1 - By Hammer and By Hand

Muzzle to wood. Teeth gritted. Eyes narrowed. Squeeze the trigger, and...

Kapow!!!

Absolutely nothing defines satisfying, like blasting four inches of cold-galvanised steel through a two-by-six header. I put down the BFG and stood back to gaze upon my handiwork: a skeletal frame of heavy lumber that would someday become a wall. Providing, the stars were aligned in my favour, and luck was with me. I tested it with a good yank or two, and surprisingly, nothing came lose, crashed down, or flattened me.

You could say, I was in love with the home-reno armageddon I'd unleashed upon my embarrassing fixer-upper. The neighbours, on the other hand, weren't nearly as enamoured with my propensity for chaos and calamity. Take this bloke across the street; good ol' Ralph with his own Craftsman bungalow, he strongly encouraged me to spend a few hundred bucks on a nail gun, before my reno-geddon had the neighbours pulling out their own guns. And the truth be told, waging total, DIY war got a lot easier, thanks to that BFG.

And, I know what you are thinking, so I'll let you in on a wee secret. BFG happens to be what I lovingly called my big framing gun. It placated the neighbours like a charm. Turns out, one good kapow! instead of a bunch of hammer blows and a blue streak of filthy language, was all it took to drive a four inch nail.

Moving on, let's talk about language: filthy, foreign, or otherwise. I spent a lot of time blasting walls full of nails and counting everything I could while doing it. In Russian. I know, that's a wee bit fey. So, I'd be counting studs, -- those are vertical, wooden struts that hold up the wall, as opposed to the pub-crawlers you probably had in mind. Anyway, I counted a lot of studs. "Ah-deen, de-vah, tree, quatre... ah, bollocks! Quatre is French. I'm always mucking that one up." I pulled off a glove, poked at a laptop on a table-saw. "Ah hah! Che-teary... che-teary, che-tier-ee." Took me an age, but maybe I'd pick up some Russian vocabulary. Eventually.

Meg Aitken frames an interior wall using the BFG

[Image 1-1] Meg and her beloved BFG (Big Framing Gun) prepare another wall frame for positioning. Hot tea and 17 layers of clothing are key to survival in the yet to be insulated sections of her brand-new, antique dream-home.

So, what's all this cursing-neighbours-Russian-studs-and-BFGs codswallop got to do with love and enemy lines? Well... rather a lot. And you'll see why once I tell you a wee bit about myself.

Did I just hear a groan? Get a grip. I majorly ken to it. And I'll keep the backstory brief, but by crikey, it's fundamental for understanding the bloody why-in-hell for what lies ahead. Maybe you want to take notes or get comfy. You probably ought to kill the phone while you're at it. A wee dram wouldn't hurt. In fact, I'll pour a finger or two of fine malt, myself.

Here goes: I grew up in a typically middle-class family. We were safely well-off, yet wildly dysfunctional. Imagine Life On Mars meets Downton Abbey. Then again, what family isn't a colossal train wreck in today's day and age? For instance, Dad was a highly respected, violently alcoholic, and stunningly successful psychopath. Could have been his Slavic roots from who-in-hell-knows-were Ukraine, or The Ukraine, or The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic -- or, "There's no such thing!" if you ask Putin.

Then there's my mum's ancestral lineage. It traces a long line through Scotland, all the way back to the bronze age. Ah hell, it could have been the ice age. I mean, who really knows these things? I'm probably Neanderthal.

Hey you! Yeah, you in the recliner. I could hear you snoring halfway to Inverness. Come on, mate... stay with me, or we'll never get through this.

All right. Where was I? Aye, Scotland.

All this ancient history matters, insomuch as it deals with culture. Reality time: we didn't have any, unless you think there's such a thing as American culture. And before you get your knickers in a knot, Canadian culture is the same thing: no-culture -- or something so cravenly contrived and rammed down your throat, you learn to hate your very existence. Us boomlets, or gen-X-ers, or whatever hyper-trendy label you want to slap on an entire generation of the human race -- didn't really want culture foisted on us. I mean, let a kid decide between Super Mario, and mind numbingly boring, stinky, abusive and wildly irrelevant multiculturalism, and it was no contest.

