Family Trees


The phrase “tracing my roots” is an extension of the metaphor that describes family lineage as a tree with roots extending ever downward into the past and branches spreading ever upwards into the future. People charting the roots and branches of their particular family tree do so with names, places, and dates. They look for, and note, persons of distinction among their predecessors, and this distinction in their family’s past lends distinction to their present, to their blood. Locating your family is a way of locating yourself, of answering the question of why you are the way you are. Whether your ancestors achieved fame or infamy, triumph or tragedy, great love or great sorrow, you marvel at their lives and wonder at the forces of biology and time, at all the tessellations required to allow history to start with them and lead to you.

An impromptu visit to Toronto in response to a family medical situation has given me a rare opportunity to observe three generations of my mother’s family as they interact with, conflict with, and occasionally reflect one another. The unplanned nature of this visit and the uncertainty that prompted it mean that no one is on their “Christmas family-time” best behaviour. We’re just co-existing in my grandparents’ house for a few days–eating, sleeping, alternately trying to be useful and trying to get out of being useful (or maybe that’s just me–I really don’t know how to cook with other people’s food). It’s both fascinating and sobering: the similarities, the differences, the inevitability of change (of physical condition, of the roles and responsibilities necessitated by that condition, of familial relationships based on these new roles). And the realization that these changes aren’t anything new in the history of families.

Despite these stories being old and oft-repeated over time, they are still new to me and constantly in flux. I am, more or less, neatly half-Ukrainian and half-Latvian. How I feel, however, changes all the time. As a kid, I spent a year in Latvia as well as a lot of time with my mom’s Latvian-speaking side of the family. This is why I can sing Latvian folk songs despite (regretfully) not being able to speak Latvian. Latvian-ness was an ever-present force in my family. Of course, there was the matter of my Ukrainian last name. Can’t be helped, can’t be gotten around. It’s Ukrainian and I would be reminded of that every single time a school official stumbled over it. Then we spent a year in Poland and glory be! Every single person knew exactly how to pronounce it. My Ukrainian-ness seemed obvious and normal (Ukraine is, of course, right next door) and my Latvian-ness was an afterthought for a time.

indexIt’s been like this for most of the past few years, feeling connected to one culture or the other depending on which side of the family I was visiting or thinking about. In the past few years I’ve been involved in making shows with fellow half-Ukrainian theatre artist, Aliya Griffin (and taking Ukrainian dance classes!), and my creative and cultural life has seen a lot of Ukraine. But now, I’ve come to Toronto just in time for Latvians all over the world to celebrate Jāņ(mid-summer) which meant going to the Latvian Centre for beer (Lithuanian, sadly, but it will have to do), pirags (fun fun bacon buns), and song. So yes, I’m both Latvian and Ukrainian, always, a product of recent and not-so-recent history, and somewhere in there is a German predecessor (just one I like to think although of course I guess it doesn’t work that way) and one Ukrainian horse thief.

When you’re thinking about your place in your family and the world, it can be easier to start small–for me, I can start at the tiny intersection of my family tree where my parents branch out into my sisters and me. Growing up in the same house, it was easy to see how I was like my sisters. After all, we were similar in appearance, had similar talents when it came to school and athletics, wore each other’s hand-me-down clothes, sounded like each other (people couldn’t tell us apart on the phone), and were often treated as a unit by both family and friends. It was also easy to see the ways in which we were different–my older sister was more outgoing, my little sister was shy, etc.

But the differences and similarities we exhibited in our parents’ home are only part of the story of the variations I anticipate in the lives of our great-grandchildren. When I visited my sisters in their own homes I found myself confused by their kitchens. Where was the breakfast cereal? Where was the stuff required to make all the meals my parents used to make? Why was there kale in the fridge? Was someone really going to sit down and eat this mango? WHERE WAS ALL THE MEAT? I quickly began to form the idea that my sisters had veered away from our childhood eats while I’d remained steadfast to them.

Which is in fact not true; we’ve just chosen which pieces of home to bring with us. I always liked the pantries full of crackers and breakfast cereal, so that’s what I have. And I’m not as faithful to my parents’ kitchen as I like to think–there’s a lot I’ve changed, even in old favourite recipes, to suit my new tastes. It’s just small changes, here and there, but add time and biology and circumstance, and who knows where we end up?

On a visit to my parents’ house several years ago, I found somewhere the cover for their old toaster. (It’s beige with mushrooms on it and says, “CHAMPIGNONS” in brown letters). I tried it on my toaster in Vancouver but it didn’t fit so I put it in the outer pocket of one of my suitcases and forgot about it. Months or years later, I was in my sister’s kitchen and realized that her toaster was the old one from home. I asked her if she wanted the cover for it and she said yes. I looked in my suitcase and it was still there, ready to be returned to its rightful place.

I tell this story because although my family and I still have the same inside jokes and commitment to each other, the different physical landscapes we inhabit (our cities, our homes) are strange to me. I get lost in places I expect to find familiar (my sisters’ kitchens, for example), and I search for continuity–old things in new places.

All this is to say that we are not our families but we are pieces from the same shape, like dandelion seeds on the wind. Where we land is anybody’s guess and, with luck and flexibility, we can pretty much thrive anywhere. One day you realize that you have changed the story of your family simply by moving to another city, or adapting your home to your needs, or taking a job, or getting married. And so Ukrainian horse thieves and Latvian egg farmers beget teachers and graphic designers and publicists and me. How far away are my roots, now? And how wide is their reach?

Please excuse the haphazard careening from one thing to another in this post. This week has been more about my grandparents, aunts and uncles, mom, sister, and cousins, than about the blog. But I do like thinking about families, so I’ll probably blog about them again.

