LATER, WHEN I became so involved in their tragic love story, it seemed only fitting that I had first met old Joe Jarusewich when he was midway through a letter to Mariya, the devoted wife he hadn’t seen in nearly 40 years.
A narrow path through the snow led to Joe’s cabin, which is about 12 feet by 10 and 40 years old and built of logs caulked with mud and straw. Inside, fishing nets hung from beams. The work clothes of the northern lake-fisherman hung, steaming dry, over a stove improvised from an old oil drum. There was a bed of unpadded plank on one side, and a wall-high pile of fish boxes on the other.
Joe himself wore a bushy Santa Claus beard then, and his bony shoulders were bent over the crude table where, by the light of an antique coal-oil lamp, he was scratching away with an old nib pen and a bottle of ink, telling Mariya that soon she could fly — yes, fly! — from the Ukraine to their new homeland, Canada.
The first surprise was that Joe even had a wife. When my husband Frank was appointed game yarden of the bleak Dore Lake region of northern Saskatchewan in the winter of 1967-68, I discovered we were almost the only white people for miles around. The dozen or so families in our tiny settlement were mostly Métis, and most of the other whites, were seven of the old bachelor hermits, middle-European mostly, who seem to have pioneered the opening-up of the Canadian north.
But Joe Jarusewich, who lived like one of them, had a wife he hadn’t seen since 1930. Except for a 10-year span when they lost track of one another, they had written to each other twice a month throughout that time Joe told me once that Mariya’s letters always ended with the plea: “Take me Take me. I want to have more than one day with you before I die.”
And now, it seemed, the wish was to be granted. When we arrived at Dore Lake, the long process of getting Mariya to Canada had begun.
Joe is proud of his English, but it is still at best confusing and often unintelligible. Slowly, however, I pieced together the story. In 1930 he had borrowed his fare to Canada, leaving Mariya and daughter Petrouchka aí home in Kasperiwici, at that time part of the Polish Ukraine. In Canada, he worked on farms and tried to save enough for their fares, but in 1932 the Canadian government ended immigration because in the Depression the nation couldn’t support even its existing population. By 1939 he had saved enough at least to return to the Ukraine, and was about to do so when Poland was invaded by the Germans and the Russians.
Under the German-Russian carve-up of Poland, the Russians took the Polish part of the Ukraine and in the world war that followed it was impossible for Joe to return. Besides, Mariya and their daughter were soon shipped off to Siberia.
In Canada, Joe moved farther and farther north, and in 1945 he and Mariya lost track of one another because of a mail mix-up. By 1955 he was living in his log cabin beside Dore Lake, next door to old Harry Husak, one of our old bachelors and another Ukrainian, who runs what passes for a local store and a hunters’ camp. Harry and Joe always ate with one another.
In 1957 Joe tried, and failed, to get the Russians to release Mariya and Petrouchka. The next year Petrouchka died in Siberia. Our settlement still talks of the day the news reached Joe. He locked himself in his cabin for three days. When he emerged, his hair and beard had begun to go grey.
This most recent attempt to get Mariya out of Russia had begun when a notary public advertised in a Winnipeg Ukrainian newspaper that he could help get relatives of Canadian immigrants out from Communist countries. Joe sent off the required $50, and by the time I met Joe he had been told that Mariya, by then 71, had retired and the Russians seemed willing to let her leave.
Since Joe could neither read nor write English, my husband Frank helped with the formalities. The final form from the Department of Citizenship and Immigration in Ottawa arrived in the fall of 1968. It warned that Mariya was ill and demanded that Joe prove he could provide for medical attention if necessary. But by then he had already mailed Mariya an airline ticket, so he just grinned and said, “For that money I could have bought me a young wife.”
At 5 p.m. on January 15, 1969, a friend of Joe’s in Saskatoon, Dave Dion, called our house by radio-telephone and said, “Help! Mariya Jarusewich just arrived. She doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Russian.”
