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Shaking out the family tree

By Lisa Whaley

You never know what you might find when you go climbing your family tree.

In my case, it was a short, mean looking Ukranian no one would want to run across in a dark alley. 

Meet my grandfather. Wasyl Kereluk.

I discovered Wasyl — or perhaps I should address him more formally as “Grandpa Kereluk” —during a recent forage into genealogy. I have had a love of dusty old historical files since I was a teenager and now — still in the midst of a what-in-the-world-should-I-do-with-myself  pandemic — I found more time to go digging. Plus, it is so much easier now with the Internet, digital files and such family-history friendly sites as Ancestry.com.

In all honesty, my mother’s family — the Morgans, Winters, Potters and Holtsclaws from Roan Mountain — always interested me more. Welsh, English, Scottish and German in origin, their surnames seemed to hint of romantic lochs, legends, castles and moors.

The Kereluks, on the other hand, were all darkness and mystery. I last saw them when I was a  baby, so there were no warm memories from which to draw. In fact, all I really knew about them came from my older sister and occasionally my mother. 

I knew they spoke Russian, that both had come from the old country, and that they lived in West Virginia. 

When I decided to try to turn over a few more Kereluk leaves, I wasn’t exactly hopeful. Earlier brief genealogical searches had revealed little to nothing.  But I guess, in the end, it really depends under which leaf you look — because after finding a U.S. Border Crossings to Canada document, circa 1917, details began piling up.

Here is what we think we know so far.

According to records, Grandma Helen came to Canada about 1912 or 1913, accompanied by her husband, Harry. They already had two children, and I couldn’t help but wonder what caused this young couple to pack up and leave all they knew for something else on the horizon. 

Harry worked as a laborer, in brickyards and possibly coal mines in Saskatchewan. He died in 1917 by either accident or illness, leaving Grandma Helen a 25-year-old widow with three young children and another on the way. 

Somehow, and I can’t even imagine how, Helen soon gathered her courage and her children, setting out to build a new home in America. 

There she met Wasyl (pronounced Va-seel), a resident of a boarding house she managed. They married, eventually having four children of their own, with each of her previous children also taking on the Kereluk name. 

These are the aunts and uncles my sister remembers.

Grandpa Kereluk was known to be something of a rascal. And when I found his photo on an application for citizenship, it certainly seemed to fit. I had heard stories of fights, moonshining, possible arson and even more. According to records, he was even once an inmate in a West Virginia jail circa 1920.

But I also heard another story, this too from my sister. Apparently, when Grandma Helen found herself widowed and alone in Canada, she reached out to a former suitor from the old country, begging him to send her fare to return home with her children. He agreed, she said, but had one stipulation. She must promise to marry him when she returned.

For Grandma Helen, there was never any question. “I didn’t love him,” she explained simply — so she gathered up her children and instead came to America where she met Grandpa Kereluk.

Strangely, when I discovered that photo of Wasyl Kereluk, I also thought of Grandma Helen. And along with the toughness that marked his face, I saw something else. This was the man that Helen loved. They — like the Morgans and the Winters and the Holtzclaws — are a part of me. 

And I find myself grateful for the mix.