My grandmother, Margareta Sawatsky Peters was born in the village of Gnadenthal in Ukraine in May of 1900. In an interview with my aunt she shared childhood memories.
“We had no old folks homes. My mother cared for my grandfather who lived with us for twenty years after my grandmother died from a leg infection. There were no doctors to help my grandmother. My grandfather would invite all his friends over to our house. They’d smoke Turkish cigars, drink brandy and talk about politics. My grandfather read the German Odessa newspaper regularly so he knew what was going on in the world. But he had to hold the paper right up to his nose. He was almost blind and we didn’t have anything like eyeglasses or eye doctors.
My grandmother was a meticulous housekeeper. The clay floors of her house were carefully swept and sprinkled with sparkling white sand. Our kitchen was heated with a clay oven and the roof had a huge open chimney. As mother cooked the soot from the chimney fell on her. Sausages and hams were hung inside the chimney to be smoked. A brick oven was heated with straw or pressed manure and used for baking bread.
My mother decorated our house with designs she cut into potato halves. She dipped the potato designs into a mixture of ash and milk and used them to stencil beautiful patterns onto the walls.
There were about 400 cows in our village. The herdsman came through the streets at 4 in the morning to take the cows to the community pasture for the day. We strained milk with a system of wooden bowls and sticks. After the cream rose to the top we made butter that we sold to a peddler along with our hens’ eggs. We sold eggs in tens not by the dozen. Two tailors made clothes for the village men but the women made all their own clothes.
Our village had four windmills to grind rye into flour and to grind grain into cattle feed.
The village had a lake stocked with fish and twice a year we hired people to fish for us. The fish were divided amongst the villagers. On Sunday afternoons the boys would go swimming in that fishing lake but girls weren’t allowed to. The willow trees around the lake were cut down and used to make wooden shoes that children wore to school.
I could only go to school till I was twelve but I loved school. At recess we girls played ‘Drop the Hanky’ or ‘Hook and Eye.’ I memorized so many poems and there were lots of books to read. Our home had no books but was filled with music. My sisters and I played the guitar, banjo and balalaika while our mother accompanied us on the accordion.”
Grandma then goes on to talk about the Russian Revolution and how it changed everything, eventually leading to a decision to immigrate to Canada. That decision changed our family’s life forever. It is sobering to think about what kind of future our family would have faced if my great grandparents had not left everything familiar to them almost a hundred years ago, to start a new life in a new country.