Remembering How War Affected My Family

It was Remembrance Day on Friday in Canada and Veteran’s Day in the United States. I imagine many bloggers posted about their personal connections to soldiers and war heroes from battles world wide. My family lacks a strong military tradition and yet I choke up every November 11th when I hear “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”. That song more than any other conjures up the senselessness of war and its inevitability. A sense of loss haunts  me.

My father, Jakiem (Jack) Zaryski grew up in a war zone. Born in 1911 in Kasperivtsi, a small village in Western Ukraine, he remembered soldiers of all stripes marching back and forth through the village during his childhood in World War One. Families were forced to billet soldiers and were subjected to their abuses. His mother was shot in the hip by a trigger-happy German when she stooped to pick up a fallen door knob. Dad spent hours hiding in root-cellars when the shelling was heavy and playing war games with other children when the activity subsided. He began to smoke at age ten and later developed a stomach ulcer. You can be sure he was affected by this early trauma and his anxieties, in all likelihood, were passed down to his children.


During this time my paternal grandfather, Joseph Zaryski was conscripted by the Austro-Hungarian Army around 1914 and  spent six years fighting and later working in Vienna during the subsequent civil uprisings in Ukraine. I know nothing  of his military record, only that he would have been the lowliest foot soldier and fodder for the enemy. How he managed to return unscathed is a mystery I will never unravel. My grandfather never shared his war stories with my father. They are lost forever.

Joseph Zaryski c. 1920

During World War Two, my father's youngest brother Ivan was conscripted when the Russians invaded from the east. He disappeared and all contact with him was lost in 1942. My father searched but never learned what happened to him. Recently I discovered he died in a German Prisoner of War Camp in East Prussia, the victim of Hitler's inhuman starvation policies. I need to read Timothy Snyder's book, BLOODLANDS for the gruesome details. So far I don't have the stomach for it.

During World War Two my father was in Canada, married with a child, me. He never wanted to go to war after what he had witnessed in his childhood. Instead he chose to go to work on the Alaska Highway being built by the United States as a defense to any attack from the east. Perhaps he felt he was doing his patriotic best. His absence during my early life left its mark on me.

On my mother’s side her youngest brother Leon and a brother-in-law enlisted during World War Two. I was born in 1941 so my only memory is of the two uncles staying with us at different times as they passed through Toronto en route to training camp or returning from overseas.  My only war time memories are of Yonge Street parades, rationing tickets for butter and meat and the fact that there weren’t many service aged men around the streets in my neighbourhood of downtown Toronto. That and the absence of my father when I was a toddler.

In my husband’s family many more men served their country. His father Ray Jackson was only 17 when he enlisted in World War One. A strong surge of patriotism and obligation swept the country and made young men feel the need to go to war to defeat ‘the Hun’. He served in France, was shot in the shoulder, and spent years recovering in a military hospital in England in the pre-penicillin age. His wounds never stopped bothering him and he never spoke of his experience.

My husband’s mother had two brothers who served at the same time during World War One. Her favourite, Bill Skilling, enlisted in the army and as a university graduate, was sent to Oxford for officer training. As a Second Lieutenant he was assigned to artillery (Canadian Expeditionary Force, Royal Field Artillery) as a Forward Observation Officer. In France after the Third Battle of Ypres, Bill collapsed on the field and was taken to hospital in England. He was sent home three years later depressed and with a badly damaged heart which eventually killed him prematurely. He never married because of his health.

When the war broke out, my mother-in-law’s other brother Harold enlisted in the 5th Field Ambulance Corps as a stretcher bearer. After being seriously wounded at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 he was sent to England. When he recovered he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps but never flew a mission because the war ended just as his training finished. I don’t know how the war affected Uncle Harold. He never spoke of it to us. But when he returned to Canada, he broke up with his high-school sweetheart who'd stayed faithful, and never explained his actions.

