A Sea of Yellow

It is funny how sometimes you can be instantly thrown back into time. My grandfather and I always talked about this – about how an image, sound, smell or taste could bring you to another decade.

It was a tool we used quite often when we talked about his time growing up in Ukraine. Sometimes, however it would be by accident – we would be talking about the day or something trivial – having a slice of pie or sharing a cold beer and the smell or taste would trigger a memory.

Instantly I would drop everything and begin taking mental or written notes, because I knew the movie reel of my grandfather’s life was playing right in front of us. It is a powerful tool to use and an important skill for writers to master. I wish I was better at it.

One memory trigger for my grandfather were mulberries, watermelons or cherries. In the summer if we sat down in his backyard and shared some watermelon I knew I would be treated to countless stories of his youth on the banks of the Dnieper River. It was a special time for the both of us.

Another one was the sound of wind against the side of the house – it instantly brought him back to the whistling trees of Bastogne – where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. And then we would talk about how, “terribly cold it was. just terrible.”

For my Oma – if she was working in the kitchen and she would be using flour or corn starch and the packaging would crunch – we were suddenly transported to the dead of winter in Pigeon Lake, Manitoba. She and her father would be walking to the barn and their boots would be crunching in the snow. I would be treated to her memories of growing up on the farm.

But, the biggest and perhaps most impactful trigger – were the grain fields of August – smell, touch or sight – it didnt matter. For both my Oma and Opa they found the sea of yellow so powerful – I think for different reasons, but if they saw grain stalks or if we drove by a field of yellow – the stories would follow. And of course we would have to pull over and run our hands through the grain.

Today, the daily news and updates we receive from Ukraine are my trigger. I find myself thinking about my grandparents constantly. I wear our memories on my sleeve. I know I am not the only one – seeing what is happening brings many abroad to their knees.

At the beginning of August, a charity that I am board member of, The Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine, received a funding request. A Ukrainian farmer and his family needed funds to rent equipment to plow his field. We quickly approved his request.

Photos have been altered for safety.

A writer takes off to Europe on a whim to retrace his grandfather’s footsteps during the Second World War. Inspired by conversations between Michael Wilms and his grandfather

My dreams for the next five days were that of my grandparents – walking through the fields. The dreams so real I could feel the tickle of the stalks on the palms of my child-like hands.

I cant express the power of these memories – of these triggers. I am sure many of you know the power of these recollections.

Below I would like to share an excerpt from my book, “The Grain Fields.” The book is a story about a writer following his grandfather’s footsteps. It is from the conversations I shared with my grandfather. The chapter is called…

A Sea of Yellow

“Oh, how my heart leaps when I see the golden grasses and smell the earth.”

August 1992

There is a photograph somewhere of my cousin and I standing on top of a large green John Deere thresher. Every time I see the photo I am reminded of that day. Every time I see the two of us, pudgy knees and all, hoisted up on the top step, I think of my grandmother taking us out to Pigeon Lake to see the grain fields of southern Manitoba being harvested.
My cousin and I were five and had stayed over at my grandparents’ house for the night. I remember my grandfather was in Russia on another business trip. We awoke early in the morning; the sun was just peaking above the horizon. A wall of trees protected my grandparents’ home, so the sun wasn’t visible until mid morning. The dew always stayed on the grass for an extended period of time.

My grandmother had made biscuits and hard-boiled eggs before we were up and we ate them with orange marmalade and peppermint tea on the back porch near the river. She had set the table with nice doilies from Germany and little spoons that would fit our mouths. She had picked sweet grass from the yard and mixed it with late summer flowers and placed them at the table’s centre. In a smaller vase next to the flowers, she had set a small sheaf of grain stalks — the tiny beads radiating a rich golden colour.

I remember my little shoes were soaked through just from walking from the back door to the riverside deck.

“Oma, unsere Schuhe sind vom Tau nass,” we said as we sat down for breakfast.
She smiled.

“Do you see your footprints in the grass?” she asked. We nodded as we continued to eat breakfast. “It was a heavy dew last night and the farmers will have to wait a little bit to harvest.”

Like any child, we asked the favourite question. “Why, Oma?” I remember her smile as we ran our fingers over the beads of grain.

“Oh, how my heart leaps when I see the golden grasses and smell the earth,” she said.

My grandmother — a daughter of two Ukrainian Mennonite immigrants from the 1920s — grew up on a little plot of land, along the Assiniboine River in St. Francis Xavier. Her father and mother worked the land — turning clay to dark, rich earth. In addition to grain fields, they had cattle, chickens, pigs, horses and a vegetable garden.

“Those sweet kernels you are feeling are so delicate and require the lightest touch,” she said as she guided our fingers through the grasses. “Working the soil requires patience and care.”
We finished breakfast and piled into my grandmother’s crème-coloured Audi. Down the highway we went.

My great-grandparents had fled to Canada after the Russian Revolution and after Nestor Machno and his anarchistic bandits destroyed the Mennonite farms in Ukraine. They had their own horror stories of family members being raped and murdered — of blood being spilled and of lives being destroyed. There were stories of family members hiding wedding rings in baked goods, women being hidden in haystacks and men who had been hacked-to-bits being pinned together with clothespins in an attempt to get them to a doctor.
In Canada, my great-grandparents returned to the grain fields and the simple life they demanded. When my grandfather arrived in Canada in 1948, he was sent to a small farm in Pigeon Lake to work. That’s how he met his prairie-girl wife.

