I wonder how often people notice that childhood has passed them by. For me, it has become so irrevocably entwined with a physical place that I have a hard time separating the two much less distancing myself from it. My childhood was in Ukraine, my family vacations were in Ukraine, my breaks from real life all took place in Ukraine. I have become dependent on a fictional geography shaped by my emotional attachments.
My access to this physical manifestation of childhood is restricted by the lifespan of people much older than me and I feel as though I live with some sort of countdown over my head. Things change in increments — a climbing tree cut down here, a footpath removed there — and I stubbornly cling onto the belief that it is still my childhood. I fool myself that the places I grew up in are static and that the people that inhabit them are immortal. I convince myself that they are like characters in my favorite book and as I close the page on them there they will remain until such a time that I reopen the story.
Perhaps this is neither the place nor the time for this post. I keep a travel blog and it is mostly about going to new places and trying different experiences. But then isn’t this a journey of sorts, revisiting old places? As for the timing — I am not going to address the tragedies or travesties currently plaguing Ukraine — this is not a political rant. I have strong feelings on the matter but they will remain quietly mine.
This is about love. A small corner of love, in the house that my father grew up in. I have avoided writing about Ladyzhyn, the town of my paternal grandparents, because my grandmother passed away recently. I was not there. What I feel is too complicated and it will not settle for a long time.
My grandparents’ house sits on a long stretch of land that backs up onto a river. Behind the house there is a swing set which has seen too many summers and yet can still bear my weight. From it I could look out onto the fields where the tiny plastic pinwheels and tin noisemakers would spin in the wind. Near the swings grow cherry trees, raspberry bushes and blackcurrants. My grandmother used to make kompot from the berries by boiling them.
I was often the last person to rise at my grandparents’ house but one summer morning my dad and I woke up before the sunrise and went to the backfields. In the early hours of the day it was still cool enough that I needed a jacket and when I brushed up against the bushes I got wet from the morning dew. In the distance we could see the silhouette of the neighbourhood church, which is now over a hundred years old, sitting on the hill. Together we watched the sun rise over the fields as the roosters crowed in the day.
My grandparents kept all sorts of farm animals, I even have vague memories of squealing big-bellied pigs. Mostly they had kept chickens and ducks. The roosters were usually malicious creatures, unsettling with the way they would follow you around. To get to the backfields it was necessary to walk past the chicken coop and those feathered menaces were mean. If I didn’t carry a stick they would chase me (they could smell fear).
The ducks on the other hand were simple. They would either run away from you when they saw you coming or they would run towards you if you had food. We used to fish for river oysters with our feet when we went swimming at the local beach and then bring them back to lay them out in the sun. Once they opened from the heat we would feed them to the ducks, it was practically fine dining.
Guarding the homestead we had Sharik. Over the course of my childhood there had been two dogs. The old dog had been a proper old-school-tough-as-nails guard dog. His bite was definitely worse than his bark. I used to toss him bones leftover from my supper and he would snatch them out of the air with a snap of his jaw. His name had been Sharik and when my grandparents got a puppy to replace him they also called him Sharik. But not Sharik the Second, since his sweet bubbly nature didn’t warrant an honorific and he didn’t even seem to be aware of whose shoes he had to fill. I miss the old dog but I love the young one for jumping up onto a bench so that my grandfather doesn’t have to bend down to take his collar off.
There are places that belonged to me. The roof over my grandmother’s kitchen was mine. Nobody else really went up there besides me. Once I had conquered my fear of the shaky ladder I would climb up there after dinner and look at the sky. The roof’s metal plating would warm up over the course of the day and feel wonderful in the evening. I love the sky over Ladyzhyn. At night there are so many stars you could practically see the Milky Way.
The house belonged to everyone — when it was full there was hardly enough space for everybody to sleep, every room turned into a bedroom. It was impossible to get up at night to use the washroom because you would have to go through the entire house to reach the kitchen door which led outside to the outhouse. The luckiest person would get the veranda, a tiny room adjacent to the front door, and often that person was me. I woke up every morning to the sound of sparrows that lived in the walnut tree above the driveway.
My grandfather’s car, which is over thirty years old, has served us faithfully even on the worst potholed roads in town. It took us to Sunday market and to visit relatives a couple towns over, on really hot days we would drive to the beach or to the river for a picnic. On other days we would just drive for the sake of driving. I learned how to shift gears on that car and managed even a couple trips into town without stalling entirely. And whenever we came back late my grandmother would be sitting on the bench outside the front gates, waiting to herd us to the dinner table.
She used to give me bouquets from her flower beds as a going away gift when we finally had to leave after a visit. I won’t be getting those anymore. There is so much more now that is buried in my childhood with her but perhaps some parts of this home away from home will remain.