How did war affect my family? I'm grateful we didn't lose anyone close, like so many families. But it's a loaded question. We know that some family members were traumatized by war. We do know that trauma can lead to personality changes and behaviors that seem normal, but can be traced to terrible events suffered particularly in childhood or at an impressionable period of life. Their trauma in turn affects their spouses, children and grandchildren. The ripple effect steadily moves through the generations. 

How has war affected your family?

For more on Bill and Harold Skilling, see my other blog: http://www.skillingfamilymemories.blogspot.com/



Your Memories, Your Book: To Tell the Truth

A useful article on truth telling in memoir from Personal Historian Wayne Groner:

Your Memories, Your Book: To Tell the Truth: The Plain Truth This article is a variation of my guest post on Sharon Lippincott’s blog, The Heart and Craft of Life Writing . A commo...

Copyright © 2011, Ruth Zaryski Jackson

My Interview in ArtScene

A few months ago I was asked by The PineRidge Arts Council to do an interview for the September-October issue of their publication ArtScene. I was excited to receive my copy today.
East Gwillimbury-20110906-00081

Since there is no online link and my BlackBerry photo is hard to read, I am publishing the interview here.

1. Tell us a little about your background and family.

I was born in Toronto, the eldest of four children of Ukrainian Canadian immigrants. After studying Anthropology at University of Toronto, then Counselling Psychology at University of Waterloo, I worked as a teacher, counsellor, and researcher. My last job was Historical Planner for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation’s Central Region where I documented heritage resources and made recommendations as part of the Environmental Assessment process. Some of this work was in Durham Region.

I am the mother of four grown children and grandmother of seven. I live with my husband on a farm near Mount Albert, just over the border in York Region.

2. What is your arts discipline and areas of interest?

I write memoir, poetry, creative nonfiction and blog at Memoir Writer’s World.
About four years ago, I started memoir writing through Ryerson University’s online course with instructor Allyson Latta. I’m now finishing my memoir “Missing Sadie, Missing Myself: Memories of a Childhood”.

It’s a coming of age story of a precocious daughter of Ukrainian immigrants uprooted from a downtown Toronto rooming house to follow her mother’s dream in 1950 of moving to the suburbs. Colourful characters, considered part of her extended family, were left behind. Against this background, she struggles with loss, longing, family secrets and conflicting values to find a place in her family and the world.

In 2008, my first short story “Room in My Heart” was published in "The Wisdom of Old Souls", an anthology about Grandmothers. In 2010, two poems about each of my grandmothers “Knowing You” and “Wash Day” were published in another anthology, "Grandmothers' Necklace", a fundraiser for the Stephen Lewis Foundation. My personal essay “The Power of a Family Secret” was published in 2010 on Allyson Latta’s website.

Besides writing and blogging, genealogy, learning to speak Ukrainian, and helping people with genealogical research, I am the family archivist and my present passion is picking up dropped threads in my family histories. I love to research some forgotten relative who died young or invented something and was never given credit. I’m rewriting history.

I am a member of the Writers’ Community of Durham Region, have attended the Ontario Writers’ Conference and belong to a dynamic and accomplished writing support group: Life Writers Ink along with Cheryl Andrews, Mary E. McIntyre and Anahita Printer Nepton.
My blog Memoir Writer’s World address: http://www.memoirwritersworld.blogspot.com/

3. How did you hear about PRAC and how long have you been a member?

I joined P.R.A.C. about two years ago when I heard about it from my writing buddy, Mary E. McIntyre who had been a member for many years. She introduced me to the Arts Scene newsletter where I learned about all the talented artists in Durham Region.

4. What would you like to see added to the community to enhance the arts?

I love the artist studio tours. I’d like to see more events in the northern part of Durham Region, stronger support for community theatre, more funding for Arts groups and more free arts activities for children in the community such as year round Arts camps for kids. Do Durham libraries have an Authors Series as we do in East Gwillimbury? The annual Stellar Literary Festival in Oshawa showcases local and emerging authors. A festival similar to WordsAlive could bring in popular writers for workshops and readings.

