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"The Things That Remain"        (CLICK HERE FOR AUDIO)
by Christina Chowaniec

I can see her sitting there, her hands pressed together between her knees, her flower printed blouse poking out from under her navy cardigan. She looks at me but there is no recognition in her eyes. We no longer share a common language. I bend down and whisper her name, my name, and then she is gone and all I have is the name of a place and an old photograph of a woman whose eyes mirror my own.

On the concrete steps of an old church deep in the Ukrainian breadbasket my nerves consume me. I cannot discriminate between cold and anxiety. I wait for the door to open and will my hands to stop their shaking. My mind is filled with memories of rainy days in Yorkshire. My grandfather is there wearing one of his white short-sleeved dress shirts. His sharp features have not been dulled by age. I stare deep into the memory but I know by now that there is nothing else for me there. I know by now that there are some things we just could not share. A chilling November rain slips over the side of the awing and crawls across the concrete towards my feet. The door opens. A young priest with eyes of gleaming cerulean towers in the doorway, but not even his gaze can bring back the dead.

Dust settles more heavily on memory than on other things. The layers build over time until they become a smooth shell, protecting things best forgotten. Painful memories with their jagged edges and deep contusions provide the perfect framework for the delicate gathering of time. I took too long; I arrived too late to disturb the gathered dust. I should have tried. I know that now. My grandfather was the first link in the chain leading backwards through time and the last survivor of his generation. With his passing went not only a lifetime of experiences, but also the memories of an entire era. There is no one else. When he died I knew what it was to feel true loss, and I think in that moment I came the closest I ever had to understanding him. So, in the flatness of a rainy Ukrainian November I went looking for glimpses into the past, recollections and images of people I never really knew. I had so little. Not even language.

I arrived in Lwow, the city of lions, on All Saints Day and stood in the cold damp air beside candle lit graves of Polish artists and poets, soldiers and saints and sinners. Rows of white stone crosses fell into the distance and the huge white memorials with carved Napoleonic columns drew the eye upwards and allowed the immensity of the atmosphere to be absorbed. I stood there, my breath steaming in the chilly night, and for the first time, I truly understood that there were things lost forever that I would never know. There in the magnificent glow it was finally clear to me how much had been lost, and how faint the memory of what remained.

The priest slides back from the door and I float into the warmth, into the expectation of answers. It is there the warmth, in a room with yellow walls, that I meet Anatoli. He plods towards me draped in a tan bomber jacket two sizes too big that is darkened in places with raindrop-sized spots. As he moves towards me I picture Lech Walesa leaping over the shipyard fence in Gdansk and crashing into Yosemite Sam. He is a caricature embedded with the memories of a generation. Hunched and pensive, he bares in his stature the weight of a self-imposed oath of remembrance. When he raises his soft brown eyes to me to plead for the details I do not possess, the nerves that had filled me at the door threaten to take me apart completely. He furrows his bushy eyebrows and I can see the sadness beneath them. He wants to be able to take me out of the world of clipped memory and show me a real place. I am not equipped to help him take me there.

In my mind I return to the photograph of my grandmother. I search it desperately for any missed clue. It is burned into my mind, its simple existence precious. The black and white contrasts have been softened by time and the looped writing on the back has guided me here, to this place, to this room, to this old Polish parish now enfolded in the borders of another land. My grandmother is nineteen. She is beautiful and stern and she betrays no emotion. And she provides no answers.

I feel Anatoli's hand on my shoulder. The pleading look is gone from his eyes. He tells me that my stories are incomplete, but that they are part of a shared history. He tells me that we will go out into the land, into the fields, to the remains of old Polish settlements and through the common past will come, if not a precise recollection, then at least an understanding of the time.

And so we go. Through the car window stretches flatness like I have never known. The rain turns the already dark soil black and betrays the richness that lies beneath the dead covering of fall. The road is littered with fallen sugar beats and dark, massive statues of coal miners and other stoic heroes stand solemnly at intersections of major roads. Anatoli is meticulous in his knowledge of the area. He speaks in a slow, measured tone. His hands are still and there is a reverence in his voice. History seems to have been transferred to his keeping with the promise of a perfect retelling. As if the stories themselves were living entities to be passed on as a complete whole, and would be damaged or would disappear altogether if handled inappropriately.

