An Annual Visitation: Finalist for Biography Prose, Southwest Writers

In October, Ukraine appears in my rear-view mirror.  Driving across the South Dakota prairie alone, I have come to expect this annual visitation.  The country’s outline does not emerge near the anniversary of my father’s death.  He died on the last day of June.  It is disconnected from his birth under an Aquarius sun during the darkest part of winter. Instead, this country, my father’s country, materializes after the sun begins to wither and the blue sky is so crisp that my teeth ache.

Only when the corn stalks have disappeared under the plow, and the air is motionless do I detect a foreign prairie behind me, a land where men once guided themselves across quiet oceans by starlight like Mariners.  Under vast Ukrainian skies, bison and antelope, wild horses, and prairie hawks still roam innocently across this country’s unmarked land.  The bones of my ancestors lie buried in this black earth, deep within a prairie my father once walked across with faith before the war came.

The sudden trills of red-winged blackbirds and the sharp squawks of geese do not startle me because the film stills of Ukraine rolling by me are not part of this century.  I do not see the effects of Chernobyl on the bruised land or drink the poisoned water.  I cannot picture the pinched faces of young girls with little to believe in but the familiar strains of pop music and the hands of their boyfriends between their thighs.  The empty grocery store shelves and the derelict buildings of a once-grand and fortuitous country do not cross my view.  I see my father’s Ukraine, instead.

Ukrainian bandura player's song of sorrowThe sharp smell of wood smoke filtering through my open car window reassigns me to another century.  I see Baroque churches with Greek domes and mosaic Virgins pieced together from crimson, turquoise, and emerald fragments.  Ox-drawn carts stumble across muddy roads leading into dark forests.  I see braided kolach bread wreathed in candles on Christmas Eve and brightly colored Easter eggs in April.  I see my father on the back of a horse, his boots dug deep in the stirrups, or is it me in the pale green sweater and t-shirt, my cold hands holding the worn leather reins, my cheeks pink like a pair of apples, that I see?

Behind me, there are wandering minstrels carrying banduras.  I see a poet, who was once a serf, argue angrily with Fate as the train banishes him into a frozen exile, pencil, and paper taken from his hands.  I sit at a wooden table next to an uncle with the taste of resistance and borscht on his chapped lips in my horizontal, moving picture.  My father is at the table too, arguing with his brother – the dissident – pleading tearfully against the path of hunger and violence Fate will lay down for both of them.  I see great famine and peasants scorching their own houses, burning the last sheaths of grain before the day’s arrests begin.  This country is my father’s Ukraine:  a cold, sepia-toned landscape only occasionally marked by firelight, like the months of winter.

I have never traveled to Ukraine.  I have not seen how the beech trees cling together in dense forests or how the linden, oak, and pine branches knot together like a spider’s web above the swamps and meadows.  On the streets of Kyiv, my Eastern European features have not dissolved into the faces that have not changed for centuries, the ones that belong to lives steeped in cheap Vodka, blunt cigarettes, and unrelenting poverty.  Sitting on the docks in Odessa, sipping Turkish coffee, and smoking in the chilly morning air has not been part of my life.  Nor have I stood with my father by the Black Sea mesmerized by the ocean-bound freighters crushed together like downtown office buildings.

Serhij Sochocky, Brody, UkraineWould I even feel a connection to Ukraine if I knew where my father stood in the photograph I have of him, amidst bare trees, smiling?  Would I understand what he saw as we stood together on the first farmland he owned after the war?  This land, saturated with his memory and the typography of the Ukrainian steppe, I stood wanting the mosquitoes to quit feasting on my fat ten-year-old body.

Still, I know this country that stubbornly appears in my rear-view mirror each year:  the same blood running through my veins gallops through men and women living amidst this fractured landscape. Though the false borders of politics have crumbled, history continues to keep me apart from my Ukrainian family born after the war, the family I will never meet. Natural geography and aberrant boundaries made by others separated my father from his family and country. Ocean.  Land.  Politics.  Much more than landscape and ocean separates us from each other now.  War.  History.  Language.  Revolution.  Disintegration.  How would I find my family?  Would I only exact unhappiness and confusion on the survivors, walking up the path like the prodigal daughter returning, the unwelcome ghost of my father and my uncle, murdered by the Nazis long ago, carved into my cheekbones?  Stones unturned, souls at rest, perhaps.

Some days, I think I have fallen from the stars into a prairie landscape I do not recognize.  There are no landmarks, no tree branches with their palms open to the heavens to remind me of the familiar.  It is as if God pointed to a particular spot on the earth and declared, “There.  This place is where this child’s life must begin, underneath a maple tree watching the leaves.”  My first memory.

I am bold enough to argue.  You have made a mistake, I say, pointing to the middle of a torn book.  Where are the missing pages describing the characters in my history that have come and gone?  I was a fool to believe in my father’s silence about Ukraine and in the reasons why he kept it as if it were an ancient tradition.  Maybe I was wrong to think he stayed silent because he did not have faith that words would ever be enough, that language would always be lacking somehow, that his sentences would dry up like autumn leaves, the way history starts to fade on the pages when a book gathers dust, unread.  Perhaps I believed in his silence more than I believed in his death.  I am half Ukrainian because my father was Ukrainian because of the spelling of my last name, yet, I do not know what this means, what it meant to him.

Like my father’s love of the folktale about the evil serpent crushing his chains and stalking the earth if too few pysanky remain unpainted at Easter, I, too, am driven to argue against the circle of Fate that others try to lay down for me.  I hang on to the things I cannot hold in my red heart and live as my father did as if I am about to move.  This restlessness is not merely the legacy my father bequeathed to me.  I believe the urge to roam was implanted in those with Eastern European blood rushing through their veins centuries ago.  I claim this as my inheritance:  the souls of Ukrainians have been sad for centuries, I think, and now this loneliness is mine to manage — this hunger.

Ukraine, July 1998. I nearly went to Ukraine.  In fact, my American passport has an approved Visa stamp allowing me entry. The Cyrillic letters were written in likely black detail, my entry point, my Visa classification, and the person’s name stamping my passport, yet, the script is incomprehensible to me.  Only the proposed dates of entry and required exit are clear.

Ukrainian grandparentsMy pre-packaged travel itinerary included a daily breakfast, transportation by train and private car, and stays at respectable hotels in Kyiv, Odesa, and Yalta.  Finally, I would see Swallow’s Nest Castle on the Black Sea, the site where Stalin managed to convince Roosevelt and Churchill that he was to be trusted to bring Hitler to his knees and that his murderous rampage was secondary.  I would look skyward into the Crimean Mountains that shield the Baltic coast from Arctic winds and spend an afternoon on the Dnieper River, the river that my father crossed when he escaped from the Soviet prisoner-of-war camp.  I would explore the catacombs where the Partisans hid during the war; I learned that Ukraine is a landscape that has never been neutral.

After my guided travel was complete, I added ten more days of a tour through the Polish countryside.  I planned to go to L’viv, where my father attended medical school before the Soviets arrested him, and Krakov, where every corner of the cobble-stoned streets still carries its history lesson with plaques commemorating both resistance and abdication.  I would go to Brody, where my father was born.  The entire trip was to cost $4,000.  I planned to use some of my graduate school money and earn it back after returning and writing the hefty deposit check.

I did not go to Ukraine.

During a tearful conversation with my mother, she convinced me that spending that kind of money was folly since I had only been operating my independent consulting business for a couple of years.

