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A True Story of Love, Survival and Freedom

Chapter 1

By Hammer and By Hand

Ka-schtonk! Four inches of cold-galvanized steel slam though a two-by-six header.

I pull the trigger again, ka-schtonk! and again, ka-schtonk! Another stud is forevermore locked in place. Damn, that feels good.

Stepping back, I admired my creation: a skeletal frame of two-by-six boards defining a future wall. I yarded on one of the vertical studs. Nothing came lose, crashed down, or flattened me. The frame was sound. Construction was one of my feel-good rituals. One that had gotten a lot easier in the last few months. In fact, the entire renovation of my Arts and Crafts bungalow had gotten a lot easier since Ralph -- the neighbor across the street with his own 1912 Craftsman bungalow -- convinced me to drop a few hundred bucks on a nail gun. The neighborhood had gotten a lot quieter too. One good ka-schtonk! from the hefty, Paslode nail gun, replaced several dozen wham-wham-bang hammer blows and concomitant streaks of foul language.

Meg frames an interior wall

Meg and her BFG (Big Framing Gun) prepare another wall frame for positioning. Hot tea and 17 layers of clothing are key to survival in the yet to be insulated sections of her brand-new, well worn, antique dream-home.

Part of my auto-adulation ritual included counting studs: those vertical boards the wall surface eventually gets affixed to. "Ah-deen, de-vah..." I should mention, it was in Russian. "Tree, cat... oh, shit, that's French, what comes after three? Come on, Meggy, you can do it..." Frustrated, and talking to myself, I yanked off my heavy work-gloves, then poked at a laptop perched on a table-saw. "Ah hah! Che-teary... che-teary, che-tier-ee." Finally, for like the millionth time, I committed what I hoped was Russian, or a passable facsimile, thereof... to memory.

Okay, let's leave the BFG -- that's the Big Framing Gun -- while I tell you a little bit about myself. Was that a groan, I just heard? I don't blame you, it's usually code for a snore-fest, so I'll keep this short. It is, however, fundamental to my motivation for what's coming up on the pages ahead, and very likely to be a discussion topic at your book club. Got something to take notes? Comfy? Cellphone off? Good... here goes.

I grew up in a pretty typical, upper-middle-class family: safely well-off and wildly dysfunctional -- like, what family isn't? Dad was violently alcoholic, super intelligent, highly respected, very successful, and an absolute psychopath. His roots were somewhere in Ukraine -- or Russia, or Poland, or depending on the year, Nazi Germany. My mom's ancestral lineage traced a long line back to Scotland.

Ah hah! That bonk I just heard, was that your head hitting the table as you nodded off? Thought I wouldn't notice, huh? Well, we've got a way to go. Take a no-doze if you must, but stay with me.

Where was I? Scotland... right. This ancient history matters insomuch as it deals with culture. Neither of my loving parents had any. Unless the North American culture of no-culture counts. Well -- and you know, darn well, it doesn't -- it didn't. Us poor, depraved kids of the me generation tried to fill the void -- only, it wasn't a void, it was a bottomless pit -- with consumerism, multiculturalism, patriotism... Not a single 'ism made a drop-in-the-ocean's bit of difference. Maybe us boomlets: babies of the boomers, didn't really want culture. I mean, let a kid decide between Super Mario, and loud, stinky, abusive, horrifying culture from the old country, and it was no contest.

My father's contribution to culture was his parents, a couple of catatonics we were told to call, "Baba," and "Djee-djee." In weirdly erratic orbits around his parents were countless uncles and aunts from the old-country: The Ukraine, also known as, The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, or just some chunk of the USSR.

Captain dad

Good ol' Pops on his speedboat

Visits to the Ukrainian side of the family were obligatory endurance tests for my sisters and me. Dad demanded we put in time with the house-of-horrors that was his side of the family, as payback for any time spent with his wife's side of the family: my Mom's parents and relatives. The thing is, we absolutely adored Mom's parents, which drove Dad into paroxysms of borderline, narcissistic rage. Gram and Grandpa -- Mom's folks -- were cultureless Canadians from, like before the end of the last ice-age. They didn't stink, chain-smoke, spit, scream at each other in Polish-Russian-Ukrainian Creole. Run one of their children over with a combine. Pass out drunk and choke on their vomit. Blast shotgun holes in the walls. Drive pickup trucks through taverns. Die of a subdural hematoma in the guest bedroom. Or kill one of their kids for being gay. In other words, Mom's side of the family was basically, normal.

