“I’ve left your heart all over the world. I’ve left our conversations in coffee shops, hotel rooms, airport lounges, on park benches and along a stream — amongst green grasses. The tens-of-thousands of words that were written from our time together — the stories you shared as we traveled together, as we sat around our favorite slice of cake or on your backyard patio — were gathered and put into this book and left for others to find. They were left to impact others as they did me. Winnipeg, Edmonton, Toronto, New York, Munich, Berlin, Krakow and many others — copies of our time together left for the unsuspecting — left for someone to spot as they rushed to find an open park bench to rest their tired feet — left for someone who was walking in the park and went to stretch out in the sun. Left for someone to stumble upon as they sat for their Sunday afternoon coffee or as they waited in the airport lounge for their flight to board. It started out as a fun game, where could I leave them next? But, for some reason, I never thought you’d respond.” – 2015 travel journal.
About a year-and-a- half ago I published The Grain Fields — a creative non fiction about a writer who travels to Europe to trace his grandfather’s footsteps. The book is based on the countless conversations my grandfather and I shared about his time growing up in Ukraine during the Second World War.
The book has done well. It’s in McNally Robinson bookstores in both Winnipeg and Saskatoon. It was a bestseller for six-straight weeks. It was featured in the Winnipeg Free Press and on CBC Radio. But the most exciting and perhaps the most meaningful outcome from the book is the feedback from behind the scenes.
Two months after the publication of the book, my ‘chick’ (a nickname my grandfather called my wife) and I took off to Europe for a few months. I wanted to show her where all the stories my grandfather shared with me took place. I wanted her to see his ‘beating heart.’ I’ve shared earlier about ‘going home to find his voice,’ but what’s missing from that prior post is its response.
Within our backpacks — besides the obvious clothes — we brought copies of The Grain Fields to leave behind wherever we stopped. We left these books as a sort of celebration of his life — of remembering what he meant to me and I to him. As the quote from my writer’s journal at the beginning mentions, we left them in coffee shops, park benches, airport lounges, in fields, hostels and even traded them with other travelers.
Within the front pages of every dropped or traded book we left an inscription.
All I asked was that when they finished reading the book, they left it for someone else to find. At the bottom I left an email address if they wanted to share what the book meant to them. Like I have already mentioned I wanted to share his voice, but for some reason, through all of this I never thought it would talk back (no, I am not going crazy with voices talking in my head 😉 )
One of the first responses was not through the email address, but just by talking to people while we travelled.
It had been a wonderful day of hiking through the five villages of the Cinque Terre and Cait and I had stopped by the grocery store in Riomaggorie to stock up on fresh pasta, pesto and prosciutto. As I was picking the type of pasta for the evening, Cait was busy talking with another couple in line – a retired historian and his wife from the state of Georgia in the USA.
There are two questions that occur when someone hears you speaking English while travelling – 1. Where are you from? – and 2. Where have you been or where are you going next?
“My husband is showing me his grandfather’s footsteps during the war. We’re taking a hiking break here in Italy, before heading to Germany,” she said.
It didn’t take long for her to bring up my book, which she happened to have on her and before we knew it, a trade had taken place – The Grain Fields for an extra bottle of wine they had purchased.
The second half of the story takes place months later in Toronto. A family friend, who had purchased the book was in Toronto visiting another friend. They were chitchatting and the family friend pulls out my book and says, “You’ve got to read this great book!”
“I’ve read that book, it is fantastic,” says the friend from Toronto.
“How is that possible?”
The friend had been down in Georgia visiting friends and staying in the spare bedroom and found it on the nightstand. She picked it up and a sleepless night of page-turning later she had read The Grain Fields and heard my grandfather’s voice. Her friends were none other than the historian couple Cait and I shared a conversation with in Italy.
When I heard this story I felt my grandfather’s hand on my shoulder.
This takes us to September 2015. Good friends of ours were on a business trip in New York City and they decided to take a copy of The Grain Fields with them. Over the weekend there they decided to take a walk along the ‘High Line,” a beautiful path along once-bustling railway tracks. It was there that they decided to leave their copy of the book for someone to find. Within the pages there too was an inscription.
Three months later, one December morning, I sat down at my desk just before seven a.m. and went through my morning process of preparing for the day. Like I do in the darkness of the early morning, whether at the office or house – in the stillness – I find myself in a place of reflection.
I check the email address I printed in the book every so often, usually when I am thinking of him. When you lose someone close to you part of you breaks, cracks and fragments in the loss. Every ounce of your energy, of your being goes into filling the holes and filling the silence.
I type in the account, click enter, refresh, open.
Sitting at my desk with tears in my eyes I read David’s email over and over again. In those words, I heard my grandfather’s voice – his muddied accent, his extended syllables, his deep gravelly tones, “Helllllo, my big guy!”
The book has continued to sell – it is now available in a digital version – it has been successful. But with all that, it is the interactions – the new introductions – the sharing of our conversations – the stories and the constant possibility of his voice, ‘starting to talk back’ that I hold dear.