by Harry Tournemille
Surrey, British Columbia writer Harry (Novokshonoff) Tournemille grew up both a Doukhobor and a Mennonite. He was born half the former and inherited the latter via church upbringing. Culturally, the two groups share many similarities – to the point of absurdity at times; however, their theologies are such that there is very little shared ground in terms of religious creed. In the following composition, Harry emphasizes the manufactured quality of how one typically views their family heritage. He observes that a person will arrange their understanding of this heritage in a way that suits them and present it to others as a living mythology – something that explains their inherent traits. But the importance of that heritage is whatever they want it to be. The weight added solely by their opinion and the historical back-tracking merely a malleable context.
Heritage is a word with a manufactured meaning. A construct made or sought or broken for the sake of identity. A person claws their history from surrounding soil: blood, people, song, the spectacle of life to death. All to be arranged, garden-like, in a fashion that makes sense to them, to be presented as story. Lives contain narrative, prose, poetry, music, the rich soil, death. Mine is no different.
My father died several weeks before I was born. A volunteer fireman who went into a burning hotel to rescue someone and remained there. With his death went most of my Doukhobor heritage. My mom, a Dutch Catholic, tried to maintain connections with his family – likely for my sake, and it worked for awhile. But such things were contingent upon maintaining one long wake for the dead.
Mom did retain some of the more important facets of Russian life. No other Catholic woman in town could make true Doukhobor borscht as good as hers. To this day her soup is the benchmark upon which all others are tested.
Grand Forks from Observation Mountain. A Panoramio photo by Ken Hand.
I recall visits with my Baba and Dyeda (Grandma and Grandpa) as a child. Their faint scent: sweat and onions and tobacco. They were gentle, soft-spoken, as they sat side-by-side on our threadbare, tweed sofa. But like my father, they too died early in my life, succumbing to kerosene fumes while asleep in their camper on a holiday.
No one could live in Grand Forks without coming into contact with the Russian community. My Opa worked for CPR, walking long, moonlit miles of track with his lantern. His job: looking for Freedomites (a fringe, extremist sect of Doukhobor) and their various explosive packages set alongside junctions. My Opa and his lantern, the tiny watchman shack with its pot-belly stove and military cot where my mother as a child would sleep while he walked and walked. I picture his breath ghosting from behind the lapels of his winter coat. Small deaths in the night air.
The Doukhobors posit themselves on the outskirts of Christianity. They deny the necessity of its tenets, namely that Christ was the saviour of mankind. A death of a singular incarnation. For them, God dwells within every person – a sentiment I find appealing at times. The onus placed on humankind to be makers of peace and providence, to deny material distractions – not because they owe a saviour but because there was value in the effort required. An emphasis on the work. But this also places them at odds with the rest of Christendom – and Grand Forks had many churches.
When my mom remarried I was sixteen months old. I took on my dad’s new name and unwittingly his beliefs. So perhaps I was only Doukhobor for sixteen months? Can one lose that part of their identity with a move to different religious geography? My dad was not an unkind man, but he was singular in his road to salvation. He was English and French and, at heart, Pentecostal.
Sundays burned bright with paradox. On those Sabbath days, mother and father parted ways. My mother went to the Sacred Heart church while my siblings and I went with my father to the Mennonite one five minutes away. This was an unspoken arrangement.
Kettle River at Grand Forks, British Columbia. A Panoramio photo by Well-Rooted.
The Grand Forks Gospel Chapel’s mission was about bringing the divinity of Christ back to the Doukhobor community. Making Him body again. I do not recall any mention of the word Mennonite – a term I only discovered years later at Bible college. I do remember hard, wooden pews, singing What a Friend We Have in Jesus and, ironically, Onward Christian Soldiers. A heavy wood Jesus Fish on the wall above the choir seats. Burgundy hymnals with pink-edged pages. My sister vomiting all over the back of a pew one Sunday morning. Itchy wool homemade vests. Dad’s voice brash with harmony in the sanctuary, singing above all others, making me proud and embarrassed at the same time.