My husband Frank found Joe just back from a three-mile hike to his fishing nets in the middle of the frozen lake. “Well,” he said, “she be in good hands. We get her when you’re ready.”
Ten minutes later he knocked at our front door, ready to go, not having stopped to trim his beard or change his workclothes, which looked as though they were made from a patchwork quilt: like all the old bachelors, he’ll patch worn clothes rather than buy new ones. With him he had a box of frozen fish for his friends, the Dions. “We go now maybe,” he said. He even suggested we bring her back from Saskatoon, 220 miles and a four-hour drive away, that same evening “so she won’t run away from me.” I think I understood his motives. Coming north from Saskatoon, as you pass Prince Albert, the road is unpaved and the bush begins to close in. It is, in winter, much as I imagine Siberia to be.
We reached Saskatoon at 9.30 p.m. At the Dions’ Joe spilled the fish all over the driveway. Dave Dion later said Mariya had been just as nervous. “She hid in the kitchen,” he said. That’s where the first meeting of man and wife in almost 40 years took place — beside a kitchen sink. Five minutes later they emerged, Mariya exclaiming, “St. Nikolai! St. Nikolai!” Joe said she would have recognized him by his voice, but not by his beard.
Mariya was small, slightly bent, swaddled in drab, black, voluminous skirts and coats and a babushka. All you could see of her was a small, wrinkled face and work-gnarled hands. Joe told her who Frank and I were, and she took my face in her hands and kissed me on both cheeks. Then she dug into the pockets of her skirts and produced a handful of Russian walnuts, two or three for each of us. She had come halfway round the world to be with a man she now could barely recognize, and of all her prized possessions had chosen to bring a satchel of Russian walnuts which, admittedly, are tastier than ours, and a delicacy even there. She gave them all away within the next few weeks.
That night we took Joe and Mariya to the honeymoon suite of the King George Hotel, but on seeing the two large beds Joe offered the second to Frank and me. Naturally, we declined. Then they pulled off their boots and, dressed, lay down. Next day, when we collected them to drive home, Joe complained, “I didn’t get to sleep all night. She talked all the time.”
Back at Dore Lake, I expected Mariya to throw up her hands in dismay at Joe's cabin, but she accepted it almost as a matter of course. Perhaps in all their talking on the long drive home Joe had prepared her for it, though somehow I doubt it: he’d been a bachelor too long to be what one could fairly call a thoughtful husband. But Mariya accepted the log cabin, the bed of boards and Joe’s apparent insistence that they still eat with Harry Husak. She did, however, promptly clean the cabin, stack the fish boxes neatly and stow the fishing gear tidily away.
Once or twice a week Joe and Mariya would walk the 200 yards to our house to spend an evening drinking tea or coffee. There are few white women in the area, and I felt she enjoyed visiting me, however big the age gap and language difficulty. With Joe interpreting, I learned her story, a snippet at a time.
It seems Mariya spent a lifetime waiting for Joe. At school in Kasperiwici, part of the region called Galicia, Mariya was always a class ahead of Joe. In 1915, when they were courting, Joe was conscripted into the Austro - Hungarian army, but even when the war ended and Galicia became part of Poland, Joe was detained for two years in Italy as a prisoner of war. On May 22, 1921, a year after his return, Mariya and Joe were married.
It was not a large wedding, for they were poor, but on her head Mariya wore the traditional byrvinok wreath of green leaves entwined with tiny flowers made of shiny gold paper. Then they settled down to farm their three and a half acres of land, Mariya working with Joe in the fields until, two years later, Petrouchka was born.
Politically, Europe was in turmoil. In the village life was hard, and by the late 1920s the great flood of Ukrainians to Canada had begun. When Joe left, his hopes high, Mariya expected she and Petrouchka would soon follow, but they were lean years for Canada, too, and in 1932 immigration ended temporarily.
And then the Germans invaded Poland from one direction and the Russians from the other. Mariya and Petrouchka fled to the nearby hills to escape the battles in which most of the village was burned.
