Michalina Huckan

Michalina Huckan

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Letter to a Dead Great-Aunt: The Beginning of my Quest

On Monday, November 10, 2008, I published on my writing blog the following letter  to my dead great-aunt Michalina. This was the beginning of my quest to find out exactly what happened to her nearly 100 years ago. 

Michalina Huckan
Winnipeg, MB
c. 1912

Letter to a Dead Great-Aunt: A Personal Memoir

Dear Great-Aunt Michalina or maybe I should call you Вуйна,

I have been haunted by your story ever since I saw your photograph and heard your heart-rending story. I am trying to find traces of your short life but have not been very successful. Women are harder to find. Invisible threads in history. My history.

Michalina, you were about 17 years younger than my grandmother, Marya Zarecka, your sister. I even wondered if you were her illegitimate daughter and the reason behind my grandfather’s relentless anger towards his wife. Perhaps that’s why there are no records of you. I asked my mother timidly if that could be possible. Without emotion, she flatly denied it: "they were sisters" she stated. I believe her.

You were born in 1892 in Repuzhintsy, Bukovina, the province of Roumania and were 19 when Marya left for Canada in 1911. You followed a few years later, maybe with your older brother Iwan’s (John) family when they came later. I have been unable to find your immigration records. You went to Winnipeg and by 1916 were living in Ben Nevis House, a rooming house at 42 Dagmar Street according to the Henderson Directory. You, like hundreds of other single young immigrant women, were working at one of the many downtown Winnipeg hotels.

You had a fiancé who is shown standing beside you in a studio photograph of you and your brothers Nikolaj, and Iwan with his wife Frances and daughter. His name is unknown to us. I’m glad you knew love. You were looking forward to marrying him: you risked and lost your life for the sake of the $800 you’d saved and hidden under your mattress. You must have been living in the hotel you worked in. Was Ben Nevis House a hotel? So many questions…

From your two photographs, I can see you were a pretty woman, short in stature with long curly brown hair. Your eyes were lighter than brown, blue or hazel perhaps. You are dressed in a long-sleeved white blouse and a long dark skirt, the proper female attire of the time. You are wearing no visible jewelry except a pin at the neck of your long-sleeved white blouse. I wonder whatever happened to your meager belongings when you died. Your hands are strong but graceful, holding a few flowers in one photo.

The family story is that you were working at the hotel and saving your money to be married to the nameless fiancé. When a fire broke out you’d escaped somehow, but ran back inside to retrieve the $800 hidden under the mattress. You never came out. Were you overcome by smoke in that firetrap? Did the fire spread much faster than you anticipated or were you just a naïve girl who didn’t understand the danger and could only think about your hard-earned future going up in smoke? $800 in today’s dollars would be thousands. Was your fiancé heartbroken when he heard the news of your death? Did he ever recover from his loss? No doubt he did marry and had children. Where are his descendants now? Could I ever find them using his photograph?

I have searched for your death and burial records but have so far been unsuccessful. The only evidence of your life in Winnipeg is from The Henderson Directory of 1916. I have searched newspapers for reports on the hotel fire but there were so many fires in Winnipeg especially in the long cold winters. The stories and photos are legend.

My mother remembers when her mother received word of your death. She was only 4 ½ years old. Her husband had to read her the letter and convey the sad news. Mom says she cried for days, weeks even. Mom recalls asking her why she was crying. She showed her the picture of you. Mom passed the story down to me.

What would it have meant to me if you’d lived? I never really knew your sister, my grandmother. I saw her once when I was 1 ½ years old, just before she died. I have no memory of her. You were 17 years younger so I might have known you. You might have moved to Oshawa where your older brother John lived for many years. He also died before I was born, but I knew his wife, whom I was named after, and his family. You might have been like a grandmother to me since I never knew my grandmothers. When I look at photos of my grandmother, your older sister, Marya, and you, I see what she must have looked like as a young girl. The only photos I have of her are as an older woman, toothless and aged before her time. I think she must have been as pretty as you when she was a young woman. It makes me feel closer to her somehow. Closer to her youth.

So far, I have found no death notice, no death registry, no record of burial, no remnants of your life passed down. Mom says that Uncle John, who would have been responsible for your arrangements, as next of kin, didn’t like to spend money. Maybe he did nothing to commemorate your life. Maybe your body was never recovered. Maybe he was too overcome with grief to do the right thing. I should have asked his wife, my Auntie, but I didn’t know about you then when she was alive. Mom should have asked Auntie but she too didn’t think to ask.

I promise you I will continue to search for evidence that you lived and died in Winnipeg in that tragic hotel fire. I will honour your life by telling your story to all who’ll listen. I will never forget you and the other immigrants who lost their lives in accidents and unsafe working conditions trying to build a better life and a better future in Canada.

May you rest in peace,

With love from your Grand-Niece,

I have now found your final resting place in Brookside Cemetery. It was the result of persistence and sheer luck since your name was misspelled in 2 different ways: Huekow and Huckow not Huckan. I have your date of death: February 5, 1918 in the Riverview Hotel at 322 Nairn Ave. in the old area of Elmwood. The hotel was owned by J. J. O’Connell and prophetically he was “convicted and reprimanded for not complying with Notice …. re Exit Doors” in 1914. I am waiting for newspaper clippings of the fire. The wood construction extension put on in 1913-4 likely went up like a tinder box and the hotel burned to the ground. The tragic proportions of your death grow with each discovery.

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