I was talking about our family, our history, I introduced Cait. I talked about my grandfather’s ‘beating heart,’ I talked about the love he had for the people and the country. And in those words I heard it… my grandfather was there… around my shoulder as we meandered through Vienna airport, in my voice as I bantered with the flight attendants, ‘this is my girl, I’m showing her where I come from.” He was in my hand as I had it on her knee as we pulled up to his house. I was so focused on looking around, thinking I would feel him or find him somewhere that I almost missed it. If you’re confused, stay with me for one minute.
It’s like that wonderful joke about the man on his roof in a flood, A man in a rowboat comes by and says ‘quick come aboard and I’ll get you to safety.’ The man on the roof says ‘no I’m waiting for God, he’ll save me.’ The water continues to rise and someone in a hand glider comes by and says ‘ quick I’ll turn around and drop a rope and save you.’ the man on the roof says ‘no I’m waiting for God to save me.’ The water continues to rise and one last time a helicopter with a rope comes by and says ‘ quick grab a hold and I ‘ll save you.’ The man says “no, I’m waiting for God to save me.’ The water rises and the man dies. In heaven he meets God and he says to God, ‘what the heck, why didn’t you save me.’ God says, ‘what do you mean, I sent a boat, glider and helicopter.’
Now, I’m not comparing anything here to God, but the fact that it was staring me right in the face — My grandfather’s voice. I was looking all around for it, wondering when I would hear it, when I would feel his hand on my shoulder —when it all became so obvious, his stories were my stories, his voice was my voice, his hand was my hand, he left them with me and whenever I hopped on a plane, spoke with a flight attendant, told his stories — his voice was being spoken. I cant explain the comfort that I suddenly felt when I had this realization. I paused mid sentence with the mayor, I breathed in — held back tears, looked back into Cait’s eyes and then back at the mayor. There was all this fear that I would miss him that I wouldn’t see him in where we were traveling or in what we were doing. Had ‘home’ lost its touch? No, not at all. I was just looking past it.
The mayor after agreeing to gift me the land asked me if he could embrace me as a brother. We stood together in the sunshine, in front of where my grandfather’s house once stood. I felt my grandfather there…
So, after that I started to have fun with his stories — his voice. I started leaving them everywhere we went. Before we left I packed extra copies of his stories (The Grain Fields). And when I felt like I needed to share his voice I left a book for someone to find — in Krakow, in the Cinque Terre, in Germany, in the Toronto Airport. Cait and I left the books in the open so someone could find his voice. I cant tell you how invigorating that made me feel — leaving his generation’s story in our footsteps.
Inside I left an inscription — talking about the importance of him to me. I said to read it and then leave it for someone else to find. All I asked was to sign where they found it and where they left it. I set up an email address firstname.lastname@example.org so I could hear his voice through others.
We traveled 8 countries, 35 cities and his voice was in every one.