“But I can make up the work when I return. The business has always been a means to end. Now that I am only working the legislative session during the first six months, I have more time to write. The goal is writing Mom, not the business,” I pleaded.

The narrow afternoon sunlight settled between my nervous fingers as I traced patterns in the tablecloth that covered my desk strewn with pieces of my manuscript.  My mother and I had already had one of our circular conversations a few months ago about whether I should defer my graduation a year to spend more time on the manuscript.  There had been many tears that night as well, I thought, and though I was thirty-two years old, I found myself still begging my mother to approve my decisions.  In the end, I “won” the debate about graduation, but the “victory” felt hollow, and peculiar remorse took root.  I was tired.  We were both exhausted.  Was it because she and I only had each other that I needed her approval?  Did I still believe my mother still harbored regret about coming to America with my father and leaving her home in England?  Was it my guilt over her decision to stay in this country after his death?

“Why can’t I go my way, Mom,” my voice slowly rising.  “My father left me with nothing.  Not a damn thing.  He never talked about anything.  The war.  His family.  Ukraine.  Nothing.  Half of my life is a blank page.  Frankly, I think he feared the prospect of even talking into a tape recorder, but I also do not conclude that he was part of the walking wounded the way others describe survivors like him.  He had humor, grace, compassion, and faith, but he worked so hard that he ran out of time, and now his entire story is gone.

I have been back to England with you as an adult and so many times as a child, Mom.  I have that part of my life that you left behind and, in the end, sacrificed for me. I take risks, and yes, I suffer the consequences sometimes, but the stakes are worth it to me, I thought. Why can’t I have just a tiny sliver of my father’s life now!”

“Your father wanted to protect you from what he went through, honey.  How do you think I feel?  He never told me anything either. I was married to the man for fourteen years.  You will go to Ukraine one day, honey, but I don’t think you should spend all that money right now.”

In the end, I relented and turned against my instinct, against my desire.  True, I had no financial plan aside from using my loan money to finance the trip, but I had always been resourceful.  When I called the travel company, I pleaded for my $2,000 deposit and my passport back, citing an unforeseen family crisis in my life.  That summer, instead of going to Ukraine, I sat in my apartment working on a grant my clients had hired me to write.

 

Years have passed since I did not go to Ukraine.  I still want and need to travel to this country, but I do not want to go to Ukraine to be closer to the details of my father’s war that scorched this landscape.  Nor do I want to go because I still carry grief over his death.  I have long since learned to manage this sorrow.  If I go, I will not find his Ukraine I see in my rear-view mirror.  I do not have any illusions of a family homecoming.  I am not looking for my own Albion.  My desire to go to Ukraine has less to do with the absence of my father’s narrative.  I do not need the facts anymore; I can survive on the legends.

When I go to Ukraine, I will go because there is something intrinsically familiar about the soul of this country for me.  Years ago, when I walked into a Polish art gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the owner immediately spoke to me in Polish.  Even in America, I have the look of Eastern Europe on my skin and the mannerisms in my step.   I have inherited this country’s obsessions, its melancholy and dogged approach to life, its evolving sense of identity, borne from centuries of occupation, and its commitment to beauty, myth, and story.

When I go to Ukraine, I will go because my father did not live to see the Berlin Wall crumble and the Soviet Union disintegrate into fragile republics.  I will see an independent country and listen to the echoes of the Orange Revolution in the streets.   The tragedy of history echoes when the past we should have witnessed happens without us. Both the dead and the living are so far away from it.  I will bear witness to the sights and sounds, smells, and the touch of my father’s landscape and feed the uneducated part of my soul.

I will go for him because he could never return to his home after the war without risking imprisonment or death.  I will go to Ukraine for my father because the act of remembering is a holy one.

 

The last professional photograph taken of my father accompanies an article published posthumously in the University of South Dakota Medical School newsletter.  In the picture, he does not smile in keeping with his reluctance to be photographed.  Seated at his desk in a white doctor’s coat and stethoscope, the hospital window behind him looks out towards spring.

In the corresponding article, the author described how my father reached into his top desk drawer and pulled out a handful of postcards from all over the world.  Israel.  Germany.  Japan.  Poland.  Australia.  France.  Yugoslavia.  Each one was a request for a reprint of research papers he had written and presented worldwide.  The reporter asked my father if international travel came easier because of his working knowledge of seven languages. He responded that while it takes him a little time to pick up a language again, it comes back effortlessly once he walks amongst the people.

At the end of the commentary, when asked if he enjoyed his work at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, my father exclaimed, “I am happy now.  I am happier now than any time.”  A well-educated man and a man of many languages, he could have set his life down in any country, in any landscape, but instead, he found his way back to a landscape most like the one he carried in his heart.

Dr. Serhij Sochocky, circa 1980

The last photo was taken of Dr. Serhij Sochocky before his death.

The path from the villages of Ukraine to the American prairie is threadbare.  The faint trail follows the line of the northernmost railroads, snaking its way across the edges of North Dakota.  After the war, my father’s best friend, Bohdan, a man he met in the prisoner-of-war camps, followed another well-worn path of history to Canada, one that others who came before him had beaten down with muddy boots and hopeful souls.  My father did not go down this trail.  Instead, he set his life down in South Dakota on a prairie with no history of others like him coming before.  Perhaps the prospect of living in proximity to others sharing his particular kind of loss unnerved him.  My father’s motivations and the circumstances of his choices are like the details of his life during the war – ephemeral – like the moondust children believe fairies sprinkle over their fragile and unformed hearts in the night.

My knowledge of the history of South Dakota, the state my father chose to live out his life, in the end, is sketchy at best.  Sometimes I think that my understanding of this part of America consists of Custer, Crazy Horse, Mt. Rushmore, Wounded Knee, rose quartz, wild buffalo, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Wall Drug, and Laura Ingalls Wilder stories.

My command of the prairie is much better.  I know that there are fewer trees to change color and gauge the nearness of winter in the fall.  I recognize the movement of the horizon as it draws closer to the earth when the sun slouches lower and lower with each passing day.  I can predict when coveys of geese will begin to meet at a singular point in the scarlet and flaxen sky.  I understand that few street lamps glow on the prairie, only acres and acres of stars.  Sometimes, one loses its balance, falling to earth without emotion.  Is the same true in Ukraine?

When I was in grade school, my father bought several parcels of land in Saskatchewan. It made no difference to my father that the land was part of the Canadian prairie.  I inherited this land saturated with his memory and the typography of the Ukrainian steppe after my mother’s death eight years ago. I did not understand what my dad saw when we stood together on this land; all I wanted was for the mosquitoes to quit feasting on my plump ten-year-old body.

Land loved.  Land labored.  Land lost.  The spiritual and historical life of an entire nation revolves around Ukrainians’ intimate relationship with the earth.  For my father, Ukraine was a country driven by memory; for me, it is driven by history.

My father discovered his memory of the prairie after the war. He joined thousands of Ukrainians who had pulled the roots of their lives from one unforgiving landscape before setting their lives down in another halfway around the world.

His country tracks me like a panther, pursuing me each October, telling me it is time for me to come.

 

 

 

 

The Politics of Naming

On the page, I play with the words and definitions I have scribbled: exile, refugee, expatriate, immigrant, emigrant, displaced, and evicted. The meanings of these words complement and compete with each other. Each label is by turns romantic and a badge of social disdain.

