“Baba was no Mary Poppins, who was young and flew through the air with an umbrella as a parachute. Baba was our grandmother – like it or lump it! Definitely not a choice I would have made for a nanny.”
That was the opinion of three-year-old Alexandre on hearing that his working parents had invited Baba, his Ukrainian immigrant grandmother, to move from Ontario to Gibsons and look after him and his baby sister. What he’s quoted as saying in the book might not literally be what Alexandre thought, but that’s how he’s portrayed, as the wise-cracking narrator of Sunshine Coast author Jennie TS Choban’s unique memoir, Tales & Lies My Baba Told Me.
Giving the storytelling voice to her grandson was a clever device, as his youthful naivety and precocious sense of humour have kept things amusingly upbeat. It was a writing choice Choban felt would work best, as she explains in the book’s introduction.
“When I wanted to write about the silly things I did three days a week for six years as a nanny to my grandchildren, it was very awkward to criticize myself – the way a grandkid would – without sounding obnoxious,” Choban writes.
Amidst the lighthearted account of helping care for her grandkids, Choban, 80, has also interspersed flashbacks of her own life story. They are initially fond and sweet but ultimately harrowing recollections. She was born on a farm in Ukraine. Before the end of the Second World War, five-year-old Choban and her family had to flee into exile as Soviet ruler Josef Stalin wreaked havoc on millions of Ukrainian peasants. Their narrow escape took them into another hellscape – Germany, which was collapsing under the pressure of the Allied invasion.
“I still picture that cattle train that we were all in going across Romania, Austria, and into Germany,” Choban recalled in an interview. “I can still picture the bombs in Berlin. I can still picture running to the shelter as thousands of other people did.” The family survived the war and in 1949 emigrated to the freedom of Canada. But she has never forgotten the many difficult years before that. “It’s not a life I would wish on my grandkids – but I felt they would learn from my stories.”
As it turned out, like most of us, Choban’s children and grandchildren have lived a life so far removed from mass-scale cruelty and privation that they wonder if what she’s told them aren’t more of her “tales.” All the more reason for her to have put it on the record, she said.
Choban, who has written two cookbooks with her daughter, April-Ria Qureshi, has more writing she hopes to publish, including more details of her family’s story following the escape from Stalin and up to the time of her arrival in Canada. And there’s more: “I have a romance novel that’s been sitting in a drawer for 25 years,” Choban revealed. “I’m hoping to get at it now.”
Tales & Lies My Baba Told Me is available in paperback on Amazon. Choban also has copies on hand locally and can be reached at email@example.com.