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 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.

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.

South Dakota prairie vista

Prairie Whispers

There was a prairie in your past. The glow of a dashboard in an old Buick, the ping, ping of gravel jumping under tire rims. There were bonfires and kegs and midnight visits to the horses, their bodies, a black stain against the midnight. There were back seats with fumbling hands, Elton John, coarse dry wind, and the sound of 4-wheelers filling your head. With the smell of stinkweed and lilac, in your past, you threw hay bales over your shoulder with your pitchfork, scraping mud off your boots with a stick. There was a low creek and the redbreast of a pheasant leaping from the brittle corn; jeans ripped from barbed wire, the smell of hot coffee, and polished leather.

But you left the prairie.

Later, when your heart stumbled, you heard a faint voice in your head – go to the prairie. Get in your car and drive until you can taste pine and black earth on your lips. You listened for once and drove west on the single interstate. There were train cars stacked with black coal and a gray sky pressing down on wheat fields. There was a green tractor winding backward and forwards across the earth. A truck followed behind, its mouth open and ready like a baby bird, ready for the harvested grain that fell like water into its steel beak.

Slowly, the smell of pine and lilac came back to you, first like a terrible stench but later like the strange scent of salvation. You learned to scrape your boots again and heave hay bales. You tried concentrating on the smell of hot coffee at dawn and polished the saddles with a terrible urgency until one day when your boots were so worn, any other pair of shoes made your feet ache, the smell of stinkweed made you weep. Remember these details: the sound of your boots on crushed gravel, the last humming of crickets before daybreak, and the aching chill moving through your denim jacket before the heat sets in for the day.

The morning of your last ride, the one you still hold onto like a precious photograph, Billy told you what he knew: “When you came here, you were sick. I don’t know what made you sick, but you were sick. The lies we tell ourselves never fill the holes inside us. I think you will be alright, but be gentle with your heart.

Deep in the months of a prairie winter, you still remember how Billy believed in your own redemption long before you did, a redemption only the prairie of your past could offer.

Moving up a generation

After the private funeral, one of the attendants assigned to manage my mother’s services leads me into the room set aside for the visitation. Trays of hand-cut sandwiches, bowls of marigold yellow potato salad, and a selection of sugar cookies arranged in buffet-style line white linen-covered table. Strong coffee brews. Classical music pipes into the room. I am alone for a moment. To assuage my scarce appetite, I pour a Styrofoam cup of coffee and move to stand by the ice-etched window. Outside, after nights of sky-saturated storms, the sun shines, dazzling warmth into the room. Tempered by mourning and memory, I turn away from the glaring reflection of fresh snow.

I have grieved in this room before.

Once upon a time, doctors and nurses streamed into this funeral parlor. My mother and I sat on a plush floral sofa. Synthetic. Lifeless. On display. Strangers to me competed for my mother’s attention and offered me posthumous advice. Be strong like your father. Do well in school, Anna. Face after face drifted past. Everyone knew my name. I knew so few and stayed silent. The voices of former patients reverently recounted how my father had saved their lives. His passion and fierceness beat back my illness, balding men testified. Friends from school huddled around the entrance to the same room I stand in now. Only when their mothers nudged them did my confused friends enter. Emotionally stunted by adolescence, none of us had the vocabulary for loss.

No sandwiches. No salad or cookies.

The room thirty years ago lacked reassurance, so the morning of my father’s funeral, I set my grief on my dresser, promising to return to it another day. Thirty years later, I cannot afford to be silenced and disengaged by grief again.

Librarians, like doctors and educated wolves, travel in packs. Gathering as police officers or military personnel do when one of their own has fallen, my mother’s co-workers stream in from the freezing temperatures — a circle of women sporting tightly permed heads and sensible winter boots forms around me. The woman who drove the bookmobile when I was a child, Shirley, timidly enters the room. Three decades fill the distance between us. We hug awkwardly.

Bookmobile, circa 1975

“Do you still check out too many books, Anna? Your mother and I used to have to edit your stack each week. Your mother was such a special lady,” Shirley pronounces, moving to blow her nose.

“Well, instead of checking out too many books from the library, I buy too many used ones on Amazon,” I answer with a wink. “Thank you for coming, Shirley. Please have a sandwich and a cup of coffee.” The memory of plastic-covered, well-worn books I cherished as a child fills my head. I wonder if the engine of the antiquated bus still hums off-key. In the mirror over Shirley’s shoulder, I see the reflection of me sitting with my knees tucked and pressed up against my favorite bookshelf, stacking treasures beside me.