Exile: forced removal from one’s country, a person involuntarily separating oneself from the original home or place of birth.

Refugee: one who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution.

Expatriate: to withdraw (oneself) from a residence in or allegiance to one’s native country; to leave one’s native country to live elsewhere.

Immigrant: a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence.

Emigrant: a person who departs one’s place of residence or country to live elsewhere.

Displaced: one expelled or forced to flee from home or homeland.

Evicted: to be forced out; ejected.

Or are the definitions in opposition to each other, something like this?

exile/refugee expatriate
immigrant emigrant
displaced evicted

Unbalanced in their linguistic weight, these definitions cross over and intersect, changing positions with each other. None of the descriptions can be categorically applicable to my mother or father or even to me.
Where do the characters of my family fit?

immigrant (mother, father, self)emigrant (mother, father, ? self)displaced (father)evicted (father)

exile/refugee (father) expatriate (mother)

Each of us, in our own particular way, can claim our own tales of displacement. True, my father was the only real exile in our family, a man condemned by history, geography, politics, by war. Still, he was also an immigrant tracing a circuitous path from Ukraine through England to America. The word exile, though, provokes suspicion. Exiled from what exactly? By whom? For what wrongdoing? This demarcation, in particular, tracks an individual through the years and is a mantle not easily discarded.

Likewise, an expatriate’s essential emotional core is forever unchanged: I may live here, but I belong elsewhere. An air of romance infiltrates an expatriate’s definition as if the label suggests universal impermanence, a bargain between here and there that is not fraught with uneasiness but with intrigue. As a foreign property owner with an offshore bank account and a returning citizen to another country other than the one she lives in permanently, my mother is an expatriate.

Still, both my parents were legally and culturally classified as immigrants, foreign citizens with American passports. In my mother’s case, because of the occasional Midwestern vernacular that percolated under the surface of an English accent. Immigration is a choice for some like my father, or a fait accompli for others like my mother. Unlike the categories of exile and expatriate, the classification of ‘immigrant’ is chronically untidy and debatable by those without a clear self-definition.

How do I describe myself? Am I an exile like my father? Absolutely not. Am I a British citizen? Yes. My birth certificate bears the stamp of the county government of Bury St. Edmunds. Am I English? Told by my parents for as long as I can remember that I was English, I believed this to be accurate. Yet, the family joke about my lineage has been that my bloodline is not unlike Heinz 57 steak sauce: a tablespoon each of English and Ukrainian, several teaspoons of Polish and Scottish, a pinch of Irish, and a third of a cup full of American by experience. Over the years, the Heinz 57 metaphor became my truth.

Am I an expatriate like my mother? I opened an offshore bank account in Jersey a few years ago, but this tangible authenticity does not make me an expatriate. Am I an immigrant? I am legally considered an immigrant, but because my accent is not English and I have never lived for what others think to be a sufficient length of time in England, many do not consider this one of my truths. Still, to be naturalized into another country of citizenship at the tender age of thirteen when so much of one’s understanding of origin and place in the world has already set like gelatin is perennially troublesome.

Sometimes, my immigrant status reveals a romantic view of others. Years ago, on a shopping trip with a friend and her mother to find a maid of honor dress to wear at my friend’s wedding, the mother prattled on how my parents’ lives were like the movie character Dr. Zhivago. Romantic, larger than life, so delightfully foreign and mysterious, both affected by war, by separation, by immigration. I felt like I was on display next to the mannequins.

“Where are you from?” strangers ask, and my response changes with my mood. I am filled with dread when this question arises because any answer I give feels slippery or shifty and is always partially inaccurate. My strange history borders are porous like Ukraine’s geography or the edges of England’s seacoast that is slowly being taken back by the sea. What does it mean to be “from” somewhere, anyway? Does this reference mean a dot on a map? A culture? A family lineage? A particular house or street? A landscape or a continent? A specific time in history?

How long does it take to claim a place as home anyway? I always seem to be more committed to the four walls I live in rather than its actual geographic location, four walls like my grandmother’s house, the apartment at the Veterans Administration, or my mother’s own haven in Sioux Falls. I write about the English four walls, those I write in, the home I imagine buying in England. But how does one describe what it feels like to be unmoored from one’s own history when the ground underneath either shifts or sinks but is never firm?

Is there another set of definitions, ones that apply to me more than all the others? Do not be trite. Do not even consider writing words like a gypsy on the page. You are not a gypsy. You are not a wanderer. You are not a newcomer. Fine. How about rooted. Absolutely not, I grunt, crossing out the word with my pencil. Rooted implies something entrenched, fixed, a person with a historical lineage that can be easily accessed. Try again.

I am English because of my birth and experience, and, in truth, I am Ukrainian by blood only. What would my life have been like if my family had returned to England? Was it my intolerable grief over my father’s death that forced my mother to choose to stay in America in the end? Did I ever really want America? Is my longing for home a particularly American obsession or an immigrant one? I scribble the word “unrooted” in the margins of the paper.

Am I unrooted? Without question.

A past that never arrives

Heirlooms from my father’s family wrapped in brown paper packages

with blue ink and foreign postmarks faded by a prairie rain burst

will not be delivered to the cream house with green trim and gable roof

where I live. The house belongs to my husband in name only —

that’s what he tells me. But I am relieved by my own perceived lack of responsibility

to stone and wood, glass and metal, to a past that will never arrive

neatly parceled without warning on the doorstep in bundles survivors always carry.

Steamer trunks and shabby suitcases —

the essentials – linen, utensils, wool sweaters –

the familiar possessions – family photos and violins, clocks, and silver candlesticks.

In a movie, the refugee husband tells his wife, “You must choose — the lamp or the vase,” tossing the sacrificed object over his shoulder

in the farmer’s field. Is my grandmother’s engagement ring still buried in the mud?

Maybe another woman wore the ring without guilt, passing on my inheritance

to her own daughter, sidestepping my anonymous birth like a salver of food

handed over the heads of guests at a king’s banquet. I will never inherit

this ring.

II.

My mother wears her wedding band with the sapphire ring he gave her

on Christmas morning. Her gift to him that year: a hand-carved music box

played Lara’s Theme to the Ukrainian couple nestled in a winter sleigh,

the woman’s pink cheeks and bow smile, the man’s firm hands on the reins.

It went unnoticed. Each note collapsed under the weight of my father’s memory.

The war made objects a burden, you see. His family’s land, home, brother,

freedom, and all taken, he came to America to see if the streets were paved

with gold. Coins buried deep in his shaving stick, a watch, his glasses —

my father carried little. He hid photos of his parents across the continents between the pages

of his prayer book I did not inherit. After his death,

his stony hands clasped the burning scripture.

This, the marker of his life, this, the remainder of his death I cannot hold between my fingers.

The only artifact I still want.

The inheritance I carry in my suitcase does not let me choose between the lamp and the vase

will never compete with the touch of something solid.

This is not the loneliness of my father. I believe the souls of Ukrainians have been sad for centuries. This loneliness is mine to manage.

This hunger.

III.

The choice has always been mine to make. In empty spaces, my voice

bounces against blank walls. Driving past old apartments, I leave

the address, the phone number, the streets behind easily. Because the choice

has always been mine to make between my Barbies and Beatrix Potter books

I am not like my mother. Not like my father in the war, hanging on to the things I cannot hold.

