Patricia Caine (nee Rusnak) is originally from Thunder Bay, ON. She wrote the book Gedo’s Hammer, Baba’s Borscht: Raising a Family in Current River, 1929-1989 after transcribing stories from her parents, who were both immigrants from Ukraine. She also has a blog, The Rusnaks, where she shares recipes as a tribute to her parents, for her family and Canada’s 150th.
Shauna Kosoris: What was the inspiration for writing your book, Gedo’s Hammer, Baba’s Borscht: Raising a Family in Current River 1929-1989?
The tapes that I recorded in 1983 of my parents’ lives: they were both immigrants from the Ukraine, my mother and father. Their stories were there, on the tapes, ready to be transcribed. I put the tapes in a drawer, out of sight, planning on transcribing them later. It wasn’t until a family reunion in 2011 that I pulled them out. My father’s stories were transcribed first and my mother’s a year later. This is their legacy.
Do you have a favourite story that your parents shared with you?
This wasn’t a favourite story, but one that sticks out more than any other: the paper mill accident. There had been an explosion and my father had been scalded (burnt) by acid. It was a miracle that he survived. It was hard to imagine what it was like for my mother having to cope with the accident with all else that was happening. My mother, with two young children and a baby, was now forced to look after the running of the bush camp, paying the men, selling wood, and somehow finding money to pay for horses that my father had just purchased. She had to borrow money. It was a difficult time for her.
As kids we always enjoyed my dad telling us of his adventures while working on the railroad: from baking bread in a make-shift oven he had built in the side of a hill; to the time he thought he would be killed by angry, hungry, railway workers when they discovered there was nothing to eat. My dad (the cook) had made peroghies for their dinner. He could see them coming, so he decided to drain off the water down a gopher hole, but the pot was too hot to handle and slipped from his grip. Everything went down the gopher hole.
I enjoyed my mother’s stories of her coming over on the boat and her adventures travelling to Vegreville, AB, and then later running away so she could be with her sister in Port Arthur.
You also researched Thunder Bay’s history to provide some context for your parent’s story. Did you always intend to provide this context?
No. I really didn’t know where their stories were going to lead me when I first started with the tapes. I knew I wanted to bring in the history of Current River, but I soon realized I couldn’t tell Current River’s story without telling Port Arthur and Fort William’s story and their rivalry.
What was the most interesting historical fact you came across during your research?
Learning about the history of the streetcar (street railway) initiated by Port Arthur would have to be the most interesting. The first to be built in Canada; even before the one in Toronto. This bit of historical information was what tied in with the rivalry between Port Arthur and Fort William and what brought transportation to the residents in Current River.
In the book, you mentioned that your mother, Annie, spoke to you in Ukrainian when you were taping her stories. Was it difficult to translate them to English?
No, my Ukrainian was good enough to translate my mother’s tape. There were only a few words that didn’t coincide with the meaning I had come up with, otherwise, there was no problem.
On your website, The Rusnaks, you share Ukrainian recipes. Which one is your favourite?
Baba’s Borscht was my favourite. My mother’s borscht had to be the best. It took me a long time to get the recipe right, to achieve the taste I remembered. Borscht reminds me of Ukrainian Christmas and family gatherings. A taste of home.
I’m glad you were able to recreate the recipe! What are you working on now?
With the book complete, I am thinking about doing something different. Looking forward to learning how to make Ukrainian painted Easter Eggs (Pysanky). Also looking for a carving course for beginners. My aim is to carve a totem pole for our cottage. This has been on my bucket list for some time. Someone has asked if I would be doing a Ukrainian cookbook. Thinking about it.
Good luck with the Pysanky – they’re fun to make! Let’s finish up with a few questions about reading. What book or author inspired you to write?
No book or author inspired me to write. Maybe it would have helped with my writing if I had. Everything I have written has been inspired by what was going on with my family; be it the tapes, my deceased sister, a family reunion, celebrating a special occasion, or Ukrainian cooking.
However, a forum I attended at the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa on preserving family history through writing did inspire me to finish my book. We were there because my daughter and her teaching partner were accepting the “Governor General’s Award for Excellence in Teaching” at Rideau Hall. They had developed a “Grandpals Programme” which connected students with seniors who had stories to tell .
That sounds very serendipitous, especially given the nature of their “Grandpals Programme.” Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?
There is a website “Thunder Bay Then and Now” on Facebook that I have recently started following. It contains historical information on Thunder Bay and Current River. The site also provides me with the opportunity to share some of my memories of growing up in Current River.
What are you currently reading?
“These two are ALWAYS Together and Together and Together” written by K. Zozula. It is about her family and living in the Ukraine during Stalin’s time. The terrible atrocities these people went through. I never knew these stories.