The reference librarian, followed by the woman who staffed the video and young adult books department, arrives, and soon the group of women that formed the nucleus of my mother’s life for seventeen years swells. I nurse a now tepid cup of coffee. My concentration wanders. I only retain snippets of stories told. Janet moves into the fold and supplants my attention, nodding and laughing at all the appropriate moments. I willingly fade into the background. Shifting from greeter to listener, I am relieved by a sudden wave of anonymity.

While the book women trade recycled stories about the library and my mother and nibble on ham sandwiches, I notice a slight woman dressed in a waist-length, brown, faux leather jacket out of the corner of my eye. The mysterious woman nervously shifts back and forth and tries to catch my eye. Gripping her bag as if she is stranded not on an iceberg of grief but in a dicey neighborhood after dark, her behavior attracts my attention. I do not recognize the woman. During a brief lull in conversation with the librarians, I excuse myself. In two long strides, I am at the agitated woman’s side.

“Thank you for coming this morning. I don’t believe we’ve met, but you likely knew my mother. How did you know my mother?” I finish securing a context for this stranger. The woman with closely cropped, dyed hair erupts into a spasm of desperate sobs. Who is this woman?

“Why don’t you and I sit down on the sofa,” I suggest pointing to a loveseat positioned underneath the wall’s mirror. I take her hand, bone-cold from the morning. I rub her hands in mine and wait. Still ignorant of the woman’s identity, I retrieve a couple of Kleenex squares from my pocket and hand them to her.

The nameless woman’s words come slowly. Tangled and chastened by an attack of sadness-induced hiccups at first, her story crystallizes like a car gaining traction in the snow, Not from the library, not from a past life as a doctor’s wife, the woman sobbing beside me is Sherry, my mother’s hairpiece stylist. For as long as I can remember, my mother wore a tasteful hairpiece, a well-coiffed bun perched on the back of her head to cover thinning hair and a bald spot. In every childhood photo in which my mother plays a supporting role, Sherry’s tailored handiwork silhouette is evident.

Once gaining her composure, Sherry speaks of how shocked she was to pick up the newspaper and find the obituary I wrote. “Your mother was such a kind lady. When my son died, she called and wrote to me. I still have those letters. She was so very kind.” Sherry’s effort to choke these few words out into the air produces another round of tears. Is she grieving for my mother or her son? The circumstances of the son’s death had always been in question. Although never charged with murder, the son’s wife had come under the glare of police suspicion when the husband’s autopsy detected poison in his body. Sherry, convinced of her daughter-in-law’s role in her son’s death, poured out her suspicions to my mother. “I won’t keep you,” Sherry interjects as I shake my head no and insist she stay for a coffee.

“I won’t stay. I just wanted to pay my respects to your mother. Thank you for sitting with me. Even though this is the first time we have met, I can tell you are kind of like your mother. I will miss your mother,” she declares, rising to her feet and slipping out the door like a shadow.

“Who was that woman?” Janet asks in mid-step. Approaching the sofa where I remain sitting, she announces, “I think the librarians are getting ready to leave.”

I nod and glance over at the disassembling group reaching for purses and coats. My husband, Steve, holds coats and guides arms into sleeves in the midst of the pending departures. Though he has met so few mourners, Steve falls into conversations stunted by shock and sadness with ease, comforting strangers with a kind word or a brief but firm hug. Though I have barely had a moment to say two words to him since early this morning, I will be able to manage this day because I know he is close.

“The woman you were talking to was pretty upset,” Janet hints a second time, bringing me back to the present.

“Oh, that was Sherry, the woman who did my mother’s hairpiece for years. I never met her. Her son died, and I think she was thinking about him as much as Mom. Nice woman. I probably will never see her again, though. Funerals are weird that way, I guess. You have really intense conversations that evaporate as quickly as they brew. If she signed the guestbook, I’d send her a note.”

With one eye on the entryway, I make a mental list of new arrivals, greeting and thanking each person individually. I recognize my mother’s acupuncturist and his assistant, but their faces will not stay with me. The car salesman who sold my parents each of their Buicks since the late 1960s corners me between the sofa and the entrance. His body language, polyester trousers, and a cheap gold chain peeking over his shirt collar suggest anything but chaste condolence. I squirm. Nod. Smile. Say, thank you. I raise my eyebrow. Janet sees my signal. Just as the one-sided conversation switches gears to what a lovely young woman I have become, Janet swoops in with the news that another guest has arrived. Leaving Janet to distract the harmless flirt, I intercept new arrivals.

A stout, short woman surveying the gathering of mourners enters the room and stops abruptly. Evaluating each person with beady, twitching eyes, her gaze lands on me. I examine her for a moment as well, and after a deep inhale, I reach her in one stride with my hand outstretched.