In my red, red heart, do I ask too much from the world? The small desires that get me

up in the morning, but the large ones make me dangerous and holy, carnal, and blameless.

I tell the truth. I want a life that is not neutral.

This is my inheritance. Silent as snow falling at midnight on Christmas Eve in London.

Long ago, I learned that verse is the solace for whom bread is not enough.

I can choose between the lamp and the vase without remorse.

I’m told that I have always been callous

with my belongings, but this is a lie. A child born to parents who believe

that bread is enough carries the burden of choosing

between sacrifice and desire without punishment. I am on the run —

a fugitive, still running from

this history.

Time of death: six thirty a.m.

Awoken with a start from a restless sleep, I grope not for my watch or the battery-operated alarm clock. I do not reach for my smudged glasses, either, but instead fumble for the switch on the floor to turn on the Christmas tree lights. The miniature lights twinkle. The early, frigid darkness sparkles like counterfeit jewels. Tears dry then moisten as another surge of recognition consumes me.

My mother is going to die.

Save the three days I slept in the ICU waiting room, still dressed in the suit I wore when the call from the emergency room about my mother’s hemorrhagic stroke came, this sofa has been my bed. Each evening I pull the cushions off the sofa bed in the living room. I stack the pillows on a dining room chair pushed back from the galley kitchen, piling worn blankets and duvets and stray clothing on the lumpy mattress.
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I read by the light of Christmas tree lights. The lights glow day and night, trying to stave off a sense of impending doom boiling in the pit of my empty stomach. Against the winter darkness, the lights twinkle and sparkle without devotion. Still, without the soft glow and the lights catching the blushing ornaments, I cannot drift off, even if it’s only for a single hour or two.

Drained of sleep and faith, I drift to the living room window and tentatively reach out to touch the frozen glass. Last night, the wind blew in from the north, squealing and moaning, creaking and wailing like me. Snow tendrils creep across the roads. The slender cobwebs braid an icy lair. More than a foot of fresh snow has fallen in the night. My mother’s apartment building has lived for over thirty years is incarcerated in an ice prison. The sky, still pregnant with winter, belies the tempered blizzard, which will likely rage on for a few more hours.

Though a snowplow breaks the path of winter, pushing back the night and the snow’s accumulation, I still wonder if it will be possible to drive to the hospital once the anemic sun rises.

I wander into the galley kitchen. Turn on the electric kettle. Toss a tea bag in a mug. Collect the cream a few days past its expiration date from the refrigerator. Wait. When the pot boils, I pour the water into the cup, watching the teabag bleed ginger brown against the white bone china. Absently, I press and push against the pouch urging it to steep a little faster—lists cascade across my mind.

Setting the steaming mug on the dining room table, I push back the week’s mail: bills that need to be paid, Letters to be answered. Christmas cards have arrived from people who are oblivious to my mother’s condition. Pulling my ‘master’ list of To-Dos, I grasp a pen and start adding tasks to a clean page. Visit the bank manager. Make an appointment with the investment administrator. Buy multiple expandable files and a label maker. Return a page worth of phone calls. Buy more international phone cards.​​

Day Nine: another day of shuttling between my mother’s bedside and hunting down elusive doctors in the maze of hospital hallways. Another day of waiting for updates about my mother’s condition that are few and far between. Her medical situation is not improving, nor is it markedly shifting into the positive column either. Though the bleed in her head shows a mild retraction, its absorption into her brain matter has stalled.

I am lost in the perfunctory world of list-making when the phone rings. I glance at the mantel clock on the piano – 6:20 a.m. The shrill ring of the telephone at this time of the day does not unnerve me. The phone rings until after midnight most evenings with daily calls from or to England or Australia, often commencing by 5:30 a.m. I am juggling four time zones leaving me stretched like a taut drum around the world’s circumference. I pick up the telephone receiver and mumble a distracted hello.

“Is this Anna So Coc E?” The voice is unfamiliar. When I do not answer immediately, the hesitant voice repeats the question—my mind’s roll-a-dex grinds. No accent.

“Yes. I am Anna Sochocky,” I respond, crisply refusing to allow a tone of gloom seeps into my voice. Still, my hands begin to shake like a person struck down by tremors. I put the pen down and wait.

“Ms. So Coc E. This is a member of the nursing staff on your mother’s ward. Your mother went into respiratory arrest at six a.m. We have been executing chest compressions for twenty minutes, but your mother is unresponsive. Would you like us to continue with chest compressions and intubate her,” the anonymous nurse’s question hangs by a thread in the silence? The nurse persists. “Did you sign a hospital medical directive? Does your mother have a resuscitation order,” the nurse fires off companion questions.

My mother is dying. My mother is dead. For a few seconds, I cannot speak, do not speak. I stare out the window into the black morning. The wind grows fierce. The invisible squall’s direction changes and tosses the snow into somersaults. I have grieved for nine days. From the moment I walked into the ICU unit, I knew that my mother was gone. Why does death always arrive in the darkest part of the night or early morning? I gaze into the blizzard wind.

My mother is dying. My mother is dead.

I return to the present with a vengeance. “I gave you copies of the medical power of attorney stating that my mother did not want extraordinary measures taken. I signed the medical directive that you gave me three days ago, specifically not to do any chest compressions or intubation. Don’t you have these instructions noted on her chart or in a file somewhere?”

I march around the tiny living room, desperate to be focused through the rapid onset of tears, tripping over the corner legs of the unmade sofa bed, looking for my clothes, my shoes, my watch, my heart.

“Stop compressions now. DO NOT intubate my mother. Mom wouldn’t want any of this! You’ve probably broken her ribs pounding on her chest! Stop breaking her! I’ll be at the hospital as soon as I can be.”

“Ok. We will stop all resuscitative efforts,” confirming my answer. I am sorry,” the nurse adds before the receiver’s tone clicks in my ear.

Half-dressed and stunned, I dial Janet’s number. When she answers, I cannot speak. I cannot breathe. I must breathe.

“What’s happened,” Janet whispers.

“She’s gone, Janet. Mom is gone.” Leaping to my feet and weaving around the bed, the chairs, the loss, I race to the kitchen sink and try to spit, expecting to find acidic bile in the basin. My stomach is empty. I emit dry heaves instead. I nod mutely into the phone, listening to panicked noises on the other end of the line. A chair’s legs scrape across the floor. Boots are selected and quickly discarded. Affronted grunts from Janet’s two dogs register their displeasure with being disturbed in the pre-dawn dark.

“I’ll be there as soon as I can. It will take me a few minutes to warm up the truck, and it’s snowing hard again, but I’ll be there as soon as I can. I am so sorry. We’ll get through this together, ok,” but Janet’s weak declaration dissolves amidst choking sobs on both ends of the line.

With nothing left to say, I hang up the phone and aimlessly begin to throw the pillows off the sofa bed and fold blankets. Halfway through pushing the mattress into the hidden compartment, the frame refuses to collapse. The sofa bed is stuck. I am stuck, too.

Do I get on the phone or finish getting dressed? I crumble to the carpet and lean against the bent steel frame. Who do I call next? My husband, of course, but should I call the funeral home before we get to the hospital? Will anyone even answer the phone at this time of day? Should I post a notice on the website that I have been using to update people about Mom’s condition?

The tree lights fuse. The ornaments bleed color into a watery pool. I cannot breathe. I must breathe. Struggling to my feet, I shove the bed violently into place and reconstruct the sofa, cramming pillows onto the frame and fluffing the accent ones into place. The phone rings a second time.