Seeing as culture comes from our parents' kith, kin and clan, I'll start with my dad's contribution; a couple of alcoholic zombies we had to call, Baba and Djee-djee. Which, in case you don't know, means granny and grandpaw in Ukrainian. In weirdly erratic orbits around our Ukrainian grandparents were countless uncles and aunts from the old-country. I'm not actually sure how many siblings my father had, but take it from me, it was a lot. And along with them, came various offspring generated en route, or shortly thereafter. Aye, what the hell, who really knows? Baba must have been popping them out and stacking them like cordwood.

Mum's side of the family tree, either didn't exist in an alcohol fuelled haze, or they hid it well. Us kids absolutely adored the Scottish side of our family, which drove Dad into paroxysms of borderline, narcissistic and possibly homicidal rage. Although he had clawed his way up and out of the cringeworthy quagmire he grew up in, some pathological, mega-guilt complex compelled him to force his Ukrainian kin -- which included countless cousins living in a dirt-floor, real time study of foetal alcohol syndrome and recessive genetic intellectual disorders -- on us. I suppose it was his special blend of extortionate payback for any time he allowed us to spend with my mum's parents and relatives. I bet you didn't know that Canada had its own version of the Ozarks. Aye, that halfwit with one tooth and a banjo; he's probably a cousin of mine.

So, having grown up wearing shoes and appreciating personal hygiene in ourselves and others; and preferring computer games and pyjama parties to raw spirits and solvent abuse, we naturally liked the Scottish side of our family more. I was just a bairn, so who am I to say why I preferred one side of the family over the other. But, to be fair, Mum's folks and relatives didn't stink, chain-smoke, spit, scream at each other in Polish-Russian-Ukrainian Creole. Run over one of their children with farm machinery. Pass out drunk and choke to death on their own vomit. Blast shotgun holes in the walls. Drive pickup trucks through taverns. Die of a subdural haematoma in the guest bedroom. Or drive one of their kids to suicide for being gay -- maybe, and I'm just throwing this out there, it could be that kind of behaviour -- AKA culture -- that had me and my sister crawling from our skin whenever we were exposed to it. But hey, I'm just saying... you make up your own mind.

Hard-time with Dad's side of the family usually followed an endlessly long, car-sicky, air-conditioned to below freezing, gasping for air while Pops chain-smoked a couple or more packs of Pall Malls -- and don't you even think of cracking a window! -- road trip to whatever sparsely settled wasteland his kin squatted on. When we got there, and Dad managed to drag us kicking, screaming and feigning stage four brain cancer, from the car, Baba would start wailing hysterically in what sounded like Klingon at grandchildren she didn't recognize. Us weans would inevitably end up gagging on gristly mystery-meat, that Dad encouraged we, "Choke down, or so-help-you-god!" while Djee-djee sat, catatonic, shit-faced drunk on a plastic covered sofa, staring at a dead console TV festooned with Jesus figurines. The highlight of our enforced visits had to be Djee-djee horking up colossal tobacco snuff loogies into a tin can beside his sofa.

Ahh, good times. Good times, indeed.

You know, thinking back -- which tends to require emergency psychotherapy -- it's hard not to feel sorry for poor ol' Pops. He fought so hard to make something of himself, yet waged such a battle with his wife and kids to enforce equal visitation with those members of his family that weren't dead, deranged, dangerous or incarcerated.

Wrapping up this sob-fest, us kids flew the toxic nest of family dysfunction as soon as legal, or even earlier in my case. Then, without the bonds of siblings that detested each other holding the family together, Mum and Dad mercifully divorced. They eventually re-married -- other people, that is -- but good ol' Pops just kept on drinking himself to ruin. He wiped out a brilliant career in medicine and medical research. Then, no big surprise, his next marriage failed and he drank himself to death. He went down in flames, literally -- along with the house. Lawyers picked the estate clean, leaving just enough of its smouldering carcass for each of his offspring to buy a house of her own.

