Borscht, Blintzes, Ballerinas, and a Near-Death Experience

by Dina Lyuber

     My husband Roman and I were both born in the former Soviet Union. I moved to Canada when I was still in diapers; he spent his childhood in Leningrad before moving to the States. Neither of us had been back since, but after we’d met and married, we decided to go back to the USSR (as the song goes) – though the Soviet Union no longer existed, and neither did Leningrad. We were returning to St. Petersburg in Russia, and name changes aside, that meant a return to our roots, our long-ago home.


My in-laws still had contacts in the country, and we were offered free accommodation in a private medical clinic just off of the Fontanka Canal, across from the Summer Garden and minutes away from the bustling Nevsky Prospect. The clinic was housed in a Baroque-style building decorated with reliefs and statues of winged angels. Inside, the corridor was dim and narrow, permeated by a medicinal smell. A large kindly woman showed us to the spare room in the basement. There was a modest bathroom in the hallway. The water running from the taps had a brownish tint. There was a fold-out couch to sleep on and a good-sized kitchen. It wasn’t a bad space, but it was cold. It was August, and I was freezing. 

We spent the first days of our two-week trip rambling through the city. We never took taxis or buses, but padded down the wet sidewalks and absorbed the fresh-air smell wafting from the Neva river.

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Heritage and Whisky in Scotland's Orkney Islands

by Frank Demain

I was very excited to discover that one branch of my family had its roots in the Orkney Islands, a handful of miles off the north coast of Scotland. It seems that my great grandfather was a master mariner, no less. As I had already acquired a taste for that magnificent Orkney malt whisky, Highland Park, it was not too big a step to decide that a trip to the Orkneys was required to investigate further my Orcadian roots and to visit the distillery just outside Kirkwall. My wife, essentially a gin-and-tonic drinker, does admit to liking the occasional wee dram and so it was not too difficult to persuade her to join me on my voyage of genealogical and sensory discovery.

Fortunately – and unusually for that part of the world - the sea was calm as we crossed on the ferry from Scrabster, a few miles west of John o’ Groats, the northernmost point on the Scottish mainland, towards the port of Stromness on the largest of the Orkney islands, confusingly called Mainland. Because of the flatness of the sea we were able to pass close to the Old Man of Hoy, a magnificent 449 feet red sandstone sea stack, perched on a plinth of basalt. From the sea it looks truly formidable and, despite its closeness to civilisation, it was not until 1966 that it was first climbed, by a team led by the famous British mountaineer Chris Bonnington. There and then I decided that my visit would have to include a trip to view the stack from the bottom on the landward side.

Old Man of Hoy sea stack, Orkney Islands, Scotland.

We enjoyed the warm, friendly welcome at the Highland Park distillery, and we had the joy of sampling rather older, finer bottlings than those to which our wallets normally extend. Smooth, peaty, rich, warming. 

A visit to the helpful people at the Orkney Family History Society, housed in the handsome Orkney Library in Kirkwall, provided some useful information. However, my ancestral investigations proved a little less definitive than I had hoped. Even now I have been unable to discover the origins of the elusive Betsy Birnie, maternal grandmother of my captain, Walter Weir Wilson. And sadly, I found that grannie’s highland home no longer exists on the narrow coastal plain on the east side of the island of Hoy. 

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Family Lost, Family Found

by Andrea Campbell

By traveling to find my father's family, I became a bridge between the Soviet Union and the United States. But first, allow me to back up and tell you my story. 

I had been an orphan and spent seven abysmal years in foster homes. When my mother died of cancer, I was only ten. She was 45. It was the worst thing that ever could happen to me, I thought. Unresolved grief walled my heart.  For comfort, I turned to my big sister who was as devastated as I.  And I looked to my distant, hard working, passionate Ukranian immigrant father for a sense of security. Though he tried to fill my loneliness, he suffered from depression.

Two years after my mother died, my father died. I was twelve and alone. Because my sister was separated and planning to divorce, the courts decreed that her’s was a broken home and not a good environment for me.   Thus, I was sent to the first foster home. I lost my mother, my father, my home, most of my belongings and close contact with my sister.  I was isolated and abandoned.  

Somehow, I gathered family photos. As I matured, through hard work (dealing with my own suffering), years of schooling and post-school training, I chose a career in mental health. I found happiness and deep satisfaction as a mother to my daughter.

When my father left Russia in 1915, he was 15 years old.  He never saw his family again.  I was told he kept a goat in a lot on Prince St., Newark, New Jersey.  A noted School of Medicine and Dentistry now stands on that spot.  A letter from his mother in 1939 contained a photo of his nephew, and a request to cease communication.  At that time, having American family was potentially politically dangerous.  The last he heard about them was that they were starving during WWII.  When my father died in 1956, he thought they had starved to death or were killed by Nazis.

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Hunting Higdens in Newfoundland

by Jane Spencer

With no documentation or living family left to question, it seemed a long shot to trace my grandmother’s roots in Newfoundland. My father used to say his mother was from Harbour Grace, that she worked ‘in service’ there. My aunt said no, she was from Salmon Cove or perhaps Trinity.  My internet search was proving futile. Without my grandmothers’s birth certificate, birth date, baptism records (which apparently burned in a church fire) or even childhood photos, I didn’t have much to go on. I would have to travel to Newfoundland & Labrador to see what I could dig up, and I would take along my favourite chauffeur, my husband John.

My ancestors emigrated to Ontario from Newfoundland about a hundred years ago. My grandparents George Spencer and Elfreda Higden were both Newfoundlanders, as were their parents and grandparents before them.  George died at age 50, but Alfreda lived on to age 83, spending her final days living with us in her ‘granny suite’.  I decided to focus my genealogical search on her.

Here’s what I was told about my grandmother. She was a staunch Methodist, she loved the monarchy, and her deafness was caused by a childhood case of diphtheria. This instilled in her a suspicion and a fear that others were always talking against her, and it gave her a crabby edge. She fought with her husband incessantly.

Here’s what I remember about my grandmother. Into her eighties she weighed about 100 pounds and kept her grey hair curled up in bobby pins day and night.  She could lipread from across the room, and she squinted her eyes and shook her cane if she didn’t like what she saw.  She had these strange expressions like “Stay where yer at, and I’ll come where yer to” and “Mind yer mouth.”

One day, I was deadly embarrassed to catch Elfreda in her raggedy fur coat hitchhiking near our house in the suburbs down to the mall.  I ran in to tell my father, but all he said was: “You know she’s from Newfoundland” as if that explained everything. I supposed that Newfoundland was like another country, where they did things differently.

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