“You must be Anna,” the stranger declares, taking positive note of my conservative but stylish suit. “I’m glad you are not wearing black. So predictable and dismal. I am Madge Wilson, your father’s senior nurse on 4 East Ward. I never met your mother though I am sure she was a lovely person, but I recognized the name, Sochocky, in the obituaries and knew that she must have been married to your father.” Madge takes a wheezing breath and turns to sit on the couch by the door. I follow silently. I suspect there will be little opportunity to squeeze a word between Madge’s monologues. For this, I am thankful.

“As I said, I was your father’s senior nurse and, boy was he a challenge to work with each day. But he was the best doctor on the ward, and he liked me because I stood up to him. Madge, he would shriek, standing in the doorway to his office, and I would take my own sweet time getting to his door. Your father was an excellent doctor, though. So compassionate. Never gave up when so many others would pack it in too early. He used to call me into an examination room and put his feet up on the gurney while I cleaned up the mess left behind. Domestic, he wasn’t. And another interesting feature of your father is he was obsessed with the condition of his bowel movements. He always wanted me to judge his stool samples. Very strange. I think he was a hypochondriac,” Madge muses before exploding into laughter.

The content rather than the location of her telling leaves me nonplussed. My father’s hypochondria, the subject of his daily constitution’s quality and condition, often drove him back to Duke University for evaluation.

Janet shoots me a look over Madge’s shoulder. I stare past both Janet and Madge wondering how many people can count stool sample stories told by a woman who does not even know the person who has died as part of their ‘strange things that happened at my mother’s funeral stories’? If Madge weren’t so genuinely quirky and florid with her description of my father’s obsessive medical habits, grief would win the battle for my attention.

As the two hours pass, I retrace both my parents’ past and moments of my own adolescent life as well. During a lull, my high school English teacher and yearbook advisor peers into the room. Dressed in corduroys, an elbow-patched topcoat, and a thick fabric tie, he smiles and hugs me.

“Thank you so much for coming, Doug. I am just about out of conversation with people I barely know if I know them at all. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I am exhausted.”

“I know. Talking to everyone is so tiring, but I saw you making your way around the room like a skilled politician,” he winks and pats my arm. Politics, as well as books, cemented our friendship from the beginning. “I had to come. I was so shocked to read her obituary. She was such a lovely woman. Let’s sit down,” my favorite teacher gestures to the couch where I learned about my father’s stool obsession only moments before.

Sinking into the familiar fabric pricks me like a balloon, and I burst into tears that I have managed to keep at bay since the private service. As he had done thirty years ago, Doug retakes the reins as my confidante and listens to my rambled recounting of the past six months. Shaking his head, he comments, “The past few months must have been terrible for you and your husband. I have requested a Mass be said in your mother’s honor.”

“Doug, I’m afraid that my ambivalence about God hasn’t congealed much over the years, but thank you. Thank you for having a Mass said for Mom, and thank you for coming. Mom really liked you, but I suspect that’s because you always gave me good grades and kept me out of trouble with the priests and the nuns.” I grimace and then smile at the memories of how many occasions Doug had rescued me from punishment after one of my argumentative outbursts.

“Parent-teacher conferences were always enjoyable when I saw your mother. And I gave you good grades because you earned them. You probably still earn them. Besides, you are the best yearbook editor I ever had the pleasure to work with past and present.” The visitation numbers swell again, and Doug rises to his feet. “I signed the guestbook. Take care of yourself, Anna. Please. I know you are facing a mountain, but take care of yourself. I’m really glad I came,” he finishes.

When my high school boyfriend, Mark, sans braces, walks across our thirty-year gap, the two of us engage in a nostalgic but vaguely uncomfortable conversation. I stay mute, growing disconnected from the ambiance of a distant history he retells, a history of summer evenings when we drove through a maze of unpaved roads. For six adolescent weeks, summer evenings passed sweetly but awkwardly between us. With Elton John whining through the glowing dashboard, the ping, ping of gravel jumping under the tire rims cracked the melody of Benny and the Jets into pieces. The sweet smell of corn stalks dangled in the muggy air. Red-winged blackbirds descended on plowed remains in the fields to feed. This was the South Dakota I once knew, the South Dakota I had to leave.

Condolences and nostalgia only carry a conversation so far, however. Our exchange about humid summer evenings collapses into a discussion about how Mark cannot believe he is raising two teenagers. I glance at my watch when he turns his head for a moment, making a mental note to ask for his email when a disembodied photo waves in front of me. Mark laughs. Both of us have seen this photo before.

