Building the House of Bears

by Orysia Dawydiak

I've been thinking about writing this book for a very long time. The seeds were planted before I could read or write, while listening to the stories of my grandmother and my parents, describing their lives in Ukraine in the 30s and 40s, then in Italy and Germany during the Second World War, and England after the war, and finally emigrating to Canada in 1951. Some of those stories were horrendous, the source of childhood nightmares. I really wonder about my grandmother, as I sat on her lap, hearing her vivid descriptions of Nazis torturing women and bayoneting babies. It seems some of the women in my family have a penchant for "over-sharing." I hope I'm not one of them, but I suppose that will be for my readers to judge.

Like most teenagers, I butted heads with my parents from time to time, frustrated by all their rules and restrictions and expectations for me. I think I had my dad figured out, but my mother continued to be a mystery to me - her often irrational, emotional, way of dealing with problems - of which I considered myself, at the time, to be number one on her list. But I was young and the world revolved around me. Over the years, and with some distance, I tried to understand what made her the person she was. I kept returning to her childhood, to her survival of the Nazi occupation and the war. I tried to be empathetic, and wondered if I could have endured what she had, and still emerged with my sanity intact.

Linden MacIntyre, in his talk here a few weeks ago, made a comment which intrigued me. He spoke of life experiences and traumas suffered by one generation, during times of war for instance, and how they dealt with such upheavals, and how their behaviour in turn affected the next generation, much like genetic traits are passed on from parents to offspring. It made sense to me. I'm sure I was traumatized by my grandmother's stories. I still tend to avoid serious movies about the Second World War - they send me to an uncomfortable place, a place where I'm not in control, I'm anxious, in spite of my rational brain informing me that it's only a friggin' movie.

All this to say, the genesis for House of Bears started with trying to understand my parents and other immigrants, and how they reacted to the world around them. I know I'm not the only person with an "interesting family," but while I was doing my retrospective research, I regained a deep admiration for the migrants who left their homes during wars and under oppression and settled in strange new countries. I felt a need to express my gratitude and was compelled to write their stories, like so many others had done already. It's a story that continues today because the wars never stop; people around the world are being displaced every hour of every day.

This fall I had the opportunity to visit Pier 21 for the very first time. I knew my parents had sailed from England on a ship named the Georgic in 1951, and had landed in Halifax before taking a train and float plane to the mosquito-infested outback of Manitoba, where they lived for a very short while. I had taken a university course on immigration to Canada in the 20th century and thought I was well-informed about that period of our history. But I was not prepared for the emotional impact of what I heard, and read, and saw as I wandered through the displays. I felt like I was absorbing the emotions of all the immigrants who had passed through, thousands of them, grieving for what they had lost, anxious about what lay ahead, relieved to have landed, hopeful that they had left the terror and poverty behind them forever. My head was going to explode from the pressure; it began to leak. I could not stop crying. I had to leave before I had a total meltdown.

I tried to understand what had just happened to me in there. Was I still carrying around all those terrifying stories from childhood, emotions that had never been completely processed, disassembled, and dealt with? Had the original experiences of my parents and grandparents become as much a part of me as it was of them? Was this what had been passed down to me?

House of Bears is a work of fiction, which made its own path and took on its own life as I wrote it. It took me places I didn't know existed. Still, it sits on a foundation of history; world history, and personal histories. I am grateful to my family for providing that foundation, and to my friends, my publisher, and editors who supported me while I built and decorated the house. The front door was provided by a dear friend and gifted artist, then photographed by an equally talented photographer. This pysanka, Ukrainian batik egg, was created for this book and I have it here to show off, under glass for protection. It's an apt symbol; I feel like I've been incubating this egg for a long, long, long time and now it has finally hatched.