They returned to the village in 1941 to find it in Russian hands, their home and land now the property of the state. Petrouchka married a village boy who had been a Polish soldier, but soon he fled to the hills with other young men to escape conscription into the Russian army, now fighting Germany.
Mariya said that allegiances were divided, some villagers being Communist, some pro-Poland, some pro-Nazi — she said that the Germans did not confiscate land, but only levied taxes. She said that families turned against one another, and in some cases fathers could not trust their own sons. Mariya told me through Joe that some people seeking solace in the confessional box were afterward hauled away as enemies of the state. Eventually, the perfidy of the “priest” was discovered, and he left.
One day early in our brief northern summer Mariya and Joe and I stood on the shore of our lake and Mariya told me how, when they found that Petrouchka’s husband had escaped conscription, the Russians came and demanded to know his whereabouts. Petrouchka, mercifully, was away. Mariya said she didn’t know where her son-in-law was. She told me as much with gestures as with words for Joe to translate that they had beaten her on the head, the back of the neck and the throat, all the while holding her by the hair. Then they kicked her under the breasts and on the back. She pushed the babushka she always wore back from her forehead and revealed an ugly scar where a handful of hair had been pulled from its roots. Her permanent stoop was, she said, a legacy of that beating.
Mariya and Petrouchka were sent to Siberia in the winter of 1941. She said it was because they refused to reveal the whereabouts of Petrouchka’s husband. The journey, in cattle cars, took 17 days. At a coal mine high in the Ural mountains Mariya was put to work scrubbing the miners’ washrooms. Petrouchka was sent underground to walk ahead of the miners, carrying a lamp. If the flame flickered and died it meant the gas level was unsafe. She did this for nine years before becoming too ill with a liver disease to work. She never saw her husband again. Mariya said they heard that he had died — either been shot, or shot himself — near Kasperiwici.
At first, Mariya and Joe still wrote. But in 1945, Joe moved; Mariya’s letters were not forwarded and in despair he stopped writing. Soon after they found one another again in 1955, Petrouchka died.
l realize now that I never fully knew Mariya’s story — just parts of it. I know that she stayed in Siberia for two years after she retired at 65, then returned to Kasperiwici to live with her sister. She was sick, and she said that was why the authorities let her leave for Canada.
When she flew to Saskatoon, via Montreal, that January day there was no one expecting her, no one to meet her. And no one at the airport spoke Ukrainian. For three hours she had sat alone, her small wicker suitcase at her feet, her satchel of walnuts on her lap, like a piece of lost luggage waiting to be claimed. It was not until she grew hysterical that the airline staff set about finding Joe’s friends, the Dion family.
Our spring, summer and fall are brief. Late May is spring and it grows bleak again by mid-September. Mariya, isolated by language and custom barriers, seemed to enjoy it anyway. She didn’t seem to resent being obliged to eat at Harry Husak’s each day, though one evening she came to my house and cooked a Ukrainian dish and seemed to enjoy herself in the kitchen. But Harry said, “She’s not much of a cook,” which may be explained by the fact that Harry's idea of cooking is to boil anything and everything. Joe never complained.
Mariya spent much of her time just sitting, the way old people often do. In June, she began helping Joe cultivate the half-acre garden he shares with Harry, planting potatoes and carrots mostly, and some onions. They would work together, Mariya hoeing and Joe taking frequent pauses to play foreman. Mariya loved little children, and would play happily for hours with my daughters Melanie, two, and Caroline, four.
Our summer is hot, often 70 or 80 degrees, but Mariya would always wear the same heavy, voluminous clothes. She made Joe shave off his beard, and one night he proudly announced that he’d cut Mariya’s hair. It was not a bad job — Joe is also the local barber at a quarter a time — but when Mariya showed me her now-short hair I somehow knew that she felt naked.
Mariya came to the tea party given by the girls at the one-room school and sat smiling happily through the recitations and performances of the children, understanding not one word. At the school’s annual sports day she sat in our truck, watching the men in the three-legged race and the sack race and the baseball game, smiling, understanding little.