Post Script: The inaugural McLaughlin Literary Festival will be taking place at the Parkwood Estate in Oshawa on Sunday September 18, 2011.

5 Things I Learned From Reading “Copernicus Avenue” by Andrew J. Borkowski

I grew up on the fringe of post World War Two Polish immigrant experience in Toronto. My family wasn’t Polish, they were Ukrainian. But my father grew up in Eastern Europe in Kasperivtsi, a village that was part of Malopolska, or ‘Little Poland’ between the two world wars. He was schooled in Polish and spoke it fluently. We had family friends who were Polish or ‘became Polish’ by marrying a Pole. 

copernicusave
So when my friend Mary E. McIntyre recommended the Giller Prize-nominated  book “Copernicus Avenue” to me, I read it with interest. Borkowski, in 16 linked short stories, gives us the urban Toronto Polish immigrant’s post-war experience along with the heartbreaking backstory of the Katyn and Baranica massacres. I learned five things reading the book.

  1. 1. I learned or re-learned the power of landscape and memory when telling a story. Borkowski creates a fictitious street in the heart of the old Roncesvalles neighbourhood in Toronto’s west end. It could have been any Polish neighbourhood in any city, but for me it brought back memories of visiting friends in Parkdale and Roncesvalles as a child. In fact, the house on the cover looks exactly like the house some Polish friends lived in on Macdonnell Avenue, the eastern boundary of the Roncesvalles neighbourhood. On Saturdays my Dad would sometimes take us down to visit these friends and also to buy fresh Kielbasa and Paska or Kolach for the holidays. I can still remember the smell of the garlic sausage mixed with the aroma of sawdust scattered on the floor of the butcher shop. Borkowski evokes this neighbourhood through sensual details about bakeries, butcher shops, churches and statues, street life and the characters that inhabited the neighbourhood. I felt like I was back there with my Dad.
  2. I learned that memoir can be fiction and fiction can be memoir. In other words, the writer can choose the stories to tell and how to tell them. Life-based stories can be presented as fiction when the writer feels he doesn’t remember enough to make it a memoir, but he can still base the stories on his life and memories. Which is better? Neither. It depends what the writer wishes to achieve and how well he remembers his life.
  3. I learned that linked stories together can be like a memoir or a novel. Grouped together with the same characters and time and place, these stories form a coherent whole. Each story can stand on its own and might even be published individually, as in Borkowski’s case with his story ‘Twelve Versions of Lech’. An emerging writer can increase his chances of finding a book publisher by having already published some stories.
  4. I learned or I was reminded that I never really understood  the Polish World War Two experience, though I'd met people who’d survived it. The problem was: no adult wanted to explain in detail to a curious child what had happened. Why was a Polish friend flying for the British Air Force? Shouldn’t he be in the Polish Air Force? Oh, wait a minute, Poland was invaded and disappeared from the map for  a while. This book reveals the hidden wounds and resulting behaviors of these immigrant characters, all of which seem terribly familiar to me. I learned about the horrors of Polish deportation to Siberia from Jane/Janina Boruszewski and I’m still learning subtle details of survival.
  5. I learned how historical details (backstory) can be woven into the story in description, character, plot and dialogue, without weighing down the flow of the story. Now to figure out how to do that myself!

Backstory versus Front Story

A helpful article from the Plot Whisperer:

Plot Whisperer for Writers and Readers: Backstory versus Front Story: "Watch your delivery of backstory ~ the story of what, in the past, made the character who they are today (in story time).

Writers want ..."

Copyright © 2011, Ruth Zaryski Jackson

The Irresistibly Sweet Blog Award

A few months ago I received The Irresistibly Sweet Blog Award from my friend and writing colleague, Mary E. McIntyre. Due to a hectic schedule around that time, I failed to respond and fulfill the obligations of the award. These are: to thank the person, tell 7 things about myself and pass the award on to other new bloggers. So here goes.