Alcoholics Unanimous

Alcoholics Unanimous Pop’s parental units

Dreaded visits to Dad's side of the family usually went something like this: Baba -- that's Slavic for granny -- crying and wailing hysterically, in something that sounded like Klingon, at grandchildren she didn't recognize; us kids gagging on gristly, suspect, mystery-meat that Dad encouraged we choke down or else, so-help-you-god! And Djee-djee -- Slavo-Klingon for grandpa -- catatonic, shit-faced drunk, perched on a plastic covered sofa, staring at a dead console TV festooned with plastic, Jesus figurines, and smelling like something that climbed into the outhouse and died there. Thinking back -- which pretty much demands an immediate, scalding shower with a stiff loofah -- it's no wonder, we so desperately preferred Mom's side of the family, and why good ol' Pops had to fight so vehemently to enforce equal visitation with those members of his family that weren't dead, deranged, dangerous, or incarcerated.

When us kids left the nest -- which we tended to do, astonishingly early, one way or another -- the parental units divorced. They eventually re-married, but good ol' Pops just kept on drinking himself to ruin, wiping out what was once a brilliant career in medicine and medical research. Predictably, his next marriage failed, and he drank himself to death. Lawyers and the ex-wife -- that wasn't Mom -- had a court order against him, by the time good ol' Pops, and the house, went down in flames... literally. They pretty much picked the estate clean, but left just enough of the smoldering carcass behind for each kid to buy a house of her own.

I wrangled myself a real fixer-upper in a pretentious Victoria neighborhood. I figured, it was home, or would be, if I ever finished it. Which I didn't, preferring to keep the place in a state of perpetual reconstruction. Everyone assumed, I would renovate and flip the bungalow for a tidy profit. To prevent friction, I let them think whatever they wanted. An architect told me to bulldoze the thing. A realtor offered more for the lot than I paid in the first place. Over back-deck barbecues, friends laughed at my dumb luck. Yup, an impetuous, real estate deal on a tear-down, transformed me -- a misfit, computer nerd -- into a real-estate tycoon... or so they thought.

House lifted and moved into position

Meg's century-old bungalow, vital to her attempt to build a home and past she could live with, floats castle-in-the-sky like, after being lifted off its failed foundation with massive I-beams and a phalanx of centrally controlled hydraulic jacks.

The thing is, I couldn't care less about real-estate development. I was building a new life. Seeing as I couldn't have one for real, I would damn well build a new past. At least, with the century-old bungalow, I wasn't starting from scratch. With I-beams and huge hydraulic jacks, house-movers lifted the bungalow off its crumbling foundation. Jackhammers and Bobcats scurried about under the suspended house, breaking up and carting away the old foundation. A new foundation was formed and poured, and I signed it with a hand print in the wet cement.

I stopped at nothing to resurrect the bungalow, and do it myself. The size of the project was spine-tingling thrilling. With painstaking attention to period detail, I more than doubled the original square footage. By hammer and by hand, I was building my fantasy home. A place so real, even I'd be convinced it was lived in for generations by a family replete with experiences not too painful to recall. By simulating a well-worn antique, I was determined to inherit the memories of a past that never existed.

New England, shingle cladding, genuine lath and plaster -- smells like a dead horse when it gets wet -- knob and tube wiring, leaded glass windows. Dreaming it up through the haze of dust and construction carnage, I imagined walls covered with black-and-white and sepia toned photos in chipped and mismatched frames. Dogs, long gone, staring eagerly out of the past. A classic, yawl-rigged sailboat, friends with a silver cup and championship grins. A beaming uncle and a big fish, taken somewhere Hemingway might have hollered at a bartender. Christmas trees, a huge table loaded with food surrounded by grinning, tipsy relatives in paper crowns. Toddlers, then kids, then teenagers with bikes, cars, girlfriends, then graduation gowns, then more kids.

