A Sneak Peek

Preface to The Blue Riviera

If someone asks me what I remember from my childhood, it would have to be sitting on the floor close to my mother, Sally, so close that I could smell the heady mixture I came to associate with her.
I loved her smell of cigarettes, raw onions, and the perfume Tabu, the forbidden fragrance, with a scent so powerful it seemed to absorb all of the oxygen from the surrounding air.
Only beautiful women can get away with smelling of cigarettes, onions, and Tabu, and my mother could get away with it. “Make a perfume a courtesan would wear,” a company executive had told perfumer Jean Carles who was famous for his creations made of unusual materials, his perfumes shocking and sensual. And so in 1932 he created “the Genghis Khan” of oriental perfume. His intoxicating fragrance contained an exceptionally high dose of patchouli, cloves, and musk.
I remember the parties when I was a child. Oh, the parties. It seemed like every weekend our home was filled with guests who would make a happy pilgrimage to the big, old, rambling house in the heart of Lachine, a working-class suburb of Montreal.
Before guests could get their first drink or plate of food, my mother would sit them down at the little corner desk beneath the ornate, gold-paint-framed mirror. She would place their hands on an ink pad and press their inked palms onto a sheet of white paper. Then and only then were they allowed into the dining room, where the carpets had been rolled up and the dancing would soon begin.
After the last guests had arrived and everyone was enjoying the party, my mother would take out the stack of palm prints, light a cigarette, and pore over the images. Holding their drinks with ink-stained hands, a few of the guests might have looked over her shoulder, curious to discover what mysteries their palms would reveal.
The palm of the hand has three major lines—the life line, heart line, and head line. The line on the palm that many people are most curious about is their life line. This line begins between the index finger and the thumb and continues downward toward the base of the thumb, connecting at the wrist.
Although my mother was a devout Ukrainian Catholic and attended Mass most Sundays, in her quest to understand her destiny, she had developed a deep—some might even say, unhealthy—interest in metaphysical and paranormal phenomena. She would visit card readers. She consulted with psychics. She wrote letters to palmistry experts around the world. One of her questions was always the same: Why is my life line so short?
I wish my mother had asked those world-renowned prognosticators one more question:
What happens when an immigrant family’s dream turns into a nightmare?
There is an old Ukrainian superstition that if you leave on a quest and return home without fulfilling your plans, then supposedly you won’t be lucky again1. Perhaps there’s some truth to the saying. Perhaps by abandoning his first journey to Canada and going back to Ukraine, my grandfather had placed a curse on his family, especially my mother.
When I made the decision to write about my mother’s life I knew that delving into her past would be tough on my heart and soul, but I was prepared to look everywhere to discover and understand a mother I barely knew. I too have visited psychics, fortune-tellers, and clairvoyants. I’ve had my cards read. I analyze my dreams. I read the daily astrology column, hoping to learn how my day will unfold, even though I realize most of it is diluted nonsense. Eventually I would meet one astonishing psychic who was uncannily accurate about my mother and me. “Your eyes are irritated,” she said as we ended the session. “Go get those two little birds done. Go write a book. The last chapter is a mystery.”
Sixteen years after visiting the psychic, I had eye surgery, I regained my ability to see well, and I started to write this book.
I want the reader to know this book does not always follow a straight narrative. Most of the stories are my own, but I relied heavily on the memories of my aunt, Anna Tomiuk Kowalsky and her book Orchards, Crossroads and Dreams: A Ukrainian Memoir. I interviewed friends and family members who knew my mother, Sally. I researched the lives of other women of my mother’s generation to see if I could gauge a pattern of character and behaviour. Timelines may not be exact, and dialogue and setting have been recreated in the interest of storytelling. Some names, distinguishing features, and locations have been changed to protect certain individuals. I invite readers to refer to the endnotes as they can provide a more comprehensive picture of the life and times during which the action in this book occurs.
Someone knows what happened to my mother, Sally. Confucius said when embarking on a journey of revenge, one must dig two graves. I was prepared to take a chance.

End notes
[1] Ukrainians were not immune from superstitious beliefs. In fact, as an agrarian nation, my people may be some of the most superstitious people in the world. Pre-Christian Ukrainian culture worshipped multiple gods and though most of these beliefs did not survive the eventual wave of Christianity, when many pagan deities were converted to Christian saints, Ukrainians still believe that spirits reside in the fields, the orchards, the forests, and the skies.
Today, Christian devotions share the stage with many old beliefs. As an old proverb suggests, One must love God but shouldn’t make the devil angry either. While it is bad luck to make Borsch on Thursdays, it is good luck to sit between two people with the same name. Though an unmarried Ukrainian woman never sits at the corner of a table if she wants to marry within the next seven years, it is not unusual for people to sit on their luggage before going on a trip.
Even travelers to Ukraine are advised to be mindful of the spirits. Never shake hands over a threshold for you will send misfortune to your host. Never leave an empty bottle on the table but if a bottle is opened, drink up. While flowers are considered a gracious gift, do not present a bouquet
with an even number of flowers. An even number signifies death. Always keep an open mind.
Remember, the spirits may be watching!
Here are some more: A bird flies into your house, there will be a death in the home. A fork falls on the floor and there will be unexpected guests. Knock on wood to expel the evil eye. Never give a watch as a present; it is an invitation to a funeral.
And never, ever pass anything across the doorstep. In ancient times, the ashes of ancestors were buried under the doorstep of the house. The dwellers tried not to disturb them and refused to pass anything through it. For that same reason, people were not allowed to sit on their doorsteps.

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