Tiny morsels of my father’s life have always appeared without warning, a crumb here, a mystery unraveled there, only to be followed by a dead end, pieces that leave unanswered questions in their wake. The unwritten residue from which I built my account about my father’s life over the years came by accident – a weighted remark at the dinner table or a story surreptitiously overheard – shocking and unexpected.
From time to time, when I was tiny, I crawled out of bed and lay curled up on the floor of my bedroom, pressing my ear to the space between the door frame and the carpet, and waited. Waiting for what, I was never quite sure, but when wrinkled summer light bled stubbornly through the Venetian blinds of my room, I hoped that my nightly missions might produce clues about my father. My father hunted for his clues, too. Every evening, he sat crouched forward, fiddling with the knobs on the radio, searching for a report from behind something called the Iron Curtain. My father was a puppeteer trying to drive the gravel out of the foreign voices.
The walls in our tiny apartment were thin. I lay in bed with my ear pressed to the wall, straining to hear my mother turn into the living room from the hallway after she closed my bedroom door. When I thought it was safe, I climbed out of bed and padded across the bedroom floor. Once the sound of voices rumbling from my father’s radio and the chimes of their teacups on saucers seeped through the narrow opening, I knew I would not be discovered.
Some nights, when I did not make a discovery, I lay quietly, clutching my teddy bear before falling asleep on the floor. I have not made a discovery for several evenings, and this evening does not look promising.
Gingerly, I ease my coloring book off the bookshelf and hold my breath when the crayons spill out onto the white, worn carpet. I lay still for a minute until I convince myself my mother has not heard my accident.
My father has turned the radio off, and my parents are not talking. Another evening without a discovery, I sigh when I unexpectedly hear my father’s voice, low and distant.
“All of the soldiers were shot. Shot. Point blank. On the train. I overslept and missed the train. Pure luck. Luck and God. God kept me off that train. I, too, would have been killed if…,” my father’s voice fades.
Where was my father going on a train? What does my father mean by point-blank? I am glad that God kept my father off that train and that my father was so lucky.
“What happened after the ambush,” my mother asks my father in the gentle and soothing voice she has when I have skinned my knee.
“Ah…it was a long time ago. It does not matter. It does not matter anymore,” my father answers. I hear his chair flying back into the bookshelf and his footsteps moving quickly towards the kitchen. The click, click, click of my mother’s knitting needles fills the space.
The sun has finally gone down, and my toy wagon and dresser shapes have taken on scary forms. My eyes dart around the room. Is that a witch peaking out at me from behind my dresser? Is there a monster behind my toy wagon? If I can dash from the floor to my bed, I can be safe. I scamper to my bed and burrow down under the covers to hide from the monster I am sure is behind my toy wagon. I fall asleep dreaming of a train moving fast through dark forests…
…in my dream, it is frigid. The finely falling snow has made a damp halo of my father’s head. He is smoking. He glances at his watch before tossing his burning cigarette on the hard, gray ground. Dozens of men walk around my father, but I cannot see their noses or lips, eyes, or cheeks. My father does not notice these faceless men but boards the waiting train with them, the train steaming and snorting like an anxious horse. Why is he getting on the train? Doesn’t he know it isn’t safe? Wait, Daddy…no…do not get on the train. From the window, he presses his face to the glass as if searching for a distant glimpse of something familiar. He seems to look directly at me, but when I wave and cry, “Daddy!” he does not respond. The wheels grind sharply against the steel rails, and the train, once eager to lunge forward, now strains to move, creeping ahead with the sound of metal on metal. Wait. Wait. Don’t go, Daddy. Wait for the next train. This one is not safe. But my cries are too late…
Years after I fell asleep on the floor of my bedroom dreaming about this murderous train, I learned the actual context of this story. During the years Poland ruled western Ukraine, my father, a member of the Polish army, traveled from Lviv with hundreds of other soldiers to fight the Soviets after the invasion of eastern Poland but missed his train. Word soon filtered back to Lviv that the Soviet army had intercepted the train and murdered all the soldiers aboard before closing off the Eastern Front.
On my bedroom floor, I did not simply learn snippets of history. I also gathered stories like a small bird collecting discarded objects for its fragile nest.
I was always the family archaeologist. Beginning with the nugget about the train, over the years, I built my private inventory from fragments I collected:
- a country called Ukraine that none of my family could visit;
- a sister, my aunt, and her children, my cousins, whom my father could never contact directly living behind the Iron Curtain;
- a brother murdered by the hand of a Nazi soldier for being a member of the anti-German resistance and left to die on the family farm;
- soup my father made from stolen cabbages and grass in a string of prisoner-of-war camps;
- a daring escape from a Soviet camp in the throes of a bitter winter;
- the leather prayer book my father smuggled through multiple detentions;
- a handful of gold rubles hidden deep within the base of a shaving stick, rubles my father had made into an exquisite bracelet for me;
- photographs of prisoner-of-war camps in Rimini, Italy, and Redgrave Park, England.
Many years would pass before I told anyone about my inventory. At the time of my father’s death, even though my commitment to uncovering these stories had been unwavering for years, my inventory was painfully thin. My father was not unlike the country of his birth to me – a riddle I could never solve.
I understood that my father was not born in America but Ukraine and had lived in England before coming to South Dakota. Yet, my father’s Ukraine was never like my mother’s England to me. While England seemed like a jewel in the middle of a cold ocean, infused with brilliant light, Ukraine was dark and terrifying, a place I was never be allowed to visit. There was a weight connected to the country’s name – Ukraine – as if the entire landscape shouldered a devastating burden it could never discard.
Ukraine was consigned to my imagination, a place with dangerous forests and unfamiliar faces, a country where everyone was always hungry. There were no heirlooms from my father’s family on the bookshelves or the coffee table in our apartment. I never knew anything about any member of his family, by experience or by anecdote, only by fiction and myths I created.