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Peacetime brought Marta to Yorkshire, England, still young, still beautiful, yet battle-scarred and defiant.The Globe and Mail

Marta Wintoniw Kuchmij: Ukrainian. Canadian. Animal lover. Survivor. Born Jan. 16, 1924, in Solukiv, Ukraine; died June 18, 2018, in Toronto, of congestive heart failure; aged 94.

Years ago, when my brother was studying for his exams, he was distracted by a chirping sound coming from our kitchen. Searching for the source, he found a hole in a baseboard. Inside was a cricket, feasting on a morsel of bread soaked in water. That insect had picked the luckiest house in Toronto: My mother could not hurt a fly, not to mention, dogs, cats, mice, raccoons or any sentient being. That same compassion extended to any person in loss or need, a sympathy she nurtured to compensate for the misery, violence and hatred she had seen across the sea.

Marta was born in the village of Solukiv in western Ukraine, her brother Julian followed a few years later. The sound of violins and poetry filled their parents' home, but this tranquility would not endure. When Marta was 12, her young mother, Anna, died of tuberculosis. Her father, Mychajlo, remarried a twisted woman who denied the children food, freedom and love. Marta “escaped” to Germany – an escape to war, physical labour and hell on Earth. She never saw her father again.

Peacetime brought her to Yorkshire, England, still young, still beautiful, yet battle-scarred and defiant. She would make sure that nobody would hurt her again. There she met the handsome, athletic Stephan Kuchmij, a veteran of the Ukrainian National Army. They married in 1950 and a daughter, Halya, was born. Then, like so many other war refugees, they sailed for Canada, carrying the hope of a new beginning and $10 in cash.

In Toronto, Stephan got a job at a steel factory, Marta cleaned houses and at night they picked worms to sell. There would be two more children, Danusia and Bohdan and always a dog or two in the house, which was filled with plants and flowers, and where a spider could always spend the winter inside. Marta and Stephan passed on the essence of their Ukrainian heritage to their children and worked endlessly to ensure that they had a bright future.

Marta was the first of her peers to get a driver’s license, learn English and go to night school. She also landed a job at Canada Post. She taught herself the accordion and secretly bought a piece of land near Georgian Bay, where the family cottage now stands, a Canadian flag waving proudly. In time there would be five grandchildren – Stephanie, Melanie, Andrew, Aleksandr, Nikolas and a great grandson Theodore.

But the ghosts of the past followed her. Saddled by posttraumatic stress, her later years slid into anxiety and darkness and an insatiable longing for the love of the mother she had lost too soon. Her tender heart never recovered from that primal wound. Marta’s final request was to place wheat from her mother’s grave in her coffin and to make a cross from the stones of her village on her casket.

When our mother was buried on a beautiful summer solstice day, we found a tiny mouse, her guardian, amidst the flowers on her grave.

Halya Kuchmij is Marta’s daughter.

To submit a Lives Lived: lives@globeandmail.com

Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go online to tgam.ca/livesguide

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