Thank you, Mary, for nominating me for the award. I appreciate the honour and I appreciate you! I first met Mary in one of Allyson Latta’s online memoir writing courses in 2007 and from my first impression I knew Mary was intelligent, sensitive and friendly. She was also a sensational writer and able to give helpful feedback. We met in person in 2010 and shortly after formed our writing support group  Life Writers Ink, along with Cheryl Andrews and Anahita Printer Nepton.

Seven things About Myself
  1. I worked on several archaeology digs in Ontario.
  2. I travelled to Mexico by myself.
  3. I worked for the British Museum of Natural History measuring Bronze Age Skulls.
  4. I love chocolate.
  5. I have 4 children and 7 grandchildren.
  6. I love flowers.
  7. I live on a farm.
And an 8th one might be: I hate writing about myself!

Pass It On

I would like to pass this award on to the following bloggers:
  1. Gabriele Wills The Obsessed Writer
  2. Kathleen Pooler Write On!
  3. Dan Curtis
  4. Lori Thatcher Memoir, Poetry, Short Story, Musings
and give special mention to the following veteran bloggers:
  1. Kristin den Hartog and her daughter http://www.blogofgreengables.blogspot.com/
  2. Elizabeth Young http://www.thegardengate.blogspot.com/
  3. Linda Hoye http://lindahoye.com/

“Perhapsing” Cleopatra: Ideas for Speculating About My Grandmother’s Life

I have just finished reading “Cleopatra: A Life” by Stacy Schiff and her style has given me some ideas about writing about my grandmother’s life.

The content of their lives could not have differed more. Cleopatra,  born in 69 B.C., a queen at 18, ruler of Egypt for 22 years, lover of two of the most famous men in history, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, she amassed wealth beyond imagination.

My grandmother, Marya Huckan Zarecka, an illiterate Ukrainian peasant woman born in 1880 in Repuzhintsy, a small village in Bukovina, daughter of a mayor, was married off to a poor and unstable husband and sent to homestead in the wilds of Canada. Both women were mothers, the only similarity. About both, little was passed down apart from stories and myth.

Using detailed research and a lot of speculation, Schiff tells a brilliant story about Cleopatra’s life. Her book could have been titled: “Perhapsing Cleopatra”. She provides a master lesson in imagining and detailing a life where few facts survived.

My grandmother lived a quiet life, out-shadowed by her disruptive husband. She kept a low profile to avoid his wrath and encouraged her children to do likewise. Not many stories about her were passed down, and if they were, consisted of vague remarks like “ oh, she was wonderful”, but with few meaty details.

I  realized after reading "Cleopatra A Life" that I did in fact possess enough information about my grandmother from photos, interviews with my mother and other siblings and cousins, and my grandfather’s hospital records to tell her story using the same techniques that Stacy Schiff used to bring Cleopatra to life. I went back to Schiff’s book and looked for phrases and words she used to recreate colourful, textured scenes and speculate about feelings and motives.

Besides the word perhaps, some other words and phrases used to fill out her story were: maybe, suppose, wonder, imagine, we don’t know if, what if, what she didn’t know, possibly, might have/could have/must have, perchance, suggests, no doubt she…, it seems as if…, she had no choice but to…, these might have been the possibilities, it is likely/unlikely, there is no reason to assume/we can safely assume, it would have been…, we have no proof that…,  and so on.

Just as Stacy Schiff reconstructed Cleopatra’s life, I can now tell my Baba’s story by using conjecture and guesses to assess shrewdly her probable and possible motives and hypothesize what she was thinking and feeling decades ago.

(For tips on speculating, see Lisa Knopp's Brevity craft essay: "Perhapsing": The Use of Speculation in Creative Nonfiction.)

Authenticity: What’s Right For You?

