Letter to My Dead Great-Aunt

About two years ago I was inspired by Sheila Nevins to write a letter to my dead Great-Aunt who died tragically in a hotel fire in Winnipeg in 1918. Michalena Huckan, my maternal Baba's much younger sister, immigrated to Canada in @ 1910-11 and was engaged to be married. The family story is that the upper storey of the building collapsed on her when she ran back to retrieve her savings hidden under the mattress. My nearly 97 year old mother still remembers her mother crying for days when she heard the news. Where Michalena was buried became a mystery. She had become a ghost haunting our family.


Dear Great-Aunt Michelena or maybe I should call you Вуйна,

Ever since I saw your photograph and heard your heart-rending story, I have been obsessed with finding traces of your short life. The journey has been frustrating as women are much harder to track. Invisible threads in our past history. My history.

Michalena, you were about 13 years younger than your older sister, my grandmother Marya Zarecka. Before I knew the exact age difference, I wondered if you might be her illegitimate daughter and the reason behind my grandfather's relentless anger towards his wife. One day I asked my mother timidly if that could be possible. "No!" she stated, "they were sisters." I believe you were.

You were born in 1893 in the village of Repuzhintsy, province of Bukovina when it was part of Roumania, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. You were 18 when Marya left for Canada to join my grandfather in 1911 with her two children Helena and Anton. Maybe you came with her or followed later. I have not found your immigration records yet.

Your brother Iwan (John) immigrated to Winnipeg with his family in 1914. You went to Winnipeg and, according to the Henderson Directory, by 1916 you were living in Ben Nevis House, a rooming house at 42 Dagmar Street. Like so many hundreds of other young single immigrant women, you were working in one of the many downtown Winnipeg hotels.

I have two studio photographs of Michalena, likely taken after her brother arrived in 1914. In one she is looking very proper, with her fiancé, her brothers Nikolaj, Iwan, his wife and daughter.

Your fiancé is standing beside you in the group photograph. You must have been looking forward to marrying him. You risked your life for the sake of $800 you saved and kept hidden under your mattress. Who was he? We don't even know his name, though most likely he was from your village, Repuzhintsy. Was he heart-broken when he heard the news of your death? Did he ever recover from the loss? Perhaps he married and had children. Where are his descendents now? Would they recognize him in this photograph?

Michalena Huckan, her fiancé, Nikolaj Huckan
Franciszka Ross Huckan, Wladzia (Frances), Iwan (John) Huckan
Winnipeg, Manitoba
c. 1914

In the other photograph, you stand beside a table, hair flowing , looking very beautiful. I can see that you were a pretty woman, short in stature with long curly brown hair. Your eyes are lighter than brown, blue or hazel perhaps. You are wearing a long sleeved white blouse and a long dark skirt, proper formal female attire for the time. You are wearing no visible jewelry except a pin at the neck of your blouse. Your hands appear to be strong but graceful, holding a small bouquet of flowers.

Michalena Huckan
Winnipeg, Manitoba
c. 1914
To be continued...

Copyright © 2010, Ruth Zaryski Jackson


Maile Meloy is a young American writer I’d never heard of before my son gave me a book of her short stories for Christmas last year. I only got down to it recently in my beside pile. I was sorry I’d delayed reading it.

The title of the book “Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It”, taken from a short poem by A. R. Ammons, is the theme of her eleven short stories set mostly in Montana where she grew up. All the characters want it both ways in tricky emotional or sexual circumstances. All are caught in a dilemma of sorts. What is the socially or morally right thing to do versus what does the character want to do?

In “Travis B.”, a young ranch hand with a gimpy leg falls in love with a young lawyer who commutes 9 ½ hours to town to teach a class he chanced to wander into. In “Two-Step” female friends discuss one’s husband’s infidelity while the reader squirms realizing that the ‘other woman’ is one of them. The author doesn’t shy away from unsavory, slightly creepy motivations and feelings that are part of her characters' lives. The stories are layered and rich with details.

All the stories have a tension that makes the reader uneasy. The dialogue carries the story and makes the reader feel like a fly stuck to flypaper, wanting to leave, but compelled to stay. Having first observed particular details, the author paints her characters with a few deft strokes leaving an indelible impression on the reader. Her spare and fast-paced prose takes the reader along for a thrilling ride to a surprise conclusion.

Maile enjoys writing short stories where the way out leads to an ending that opens possibilities. She is the author of two story collections and two novels.

NPR Interview with Maile Meloy

The Writers Circle of Durham Blog: Reading As Writers

Copyright © 2010, Ruth Zaryski Jackson