Believing it is Janet to tell me her truck has skidded into a snowdrift, I answer the phone with a question – are you stuck? The person on the other end of the line is not Janet, but the hospital again tells me that one of the nurses found my mother’s pulse signal of life is thready, but there is a pulse.

My mother is being transported to the ICU. How can this be? Is she alive after all? My mother’s still alive.

I hang up the phone and toss the receiver onto the sofa. Wriggling into another sweater, I am zipping up my boots when the phone rings a third time. Once again, an anonymous nurse asks me to confirm my name and follows with an apology. “We are sorry, but we were mistaken. Your mother does not have a pulse. Time of death six-thirty.”

By now, any tears of mine have evaporated. Dulled and confused by the hospital’s conflicting messages, I scream without a hint of grace into the phone receiver. “What the hell are you people doing? You violate my mother’s wishes and ignore or cannot FIND the directive I signed, the PDA you asked me to bring to the hospital. She’s dead. She’s alive. Now she’s dead. Are you sure this time, or do you want to check again? Leave my mother alone, for Christ’s sake. You have done more than enough.”

Racing on the edge of madness, I slam the receiver down on its cradle.

After nine days of ambiguity, my mother is dead, and I have moved up a generation.

Serhij Sochocky, Brody, Ukraine

The Inventory of War

Wars fought in books are orderly.

Only dates and figures box suffering between worn covers.

In truth, those who survive remember everything:

those who wept, those with faith, those bearing false witness,

those who refuse to forget. Inventories are taken.

These are the dead.

From war. A family walks the earth to find an unmarked grave.

From hunger. Ruins on a blistered land shiver under a dawning sky.

From grief. Steam rises from a son’s body after a spray of bullets.

Every town, every farm hides something: an anonymous death, a mass killing, ashes from torched houses.

Nothing is forgotten; little is forgiven.

After war’s spasms, only those things eternal remain –

the smell of bread baking in the hearth,

family photographs wrinkled by years of sweat and doubt,

the soft light of a candle on a wooden table in winter

….and all of childhood.

The politics of bread

Why is it always about fucking bread?

I reach deep into the freezer on a crusade to vilify the starchy culprits, violently casting everything I find to the floor. Stiff hamburger buns skid across the linoleum. Two slices of pita bread soar over my shoulder. Half-eaten loaves of focaccia and olive bread come to an unceremonious halt at the edge of the stove. Why can’t I ever manage to finish any of this bread? I dig like a wild animal into the farthest corner of the freezer only to find one orphan bun wedged against a package of bread dough. One frozen bun and I am saving this because I am afraid that the grocery store will stop making buns? Why do I have this dough? When was the last time I made bread? When have I ever made bread? I hurl the dough to the floor, but it hits my barefoot instead. The icy air numbs every inch of my sunburned arm to my shoulder. I open my hand to find four tiny ovals of bruschetta. Why four? I scream, hurling the pieces across the kitchen—the bag arcs over the counter before landing in the dining room.

The graceless exit of the bruschetta temporarily suspends my tirade, and I burst into tears. Touching my hand to my chest, I stand sobbing into the open freezer. My breathing shallow, my hands shaking, I whisper, I am so sorry, Daddy. I am so, so sorry. Mournfully, I stare around my kitchen, gazing at the consequences of my tantrum. I retrieve each piece of bread with trembling hands and gently place each bundle back in the freezer. As if my fingers hold not bread but an expensive crystal, I rescue the tiny bruschetta pieces from the dining room and collect the pita bread and the solitary bun.

Why does bread continue to define me, haunt me, disgrace me? Will my father’s words stung me with a shame I still carry ever waste away? I wait for the final wave of my storm to pass. On the floor, no evidence of my careless anger remains.

I did not want to write about bread today. Yet, bread has always been the leading actor in my history, a fixture in my memory. What did my father value like gold? Bread. What did my mother bake for my father on days when the winter air was thirty below zero or on sizzling summer mornings when the heat and humidity suffocated the kitchen? Bread. What kept my father alive in the Nazi concentration camps? Bread, of course.

Bread was not only my father’s obsession; it was my terror, too. Bread muscled its way to life’s center stage in my family, awakening memory like a dangerous spell ingrained in every meal and embedded in the flour and yeast of each slice. Persistent shadows of my family dinner table resurface without warning, my mind replaying treacherous nights when dinner became a bleak and perfunctory affair, nights that my parents and I revisited each day like a penance for our sins, nights that I cannot expunge from my memory.

I listen closely to the past and hear the chafing sound of my father’s spoon scraping the sides of his glass bowl filled with pallid white rice. Scrape, scrape, silence, as he raises his spoon to his mouth. Scrape, scrape, another pause until the silver spoon grazes the glass again. My mother and I stare at our plates, pushing tender meat and Brussels sprouts onto our forks with our knives. Cut a piece of meat, divide the spherical sprout, and maybe add a dash of potato or carrot, our rhythm shifts with each hesitant bite. The pinched expression on my mother’s hurt face, so hurt by my father’s refusal to eat the meal she carefully prepared, stifles my urge to eat. I fix my eyes on my plate, knowing that my father’s anger will be the fourth, uninvited guest at our table again tonight.

Serhij Sochocky - POW in Rimini, Italy WWII

Serhij Sochocky was a prisoner of war in Austria and Italy during World War II.

“You are not in the camps anymore, Serhij. You have meat and vegetables. Why do you insist on eating rice,” my mother pleads.“I have to stay fit. Too many doctors are overweight, and that is a terrible example for my patients,” my father replies, dismissing her question as if it were a fly.

“But you are so lean and fit, Serhij. Do you remember when we worked together in England, you ate so robustly,” my mother soothes, refusing to relinquish the argument.

“Stella enough. I do not want to talk about it anymore. Besides, I was very overweight when we worked together, don’t you remember,” my father snaps. “Anna, what are you doing? Eat your dinner! Now!”

I’m not too fond of Brussels sprouts, but I don’t want my father to be angry with me, so I maneuver the tiny cabbages around in a circle before taking a bite and swallowing hard. Most evenings, I manage to eat the sprouts but cannot bear the strips of gristle that I carefully remove from the meat. The thought of trying to chew the fat tightens my stomach into an iron ball.

My father’s gaze, persistent and angry, scorch my already flushed cheeks. His attention turned to me, and his hand reached out to yank my chair closer to my plate. I brace myself, waiting for his voice to detonate.

“Anna! Stop it! Stop pushing your food around your plate,” he growls, his anger rapidly rising before coming to a rolling boil. “Anna! Aah! My daughter is selfish. She has food to eat, and still, she is selfish,” my father bellows.

“Oh, Anna, please eat, darling,” my mother begs. She stops eating and waits. My mother’s eyes, weary from my father’s anger, weary from night after night of my father’s refusals to eat anything but rice, fill not with tears but with resignation as deep as Hades.

Because I know what will come next, I push a piece of the pork chop fat onto my fork quickly and press a sprout on end to mask the taste. I chew furiously, trying to swallow, but the gristle will not break apart. I chew faster and faster, but still, the fat refuses to slide down my throat. The texture of the fat is so vile. When my eyes start to water, I reach for my glass of milk.

The kitchen falls silent.

“When I was in the concentration camps, Anna, do you know what I had to eat,” my father hisses.

