Ukraine a Land of Family Values
Were many of my extended family members alive, no one would be more horrified about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine than my aunt and uncle. They owned a small apartment building on Chicago’s Near North Side.
Before shifting demographics changed the neighborhood, they lived in an area largely populated by Eastern European immigrants, whether Ukrainians, Poles, Slovaks, or Romanians.
I since have learned to treat these Chicagoans as all other folks—namely, human. But as a boy I looked up to them as “salt of the earth.”
They were honest, hardworking souls with the courage to emigrate to a land of opportunity. No one was fiercer in their love of America than those who left behind oppressive governments, poverty, and miserable social conditions.
Escaping the Past
One patriot was my uncle, who fled Ukraine in 1915. That was just two years before the ascent of the Bolshevik revolutionaries who would have prevented him from escaping his troubled homeland.
Before my uncle died in 1974, he complained bitterly about the Soviet Union Communists who refused to let his brother come to America for a visit.
“I could understand it if he were a young man and they needed him to work,” my uncle said once. “But in his 70s, what is he going to do?”
These immigrants didn’t just land in America. In the late 1800s, my maternal grandfather and his brother departed from Ukraine for western Canada. My grandfather wound up running a general store and served as the community’s postmaster.
Two huge setbacks struck after he settled into his new homeland, though.
The first was the death of his first wife in 1923. Because of complications in childbirth, she passed on three weeks after my mother was born.
The second was the Great Depression. Grandpa never really recovered from the financial crash that wiped out his store and left him moving from pillar to post.
By the time of his death in 1955, he was living in Chicago, where my aunt had found him a menial occupation that enabled him to put food on the table.
He managed to make it to northern Ohio for a visit only once. I was too young to remember much about it, other than my mother treating him like a golden hero.
Given her vagabond, poverty-plagued childhood and hatred of her stepmother (who was much younger than Grandpa), for years I didn’t have a great impression of him, feeling he had failed my mother.
That all changed in 1991 at my aunt’s funeral in Chicago. My brother talked about how successful Grandpa had been until the 1929 stock market crash. I saw him in a new light that day, grateful for this different slant on history.
About nine years ago my wife and I went to visit another aunt in Windsor. She took us to a celebratory dinner that weekend at her Orthodox church.
It honored a Ukrainian political and community leader who had been prominent across Canada, not just in the city.
Since everyone sang and spoke in Ukrainian, my aunt leaned over occasionally to whisper interpretations of the evening’s proceedings, including one song where many in the crowd grew teary-eyed.
“They’re singing about the old country,” she explained.
I grow emotional thinking of that evening, when the tender affection, love of family, and rock-solid values of my mother’s ancestors were on such vivid display.
As we prepare to celebrate our nation’s veterans on Memorial Day, we should also remember the immigrants who helped make our nation strong.