"Even if you have to put some in your shoes or the pockets of your suitcase," my mom told me, "bring back as much as you can." Most mothers discourage their children from playing in the dirt, mine specifically instructed me to smuggle home as much as I could.
It was Saturday
morning and my husband and I just landed in Kraków, Poland. Looking at a
map we realized we were only about a pinky finger's length away from the region in the Ukraine that my mother's family was from. Not knowing when we would be this close again, we set out to devise a plan to visit the "Old Country" that I'd heard stories about all of my life.
I phoned my uncle back in the States to learn the name of the village my grandmother's parents were from. He sent me a photograph of an old map in which my grandmother had penciled in a dot and hand written the name but only a few letters were now readable. I also emailed my grandmother's cousin living in Massachusetts to see if she could provide additional details. After studying the map for a while and rehashing a few of the verbal interpretations we had heard of the village name, we located Novi Skomorokhy on the map. Moments later we received an email back from my grandmother's cousin and learned that she was currently on vacation in Europe, only a couple hours from us in Poland, and was considering visiting the Ukraine herself tomorrow. The stars were aligned.
The next morning at 3 a.m. we set out on our adventure. We had no family names or contact information in Old Country; we only had a dot on a map. Our plan was to look at names on mailboxes, knock on a few doors and hopefully find a local cemetery.
Nine hours later, including a three-hour border crossing, we finally arrived in Novi Skomorokhy, Ukraine. Greeted by a Cyrillic lettered sign, the tiny village of 500 people had one dirt road flanked with houses and fields. We stopped to take a few photographs of Orthodox churches and flagged down a couple of locals to chat. After about the third conversation my grandmother's cousin initiated in broken Polish, we struck pay dirt.
A woman with possibly the same family name as my great grandfather, Baley/ Belej, smiled and led us down the road just a few yards away. We came to the Kaspruk family house where my great grandmother Paulina's sister, Marinka's daughter now lives.
Having never seen us before or met my grandmother or mother in person, Nadia opened the door and invited us in with a warm hug. Her husband directed us all to the dining room where he broke out all of the family's finest liquors.
Over the next several hours the family invited over more relatives, cooked us a delicious spread, and we all tried our best to communicate. At one point Nadia brought out a pile of photographs spanning over the last 80 years most of which were sent from the U.S. back to the Old Country; I saw pictures of my great grandparents wedding in New York, family reunions and even my mom's high school class photo.
The afternoon was spent smiling and hugging, and thankfully after some time Nadia's granddaughter, Oksana Grushetsky arrived.
Oksana, my second cousin, knew English and helped to translate. We learned that the house Nadia lives in now, prior to it being redone, was previously lived in by Zoinka and two of Paulina's other sisters at some point, and before that the same piece of land was the site of the original home of Ilko and Paranka Kaspruk, my grandmother's maternal grandparents.
The hours passed quickly and before long we were hugging goodbye to begin our long drive back to Poland. Before leaving though, Oksana's father, Bogdon, helped James and I collect dirt from the fields behind the house to bring back to our family in the U.S.
Our final stop was at the large hillside cemetery not far from the house. We were shown a number of family plots including the headstones of my grandmother's maternal grandparents.
The day was long but incredibly rewarding. I now know family in the Old Country and plan to return bearing gifts. Along with new
friendships and photos, we also successfully were able to smuggle four bags of
soil from the Ukraine that day.
The dirt represents a home and the memories of Old Country that most of my family
in the U.S. has never seen. My mom was right: a scoop of Ukrainian soil, however I got it home, would mean more to
my family than anything else I could bring back, and it would also be the perfect
addition to my grandmother's burial service next month.