As I listened to Kay Adams talk on NAMW’s Teleseminar a few weeks ago on Journey to the Self, I was reminded of this question a therapist once asked me. I puzzled over the question. The answer felt as elusive as a butterfly’s wing moving  to the next flower. Over the years I’ve become more comfortable with the question "What's right for you, Ruth?" though the answers are still sometimes hard to find.

Kay’s talk on authenticity linked this question to my current writing. At the heart of memoir writing is the self, telling the story of our lives as we remember it, as we experienced it, as we prioritized the events in our memories, and as we emotionally felt it. Our authentic self with our own unique needs and core values is the voice we tap into when we are searching for the inner voice, the real ‘me’ coming up from the unconscious. The story told by this authentic inner voice is the truth, our ‘emotional truth’ that is always guiding us through the scenes and memories. Authenticity has to do with our core values and living in alignment with what is right for us says Kay.

My wise therapist many years ago, was really asking me to drop down into the real me, to get in touch with the core values that were being quashed. He was asking me to come home to myself and ask what is stopping me from living my authentic self. When we feel down, something isn’t right with our core values. We feel stuck, insecure or angry. We need to ask ourselves what core value is not being respected here? In our memoir writing, the voice of our story makes more sense when it comes from our authentic self and our authentic core values.

But how do we figure out what our core values are? And how do they differ from those of our family? This is what confused me about the question: "What’s right for you, Ruth? I hadn’t articulated my true values and distinguished them from those of my family of origin or from my husband’s and his family of origin. Caught in this tangled web, I was floundering.

Since I started my memoir I have writtten about my parents’ core values, but not mine.  Before I go any further with my writing I need to do this exercise to see how my core values and my family's differ or mesh.

Utterances of an overcrowded mind: Dummies guide to publishing an ebook on Amazon Kin...

Here's an interesting post about Ebook publishing:

Utterances of an overcrowded mind: Dummies guide to publishing an ebook on Amazon Kin...: "In this blog post I'm going to try and demystify the ebook publishing process. I've been through it and lived to tell the tale. So here goes..."

Copyright © 2010, Ruth Zaryski Jackson

The Changing Book: pBook to eBook

Excellent summary of panel discussion last night about The Changing Book at Toronto Public Library. http://maryemcintyre.wordpress.com/2011/04/15/the-changing-book/ Copyright © 2010, Ruth Zaryski Jackson

What is My Voice?

Our ‘on-the–page’ voice must match our ‘real-life’ voice if we want our writing to have an authentic ring to it was the advice Charles Foran emphatically drove home to a WCDR breafast last week in Ajax. Winner of The 2011 Charles Taylor Prize for “Mordecai: The Life and Times”, his biography of Mordecai Richler, he illustrated his message with remarks and readings from his book of essays, "Join the Revolution, Comrades" and with stories and readings from his biography of Richler.

Since then, I have been thinking about my voice  and wondering just what it is? I have a soft voice that wouldn’t project when I was in the drama club at Northview Collegiate. I have a quietly intelligent voice. I have a thoughtful voice. I have an inquiring voice. I don’t speak without thinking. I’m not quick to draw attention or promote myself. On the page, I lean towards a more journalistic style, listing facts and documenting my points. Is it only an inviting engaging voice that entices the reader to go on? Do you have to be an Irish story-teller to captivate an audience?

A challenge Charles didn’t address was how to capture my child’s voice, maybe age 6 or 7 and then grow myself up to the concluding chapters of my memoir. How do I move my voice along as I change? I know I did change. My effervescent child’s voice was stifled in adolescence. I became shy and introverted. Then I gradually reasserted myself. Can change be shown by picking several points along my timeline to illustrate the differences? What do you think?

Any thoughts on voice?