For a moment, I look at the Polaroid image of the sign made by my stablemates. In the Polaroid image, crepe paper decorations and a stenciled sign read: “Welcome Back, Anna. Dino and all of us love you.” At the sight of my first horse, his head thrust over his decorated stall door, standing under the sign, crepe paper strings falling off the dirty walls and gently waving in the breeze, I am catapulted back thirty years. I turn to see my high school riding instructor’s brown eyes welling with tears and collapse in her arms.

Too many reminders. Too much conversation. Too many days to come as a motherless daughter. The emotional tank I filled early this morning is running on empty. The string of condolences repeated replays of stories and saddened questions about the cause of my mother’s death left me mentally scorched. When the room empties for the last time, I exhale all the conversations, all the tears, and all the memory stirred by the grief of others. I sit alone on the sofa. Kick my heels off. Lean back into the plumped pillows, staring without focus into the empty room.

My mother’s funeral may be over, but the aftermath of her death has only just begun.

I have moved up a generation.

Death keeps you busy

I climb the stairs and duck under the canopy-shielded entrance. The plum-colored tarp bends and twists from the force of the thirty-mile an hour wind. With effort, I heave the glass door open, lodging it with my elbow until I manage to scuttle into the foyer. I step out of the subzero temperatures. Only 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and all the steps have been shoveled; pellets sprinkled like breadcrumbs across the pavement melt the ice.

British rail car London to Cambridge

The Miller Funeral Home hums with a buzz of foreign activity. Funeral directors, older men with graying temples, glide silently across the carpet, their silence and presence as pronounced as helpful monks. The earliest hours on a Saturday morning, yet each man is dressed in full suits, their crisp white or cream shirts ironed and unblemished by the day. Ready to attend to the business of grief, a receptionist, seated at a weighted mahogany desk, crouches over a phone receiver. She wedges hushed tones of sympathy between scheduling a new appointment.

The parlor revolves around the air of an airport terminal’s baggage conveyor belt. Arrivals of the living, departures of the dead, the motion of loss infinite. As my swollen eyes adjust to the muted light thrown off by small lamps peppered around the foyer and track lighting sequestered in the ceiling, another wave of shock and horror sweeps over me, and I burst into tears. With a hint of my knees giving way, a funeral attendant materializes and gathers me into his muscled, aged arms.

“I am so sorry for your loss; weep as long as necessary. We are here to help in any way we can. The shock is still fresh. Don’t feel like you have to make any decisions right now,” he murmurs. His hand rubs my back in a circular motion, and with each move of his hands, my breath settles. After a few minutes, as the wave subsides, he asks, “Who in your life has passed on?”

Passed on. Such a strange, perfunctory, predictable phrase. Passed on where, when, how, why, passed on, uttered to reassure, to console, perhaps even to obfuscate a pain that is often more physical than emotional. I find it difficult to silence my ping pong mind with so little sleep, my thoughts scuttling across my mind. One minute I am contemplating what the phase ‘passed on’ means, and seconds later, my head is in another plane entirely listing people I need to phone and in which country.

Questions rather than answers flood my mind. Should I schedule a religious service? Why does death always seem to come in the darkness? Why is my mother gone? I cannot silence my philosophical paradigm. First, I am numb, then suddenly analytic. Every activity, every thought I observe and record, then promptly forget. As quickly as my emotional breakers recede, I am clear-eyed. I gaze over the funeral attendant’s broad shoulder, noting the funeral staff’s natural choreographed entrances and exits into the reception area. All move across the stage of loss as naturally as breathing.

“My mother. My mother has died. Someone found her slumped over her steering wheel in a Walgreen’s parking lot, the one on Minnesota Avenue. Who found her, I wonder? When I was in Sioux Falls in August, I thought our visit might be the last time I saw her alive. Why did I know? Did I know she was going to die,” I string question after nonsensical question together, praying that I will find the focus to stop talking? “Mom lived for nine days after her hemorrhagic stroke. I knew she was going to die from the moment I saw her in ICU,” I babble without limit or effort. For someone who could barely string a sentence together at the hospital, I have reverted to my chronic habit of providing too much information in answer to a question.

“I am indeed very sorry for your loss,” he responds, nonplussed by my verbal incontinence. “Your mother is at peace, and our job is to help you assure that she rests in eternal peace. Why don’t I get you a cup of coffee,” signaling to a second man hovering on the edge of our conversation? “Would you like cream and sugar,” he asks, reaching for a packet of tissues; his wingman offers; my clenched hand releases long enough for me to accept the offering.

I shake my head no but quickly change my mind. “Cream, please. I want some cream. Thank you.” Every pore of my body wilts, and though I have ingested little more than coffee in the past few days, the prospect of a warm, Styrofoam cup shimmers like a cairn in the mountains, guiding me to certain safety.