I remember when I entered Ms. Popoff’s Sunday school class for the year. Her class was the rite of passage for all young students before they graduated to the older ranks upstairs. A saved Doukhobor – she delivered her lessons with grim appeal in a blue room that smelled of stale bodies and mildew. One small window above our heads, out of reach, ground level. Small, green asbestos-flecked chairs. A white, plywood table. And Ms. Popoff with her grey hair pulled tight into a bun on the back of her head. Her striped blouse holding back large, Doukhobor breasts. Her stern Russian accent and work-worn hands.
What made matters worse, every Christmas Ms. Popoff’s class performed The Christmas Story for the Sunday school plays. Other classes had the luxury of treading new ground. A delightful Santa Finds his Soul with a Herd of Sheep or The Day Jesus Saw an Elf and Mistook It for a Pharisee. Not Ms. Popoff’s class. Someone had to be Mary; someone had to be Joseph. The rest were shepherds and wise-men and heavenly host. All wore towels around their heads and smocks that smelled like dust and moth balls. A doll got to be baby Jesus. What Incarnation is This? A hymn better left unsung. The doll’s eyes closed when lying on its back.
And so my understanding of Mennonite and Doukhobor became strangely divisive – and erroneous. To me they were two different worlds, one bathed in “truth” – the other a facsimile in need of adjustment. Once in awhile, usually at Christmas, a hymn or carol would be sung in Russian. The words of which I did not understand, as if they had taken on another context.
Grand Forks landscape. A Panoramio photo by Adrien Thevenet.
I had no real contact with practising Doukhobors but regular interaction with those converted to the Mennonite church. Old Harry Harshenin and his dinted, olive-coloured Datsun pick-up, waiting at the bus stop next to the gas station where I worked during my teenaged years. Always in paint-splattered clothes, the back of his neck sweaty and speckled with dust, handing out tracts to those disembarking.
And there were always stories. Overweight Freedomites stripping off their clothes and setting them on fire in front of Peter Verigin’s home. Or perhaps the tale of Gail, who produced a match from a hidden fold of her naked body while protesting at the courthouse, going into the washroom to empty the dispensers of their paper towels, and lighting the top floor on fire.
Protests and marches. Old videos and stories of children taken and placed in orphanages and corrective facilities, only seeing their parents through fences. Old newspaper clippings of marches in the Fraser Valley. The holy outrage unmatched.
Weathered shacks on a bluff above the river in Gilpin – a small community between Grand Forks and Christina Lake – backing onto vegetable gardens. The absurd sight of large, white and naked bums protruding from these gardens, fastened to the earth by stumpy, veined legs, straight as stilts. The torsos of the nude gardeners hidden as though submerged.
And a joke: Mary Abrosimoff went to the river on a cold, early morning, to bathe in privacy. Two hunters emerged from the forest, saw her reflection in the pristine water, mistook it for a canoe, stepped in and drowned.
My Uncle’s Favourite Christmas Greeting: Have a happy Harry Hlookoff and a very Mary Abrosimoff.
One last memory: my father taking me and my sisters to a Russian Christmas concert at the USCC (Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ) Hall. Familiar hymns sung by a Russian choir, long, mournful harmonies that echoed in the hall until it was impossible to distinguish between voices. The room cold but not unforgiving. And at the front, resting on an altar below the choir, a glass decanter of clean water, a loaf of bread on a wooden cutting board, and a bowl of salt.
A Surrey, British Columbia-based short-story and screenplay writer who has won awards for his work, Harry (Novokshonoff) Tournemille has produced an outstanding body of insightful, informative and entertaining work on a wide variety of topics, including writing, literature, film, music, family, friends, heritage, health, the environment and most recently, a focus on society’s role in bettering the world. To learn more about Harry, to contact him, and follow his adventures in writing, please visit Harry’s blog, The Threshold at: http://harrytournemille.blogspot.com.