I nod and swallow hard. This is one of the few stories from the war my father tells, a story he repeats in tune with his anger.

“A stale piece of bread and a handful of grapes. We had to make soup from the grass. Grass soup. You are a selfish little girl. Here you have meat, but you refuse to finish it.”Camp 231 Redgrave Park, England, WWII

“I’m sorry, Daddy. I am full. I cannot finish.”

“You will sit at this table – alone – until you finish your dinner, Anna,” my father shouts as he shoves his chair back, leaving the table in a fit of anger I know will last for days. I sit staring at my plate until the trees melt into the darkness.

So many years after the war, I think my father starved himself with intention. A bowl of rice was his staple at dinner, but he foraged the cupboards for bread and cookies after dinner. In the mornings, when my mother came into the kitchen, she found the deflated skin of a banana that my father had eaten in the middle of the night.

Did my father think that he did not deserve to eat? Did he not trust that the refrigerator would be well-stocked when he opened it? Or did his diet obsession camouflage his conviction that no one would ever control him again by starving his body — a tenuous shield against the ambiguity of a future he never learned to trust?

Maybe my father was right. I am selfish. Images of sprouts and gristle, the bread once littered across my kitchen floor, pulls me under, deep into a familiar eddy of guilt.

Cremation changes our deaths

Marking the first loss

When a man answered the phone at a local Minneapolis crematorium, I prefaced the reason for my call with feeble qualifiers for my inquiry. My father died and chose cremation; I began. Recently, he asked. No. A long time ago. I decided not to be present, not to see his body before the cremation. Would it be possible for me to visit with a staff member about the cremation process? The man on the other end of the line received my question graciously. I was thankful. Come by tomorrow at 11:30 a.m., he replied. I hung up the phone and exhaled.

I arrived at the cremation society the next day and sat in a mauve room with lace curtains and low light. A mahogany table sat between two finely upholstered chairs, the fabric the shade of the painted walls. A matching loveseat faced the wall to my left, perpendicular to the seat in which I fidgeted. The muted light cast motionless shadows of a marble urn on the wall. A vase with a lid, I thought ruefully. Outside, a hearse idled, the driver waiting for the signal to proceed to the cemetery. In a room of exquisite quiet, barely alert to the strains of classical music wafting through the building, I waited.

Daughter grieves for a father.

Dr. Serhij Sochocky died on June 30, 1980.

The door opened. I introduced myself to a man in his forties or fifties, with chestnut eyes magnified by thick lenses. After explaining the reasons for my visit, he appeared both curious and solicitous. He spoke slowly, listing the available alternatives for concluding services: burial, cremation, entombment, and donation to a medical facility for research purposes. Thirty-three percent of dispositions are cremations. Concern over the amount of space set aside for cemeteries, more than the cost, accounts for cremation’s rising popularity, though the choice to be cremated does not preclude a funeral. Indeed, he encouraged final services for both the benefit of the deceased as well as the living.

The man paused while I scribbled notes. He crossed his leg and stroked his well-kept beard. When I asked him why he chose to become a funeral director, he replied that he came of age at a time in history when death did not frighten the living, when the passing of a loved one was marked over a period of days and months to accommodate the tides of grief.

Our conversation turned to the desires of the departed and their families. What is the most unusual item, in your experience, that a person has been buried with? I asked. Raising his hands for emphasis, he ticked off a litany of things he once deposited in a casket of a woman: a six-pack of beer, Eddie Arnold records, a Dairy Queen cup, two pairs of socks, some carpeting, and a bottle of whiskey. She loved beer and whiskey, Eddie Arnold, and Dairy Queen ice cream. Her feet were always cold, and after years in the same house, she finally saved enough to carpet the floors.

As he finished the list, the funeral director remarked, “Good thing we put the body in the casket first!” After forty minutes in conversation, I was convinced that his gentle commitment to both the living and the dead, and the pride with which he spoke could melt a stone. I asked to see the crematorium. I followed the funeral director through the hushed hallways. I could not help but think I was slightly mad to be in this place on my lunch hour, as if I was an amateur reporter scribbling notes for a three-inch article in a neighborhood paper, only to be lost amidst the want ads and garage sale notices. At the bottom of the stairs, a compact maze of rooms and hallways unfolded like the cellars underneath a restaurant.

The cold temperature of preservation breathed between pale, gray walls. I swallowed hard, realizing the draft originated from refrigeration. Silently, I told myself not to cry in front of this kind man when he opened the door to the cremation chamber. Usually, a cremation lasts between two to four hours he began. Most family members do not attend. In some communities, like in the Hindu culture, tradition requires the oldest son to light the pyre or push the ignition button in contemporary crematoriums. Once laid in a shallow cardboard container with handle grips, each body is placed inside the brick chamber. Varied sources of heat reach temperatures of 2,000 to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Skin, organs, and muscles vaporize immediately.

Dr. Serhij Sochocky, circa 1980

After cremation, a body’s silhouette, mapped by bone fragments, lingers. The cranium, femur, tibia, humerus, and sternum fragments are swept into a container beneath the chamber and are ground to ashes. Though his lips moved, gradually, his softly spoken commentary evaporated, and I fell into the real reason for my visit. I was seeking forgiveness.

Forgiveness for turning away from my mother’s sage counsel that I see my father one last time. Forgiveness for swallowing my grief so wholly until it poisoned my spirit’s well. Forgiveness for disavowing any intimation, my grief required a marker. And forgiveness for failing to see the affirmation of life in the rituals left behind after death.

Sometimes it takes years to mark a loss, especially when the loss is not only the inevitability of death but the passage of a history that has defined you.

Serhij Sochocky - Chief Medical Officer, Redgrave Park WWII

I come from war

I watch my father’s mind travel across decades, seeing each family member he lost, recreating the barracks and the barbed wire of Camp No. 231, Redgrave Park. A military hospital tucked between the wheat fields of Diss, Norfolk, an English village of unremarkable note, this, the site of his final internment camp before all prisoners-of-war were released after the armistice. This is the first time I remember being with my father in England, joining my mother and me on one of our summer returns. He is both out of place and at home in this landscape.Serhij Sochocky, registration papers, Chief Medical Officer, Redgrave Park, England

He is silent, and I am a spectator.

I look at the colony of prefabricated Nissen huts, which remain, trying to imagine my father living in this camp, looking over his shoulder to see if he is being followed to the farm where he and Michael take a farmer’s cabbages to make soup. I cannot picture my father’s face, gaunt from hunger, nor the barricades circling the tents. It is like I am looking at a photograph in a history book, at faceless men, a mystery though it is really my father’s life.

The temporary buildings look like giant mushrooms, the arching, corrugated iron roofs stretch across concrete floors, peeking through acres of wild grass and farmland. The remains of these shelters are the only buildings protruding through the landscape, the medical tents, sleeping quarters, and wire fencing, all long since torn down. These are the only artifacts left.

Ukrainian prisoners of war, Camp 231, Redgrave Park, England, processing camp, WW II

He stands with arms crossed, rocking back and forth on his heels, nodding, reconciling the still countryside with his memory—the water tower withers beneath choking ivy vines. Only the silent orbit of a wild swan disturbs the horizon of liquid glass. Moonbeams have replaced the searchlights long since extinguished on the lake’s surface. My father turns and looks right through me to the other side of his history.

I am thirteen.

