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My Baba passed away today. “Baba” means grandmother in Ukrainian, but my Baba was actually my great-grandmother, only sixty-five when I was born.

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I moved in with my Baba when I was nineteen so I could go to school. She let me move in with her without even a second thought. That was how she felt about family. In doing so I joined a long list of women in my family who occupied that attic apartment: my grandmother, my great-aunt, countless cousins visiting from the motherland, and even my parents, while they were still dating, all lived there before me. Her nephew moved in after me. Family.

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My relationship with my Baba is what started everything for me. Before I really knew her, my photographs weren’t really about anything. Through her stories I yearned to know more about my family’s history, a subject which now forms the foundation of my art practice. And most of my waking thoughts.

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Her long-term memory was pretty amazing. She had dozens of stories, mostly sad, from her time spent spent performing forced labour for the Germans during the Second World War. Like many other Ukrainians during that time, she too was rounded up and deported from her home to Germany, given an OST badge, and made to work. 

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It was during her time in Germany that she met my Gido, a fellow Ostarbeiter. The story she told me the most often was the one about them fleeing the barracks with a group of other people and hiding in some bushes until the war ended. They got married in Germany, and my Gido came to Toronto to look for a house. My Baba crossed the ocean some time later, as she would describe, with one baby holding her hand and another baby in a crate.

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I was lucky enough to have a pretty special relationship with my Baba. I prided myself on being able to make her laugh. The women in my family all have amazing hearty laughs. I listened to her stories night after night even though they always made me cry at the end. She told me about her dreams, a recurring one in which she would run up and down Jane St. looking for my Gido. Even though he passed away over a decade earlier, she told me about how she would see him walking around at night. It didn’t scare her. It made her happy. 

Although it’s probably not natural for a nineteen year-old girl to be living with her eighty-five year-old great-grandmother, the experience was invaluable. It made me think about mortality in a way I hadn’t before. This, of course, led to many sleepless nights and boundless existential crises, but it also led to me becoming the person I am now: a person who is terrified of death, but someone who actually appreciates life. Pretty good gift.

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I used to help her sort her pills and wash her hair. She would sneakily do my laundry even though it drove me crazy. We would sit on her porch when I got home from school and talk. She would drape cold washcloths over my neck to cure any and all ailments. She would sing along with the Ukrainian radio station on Sunday nights. She would give my cat milk instead of water. She ate boiled chicken and mashed potatoes six nights a week. She used to sneak to the McDonald’s on Runnymede and think I didn’t notice the crumpled wrappers in her buggy. She blamed me for breaking an iron that I never once used. She would stick loonies and toonies into my pockets when she hugged me, on on Easter, chocolate eggs. She sometimes mistook me for my mother which always made me feel good. She would giddily recount, on almost a nightly basis, the days of owning a convenience store in Coldwater where my mom and her brother spent the summers. I think those were probably her happiest days.

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Anyway, all this to say I will miss her. I tried to visit her as much as I could after I moved out but it never felt like enough. After you spend so much time with someone, it feels weird to only see them once in a while. I carried a lot of guilt and felt like I abandoned her by moving out. The last time I saw her, shortly after her 90th birthday and my 25th, I don’t think she really recognized me. I didn’t take it personally. When I hugged her and she said, like she always did, “I love you too sweetheart” I knew it was for me.

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