Joe wasn't always a patient husband. Often Mariya would sit for hours and Joe would not translate for her. Once, when she wearied of a long conversation she could not understand and asked to go, he waved impatiently and said, “What for you want to go? There’s nowhere to go.”
They could have returned to his cabin, which was by now as neat and clean as any suburban home. At night, we would see them sitting side by side, Joe reading aloud to her from a fat book in Russian, the Soviet version of the history of World War it. He read to her a great deal — always the Ukrainian newspapers from Winnipeg, since he cannot read English and her eyes were weak. They found on his transistor set a station that broadcasts a church service in Ukrainian each Sunday, and they would sit with their Bibles, worshipping privately.
Mariya, it seemed, was content just to be with her husband. Once an Indian, Tom LaLiberté, drove her to Green Lake, a settlement about an hour away, where another Ukrainian woman lives. She seemed to enjoy the visit, but never sought to repeat it. She collected petals from wild roses and made rose-petal tea, and as the summer wore on Joe’s cabin walls were covered with little bundles of herbs she had picked and was drying in the sun so they could be used to make hot drinks in winter.
One of the first things she showed me was a blouse made from crude flour bags but which she and Petrouchka had exquisitely embroidered. In June an itinerant salesman called at the cabin. He, too, was Ukrainian and Mariya was interested in a pair of black patent-leather shoes, but Joe was out and she refused to take his money to buy them. Then she dug into her satchel and brought out a beautiful pair of handstitched shoes of the finest leather, the thick soles studded with wooden pegs. I wondered why she seemed to prefer to wear Joe’s old slippers. The salesman, translating, explained, “They are ‘death shoes.’ She says she is saving them to be buried in. They were a present from her daughter.”
She never did get those black patent leather shoes. Instead. Joe took her into Prince Albert on a shopping expedition and when we collected them off the bus in Big River, 72 miles from Dore Lake.
Mariya was wearing turquoise slacks and black-velvet carpet slippers. “She’s pretty expensive,” said Joe. “I bought two pair slacks — one pair cost $12.”
While in Prince Albert, Mariya had seen a doctor, and this led to her going into the small hospital in Big River for a checkup. She was discharged Friday, September 5, and went to the home of friends to await Joe. They told us she sat by the window all day, waiting. Finally, one of the mink farmers drove down from Dore Lake to collect her.
I remember that next Sunday evening, two days later, looking through Joe’s cabin window as they bent over their Bibles, listening to the radio church service. The following evening, after dinner of boiled fish at Harry Husak’s, Mariya washed the dishes and, laughing at a joke no one can remember now, she and Joe went home to their cabin.
Next morning Joe came up to the house, crying. At 3 a.m., he said, Mariya had been taken ill. He had got a Métis friend to drive them to the hospital in Big River. She had died there.
“Before we be go to the hospital, she make me pack her good clothes,” he said. “There be the black babushka with the long tassels, the silk stockings, that blouse she be making with Petrouchka and them shoes of hers.”
Seven months and 13 days after Mariya had come to join Joe in the promised land, we buried her at Big River. All the Ukrainians from miles around came to the funeral, except Harry Husak who was too busy in Dore Lake.
It was Christmas before I talked much more with Joe. I went to see him in his cabin, which is still neat and tidy. He has again grown the beard Mariya once made him shave off, and he still eats with Harry Husak next door. “Mariya, she was happy here, you know,” he said. “They take hell from her back in the old country, but she like this place.” He paused, then added, “I was just learning to live with a wife, and now I be learning to live alone again.”
He was sitting at that crude wooden table with the same coal-oil lamp flickering. He had been reading an old Ukrainian newspaper — and, I think, an old letter from Petrouchka, his daughter. Under the table Mariya’s beautiful hand stitched “death shoes” stood neatly side by side. When we buried her we found the shoes didn't fit.