Excerpts from Living on the Homestead

A Preamble

Before radio and television came along to isolate us from our families, storytelling was a favorite pastime for Sundays, holidays, and rainy days. One member of each generation would be a born storyteller with skills much above average in keeping an audience entertained. No one would be so rude as to announce at the start of story “Oh, we’ve heard that one before!” Of course we have and we will enjoy it again.

When I hear this remark I am tempted to suggest, “Well, if you know it so well, why don’t you tell it this time?” How else do you keep traditional family stories alive over the generations? Oh, you type them up on your computer? And then what? Put them on a disk that will be old technology in five years! Oral history will survive longer.

I had the privilege of living in a tiny one-room house with lean-to porch located on my Andrusiak grandparents’ homestead until I was seven years old, and having a

grandfather who was a born storyteller. Iwan Andrusiak did not go to school even one day of his life, could read neither Ukrainian nor English, yet could enthrall his grandchildren for hours at a time. He did not know of Hans Christian Anderson yet I heard many of the stories credited to that writer from my grandfather even though his version was more earthy than Anderson’s.

Can you imagine their trials in 1903 as they left their home in Mamornitza, Bukovina, and headed by train for Hamburg, then by Hamburg-America Steamship Line’s SS Armenia to Halifax and by train in a colonist car to Winnipeg. They would never see the relatives left behind again and their letters written by the village scribe (someone who could write) on each end would stop coming when World War I started in 1914.

Geido, Tell me a Tale

My grandfather, Iwan Andrusiak, was his generation’s born story teller. I believe every family has a continuous line of story tellers, usually one person per generation who is bestowed by nature and genetics with the ability to entertain with words.

When it was raining and the chores around the farm were done for the day, Grandpa would pack his pipe full of a mixture of homestead tobacco and commercially purchased Prince Albert in the can
1. The homegrown variety was nurtured from seed that had been brought along tied into a piece of cloth when they came to Canada in 1903. Once a garden was cleared the seed was broadcast throughout and you learned to avoid weeding out the tobacco plants(and the dill which also self-seeded from year to year) when you were hoeing the weeds. It was a powerful Turkish variety and hard to eradicate. I recall that tobacco plants still came up each spring even ten years after grandpa’s garden had reverted into a cattle pasture. Perhaps they still do.

He would sit his grandchildren on the bed alongside him, never facing him and light up his pipe with a big wooden match. I think making us stare into the large room enabled us to use our imaginations to create images inside our heads instead of seeing him. Even today if anyone strikes a wooden match I expect to hear a story.
The stories were about everyday types of people and fairly earthy. Some were downright racist. A favorite hero was “Iwan Brihoon” which translates as “John the Liar” whose escapades centred on outwitting the rich landowners.

Grandma feeds the pigs

One year in the late fall Grandpa Iwan and his two older boys who still lived on the farm had fermented some mash using grain and had distilled the alcohol out of the mixture to make some “hohriwka” (it was never called vodka) for the Christmas celebrations. When the distilla- tion was done the three men headed to Sundown six miles north of the farm perhaps with some firewood to sell and to get supplies for the celebrations. Things such as mixed dried fruit, pickled herring, peanuts in the shell, flour for baked goods would be needed.

Since they intended to stay overnight with friends (or relatives) in Sundown and return late the next day, Grandma Maria was given instructions to feed the pigs some of the freshly cooked mash left behind after the distillation was done. The pigpen and pig “run” was north of the house and garden and on the edge of a field. Dur- ing threshing season the straw was blown into a pile in one corner of the pig “run” so the pigs could dig into the straw and make tunnels in which they would be warm during the cold winter. What the men had not explained to Grandma was not to use the mash all at once but to mix it with unfermented grain.
The next morning the half a dozen pigs had all disap- peared and were not visible in the pigpen. She called the neighbor on the north, Nick Tukarow, to come see what was wrong and help find them. He looked into the straw pile and found all the pigs lying in the tunnels, whimpering quietly to themselves, and nursing massive hangovers. The mash had considerable alcohol left in it.