Perhaps, I come from war. War certainly sat beside me at the dinner table as I rearranged my food, listening to my father raging about having nothing to eat but grass soup and stale bread in the camps. War followed me to school when I did not find stories of children like my mother sleeping in air raid shelters, waiting for the silence that comes just before a bomb explodes. I did not see images of war’s unnatural cherry sunsets emblazoned on my history books’ pages. In geography, I learned that Ukraine, my father’s country, was part of the Soviet Union and once called Little Russia, not a country with a soul of its own.

I became obsessed with war. Imagined it. Feared it. I allowed myself to be seduced by stories about it. By its enormity, its uncertainty, by the horrors people like my father and mother witnessed, by the courage of its survivors. War lodged itself in my throat, defined me, chastised me, and tantalized me.

I wondered what it would be like to see war. To confront it, to live through it. Scanning the newspapers for photos of war-torn countries, I searched for the same absence I once knew in my father. I hunted for my mother’s war in the corridors of museums and libraries and in the reedy voices of those who remembered. If I could see war, I could understand my parents. If I could suffer as they did, maybe then I would be worthy of the blessings in my life, and God would not continue to punish me for my innocence. I have not known war the way both of my parents did.

Rather, I carry my innocence about the war like a wound, and it would take a stranger that I once met in a bar to recognize this wound.

When eyes of war meet

Outside, five unshaven men dressed in black t-shirts, khaki shorts, and faded blue jeans whistle in our direction on our approach. “Just keep moving and keep your eyes straight ahead,” I mutter to Brenda, Passing one of the men, the oldest. I level the coldest stare I can summon.

“I like your scarf. I like how you have it wrapped around your blonde hair, honey,” the man responds, but not in kind, brushing cigarette ash off his t-shirt. His frame, unbalanced by a beer-induced paunch, weaves.

“Heh, my friend and I just want a beer and something to eat, o.k.?” I know that my attempt at a snarl is weak in its innocence, but the stranger’s move to block the door only emboldens me to cross his path.

“Are you here to celebrate the fourth of July, honey? Come on, let my friends and I buy you both a beer.” The man plants his Birkenstock-clad feet apart at the bar’s threshold. A dozen empty beer glasses line the steps and one of his friends, a small man with a mass of long curly red hair and a beard to match, sets another one down. He is the only one in the close group that is dressed in army fatigues. He does not talk but flashes a slightly disconcerting smile over and over again, a smile that seems to have little to do with the present.

“That’s Sonny,” the man in the Birkenstocks says, noting my stare. “Now, Sonny, why don’t you introduce yourself to these lovely young girls. I’m Leighton, by the way. This here is John, and over there is Richard.” The man named Richard suddenly looks up from what appears to be his stand-up comedy act with one audience member and nods. The man named John does not speak. Instead, he continues a long conversation with his beer.

“Look, we just want something to eat, o.k.,” I grunt, grabbing Brenda’s hand and pushing my way past the man named Leighton’s broad and imposing figure.

“O.k. O.k. Just wanted to buy you a beer, all right. My boys and I won’t give you any trouble, right boys?’ Richard returns to his stand-up routine. John stares at the ground. Sonny smiles his creepy, clown-like smile once again. Brenda and I squeeze our way into the dark bar.

The walls of the main room’s interior are made of deep rich wood. The vaulted ceiling hangs close to the bartender’s head. One decoration leftover from St. Patrick’s Day dangles from the mantel of the well-stocked backlit bar: everybody’s Irish on St. Paddy’s Day. Brenda spots an empty booth and waves me over as she beetles towards it.

At one o’clock in the afternoon, the bar is full. If they had a beer at lunch, members of the D.C. political machine have long since scuttled back to their air-conditioned offices. Instead, the bar is full of men standing in clusters and smoking Marlboro Reds, men like the ones hovering at the front door. Some have scraggly beards, while others are clean-shaven and sport-pierced ears. His face hidden under the shadow of his MIA/POW baseball cap, one man does shots of whiskey alone. When he raises his head, I realize the man is one of the men we met at the entrance.

“Brenda. Look around. Many of the men in this bar wear the same t-shirt that the man, Leighton, was wearing. I think these guys are Vietnam vets. Maybe something is going on today at the Vietnam Memorial.”

Brenda nods. A waitress comes over to our table. Brenda and I decided to split a burger and onion rings. We order two beers. When the waitress returns, she sets down two frosted mugs and two Heinekens, telling us that our food will be ready shortly. Brenda carves the burger down the middle of the plump bun with her knife when our food arrives. “I think we should go down to the Mall and see what’s going on there. Maybe we should even stay if there are fireworks. Oh, shit. Two o’clock at the bar. That guy at the door who wanted to buy us beer is coming our way.”

Leighton appears at the edge of our table with a Heinekin in each hand. The smirk on his face grows as he pretends to be something like a butler and begins topping up our beer glasses.

“Afternoon again, ladies. I hope you are enjoying this fine weather that our nation’s Capitol is providing us this holiday. My name is Leighton, and I will be your bartender for the rest of the afternoon. May I sit down for a moment?” Leighton squeezes into the booth next to Brenda before waiting for a response. He does not see Brenda rolling her eyes. I respond with silence, pushing my now full beer glass away and raising the nearly empty beer bottle to my lips. Leighton winks.

“Look, we are not interested in anything you have on offer. Why don’t you shove off and leave my friend and me alone!” Brenda raises her eyebrow and quickly starts to rearrange the glasses on the table.

“Now, is that any way to treat your butler? Today is a day to celebrate—the birth of our country and all that. Come over here, Richard, you too, Sonny, come over and meet these nice young girls,” Leighton motions to his friends at the bar.

“I would think that there is not a lot for you to celebrate after being shipped off to Vietnam,” I snort without regret.

“I’m Brenda. You are sitting next to my roommate, Anna,” Brenda chirps, attempting to gloss over the tension that I created. Brenda raises her eyebrow again at me, a little higher this time, as if to say, you better tone it down a bit.

“Finally, an introduction,” Leighton exclaims, thrusting his muscular arm over the table. “Let’s make some more room for everyone. Sonny, you squeeze in next to Brenda. You’re both little. You too, Richard, there should be room for you. I’ll sit next to you, Anna, if you don’t mind,” I flash Brenda a ‘is this ok with you’ look, and she nods and shrugs her shoulders.

A couple of hours of conversation melt into the heat of the holiday. Richard has found a willing audience member in Brenda for his comedy routine. With each joke or story he tells, witty or uninspired, she bursts out in unrestrained laughter. Leighton and I trade mild-tempered insults with each other. John stares into his beer glass. Sonny’s gaze feels like it is burning a hole into my shoulder.

Soon, Leighton starts talking about his war. I do not tell him that I want to know everything about the war – the smells, the images, the physical feeling of an adrenaline charge that men like him experience when faced with their imminent demise. I want to understand the marks on bodies and psyches alike that war leaves behind.

“I am a deserter. I deserted the war,” Sonny suddenly announces, dialing up the intensity of the uncomfortable gaze.

“Sonny, no, you are not! Quit lying. Have another beer.” Leighton shifts uncomfortably in his seat and tries to regain my attention. Brenda and I glance uneasily at each other. Our morning, which began as a fit of pique, has quickly degenerated into an afternoon of questionable decisions.

“I can’t tell you stories about singed flesh or arms lying without bodies in the mud, bodies where the only recognizable part is the powder-burned fatigues, but I can tell you the truth if you can stand it. I am a deserter,” Sonny slams his empty beer glass on the table without losing his stride.