When I see the land, the countryside outside of Kowel, I understand Anatoli's precision and care. There is literally nothing left of the settlements, the land had become communal farms during the Soviet period and all the old houses had been dismantled brick by brick to build new things. The whole area is a vacuum of sorts; everyone who ever lived there was eventually deported. To this day Kowel remains a huge railway junction and the very place from where people were taken away. The myriad of ramps and platforms and lines seem sinister in the grey fall light. I can almost hear the trains shunting in the yards. We pass on to more flatness and old farmland. The trees have lost their leaves and the bare skeletons looked tired and old. Rich black soil pokes up between fallen leaves and stacks of hay. Red pine forests guard the back of the wide fields and give the only colour to the landscape. It is incredible to me how efficiently the past had been erased. There isn't a single half buried foundation or errant stone. Even if I found the plot that belonged to my grandmother and her family, I doubt that there would have been anything there but dried grass and rain. The emptiness is ghostly. The earth is tainted by a troubled past and Anatoli's stories momentarily breathe life into a vanished time and stir spirits from their slumber.

Towards the end of the day Anatoli directs us to the crumbling remains of an old school. It is the only building in the area that dates from before the war. After so much emptiness and rain its existence is soothing. The fleeting fall light is already beginning its retreat as I step from the car and make my way along the path leading from the main road. The path is still indented and worn and is lined on both sides by a perfect row of elms. Aging apple trees rim the whole plot and in the wet brown grass I find a firm piece of dropped fruit. It is small and sweet and I am thankful for its concrete existence in my hand. I take my time in the ruins. I crunch over flaking plaster and brick shards on rotten floorboards. The rain pelts the corrugated roof and nature grows in through the window frames. In the endless silence it is impossible to imagine a different time. Before I turn to leave, I bend down and almost ceremoniously pick-up two pieces of plaster-covered brick! from the ground. They are my only tangible reminders of this place.

In the evening, coming in from the fields of memory, we drive to the apartment building where my grandfather grew up. I look at the address written in my own hand on the paper before me and then up at the building beside me on the street. It is a powerful contrast to the farmland outside the city where so little remains. The tiled entrance way bears the date 1908 and the small courtyard out back is full of cats and drying laundry and crumbling garden sheds. I climb the angled wooden steps of the dimly lit stairway. The latest coat of rust coloured paint is worn away, revealing dozens of other similarly coloured layers beneath. I stand in the hall outside his apartment and try and imagine a person I had only ever known as an old man taking the steps two by two on the way home to dinner. It is cold and damp and musty and I shiver slightly. I run my fingers over the number on the door and feel the contrast of the cool metal doorknob to the warmth of the wood. I do not t! urn the handle or knock on the door. There is nothing for me here but strangers. The next day is a wintry day for November. The rain is gone and the pale sun that glistens beautifully off crystals of frost brings no warmth. The city streets are carpeted in fallen yellow leaves and there is no wind to disturb them. Bohdan is pacing in the cold outside of my rented apartment. He is a serious character, courteous, but uncharismatic, short and stocky, with a round face and a firmly set jaw. He is a friend that my grandfather had met through his short wave radio club. My grandfather too had gone looking for friends and for links to his past in Lwow and had become acquainted with Bohdan and several other members of the Lwow chapter.

We can barely communicate, and I try through a grotesque mix of Russian and English to make basic small talk. He seems disappointed with our inability to better understand each other. But there is something more, in the twinkle in his eye, in the fierce intensity with which he looks at me, a connection beyond language. Bohdan is in his late fifties. He is in far in age from my grandfather as I am from him and he would not have known my grandfather in Lwow. I look over at him and imagine him hunched over his set, talking to my grandfather half a world away, sharing stories between the soft crackling of dead air. I wonder what passed between them.

He insists that I join him at the Monday night meeting of the club and I am hauled away in a decaying Lada to the ground floor of a Soviet era apt building in the suburbs of Lwow. Just past the ping-pong table I am welcomed by a handful of geeky old men with thick glasses, ill-fitting jeans and outdated moustaches. The main room of the club is piled floor to ceiling with old radio parts, trophies, posters and papers; every now and then a flash of sea foam green paint is visible. The room is warm and smells like shoe polish and old rubber.

I circle the room looking at posters and old photographs and asking questions about the club and its members. Bohdan patiently introduces me to each of his friends, and explains that I have come in search of the past, in search of my grandfather's story. They too are all much younger than my grandfather, but, like me, have been piecing together the past. It is a small group; their craft is fading from popularity, dwindling in the face of more modern communications. But it is the warmth of their reception that stays with me. They like that I have come looking for the past, that I am interested in things otherwise forgotten. Eventually, Bohdan points to a table in the centre of the room, to a photocopied photo of my grandfather as a young man. Bodhan tells me it was taken the day my grandfather was arrested by the Soviets in October 1939. In that moment, staring into the eyes of that young man, surrounded by a group of quirky old men on a cold night in some random apt building in Lwow, there the past came to life. There, in the presence of strangers, the settled dust stirred, and for the first time all of my memories and recollections condensed into a tangible feeling. I look over at Bodhan; he places his hand on my arm and nods.