“Did you phone from the hospital a couple of hours ago,” the old ‘monk’ inquires, gently turning my shoulders, guiding me to a well-positioned chair. When I mutely nod yes, he suggests that I sit down, and he will inquire as to whom I will be meeting with to make final arrangements for my mother, bowing ever so slightly before moving away towards the receptionist’s desk. Like the man with gentle eyes who caught me before I kissed the ground, the younger man with coffee appears like a specter, and I slump into the chair’s warm, plump, floral fabric. Plucking two tissues from the plastic packet, I blow on the coffee’s surface. Sensing the burning heat, I set the cup on the square faux wood accent table on my left.

Thirty years have passed since I have been in this building for my father’s visitation and his meager funeral, and little seems to have changed. Or has it? Stunned by grief at the age of fourteen, I really wouldn’t have noticed if the décor had been deep, tonal wood paneling or bright blue linoleum. But now, with the cold comfort of coffee, my eyes swivel around the foyer and across the passageway’s entrance. Every surface – pedestals with potted chrysanthemums or deep crimson Christmas poinsettias, corner tables and chairs, the receptionist’s central desk, the sideboard against the pinstriped wallpaper in the hall – is populated with clusters of travel tissue compacts.

Slumping further into the chair, I watch the funeral staff navigate unchartered waters for the newly bereft. I reach for the thick notebook I have carried for nine days like a worn talisman and absently begin to turn pages of penciled lists, lists that have come to define not only by days and nights but my new self. I tick items off the bloated list. Cremation – yes. Private funeral; only close friends. Open visitation. Timing should be over the lunch hour; friends and co-workers can dash out of their jobs and drop by to pay their own respects and grieve. Small sandwiches and cookies? Definitely. With the cold winter wind, people must be fed.

Questions of religious services stump me. Faithful but not religious, my mother opted never to join a congregation. Religion is different in this country, she frequently declared. After my father’s death, attending church services became my mother’s lifeline, but as the years waned, her commitment diminished as well. Instead, she clung to a country lost, past lost, dreams lost until she was incapable of moving forward and taking up the reins of her life for a time. I never saw my mother pray; my mother kept her faith to herself as well.

With my father’s death, decisions that were not my own to make seeped through the telephone and under the front door, peppered our mail, and masked our emotions. Now, it was my time to make all the decisions. Making choices and facing facts is my forte. I sip the cooled coffee – how much better if it were it laced with brandy.

Perhaps I dozed in the warm foyer, I don’t know, but when Janet finally walks into the building, I startle at her voice. “So, we’re parked in the Starbucks parking lot. None of the roads have been plowed yet, and Starbucks is the only lot cleared. It’s about a block and a half from here. Have you talked to funeral staff yet,” she asks, stomping her snow-caked boots on the entry rug.

“Monks,” I replied. “I spoke to one of the ‘monks.’ Someone should be ready to meet with us soon.”

“Monks? What are you talking about? Are you alright, well as alright as you can be right now.”? Janet brushes the snow from her down jacket and stamps her boots once more.

“The funeral attendants. They seem to glide across the carpet like ‘monks.’ Look at these men,” I insist, “all of them dressed in suits and ties. I heard the receptionist tell a caller that the funeral home is open twenty-four hours a day. And it’s so busy, even though it’s barely nine o’clock,” my voice trailing into an unexpected wave of tears.

My body absorbs shock from my mother’s death like a violent contusion. Unable to hold my limbs up with intentional will, my body crumbles as if my bones are disintegrating into dust. Efforts at conversation, normally as clear as a winter sky, have become a foreign language.

The call from the hospital three hours ago fades into the funeral home’s floral carpet and is absorbed by other families’ arrivals, stunned into silence by loss. Fresh coffee percolates somewhere, the smell benignly drifting into the belly of equally fresh grief.

Long minutes pass before Janet asks, “Did you phone people in England? Not everyone needs to be called today, Anna. Can others make calls for you?” I nod mutely into my coffee cup. Sobs that had once been violent have transposed into a few seconds of quiet tears.

Janet’s question dangles, unanswered, and she does not repeat it.

Death keeps you busy. I have inherited my mother’s penchant for manufactured control over capricious situations, a mistress of the list. Meticulous, organized, and prioritized enslavement comes from the pen as well as the phone.

I do not have time to grieve. I am drowning, simply drowning.

Last will and testament

In my effort to categorize my mother’s world, I discover that my mother still has her instinct to hide envelopes of money around the apartment. Burying bills between the folds of her bras and underwear, underneath my grandmother’s pearls in her jewelry case, on the lower shelf of her closet in an old Tiffany’s box, in every pocket of her purses and wallets, she maintained her obsession to save every dollar for an emergency. At first, I count the found envelopes’ contents, marking the totals on the adhesive flaps, and occasionally cram a twenty or two into my own wallet to pay for hospital parking or gas, but rarely to pay for food. A week since my mother’s stroke, I am still not eating.