In the early ’70s, my great-grandparents sold the farm to my grandfather with the hope that my uncle would run it, but eventually the farm was sold out of the family. Despite not owning the land anymore both my grandmother and grandfather still made trips out to visit the homestead. The new owners of the property were a pleasant, young Dutch couple who became friends with my grandparents.
My grandmother, cousin and I arrived just as the green threshers started their lines through the sea of yellow. We pulled over to the side of the highway and my grandmother led us by hand down into the ditch and into the field. Then, my grandmother let go of our hands and delicately ran her fingers through the waist-high wheat. My grandfather did the same thing when he led me through the fields near Nikopol — arms just out from his side, palms open and fingers dancing as if touching piano keys. It must have been a generational thing.
“We didn’t always have these machines,” my grandmother said, pointing to a monstrous green thresher across the field. “My father worked this land by horse, plow and leather strap.”

We stood there for a while, just watching the combine go back and forth.
The thought of the leather strap on the neck and the plough cutting into the earth always stayed with me. Once I got into university I began reading about the historical significance of wheat, crops, soil and farming techniques. Wheat remnants have been found on 20,000 year-old tools dug up in different parts of the world. I began to see a link between advancements in cultivating crops and population spikes in world history.
There has to be a precise amount of moisture — no more than 12-15 inches of rain — to produce a healthy crop. If there is too much water, wheat diseases — blackpoint and smudge of wheat will spread. The temperature has to be perfect — between 70 and 75 degrees. Too hot and the fields will burn, too cold and the buds won’t fill. And of course the fields need lots of sunshine — a difficult balancing act.

When reading those articles it struck me how something so important to human life can be so finicky — and how Ukraine is the perfect place for the cultivation of wheat.
When I studied about the great famines in history, they were always connected to how much rain had or hadn’t fallen. It was always a plague of too much rain, too much heat, too much dryness or too many locusts. So much in history was dependent on the little buds that my grandmother, grandfather and I would run through our fingers. We are inherently connected to the soil, to the land, and to the process of cultivating grain.

It is a delicate balance. The soil and the people take advantage of each other. Farmers take from the soil, feed each other and in turn their numbers grow. Because of population spikes, the soil becomes overworked and produces weak crops and civilizations suffer. The soil has to rest, sometimes for multiple seasons, in order to come back strong and grow a healthy crop. There is always this constant pull between humans and nature; this duplicitous connection.

Because of this connection many conflicts, wars and skirmishes have been fought. The most obvious one for me is what Stalin did to the people of Ukraine. There was no actual famine in 1932. The weather was perfect, the crops were being produced at record rates, the relationship between the soil and the people was healthy and Stalin took advantage of that. He gathered up all the grain and sold it all over the world — starving his people and in turn my grandfather and his family.

Stalin had five-year plans to rebuild Russia after the revolution. He needed capital to build his empire. So he starved his people that worked the land. All grain went to the “greater Communist good.” From 1932 to 1933, more than 7.5 million people starved to death. Some say even twice that; perhaps 20 million died. Determining the exact total was difficult due to the lack of records, but the stories are horrific. Anyone caught hiding grain was either shot or sent to the gulags. My great-grandmother, the same one who farmed the land in Pigeon Lake, told stories of families boiling leather belts to make broth. After the locals died, their bodies returned to the earth.

It was this fascination with the soil and the grain that led me to my thesis: The bombing of Guernica, and its effects on Spanish life during the Civil War. The Spanish people had this connection with the soil. Death contained a mythical and cultural power, a power that derived from the soil and helped grow the Spanish peoples.

During that visit to Pigeon Lake with my grandmother, the threshers continued late into the day. Just as the sun was setting over the prairies, the green John Deere stopped close to us. The driver came out of his cab and stepped down off the side. He had long hair that was tucked back by a blue mesh cap and a thick, coarse beard that was full of grey and silver. His plaid shirt was soaked through and rolled up to his forearms. His face and arms were dark from the sun and his blue jeans were faded.

“Hello Mary,” he said, yelling over the stir of the machine. As he approached us, he removed his hat revealing hair that was as silver as his beard.

“This is Mr. Van Camp,” my grandmother told us.

I stared at his big, old, calloused hands.

“Hello, boys. Would you like to stand up top?”

We smiled in response and with one quick motion those calloused hands had us up into the cab and onto the driver’s seat. The giant green machine gave off incredible heat and I understood why Mr. Van Camp’s shirt was soaked through. Inside the cab, there was an array of sunflower seeds and John Denver cassettes. A radio intermittently squawked from the dash and amidst all the heat from outside I could feel a current of cold air around my feet. I remember my cousin and I standing there in wonderment over such a grand machine. After a few seconds, we heard my grandmother beckon for us to turn. With the sun in our face and standing on top of this green machine in a sea of yellow, my grandmother snapped a photograph.


Моє серце, що б’ється, тримайся. Ми з тобою.


One Reply to “A Sea of Yellow”

  1. This is not my history (family left Ukraine in 1870) but I see, smell and hear it. Great writing. Karen Graber

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