My grandfather came from a large family. He was one of seven children, and over the years and with additions of new generations, the family count had grown to 50 people (and perhaps more!). I saw a few pictures of my cousins, but it wasn’t until my grandfather went back to Ukraine in 1992 and documented his own adventure that my mother and I could see into the lives of our family, hear their voices and grasp how different Ukraine was from the US.
How do you completely lose touch with an entire family in the digital revolution?
My grandfather passed away in 2003, and it was the beginning of a very difficult time for my little family in Virginia. I won’t go into specifics, but there were health problems that ensnared us. Thinking, writing, talking in Ukrainian was too much for my mother. Address books got misplaced, phone numbers changed as landlines faded away in favor of cell phones.
When I first started making plans to go on the Motherland adventure over two years ago, I consulted the Internet to glean any information about my Ukrainian family. I was able to find very little evidence of the surname of my grandfather, “Hryca”. My mom wasn’t sure, but she was under the impression that in the 20 years since my grandfather had visited Ukraine, Ukrainians had to adapt to life without the USSR. As a result, we suspected, everyone had scattered to larger cities. There was no one I could call or write to explain I was coming. I’d have to do it on my own.
Compelled is the only way I can describe it. I had to go to Ukraine. I had no idea what I would find, but whatever it was, it was waiting for me.
One of the best tips I’ve been given about travel is to make loose plans, but set no expectations. Not knowing if finding my family would be feasible, the purpose of my trip became “preserve the heritage and legacy”, as that seemed attainable. I wanted to one day be able to tell my kids about Ukraine– and not just from stories that I’d heard, but from my own experiences.
I knew my grandfather’s heart was in West Ukraine. I wanted to pick up a few words of the language, walk the streets my grandfather walked, and go to the village where he was raised before he was kidnapped as a teenager. I had an old address, which might be enough to see if I had any relatives left in the village — but nothing else.
I realized the level of difficulty of my quest would be maximized if I attempted to go to Rozvadiv alone. After two weeks of Ukrainian lessons, I understood the basics but wasn’t comfortable taking a train to the middle of nowhere, potentially stumble upon my relatives, and barely be able to communicate with them. I didn’t want to take the risk. And so I hired a guide, Slav, to drive me there and act as my translator.
Slav picked me up in the main square in Lviv at 9am on a Sunday in mid-September. If the church services were like the ones in Lviv, we estimated it would be adjourning a little after we arrived to the village.
The highway from Lviv to Rozvadiv is in top condition and is considered one of the best roads in the country, as it’s the main artery to Kiev. As I surveyed the Ukrainian countryside, uneasiness, excitement, nervousness crept over me. After a lifetime of hearing the stories and painting my own mental pictures of the far away land of my grandfather, I couldn’t believe I was finally here. I alternated between snapping photos, taking video, and trying to see it with my own eyes, unsure of the best way to capture and preserve this moment. I was on the cusp of something big, something I could feel but couldn’t define. I felt unprepared for what lay ahead, while wanting to run at a full sprint towards it.
After a smooth journey from Lviv, our Ukrainian GPS sent us off the wrong exit, where we were met with potholes the size of bathtubs and roads that dead end into railroad tracks. It added an extra fifteen or twenty minutes to our quest, but in truth, if we had arrived exactly where we had intended to on the first try, I would’ve been a little disappointed. (More importantly, had we arrived any earlier, we may have missed a few chance meetings that could’ve derailed the rest of what was about to take place.)
Rozvadiv. We took the exit off the highway onto another deteriorating road, and Slav spotted a woman in her Sunday best walking towards the cathedral in the distance. We pulled over and Slav asked her in Ukrainian on a whim if she knew the name Hryca. She did, and asked for a ride in exchange for information. As we gave her a ride to the cathedral, she talked to Slav, and Slav translated: She used to be a postal worker for the village and knew exactly where the Hrycas lived.
We arrived outside the cathedral, which I immediately recognized from my grandfather’s video from his trip in 1992. Churchgoers were spread out across the courtyard, singing along with music escaping out the main door of the cathedral.
Clearly outsiders and one of the few that had arrived by car, we attracted a bit of attention. The woman we had given a ride to immediately summoned the assistance of another lady, and they talked amongst themselves in Ukrainian.
“Your family still lives here,” Slav translated. “Now, we’re waiting to see if they come to church.”
I looked down the road, as handfuls of people were still approaching the cathedral. With nervous anticipation, I wondered who, if any, I was related to. Everything was happening so fast, I couldn’t absorb it.
We stood for a few more minutes, when one of the women helping us brought over a lady I estimated to be in her 40s. I listened as Slav explained in Ukrainian that I was from America and searching for my relatives. She was studying me curiously, but she knew who I was; her eyes never leaving mine. Before Slav could introduce me, she said my name first–
All I could do was nod. Choked by a sudden stream of tears, I couldn’t speak.
“We thought you’d forgotten about us,” Slav translated. She was Olga, my mother’s cousin. She had a huge smile and was talking rapidly, but remained poised, as Ukrainians do.
“No!” I exclaimed, wiping my eyes, trying to regain composure. I hadn’t imagined I would find my family, much less consider how I’d react. But here I was, in a tiny village of 5,000 people in rural Ukraine — reunited, reconnected with one of my cousins within minutes of arriving — and the onslaught of emotion was overpowering.
Olga called a handful of our relatives that lived nearby, and they met us for lunch in a neighboring village. They were bewildered I had come alone, but pleasantly surprised, and all the more amazed that I had found them. After we had caught up on the last 10 years, we’d sometimes find ourselves sitting in silence, but smiling at each other, just happy to be in each other’s company.
As the sun started to dip below the horizon, we reluctantly said our good-byes with promises of seeing one another again in the upcoming week. On the drive back to Lviv, I realized how mentally exhausted I was from forcing my brain to decipher their Ukrainian on my own (and succeeding about 30% of the time!). I was emotionally exhausted as well, but from a day of unfathomable joy and disbelief.
Slav couldn’t believe it, either. “There were so many things that had to go right. What is the likelihood of the first person we ask to be the postal worker, who would know everyone in the village? Then, we had to show up at the cathedral at exactly the right time: a little earlier and she may not have been there, a little later and she may have been inside. We could’ve spent hours walking around the village looking for her, yet we found her in minutes…”
I agreed. It was too incredible to credit it to mere chance and coincidence. All I had was an old address and a feeling in my heart that something was calling me there at that moment. I was just a character in a story that had already been written; a part of something greater than I could ever dream possible. I smiled as I looked out the window at the sky above the rolling hills and said a silent prayer of Thanks.
I made the rounds that night calling home; my parents were equally astonished. Gunner was elated and his steadfast reaction surprised me: “I know you didn’t think you’d find them,” he told me, “but I always knew you would.”
The next morning, my phone wouldn’t stop ringing as cousin after cousin called. They were so excited I had come, and couldn’t wait to meet me.
Additional Information: I used Lviv EcoTour, owned and operated by a nice gentleman named Slav. He might be the best tour guide in Lviv — he was just as committed to the adventure of finding my relatives as I was. I don’t doubt for a moment my quest would’ve been impossible without him.