Turning a blind eye to the paper maze on the bed and envelopes of money, another web of questions that cannot be answered arises. At lunch earlier today, my mother’s friend, Margaret, asked me if I had found my mother’s handwritten will recalling that she had witnessed my mother’s signature. To shield my shock and growing unease, I lied, saying that though I had not found this will, my mother had told me that she had written it.

I turn away from the closet and survey the room. Why did my mother handwrite a second will? What does it say, and in a silhouette of Ukrainian paranoia, I wonder if she has sliced me out of her will like an amputation? Where did she bury it? Why did she hide it, to begin with, and fail to tell me that it existed in the first place? The will my mother had prepared by an attorney thirty years ago after my father died was the only will I knew existed.

To say that my mother is private is an understatement, but there is an uncomfortable undercurrent to her behavior. A lack of trust between us budded before my father died and bloomed with the glory of spring after his death when my answer to a question she asked to set our course for the next twenty years.

Do you want to return to England to live? Even in the tenderness of grief, I realized the question had only one correct answer to assuage my mother’s brittle state. Yes. But, in a flood of tears, I answered incorrectly. My mother created a mythology of her England in time, subsisting on a diet of remorse, bitterness, and longing until she became a reluctant American.

Only when I read the condolence letters my mother received after my father died did I realize that I might have put myself in the invisible prison as well. Living straddled between two countries and cultures, with no steady footing in either one, I considered that I really did deserve the subtle punishment my mother unwittingly inflicted upon me when I said I did not want to return to England to live. In the end, however, the decision she made to stay in South Dakota, a decision she made in a spinning world of crisis, built an impenetrable wall between us long into my adulthood.

Frantic to replace all that I believed I stole from my mother, I read the same books as she did, all about England, all about the Second World War, trying to understand her England. As before, when I was a child, I listened to the intonations of her accent, trying to mimic each syllable. Each morning, I scoured British newspapers and websites, searching for a common thread to discuss with my mother with authority. Television programs written with a British lens of self-deprecation or shrewd and dry humor became my cultural lifeline, severing connection to the culture and country in which I lived.

Over time, I metamorphosed into a life that did not belong to me.

A show pony that just wanted to be pastured, I obediently produced hollow success, too. Ribbons and trophies when I was in high school, excellent grades, for the most part, scholarships and awards, my reputation in my mother’s eyes improved when I succeeded, but plummeted when I stumbled. Knowing that errors in practice or judgment would compromise a scholarship or, more likely, her respect, I denigrated myself for every mistake I made, blaming myself for every failure, real or perceived. The undercurrent of her sacrifice subsumed me, though my mother relinquished her country for me, to be anything less than worthy of the decision she forced herself to make would be tantamount to betrayal.

Writing cases. I should have thought to look for the other will in her two writing cases. The newer ones, a dark wood box with her initials engraved on a piece of metal, is the one she uses most often, but where is the scarlet red leather box my mother received for her twenty-first birthday? Crouching on my knees, my hands tap the dark space of her desk, touching emptiness until…leaning deeper into the cavity, my index finger rubs against a hardened object. Inching the unknown object closer to me, the abandoned, forgotten writing case emerges.

With my mother’s writing box under my arm and a wine glass in my left hand, I clear enough space on the bed to sit and lay the case beside me. Once always firmly clasped to prevent curious eyes, the lock releases with a press of a button. Contents spill over the sides onto the floor. Clippings detail the demise of the local coop in Bury St. Edmunds and the latest innovation in heart treatment at Papworth Hospital, the fateful location where my parents met working on the medical ward.

Turquoise colored airmail letters in my grandmother’s handwriting leak with regret she felt for being unsuccessful in her attempts to discourage my mother’s marriage. Dozens upon dozens of obituaries recap my sixth-grade teacher’s life, my riding instructor’s father, long past doctors and nurses that comprised my father’s daily life, librarians who my mother worked with over seventeen years, and one of my mother’s first boyfriends. To feed the inclination, to sum up, decades of life, but abbreviated entries in any local paper neglect to verify a history of spent dreams or devastating loss or joyful moments peeking through the too familiar clouds of disappointment.

The fact that my mother kept each obituary, refusing to throw away memory or history, failed to surprise me. All these years, ever since I was a small child, my mother kept track of all those who entered her circle, even those whose stay was brief. I did not inherit her commitment to keeping track of those crossing into my life over the years. I severe connections with employers, lovers, and friends alike, placing the memory in a chest that remains unopened like her writing box once did.