“Sonny, stop. Come on, man. Why go down that road,” Leighton leans forward into Sonny’s face but is met with his trademark smile. “Just stop all that, Sonny!”

“O.k.” Sonny looks down into his beer for a few minutes, then raises his head in a bright, devastating smile. “I’m Sonny, and I’m sunny!” he shouts, causing a few heads at the bar to turn towards our table.

“O.k. Sonny. Yes, you are sunny, Sonny. Do you want me to get you another beer,” Leighton asks nervously, beginning to raise his arm to motion the waitress over.

“I just wanted to tell a story, Leighton,” he says, his voice shaking and rising. “I wanted to tell HER this story. Do you know why,” Sonny asks, pounding on the table until the bar pauses? Abruptly, the men leaning against the bar stop talking in mid-sentence. The waitress quietly busies herself by wiping a clean table next to us, her ears cocked.

“It’s o.k. Sonny. You don’t have to do this, buddy. Just sit back and relax.” Leighton’s voice is even. He looks directly at Sonny and reaches out to slap him on the shoulder. “It’s o.k., man. Just hold on. We’ll go to The Wall later, and everything will be better, o.k.?

“Dammit. I am going to tell my story. I want to tell HER my story because when I look at her face, I see war. She understands it. I can see it in her eyes,” he whimpers, staring across the table at me. “Anna understands what she sees because I see it in her face,” Sonny whispers before pushing past Richard and Brenda, disappearing down the length of the bar towards the bathroom.

“What the hell was that all about? I am not sure. What happened to him over there?” Brenda’s voice is insistent and fierce on my behalf. I am grateful, but for the first time this afternoon, I am frightened. Frightened by the situation, Brenda and I have found ourselves in or frightened of Sonny’s pathos that is my own.

“First of all, Sonny is not a deserter,” Leighton, the man, once full of his own bravado, whispers, his shoulders slumped forward in resignation. “Maybe this visit to D.C. wasn’t such a good idea, after all, Richard.” Richard nods his head thoughtfully and looks towards the door. Sonny is standing at the end of the bar doing shots.

“What the hell does Sonny mean?” The pit in my stomach sinks a little lower, knowing that my question is one I may regret asking.

“Well, I don’t know if Sonny was going to tell you about why he left Vietnam, but Sonny is not a deserter,” Leighton leans back against the booth before bringing the last of his beer to his lips before continuing. “Sonny’s father did not want him to go to Vietnam, but he was drafted. We were all drafted. His father wanted him to stay in school. Sonny refused. He said that if his friends were going, he had to go. When the fighting got really bad over there, Sonny’s father decided that he had to get Sonny out of the jungle one way or another. He figured Sonny deserved a discharge that would not mar his record. Sonny came home to take care of his mother because of a family emergency…,” Leighton pauses, his sentence drifting. “Do either of you want something to drink. Scotch? Brandy? Another beer,” Leighton asks, desperate to change the subject.

“What was a family emergency? You need to tell us, Leighton.” Brenda’s face tightens, and her voice is unsteady.

Leighton exhales hard. “Sonny’s father committed suicide by slicing his wrists open so that his son could come home. Sonny carries a lifetime of guilt over his father’s decision. Look, if Sonny comes back to the table, let’s try and be bright and laugh again. He forgets things sometimes, especially when he has too much to drink like he seems to be doing this afternoon.”

https://www.whig.com/archive/article/life-stories-vietnam-vet-carries-ptsd-in-silence-for-35-years/article_0bcc0e8a-962b-5da9-b49f-f316da3953de.html

Leighton gets up and begins to collect the beer glasses on the table. “I have known Sonny for twenty years. He never talks about his father. He must have seen something in you, Anna,” Leighton shakes his head turning towards me, “something that he thought he could trust because you haven’t been anywhere near any war as far as I know.”

Looking for war

Deep inside the bowels of the Imperial War Museum, I stand with a group of tourists and British nationals waiting to enter a simulated bomb shelter. Once inside, the guide instructs the assembled group to sit along with the wooden seats along the far walls. Grade school children on summer holidays giggle and poke at each other before their parents issue admonishments. A sliver of light from the guide’s dimmed torch pans the room before the door closes, leaving a giddy hush and pitch-black darkness behind.

Before I came to England, my mother’s friends, Pam and Derrick, excited by the prospect of my return and curious about my writing, gathered articles and books, photographs and newspaper cuttings about the war for me. One day, a package with a half-dozen photographs of an old bomb shelter that the previous tenants had constructed in their house’s back garden during the war arrived. Along with the photos, Derrick had painstakingly sketched two drawings of the shelter’s interior in pencil.

If you are interested, Pam had written, there is a virtual Blitz experience at the Imperial War Museum in London. And now, without warning, the simulated air raid siren of the Blitz experience Pam referenced in her letter shrieks. Exaggerated voices of a fictitious family penetrate the whining signal warning of imminent bombs. The mother’s voice’s veracity reminds me of a character on the television program, Eastenders – sharp, nasal, and perpetually angst-ridden.

Dishes clatter. Ration cans tip over and roll across the floor. The mother argues with the children’s grandmother. An unseen baby howls inconsolably. The siren’s wail climbs steadily, drowning the conversation. The thin walls start to shake.

During the war, my mother slept in a steel-plated Morrison bomb shelter like this museum reproduction in her family house’s front hall. At night, during the air raid warnings, my grandmother carried my sleeping mother down the stairs to the prefabricated shelter. Knowing nothing of bombs and war, my mother slept gently tucked inside metal walls. Pushed against the wooden staircase, the wire mesh sides and the roof, a plate made of heavy steel, ideally shielded anyone inside from caving beams and bricks if the house sustained a direct hit. Inside, a steel-enforced mattress accommodated two adults and two children. The front side slid vertically, and when the air raid siren bellowed, my mother and her family climbed inside to wait for the All Clear siren to howl.

Though it was cramped and overheated, the shelter was stocked with food, handbags, ration coupons, gas masks, a flashlight, and books. In the daylight, like Pam and Derrick’s predilection for disguise, my grandmother covered the wire mesh with a tablecloth and planted a vase of roses in its center. The pressure of this life lived through never registered in my young mind as a child. However, I tried to imagine what being inside a shelter must have been like, listening to the planes swooping over the rooftops, the rapid-fire of artillery, and the piercing sound of warning sirens.

Prepared for the first ‘bomb,’ I wait to step back into my mother’s life. The walls of the museum shelter tremble like a Disneyland ride. I am as yet, unconvinced by the simulation. The Eastenders’ voices ring hollow. The muffled outbursts climb in intensity until the war outside unleashes torrents of earsplitting blasts. Parents beside me quiet their children and whisper, “It’s not real, love.” After a particularly potent explosion, I lurch forward, convinced the shelter walls would implode, leaving all of us exposed. Even the Eastender characters have grown quiet. I cannot see my hands gripping the edge of the seat, but I know my knuckles are white.

The line between history and the present evaporates.

My mind races. How will the coupons last the month? Will this shelter be enough to keep my family safe? I know the questions I ask myself are manufactured, yet I will focus on the answers. Is this how legacy is transferred from parent to child? Gradually, the bomber planes dissipate, the time around explosions lengthens, and the shelter walls stiffen.

When I emerge into the bright lights of the museum, I am shaking.