Spring comes late in Montreal. By May 6th of any given year, the remaining snow has grown filthy. Cigarette butts, dog shit, and lost single mittens emerge in the melt: winter’s detritus. Tradition and climate dictate that Canadian gardeners wait until May 25th to put anything new and tender into the earth. We gardeners count the days to planting season, and to life’s return.
In the spring of 2010, my son was three. As we drove each morning to daycare at “the blue school,” Sebastian would tell me fantastical stories, including one about a dream that had him whooshing in and out of giant drainpipes. “Dreanies,” he called them. I remember rushing to my desk after dropping him off to record his words in my notes.
In my office at home, I was finishing a new book, Epistolophilia – though, on May 6, 2010, the manuscript had neither title nor publisher. The contract would arrive a week later in an email that ended simply, “we love the manuscript.” A rush of relief had washed over me as I read it. Abandoned in my last month of pregnancy, the book had taken me ten years to write. I had only returned to it in earnest in Sebastian’s second year of life and then finished it in a sleep-deprived push.
Epistolophilia tells the story of Ona Šimaitė, a Lithuanian librarian and Holocaust rescuer. She saved the lives of Jewish children by carrying them out of the Vilna Ghetto in sacs. She hid mothers in her apartment, students in the university library attic, and she squirreled away diaries and letters that told of the agony of people imprisoned in the Old Town of Vilnius.
I think about my librarian a lot during these 2020 pandemic days. In her wartime letters, Šimaitė lamented continuing on with life while others suffered. She longed for prewar comforts and pleasures like concerts, theatre, and cinema and raged at her powerlessness. I long for these too. I rage too. And I look to her for lessons of how to live this crisis better.
Šimaitė’s last ghetto-era letter ended in melancholy. To her beloved poet friend, she wrote, “It seems that I’ll never again know how to feel joy with my entire soul the way I used to. It’s hard for me to keep believing that ‘Oh the mad times shall pass…’”
Though Šimaitė did eventually feel joy again, she paid dearly for her heroism and courage. In 1944, she was arrested, tortured, and sent to Dachau for the crime of aiding the persecuted. Against all odds, the librarian survived.
Back on May 6, 2010, I held my breath. It was, I see now, the day before everything changed for me. Before the contract came. Before our sabbatical year on the tiny Maltese island of Gozo. Before the job that eventually landed me here, in Columbia, Missouri, where spring comes so much earlier than in Montreal.
Today, as I write, my laptop sits on the manuscript of a new book. Sebastian is now thirteen. In his bedroom next to my office, he sits in the armchair we carried up the stairs from his father’s study. Curled in the chair, he listens as his teachers explain Latin, algebra, and Earth science from the glowing screen perched on his knees. Though he rarely recounts his dreams to me now, yesterday, as we walked after dinner, he imagined his first studio apartment aloud to me as a cool, open loft space. “I’m going to take Daddy’s chair with me when I move out,” he said with surprising certainty. “There’s nothing more exciting than your first apartment,” I said, grateful to escape with him for an instant.
In Missouri, I don’t have to wait until Victoria Day to plant, so on this May 6th, I get up from my desk and check on the seedlings in the front garden. I write with my window open. I listen to the birds, feel the breeze, and think about my librarian. I hold my breath and waiting for the mad times to pass.
*Julija Šukys. Photo by Geneviève Goyette, Spring 2010
Julija Šukys is a Canadian author of creative nonfiction. Her works include Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Grandaughter's Reckoning, Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė and Silence is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout. She teaches creative writing at the University of Missouri.To learn more about her, please visit julijasukys.com.
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