Buried between the pages, I find a letter written in my own hand at the age of ten, imploring my mother to return from England. Upon my great aunt Stella’s death, my mother returned home, leaving me at ten to care for my father.

In a child’s handwriting, the letters cascade into a steeper slant with each desperate line. In places, the paper puckers. Our dog was dying before my eyes. Why couldn’t my father see the dog was dying, I wrote? How long did the letter take to arrive in my mother’s hands? Was the dog still alive when she read my pleas? Memory fails me on that score, but I remember hiding in my bedroom closet. Wedged between a dented wagon and Barbie’s pumpkin orange mobile camper, writing. I hid from my father for fear that he would see my letter as a betrayal. Even at the tender age of ten, I feared the consequences of speaking uncomfortable truths, burying my voice in the silence.

After two hours reading faded newspaper clippings, opening each envelope including the one I penned, scanning the lines of each letter, I acquiesced to the knowledge that the writing case did not hide the secret will.

Something else portended my mother’s fate, however.

When I go to close the lid, a passport-sized, black and white photo of my mother, wedged between the folds of a leather pocket, catches my eye. Sliding it out of the compartment, I stare at the image of my mother clad in a turtleneck sweater, her everyday hairpiece perfectly coiffed. A thought as faint as her ambiguous expression in the image crosses my mind.

I have found the photo to use for her obituary, the obituary I know I will have to write. Tucking the unfamiliar photograph in my wallet, the last of my faith in my mother’s recovery slip away.

Once a refuge, now a haunting

A lavender scent lingers on the pillows piled neatly on my mother’s king-sized bed in which I will never sleep. True, a panoply of annuity and investment records, brown-edged deeds to overseas properties, crisp cream bank statements, tax filings dating back to my father’s death thirty years ago, and a heap of my mother’s American and British passports, my father’s too, as well as my own, rise like a loaf of freshly baked bread disclosing our collective web of identity.

Mounds of paper I handle with aplomb, but the thought of stripping the walls bare and folding and stacking sweaters still smelling of her scent cripples me. Yet, to clear the past away of items that may form the nexus of my future seems a defilement of my mother’s waning life. More like an evidence room than a bedroom, I have fallen into my mother’s habit of preserving the past, too.

Each evening I pull the cushions off the sofa bed in the living room, stacking them on a dining room chair pushed back from the galley kitchen, and the pile is worn blankets, duvets, and pillows on the bony mattress. I read by the light of Christmas tree lights, which glow day and night. 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 sleep, if only drifting off for an hour or two.

The home my mother created gave her sanctuary from her memories of my father’s arbitrary, war-induced rages, her loss of England, and the foundation for a new life. When my mother turned the key in the lock eight days ago, she could not have known it would be for the last time.

These four walls that were once a refuge for my mother are now haunting for me.

As evening hours tick into another day, I frantically cull and file, sort, and discard. My ‘dinners’ of sherry and bowls of nuts and crackers remain uneaten. Most nights, I wander through the apartment, absently entering and exiting each room and mentally sifting through my mother’s belongings: what to save and pack, what to give away, or discard. I silently categorize the paintings on the wall she has collected with care, the china figurines of a nurse and a woman dressed in hunt attire that has sat on the bookshelves since I was in high school, the paperweights on the piano that is never played, and assorted mementos from my grandmother’s house in England that my mother cleared and sold when I was in college.

Once upon a time, my mother’s job was to sort through her own family’s belongings in another country. The candlesticks from the front room mantelpiece, the silver hairbrush, comb, and dimpled mirror engraved with my grandmother’s initials, the brass turtle and maiden handbell, original watercolor of Westminster Abbey, painted from the Dean’s Yard, a couple of pins belonging to her Aunt Stella, Shetland wool throws, the hand-carved mahogany bellows from the front hall and a small collection of books by the Bronte sisters. Diligently she sorted linens from bustles and pearls, emptying each drawer and wardrobe of cardigans, cotton nightgowns, handkerchiefs, and blouses. There were blankets and comforters, cast iron pots, and crystal vases ready for sale. In an old cedar trunk, she found brand new sweaters from a woolen shop in Scotland, still sealed in the original plastic bags.

Sixteen years later, these hints of her family home blend into my mother’s apartment. The hand-carved wooden bellows hang in her hallway, retired from duty, silent and breathless—the mahogany chest of drawers stores her winter sweaters and the local telephone book. My grandmother’s vanity set lay on the dresser, unused. My mother regretted not taking an engraved warming-pan that hung next to the bellows in the front hallway. I am not like my mother, am I? I don’t live in the past anymore, yet, I am the one left behind to salvage an unfinished life.