The thing about kids, was about my being one, not having them. What I yearned for was a place in that ubiquitous, yet esoterically indefinable, ideal family. When it came to children, I wouldn't wish childhood on anyone. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't completely crazy. I knew there would be no photos to split the lath, or crack the plaster. I didn't actually think I could build myself a home, but by giving it my best shot -- by reproducing details others might miss -- I could at least have the house.

Maidan Square Kiev

Maidan (Independence) Square, Kiev. The Orange Revolution, and the birth of a nation, drew Meg back to Ukraine with a vengeance.

Why in hell couldn't we summer on Cape Cod, like everyone else, and then, shingle the walls with Nautica memorabilia? Okay, as an adult, I sort of got the idea that not everyone lived misty, sepia-toned lives, but it carried over, left me scratching obsessively for answers -- maybe even meaning -- in all things Russo-Ukrainian. You could say, I was on a forensic quest to the root of that childhood-innocence destroying evil. If only to see it for what it was: face the robber of safety, make sense of it, have my Magnolia moment with the asshole past, and be done with it.

There was also, in no small way, the intoxicating thrill of the Orange Revolution drawing me back to Ukraine. By then, it had lost momentum; like a withering, barely remembered resolution on New Year's day. Still, it was exciting. It was young. It was brash. It was a new Ukraine disowning an uncomfortable past and promising a better future.

I wanted in, so I studied Russian. It covered more territory than Ukrainian. In the end, parroting audio lessons, running software, cramming books, even going to classes, only got me so far -- apart from counting wall studs, that is. Getting real, meant communicating with actual Russian speakers. Their amusement was my gain, not to mention a sardonic introduction to the online, Slavic culture. That was how I had ended up chatting -- at first, in real-time and then via email -- with Elena, an architect in Ivanovo, Russia.

Hemispheric map showing the location of Ivanovo, Russia

Ivanovo, Russia, Elena's home town, is under the red arrow. Moscow, for comparison, is the blue dot. North America, being on the opposite side of the planet, is not visible in this representation.

It was late. I curled up with my laptop. That computer actually kept me warm, like having a cat without the shredded furniture and a litter box to clean. The inorganic data-cat, a blanket, an intentional fire, and a steaming cup of Red Rose tea, held death from hypothermia -- or depression -- at bay. Another indescribably gloomy, wet, cold, Victoria winter was right around the corner, and my bungalow was full of holes. The need to plug a few of them had curtailed my amusing presence in the Russian chatter-sphere, for some time by then. Seeing as it was late, and the neighbors had a way of getting downright petulant about late-night renovation, I grabbed at the opportunity to get online. Good thing too, that architect, from somewhere east of Moscow, had written. I was moved by what she told me in her email. I read it again, wishing I hadn't left it unread for so long.

Meg practices Russian

Meg studies Russian while she works. Constantly on watch for hilarious, Elena-shocking photo-ops, like this one, Meg models the latest in renovation wear: work gloves, headphones, Carhartt coveralls over, Star Trek pajamas.

It was in English. Elena was, herself, practicing English, and to be honest, I think she was frustrated to no end by my Russian language skills -- or extreme lack of them. Attached to her email, were photos she'd shot on an all-inclusive in Turkey with her boyfriend. Landscapes, fantastic composition, great resolution, superb color balance, gorgeous shots. The girl could shoot, that was clear. Conspicuously, Elena was missing from every single shot. Did she actually take them, or pull them down from a National Geographic site? Lots of famous places in Turkey, but not a single frame with Elena or her boyfriend in the obligatory, I-was-here pose.

What really reached into my heart was Elena's letter. I read it over and over. She had opened up to me, a total stranger. Not only did she describe the antiquities and sights of central Turkey in passionate detail, she wrote of hating the man she was with, of how she couldn't stand being with him, and then, most disturbingly, of how she was condemned to marry him. Her letter shouted at me, each time I read it. "Help!"

There was a lot more to this Russian architect with an artist's eye, than chit-chat. I started banging away on the laptop almost immediately. Weeks had gone by since she'd sent the email. I hoped Elena hadn't give up, or worse.

The fire had burned to ash, and it was way past two in the morning, by the time I hit SEND.

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