So, that lays the foundation for my own reno-geddon. If my house survived the war I waged upon it, and I ever finished it, I intended to call it, home. The thing is, finishing: actually being done, was highly unlikely, given the unhealthy obsession with perpetual reconstruction I was manifesting like an axis 1 mental disorder.

Everyone assumed I would renovate and flip the bungalow for a tidy profit. To prevent friction, I let them think whatever they wanted. An architect told me to bulldoze the thing. An estate agent offered more for the lot than I paid for the whole shebang. Over back-deck barbecues, friends laughed at my dumb luck. You guessed it, an impetuous, estate purchase on a tear-down, transformed me into a property tycoon. Or, so they thought.

Meg Aitken's bungalow lifted and moved into position

[Image 1-2] Meg's century-old bungalow, floats castle-in-the-sky like after being lifted off its failed foundation.

The thing is, I couldn't care less about property development. To me, renovation was a mysterious alchemy for changing the past, or better yet, building an entirely new one. My bungalow's century of built in history meant I didn't have to start from scratch. With I-beams and huge hydraulic jacks, house movers lifted the building off its crumbling foundation. Then, concrete breakers and JCBs scuttled about, carting away the old stones and mortar. A new foundation was formed and poured, and I signed it with a hand print in the wet cement.

I stopped at nothing to resurrect the bungalow and do it myself. The size of the project was spine-tingling thrilling. With painstaking attention to period detail, I more than doubled the original square footage. By hammer and by hand, I was building my fantasy home. A dream so real, maybe even I'd believe it. I loved the idea of a place lived in for generations by a family with memories they weren't afraid to recall. And by simulating a well-worn antique, I was determined to inherit the memories of a past that simply, never happened.

I breathed it all in. Cherished New England shingle cladding, genuine lath and plaster, knob and tube wiring and leaded glass windows, like it was a magical life-force. Original patina became my narcotic of choice. While dreaming up a brand new past through the haze of dust and construction carnage, I imagined walls covered with sepia-toned photographs in chipped and mismatched frames. Dogs, long gone, staring eagerly out of the past. A classic, yawl-rigged sailboat. Friends with a silver cup and championship grins. A beaming uncle with a big fish taken somewhere Hemingway might have hollered at a bartender. Christmas trees. A huge table loaded with food, tipsy relatives in paper crowns. Babies, then bairns, then teenagers with bikes, cars, boyfriends, then graduation gowns, then weans of their own.

Okay, I know what you are thinking: I've gone right off the rails, right? But, believe me, I knew there would be no pictures to split the lath or crack the plaster. And I didn't actually think I could build myself a home, but by giving it my best shot -- by reproducing details others might miss -- I could at least have the house. Missing out on a childhood of my own, and then, finding myself grown up with no foundation to build upon, I was desperate to create, connive or conjure up a place in one of those ubiquitous, yet unattainable, *ideal families. However, just so you know, when it comes to bringing a little tyke into this fucked up world, I wouldn't wish childhood on anyone.

Back in the days I should have been preoccupied with being a child, I was instead busy watching for telltales of danger and playing, psychopathic, twisted games instigated by warring parents. The families of friends and neighbours were nothing like ours. I thought it was some kind of conspiracy to look normal. Some demented charade normal, happy families put on.

It felt like everyone summered on the Riviera. Then all tanned and heroically normal, they'd come back and shingle their walls with Nautica memorabilia. At least, that's how it all seemed to me at the time. A lot of years have gone by, and although I might still feel that way, I majorly get it: not everyone lives misty, sepia-toned lives, but it sure carries over. And it eats away at you, leaving huge empty spaces you'll do anything to fill. In my case, it left me scratching obsessively for answers -- maybe even meaning -- in all things Scottish-Ukrainian. You could say, I was on a forensic quest to the root of that childhood destroying evil. If only to see it for what it was. Face the robber of safety. Make sense of it. Have my Magnolia moment with the arseholed past, and then, be done with it.

