My grandfather with one of our family's "hay-burners."

My grandfather with one of our family’s “hay-burners.”

In the last few weeks I’ve received a financial windfall that’s lifted a heavy weight of stress off my shoulders and re-energized my pursuit of this crazy race. As you know, the Mongol Derby is an expensive endeavour for the regular person, with a price tag of over 20 grand when you factor in the entry fee, flight, equipment, training and insurance.

But recently, my grandfather’s estate was settled and I received a chunk of money. It’s not a life altering amount, but enough that it puts a nice dent in the overall cost of the Derby. In receiving this money, though, I experienced an emotional yin and yang where both happiness and sadness laid within me in a complementary way for days. This financial gift made me reflect on his life and legacy and – at the risk of sounding trite – the ultimate meaning of life.

My grandfather passed away in May last year, just before my 33rd birthday. He was 91, so it wasn’t entirely unexpected. I remember it being a sticky, hot day, and after his funeral some of us gathered at a pub near the cemetery where we toasted a man who lived a productive, healthy life.

My grandfather and my great-grandmother came here from Poland in 1928. My grandfather had just turned six and my great grandmother was immigrating here to join her husband, who had settled in Toronto a few years before.

They immediately moved to Toronto and rented a room on Augusta Street, near Queen Street, which at the time was a neighbourhood full of other Polish and Ukranian immigrants. As a Torontonian, I walk by this street often and since my grandfather’s death it’s taken on greater significance. This intersection is no longer a refuge for eastern European immigrants. Now you’re more likely to see hipsters shooting by on their bikes, fashion queens scouting out finds in the tiny boutiques and tourists bustling about in one of Toronto’s hippest neighbourhoods. When I walk by this intersection, usually on my way to meet friends at a café or bar, I pause and wonder what it must have been like for a boy and his mother – neither of whom spoke any English – to strike out in this strange foreign land.

I was always thrilled to hear my grandfather’s stories about growing up as a Polish immigrant in Toronto during the Depression. Sometimes my grandmother would shush him, because for her these stories were shameful – tales of wearing bags on his feet because his boots had so many holes in them; of the bailiff evicting him and his mother from various rooming houses; of him being arrested once when he was a young teenager for selling stolen pocket watches in pool halls.

To a young girl who had grown up living a comfortable, stable and altogether boring life, these stories seemed like an adventure and in them my grandfather was a real-life Oliver Twist.
As an adult, I can appreciate now how difficult those years must have been for him. In his last few years, he would continue to tell these stories to me, but in a more retrospective way – with a wisdom that only eight decades of living can bring. “When you have a difficult life, there’s nothing you can do but keep on working. I didn’t know any different,” he’d say.
And work he did. He went from having nothing but a small trunk with a few clothes in it to raising six children with my grandmother and owning his own farm. He was never a rich man, but he was comfortable enough to one day allow my mother and my aunt to have a couple of horses at the farm. The impact of this decision would eventually trickle down to me, who became a horse-obsessed kid and adult.
My grandfather, always a practical man, would call horses ‘hay-burners’ – meaning they were a waste of hay – after all, one didn’t eat a horse, and the riding horses my aunt and mother kept weren’t the type you’d plough the fields with. When I started riding and spent all my spare time at the barn, my grandfather would ask me “how’s the hay-burner express?”
It was always good-natured ribbing and despite what he said, he seemed to love taking care of the horses. He’d pet them, lead them, and always make sure to save the carrot and apple peelings from the kitchen to take to the barn.

I wonder now what he’d think of me spending his money on the ultimate hay-burner express. There wasn’t much room for whimsy in the life of a Depression-era immigrant who fought in a World War and raised six children. And there certainly wasn’t time or money to take off for months to ride horses 1,000 kilometres across Mongolia.

Some Mongolians practice a belief system called Tengrism, which has elements of shamanism and animism. In Tengrism, the entire meaning of life is to co-exist in harmony with the world. Existence is sustained by the sky, the earth, a spirit of the sky and the spirits of nature and our ancestors.

I am not a religious person, but I do allow for the possibility that there is something greater than us at work behind the scenes. I believe my grandparents are still with me in spirit. And when I look at that big blue sky in Mongolia, I’ll say a prayer of thanks to my grandfather for helping make this adventure possible. And I hope he’ll smile down on all of us and cheer on the hay-burner express.