My great-grandfather from Ukraine

March 16 | 2022

My mother never told me anything about her maternal grandfather, except that in old age he toppled from a balcony—a suspected suicide. Only after my mother’s death did I begin to wonder where my great-grandfather, a Jewish immigrant to Montreal, had come from. 

I asked Howard, my mother’s first cousin and an octogenarian. Howard couldn’t readily answer my question. After a pause, he said, “Ukraine, I think.” 

            “Where in Ukraine”? I persisted. 

            “Kyiv, I think.” 

            A favourite among my inherited possessions is a gold heart-shaped locket my grandmother wore from early childhood, her own locket matching exactly her older sister’s. The lockets’ origins are unknown to me. The necklaces might have been fashioned in Ukraine, where every child in that family, except my grandmother, was born, or equally they might have been acquired later, in Montreal. 

            I’ll never be certain how the locket and the tumble from the balcony fit together, if at all, and whether my great-grandfather launched himself from the balcony because of all he’d lost, an inability to remember, or quite the opposite, because he remembered too much. 

            As I hold my grandmother’s locket in my hand, its lightness evincing its hollow centre, I regret that it is perhaps my only tangible connection to Ukraine. Within two generations, my family had surrendered Kyiv both as a place and in memory. 

For the refugees now fleeing Ukraine, I fervently wish a finer prospect—that, unlike my own ancestors, they aren’t denied the satisfaction of return.