Exploring the Past at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village

Photo credit: Daina Zilans

Photo credit: Daina Zilans

My (Ukrainian) dad had always wanted to visit the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village just outside of Edmonton, Alberta, and this week he got his wish–we were passing through that part of the province with just enough time to get a good look at the place before it closed for the evening, and I’m so glad we did.

For anyone with Ukrainian-Canadian roots (or anyone interested in pioneer Prairie communities), this heritage village (interpreted for the period between 1900 and 1930) is an absolute gem. Costumed role-players “inhabit” the buildings, welcoming visitors into their homes and businesses and making informative conversation in (nearly) flawless Ukrainian accents, and the buildings and farmsteads are authentic down to the last mud puddle and runaway chicken.

My dad and I check out a 1918 granary. Photo credit: Daina Zilans

My dad and I check out a 1918 granary. Photo credit: Daina Zilans

As I child of the Saskatchewan, I am not unfamiliar with heritage villages (the Western Development Museum in North Battleford is not too far from where I grew up, and the Prairies are dotted with old churches, schoolhouses, and railway stations preserved as small-town museums) and I’ve always enjoyed them, but the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village is something truly special. Unlike many heritage villages I’ve seen, the buildings at the Ukrainian Village were not cluttered with antiques, instead furnished only with those tools and dishes the families actually would have used and owned. The costumed interpreters, rather than launching into a set “spiel” every time a visitor entered their “zone”, simply welcomed us into their home or business and then made pleasant conversation, providing historical/cultural information only when asked (and always as if they were truly the owner of their home and never from the perspective of a person living after the time period of the building). The interpreters were so thorough I felt uncomfortable wandering into their bedrooms and back porches, feeling as though I was actually trespassing in somebody’s house.

The most impressive details, of course, are always the really basic ones, and ones that other heritage museums often miss in their efforts to keep their sites prim and tidy. For example, many of the farmsteads smelled–there were pigs in the pen and piles of horseshit in the barn and actual slop pails in the houses (sour milk and all–I pity the poor interpreters who sat in hot stinky kitchens all day). The large grassy expanses between the farmsteads were either obviously cut by hand, or not at all, and the roads between the “rural” zones of the heritage village and the town site showed only the narrow wheel tracks of horse-drawn carts and antique trucks. In sights, sounds, and smells, visiting the Ukrainian Village is an incredibly immersive experience, and one my father said brought him back not only to his own childhood farmhouse, but to the farmsteads of his aunts and uncles as well.

My only complaint about the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village is that we had only given ourselves an hour to see it, and it is a place I could easily spend the better part of a day.

The "villagers" gather at the end of their work day. Photo credit: Daina Zilans

The “villagers” gather at the end of their work day. Photo credit: Daina Zilans

Summer Double Bill: “Troika! / The Troubles”, August 3-7

poster by Arthur Yee

It’s a summer theatrical double bill extravaganza! This August, Some of the New Bees are proud to present Troika! as a double bill with Resounding Scream Theatre’s The Troubles at the Little Mountain Gallery off Main.

Before we go any further, SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT: I will be performing in this show. Some of the New Bees is an ad hoc theatre grouping borne of the 2009 Fringe Festival piece, Hive: The New Bees whose members change depending on which new bees are participating in any given performance. This summer, Some of the New Bees will be presenting Troika!:

Weaving together folktales, memoirs, history, and pop culture, Troika tells the story of growing up Ukrainian Canadian in Western Canada. With cast members hailing from the big city of Vancouver, the suburbs of Edmonton, and a small town in Saskatchewan, Troika uses elements of music, movement, and storytelling to take a sometimes poignant and sometimes humourous look at what it means to celebrate culture and heritage two generations removed from the motherland. Troika is created and performed by Aliya Griffin, Lauren Kresowaty, and Natalie Schneck.

Troika! - Photo credit: Sean Griffin

I’m in a play! Fancy schmancy! After almost nine months of being a theatre artist talking the talk in this blog, I am very excited to be walking the walk and treading the boards at Little Mountain with my friends (and fellow SFU Contemporary Arts alumni). This is the first time I have explored my own childhood and family history as a performer onstage. The three of us began this journey almost a year ago and even in the midst of frantic rehearsing and prop making we are eager to share this experience with an audience.

I am also very excited to be part of a double bill production with Resounding Scream Theatre (also friends), and their original one-woman play The Troubles, which will be travelling to the Victoria Fringe Festival (August 25-September 4) and Fringetastic in Nanaimo (September 8-11) after their Vancouver run:

Resounding Scream Theatre presents The Troubles
Written and Performed by: Stephanie Henderson
Directed by: Catherine Ballachey
“What would they call you? Not your name, love, your side?”
Based on personal accounts of the conflict in Northern Ireland, The Troubles is a thought-provoking show that draws upon the voices of five distinct characters to explore questions around community, morality, and loyalty. A boundary-pushing story of love and violence, The Troubles speaks that which has been forgotten.

The Troubles - Photo credit: Everett Jelley, The Jelley Photography,

Whether you want to enjoy a night of original theatre, support local artists, visit East Vancouver, or just watch me and my friends engage with our cultural roots, I look forward to seeing your shining faces at Troika!/The Troubles.

Troika!/The Troubles runs August 3 – 6 at 8:00 pm. Matinee performances will be held at 2:00 pm on Saturday, August 6 and Sunday, August 7.

The venue for the production is the Little Mountain Gallery, 195 East 26th Avenue (just off Main).

Tickets for Troika!/The Troubles can be purchased online at Brown Paper Tickets (recommended).

If you have any questions regarding the production, or mobility (or other) concerns regarding the venue, please contact Gina Readman, Production Manager, at