Peter Kushnir: Grandfather. Ukrainian patriot. Watchmaker. CPR clockman. Born June 5, 1927, in Bozhykiv, Ukraine; died Nov. 12, 2018, in Montreal, of heart failure; aged 91.
I once witnessed my grandfather, my dyido, make headcheese from scratch at 89 years of age. It wasn’t pretty. He used a knife right in the pot to chop things up, slopping fatty broth all over the table, the floor. He bragged about how delicious it was going to be. With his heavily-accented English, he gave his well-worn line: “You should be fine eating this, Andrij. Cow is vegetarian, too.” It’s hard to imagine how the notably thick hands making that mess were the same that could restore the minuscule workings of an 18th-century timepiece.
Peter Kushnir’s first language was Ukrainian. Next was a kind of “horological” dialect. It was that rare language of the workroom in his Montreal basement – one that also had a gentle cacophony of ticks, tocks and chimes.
As a boy, he shuttled messages for the resistance. His village, sympathetic to those fighting against the Soviets, was wiped out by war’s end. Before then, Peter had apprenticed as a clockmaker – a deep curiosity-turned-métier. The war pulled him into the 1st Division of the Ukrainian National Army and landed him in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp. He escaped with two other men by crawling through a kilometre of sewage pipe. His idea.
In 1947, he immigrated to Windsor, Ont., and to Toronto soon after, starting a watch business on Queen Street West. What struck Mary Polygach, my baba, about Peter, a man she met at a picnic, is that she was quiet and he was a real talker. This orchestration held for 69 years of marriage.
Peter and Mary raised five children, who would give them nine grandchildren. He boasted of one other significant offspring: the Zenith Extra R.R. 56, a Swiss-made railway-standard pocketwatch built in 1956 according to his exact specifications. It would be the last of its kind in North America as railway companies moved from mechanical to computerized time. With his retirement from CP Rail, after 24 years of employment, Peter became the last company clockman to hold the post.
He took up a lot of space, like a sort of Slavic Falstaff. Peter’s voice was big, his stories bigger. He’d always open with “Listen!” as if he couldn’t be heard, as if he wasn’t the most booming voice in the room. He dominated conversations; he dominated many relationships. I heard him tell a doctor, in his last few days, “I sleep like rabbit.” Through to the end, you could tell how busy his mind was, and his heart with it. He needed to matter and could be overwhelming on that front.
Over the course of his life, he fought to solve the ailing “time pieces” in front of him. He fought to keep Ukraine from disappearing under the Soviets. He fought against vanishing in Canada as an immigrant with broken English. He fought against the obsolescence of “master watchmakers,” as his line of work became niche. In the end, he fought against the extinction of his jokes and stories, stashing them into anyone who would listen. He obsessively collected watches and clocks and brought them back to life, saving as many as he could from inertia and silence. And I feel his movement still, within myself.
Andrew Kushnir is Peter’s grandson.
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