Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

An Ocean Between: stories from a first generation Ukranian immigrant

Last Saturday we had a little book signing event here at the local library. My assigned table was sort of in a corner and not very visible, but I had the best treat ever: the lady signing books right next to me was a real gem to meet. The daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, Stephanie Sydoriak has been living in our historic town for over 60 years, and was awarded the title of Los Alamos Living Treasure in 2011. Stephanie is a poet, an author, a certified piano teacher, a mother of six, and a Life Member of the New Mexico Music Teacher Association. But her true treasure are her stories, and in fact, she published in 2012 her memoir, An Ocean Between: 100% American - 100% Ukrainian.

I had such a great time getting to know Stephanie, that I knew I had to invite her over to the blog. Welcome to Chimeras, Stephanie!

EEG: Quoting from your bio: "Throughout her life in Los Alamos, Stephanie followed her father's exhortation to remember her Ukrainian background." I imagine that was both an enrichment and a burden. When did you decide to put it all in a book?

SS: I ruminated about my family's stories from very early on. I got involved with teaching Ukrainian Easter Eggs around Los Alamos: schools, clubs, in my home. My husband and I did some demonstration dances in the schools, where I was also invited a few times to give talks on Ukraine. I found myself telling bits and pieces of their stories during these times, which led to writing a few poems about them. In the seventies, I began a novel in a local writing class, then took it to a six week class at UNM taught by Rudolfo Anaya. He took me aside at the end of the class and told me my writing was very interesting and I should keep writing, but he thought my story would be best put in the form of a biography or memoir, rather than fiction. This I eventually did.

EEG: What did you find most challenging about writing the story of your parents? And what did you find challenging about writing your own story?

SS: The stories about them, my sister and myself, poured out easily in great volume. The challenge was to ruthlessly carve out the less interesting material and put in meaningful connective tissue so it was a book, rather than a collection of unrelated stories.

EEG: Your first published book, Inside Passage, is actually a collection of poems. Did you always write poetry or was there something in particular that inspired you at some point in your life?

SS: I started writing poetry, fiction and non-fiction in high school, just for the fun of it. As my complicated, adult life took over, I found less time for extensive prose writing and turned to writing a few lines of poetry at a time. If I happened on these lines later, I'd work on them, then still later go at them again. Gradually, they solidified into poetry. Those I'd save in a file drawer, where I could easily find them. I wrote a poem about this process. (Bones: I store poems/the way dogs/ store bones in loam or mold...)

EEG: You moved to Los Alamos in 1948: what was it like to live in Los Alamos in the '40s and '50s?

SS: Heavenly, except for the super-security at every exit point, roads and trails alike. Downtown was a welter of wooden lab buildings, quadriplexes, log cabins, army huts, and an emerging complex of stores around a grassy center behind the post office and lodge. We found all the trails that were not closed off,though, and were thrilled to begin hiking with our little kids five minutes from our back door, either up the mountainside, or deep in Los Alamos Canyon. We skated on the barely developed skating rink down there and worked on the emerging Pajarito ski area. Until that was finished, we skied at Sawyer's Hill. Unlike in Boston and New Haven, we now looked at mountain ranges, incredible, never-before-seen mesas, fluourescent blue skies and ever-changing cloud shapes in the monsoon seasons.

EEG: What are you currently working on?

SS: I am currently writing down random stories that I may or may not later use. I don't think I could even give them a category designation. I've written a couple of poems that will probably never see the light of day, so I think that all might be better left to one side. My project at the moment is to live happily.

EEG: And having met you in person I can say that you are surely fulfilling your project! Thanks so much for chatting with us today Stephanie!

To find out more about Stephanie and her book, please visit her website. Her memoir, An Ocean Between: 100% American - 100% Ukrainian is also available on Amazon


  1. Fabulous interview! I cannot imagine what it would have been like to live with all that security in the 40s and 50s. I like Stephanie's current project. :)

  2. What a lovely person to meet! Thanks for introducing us to Stephanie, too.
    My wife and I watched a TV mini series a few weeks ago called "Manhattan" about the development of the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos. Stephanie's recollection of her early years there sounds very like the show.

  3. thanks so much for your comments Kimberly and Mike!


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