Finding A Lost Grandfather From The Ukraine

World Music performer DARIA (Daria Marmaluk-Hajioannou) has spent more than three decades performing in the USA and around the world, creating music that inspires and uplifts. Daria’s “I Have A Dream” Song is used widely to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day and her Earth Day anthem is sung in dozens of different countries around the world.  Recently she received a grant to create a CD of music exploring her grandparents lives as Russian and Ukrainian immigrants in Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Coal Country. Find more of Daria’s work on Facebook (@dariasmusic), Instagram (@dariaworldmusicgal) and Twitter (@dariasmusic).

Like so many people, I have questions about the ancestors who came before me, especially the ones that died before I was born.  Where had they come from?  What were they like?  Were they courageous, kind, cheerful, quiet?  Did we share the same smile or sense of humor?  Were they content with their life? If I could meet them, what would they tell me about their lives?

Three of my four grandparents died years before I was born from the effects of poverty and a hard life.  I know that they were part of the waves of immigrants that crossed the ocean from eastern Europe fleeing poverty and oppression, only to find different strains of poverty, oppression and racism in the United States.  They landed in the anthracite coal mining towns of upstate Pennsylvania. My one remaining grandmother refused to speak more then a few sentences about the past.  What little I knew were like scraps of fabric that could barely be pieced together into a family quilt.  I had so many questions.

Then in 2020, just as the pandemic hit, I received a grant that allowed me to research, write and tell the stories of the coal town that gave birth to my parents the only way that I knew how – through music.  I gathered the songs that I had sung from that era and also began writing original songs that filled in the blanks of life in a coal town in the early 1900s.  But the project did not feel complete.  I knew I wanted to write a special song for my “lost” grandfather; Ephraim, who died of black lung before I ever got the chance to meet him.  

A gravestone marked his dates of birth and death.  Other than that, I had little to go on.  I had a framed formal photo of him and a travel companion as they arrived in the USA.  He and his friend had planned to work in the steel mills of Pittsburgh, but my grandfather took a side trip to a little Pennsylvania town for Easter.  While walking up the church steps, he saw a beautiful young lady walking down.  He fell in love with my grandmother and stayed in that town for his entire life.  He became a union miner despite the dangers of organizing and, upon his death, his widow received his black lung benefits.  For me this seemed like just too little a legacy to leave, so I dug into the research and began to discover more about the stories of his life.

Checking immigration and census records, I found that he traveled when he was barely more than a teenager, a daunting and harrowing journey with no guarantees of outcome.  So I learned that he was courageous.  Investigating the mines, I found that he worked the 18” coal veins, often for more than 10 hours a day, under the harshest of conditions.  I learned that he was enduring.  When he was threatened about joining the miner’s union, he persisted and became a UMW miner until his death.  I know he believed that by working together, our lives could become better.  I discovered from a deacon in the Russian church that he loved to sit quietly in the empty church and contemplate heaven.  So I know he was spiritual.  I later found out that he had sent money home to a sister in Ukraine and that – because of his payments – she was able to survive starvation during Stalin’s pogroms.  He demonstrated what a huge difference that one small life can make.

But still – how to write his song?  After turning and turning this information around in my head and reaching roadblock after roadblock. I finally gave up.  At the point of giving up on the concept of writing his song, these words jumped out at me.  How much I wished he could have lived to tell me the stories of his life.  And this song suddenly arose:

At the end of this journey to discover my ancestors, I am left with many thoughts.

I believe that there are invisible threads that tie us to those who have come before.  I believe their best efforts brought us to where we are now.  I believe that even under the harshest conditions love abides and can move us forward.

Everyone has a story.  

Our stories are valuable.

Our stories need to be heard.

What is your story?

© Daria Marmaluk-Hajioannou*, 2021

(*Granddaughter of Ephraim and Mary Marmaluk)