Back To My Memoir

By now most of you will be wondering when I’m going to stop writing about my great-aunt Lena. Between Christian Cassidy's research and my own, we have exhausted the topic. Apart from some LDS research I need to do before erecting a monument on her grave at Brookside Cemetery, I’m finished. We now know far more about her life and death than we ever did before. This exercise illustrates the amount of detail that can be gleaned from genealogical, archival and geographical research to bring to life the characters of your memoir. The family photos, news coverage from the fire and a lot of 'perhapsing' resulted in a real person coming to life on the page. I will leave this topic for now and move back to my memoir which has been lying fallow these many months.

After writing the first draft of what I thought was the first two thirds of my story, I got stuck on where and how to end it. I played around with various possibilities but nothing felt right to me. Advice from my writing pals and teacher didn't help either. The unexpected death of our daughter Milo in May 2010 and other family demands crowded in on my writing time. I distracted myself with genealogical research on my husband's family and setting up another blog. I even considered chucking my memoir!


A few weeks ago when playing on Facebook or Twitter, I can't remember quite how, I came upon the website of James FitzGerald, a Toronto author and journalist. I then connected to the Random House site  where the first chapter of his latest book, WHAT DISTURBS OUR BLOOD is available. The power of his voice knocked me out. I could see how he deftly braided together the threads of a complex (far more so than mine) family and personal memoir as well as a medical history of his prominent grandfather and father told from the voice of the boy, himself. Suddenly, I could see a way forward for my story.

Now I'm writing again and it will be in my voice, my style, my weaving of the threads of my own story. You never know where the inspiration will come from. Just keep reading. The writing will follow.


Copyright © 2011, Ruth Zaryski Jackson

The Saga of a Blocked Blogger by Sandy Naiman


Sandy Naiman
age 4 years

Sandy Naiman
Photo by: Mary McIntyre
 Many years ago from the time I was about 11, I babysat for a family across the street from us. Last name: Naiman. Oldest daughter: Sandy Naiman, well-known Toronto journalist at The Sun for 30 years, featured blogger at The Star for 2 years, and currently blogging for PsychCentral. Sandy is a mental health advocate and blogs openly of her journey and struggles for balance in her life. I recontacted her a year ago and asked her to be a guest speaker at a WCDR breakfast sometime. Here is her blogpost about her experience on February 12, 2011:



Copyright © 2011, Ruth Zaryski Jackson

West End Dumplings: Elmwood’s Riverview Hotel (Part 4): The life and d...

Here is the reposting of Christian Cassidy's final chapter on the death of my maternal Great-Aunt Lena Huckan in a fire at the Riverview Hotel 1918.

West End Dumplings: Elmwood’s Riverview Hotel (Part 4): The life and d...: "Elmwood’s Riverview Hotel series: Part 1: Winnipeg gains a suburb Part 2: A controversial place Part 3: A 'near holocaust' Part 4: The life ..."

Copyright © 2011, Ruth Zaryski Jackson

West End Dumplings: Elmwood’s Riverview Hotel (Part 3): A 'near holoc...

Here is Christian's post on the fire at the Riverview Hotel February 5, 1918:

West End Dumplings: Elmwood’s Riverview Hotel (Part 3): A 'near holoc...: "Talbot Ave fire brigade ca. 1921 (source) Though the Elmwood fire hall was within view of the Riverview's front door, at around 3:30 a.m...."

Copyright © 2011, Ruth Zaryski Jackson

My Obsession With My Great-Aunt Lena


Lena Huckan Winnipeg c. 1914

My obsession with my great-aunt Lena has been contagious. Christian Cassidy, a local historian and Winnipeg blogger, has picked up the family story of my great-aunt Lena's death in a hotel fire in Winnipeg on February 5, 1918. He has written a four part piece on the anniversary of the fire and posted his research, with newly discovered photographs from the Manitoba Archives, on one of his captivating blogs called West End Dumplings. I am very grateful to him for uncovering this additional information and publishing her sad story to a wider audience. Thank you Christian!



Copyright © 2011, Ruth Zaryski Jackson