Couple kissing in Maidan Square Kyiv Ukraine during the Orange Revolution elenameg.com photo

[Image 1-3] Maidan (Independence) Square, Kyiv. The Orange Revolution and the birth of a nation drew Meg back to Ukraine with a vengeance.

Scotland was achingly beautiful, but the Scots were as frozen, fossilised, and immovable as the glaciers that for millions of years carved bens and lochs from its granite backbone. Whatever lurked there, in a culture and history that thrilled me, would never reveal its truths and dark secrets of evil. But, just between you and me, I think it has something to do with the whisky. And tartan. By crikey, wool tartan is something you never want to feel against bare skin.

Then the wall crumbled. Not Hadrian's Wall, or even the wall my father shoved my head clean through, but the Berlin wall. AKA, The Iron Curtain. And so, the Evil Empire, and especially Ukraine, spread out before me like a mysterious kingdom of secrets, beauty, culture and discovery. Of course, it all turned to shite as oligarchs, gangsters and hair challenged KGB bosses squabbled over the USSR's smouldering carcass. Yeah, yeah, yeah... I know, ancient history. Who cares? So let's cut to the chase: The Ukrainian, Orange Revolution. The intoxicating thrill of it drew me to Kyiv with a passion I simply didn't know I had in me. It was exciting. It was young. It was brash. It was a new Ukraine disowning an uncomfortable past and building a better future.

I wanted in. So I studied Russian. It covered more territory than Ukrainian. In the end, though, parroting audio lessons, running software, cramming books and taking classes only got me so far. Getting real meant communicating with actual Russian speakers, which I happened to find on what passed for social media at the time -- essentially, chat rooms and profiles. Hey, give me a break; this was 2005, Facebook was barely a database for rating campus cuties. I posted a profile on some Russian chat site and probably made a major fool of myself. Aye, what the hell, the Russians' and Ukrainians' amusement at my wholesale botching up of their language, turned out to be a win-win situation for me and them. Not to mention a sardonic introduction to the online, Slavic subculture.

And that, was how I met Elena.

Hemispheric map showing the location of Ivanovo, Russia, hometown of Elena Ivanova elenameg.com photo

[Image 1-4] Ivanovo, Russia, Elena's home town, is under the red arrow. Moscow, for comparison, is the blue dot.

She was an architect in Ivanovo. An industrial, Russian town a few hundred miles east of Moscow. She practised English on me and gave my inept Russian her best shot. I loved the things she talked about and the sincerity with which she described her life in provincial Russia. To one of her emails, she attached photos taken on an all-inclusive with her boyfriend in Turkiye. They were gorgeous shots, but conspicuously, Elena herself was missing from every single one of them.

In passionate detail, she described the sites and antiquities of central Turkiye. And, with just as much passion, she told me about hating the man she was with. I replied with simple common sense: don't date someone you hate, and why not send some pictures with you in them?

The frequency of our correspondence increased exponentially after that. If you're wondering why, Elena explains it beautifully in Talking to the Moon, that's her account of escaping from forced marriage in Russia, to freedom in Ukraine. Back then, I had no way of knowing what Elena was going through at the time. I just loved getting closer to this intriguing, and intrigued Russian. In each others virtual company we found an escape that drove us relentlessly closer. I was learning to trust Elena. She was learning to trust herself. I found her naiveté off-the-scale hard to believe, and it crossed my mind more than once, that maybe she was mocking me. I mean, no one could be that thunderstruck by common sense. It was like follow-your-heart was the encryption key to a Theory of Everything.

Devastatingly sincere. Wickedly intelligent. Innocently childlike. Terrifyingly trusting. She had me knocked for six. I grokked -- via our tenuous data stream -- that I held this woman's heart, her future, her very life in my hands. Let me tell you, scary doesn't begin to describe how that feels.

Meg Aitken practices Russian while renovating in Star Trek pajamas elenameg.com photo

[Image 1-5] Meg studies Russian while she works. Constantly on watch for Elena-shocking photo-ops, Meg models the latest in renovation wear: work gloves, headphones, and Carhartt coveralls over Star Trek pajamas.

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