Remembering Uncle John

We buried my Uncle John yesterday.

He died a week ago, on Tuesday, June 23, 2015. I haven’t been able to write about his death. I think it’s because it still doesn’t seem real. Even standing with family and friends, watching as his grave was filled with dirt, it was still so hard to believe.

John Chychula and Hanusia Dudycz

John Chychula married my aunt, Hanusia Dudycz, when I was just 8. I think that theirs was my first real example of courtship as I watched him become a part of our family. Growing up, we have those examples in films, in books, or in life, of couples who have the kind of magic we hope to someday find. I never told Hanusia or John, but for the little girl version of Valya with her head full of dreams, they were that couple for me. He serenaded her! They would dance together. They were in love. They were my fairy tale.

I was just old enough and they were just young enough, that I remember seeing them together before they got married. I loved seeing them dressed up–in costume from the Halloween Maskarada or dressed up in fancy clothes for Malanka. They always looked like they were having such fun together.

However, if I had to point to one thing though that stood out to me, to the little romantic kid watching from the corners—more than the singing or the dancing, more than the way he would put his arm around her—it was the way that John looked at Hanusia, like she was the most remarkable woman in the world. You can see it in their photos, but in life, it was even more powerful. It was magic.

For me, John and Hanusia were better than any movie prince or princess, because they were real, and he was a prince who took the time to play with us—the gaggle of little kids in the Dudycz family. I was always delighted when he was at Baba’s house, because he got down to our level. In one moment, he would be silly and do tricks with his fingers or his eyelids, making us laugh. Then in the next moment, he would ask us questions about our lives and really listen to the answers. It was easy to read on his face that he genuinely cared. Again, it was something in Uncle John’s eyes—they were so kind and gentle.AnnieJohnShower

When I was older, I worked for a few summers downtown in the Department of Human Services, which was in the same building as Drivers Services where Uncle John worked. I would see him at work, and he always treated me like an adult, like an individual, not just his teenaged niece. But that’s how I saw John treat everyone. He took the time to listen to people, to really pay attention. He cared about people. That made an impression on me—the way he moved through the world with such a generosity of spirit.

My oldest daughter is only a few years younger than John and Hanusia’s twin girls. So again the wheel turned, and my relationship with them evolved as we found ourselves parents of young children around the same time. I watched the way he adored his girls, and the way he was once again a doting uncle, this time to my kids and the children of my cousins. I am so grateful that they had the opportunity to know and love him.

Some people have a way of caring about you that makes you feel accepted no matter what. It’s rare, and it’s special. Uncle John was like that—openhearted.


That is the best word I can find to describe John Chychula. If you knew him, if you ever had the pleasure to spend time with him, if you were blessed to be his friend or family, you know.

Uncle John, you will never be forgotten. Вічная пам’ять.

The Things We Hold On To

I have been fortunate to meet and get to know quite a few writers who have had a profound influence on me and my work. I’m grateful for each and every exchange. (I once received a phone call from poet Louise Glück that left me shaken in the parking lot of the grocery story because I was so taken by surprise to hear her voice.)

I believe in telling the people in my life whom I love and admire how much they mean to me, and I also believe in telling the writers and artists I admire how much their work means to me. Kyle Cassidy has written repeatedly about this in his blog, and I agree with him.

When I am on the receiving end of an email or tweet about my work, I am so appreciative and touched. So much of the time we write alone. To hear from the “audience” is a rare gift.

Photograph: Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis

I sent Ray Bradbury a fan letter back in 2010. I wanted to thank him for his stories, for the joy and inspiration, for the thrills and magic.  After talking with a friend and fellow-Bradbury fan, I included a copy of my much-loved and tattered copy of Dandelion Wine. I was reluctant to part with it, but excited at the possibility that he might sign it.

The problem was that I forgot to include my self-addressed stamped envelope. I didn’t realize this until I returned from the post office and saw it sitting on my table. I quickly drafted another letter and stuffed the envelope inside.

He never returned my copy. I suppose it was tossed aside due to its lack of SASE. However, a few weeks later, I did receive this:

Although sad to be missing my beloved Dandelion Wine, I was pleased to know that he had read my letter. I hadn’t read his story, “Juggernaut” at the time, and sought it out immediately. (You can read it here.)

I was a little upset when I saw the envelope, however. I thought that my youngest daughter (three-years-old at the time) had scribbled all over it. I nearly threw it in the trash. I’m not sure why I kept it.

I put it aside in the “to be framed someday” pile. I still haven’t gotten around to that large pile, and after Ray died, I went back to it. I looked more closely at the paper, which must have come from his printer. I liked the thought that it came from his working space, from the place where he created his amazing stories.

Reading another essay about Ray at the time, someone mentioned the doodles he often drew to accompany his signature. Curious, I googled and found a few examples. Like this one:


and this one:

That’s when I realized it had not been my daughter’s scribble, but Ray’s!

Many who knew Ray Bradbury have written beautiful, heartfelt tributes:

By his biographer and friend, Sam Weller.

By his friend Neil Gaiman.

Mark Evanier, recounting his meeting with Ray as a teen.

My grandmother is dying, and because I cannot yet bring myself to write about her, I’m writing about Ray.

I like that I have this envelope and printer sheet of Ray’s, a small link to him and his work. I need to purchase that paperback of Dandelion Wine again. I’d like to reread it, but I want the same edition. I’ve grown attached to the cover.

When someone dies, we often want to keep the connection somehow, to remain tethered in some way. We do it with photographs, letter, articles of clothes. We do it with books and art, with songs and videos. We use the tools they used: a wooden spoon, a pen, a guitar pick, a thimble. We put on their perfume or drink their favorite beer. We try to remember. It’s hard to let go.

I guess I’m not just writing about Ray.