The hallway between the front door and the bedrooms are lined with floor to ceiling closets. Each shelf, every inch of the floor, is locked in a war for space. In the ‘office supply’ end of the far closet opposite my adolescent bedroom, stacks of envelopes of every size lean precariously cascading to the floor if the door is closed too sharply. Battery stashes and dozens of unopened rolls of scotch tape. Post-it note packages of every size and color packed into a cardboard box with the Union Jack on its lid. Paper clips and file folders, padded envelopes, white and yellow, large and small. Tubes of brightly colored Christmas paper scattered with images of scarf clad penguins and bow-tied teddy bears. Bags of bows. Every item is diligently saved for a day that will never come.

From room to room, I wander, plucking random objects infused with potent memory my mother and I both understand, hers perhaps more indelible like a scar, mine skating on the surface like a blemish. Objects I lived with through high school and college, and still, others that my mother added after I left home, I recognize. Others, appearing during the years when I tried to put my own life in order, are silent. No trace of security echoes in my fingertips when I hold an unfamiliar vase or a silver salt savor. Instead, my hand strokes each object like worry beads, desperately attempting to drive the nagging sense of impending loss away from my mind. I move slowly and without focus, hunting through one drawer – boxes and garbage bags beside me – before leaving the room and starting another unfocused search for what I do not know in another room.

This sorting is not unfamiliar to me; I have been sorting since I was five years old, first my belongings, and now, with my mother’s stroke, the remainders of a life she will likely leave behind. In a routine I carve through a haze of sleep deprivation and grief, I dismantle my mother’s life, yet, I did not anticipate the discovery of hauntings of my father’s life and death, too.

Earlier I had retrieved a metal lockbox from my mother’s bedroom shelf. I tried the latch, and it opened easily. Inside, the box was full of expired pill samples, some of the bottles stamped with use-by dates back in the 1970s. Most of them were pharmaceutical samples my father received from drug company representatives visiting the hospital. I had a vague recollection of sitting on my parents’ bed, the pillbox open, and my father filling a syringe with smallpox vaccination. He gave my mother and me inoculations before we went to Peru the spring I turned ten, and I remember being relieved that he was the one giving me the shot. I was afraid of going to the doctor. The waiting room smelled like burnt onions and antiseptic; the doctor reeked of cigarette smoke and fading breath mints. The nurse wore orthopedic shoes that did not make any noise when she walked; her bedside manner was a witch from a fairy tale.

Behind the pillbox, I find a plastic bag full of condolence letters with envelopes 1980 or early 1981. These letters poured in during the summer after my father’s death. My mother answered each one faithfully with a handwritten note and a copy of his obituary printed in one of the national medical journals. I remember her sitting on the couch, packed boxes ready to move stacked up around her, reading each letter. She read them out loud, her voice reedy and swaying. I remember hating to hear the tone of her voice I had not heard before, the words of adulation for the man who was my father, a man I sometimes think I barely knew. These letters had been too much for me to face at the time. On the cusp of what I believe will be my mother’s death, I wanted to read each one. I knew so few of the people who wrote. I was so embittered at the time. How could these strangers write as if they knew my father better than I, even though many did? I left my mother alone to respond to them.

I carefully divide the letters into piles on the floor. Ones from professional colleagues. Ones from patients. Ones from England. Ones from people I know, others from those I don’t. I slip one out of an envelope, quietly unfolding the thin paper. I will be up for hours at this rate, but I am determined to read each one. Some were delivered by hand to West Road; the envelopes quietly popped through the letterbox. There are letters written by people who had seen the newspaper’s announcement or had heard the news in the town. Letters came from old colleagues at Papworth, people both my mother and father had known, from patients of my father’s, from nurses and other doctors, from my mother’s friends, and those of my grandmother, the handwriting slanting from old age. There was a letter from my riding club and one from my sixth-grade teacher.

I wipe my running nose and my eyes on the sleeve of my sweatshirt by three a.m. I am exhausted; my mind is racing. I count the number of letters remaining — eight. Only eight letters from more than one hundred, but the prospect of finishing is daunting. I rise to look out of the window. The streetlights have gone out, but the moon is nearly full. I am completely overwhelmed by these letters, by the poetry of some of the lines, the genuine kindness of people I never knew.

How did my mother manage to read these, respond to each one? I once believed I could never have done all she did, but now I know that I will do the same and answer every letter and card I know will come.

I look around my room in the half-light. The metal bookshelves with my mother’s paperback books. Since I was a child, the record player I had sitting in my old room listening to Peter Wolf and Fiddler on the Roof. In the closet, a formal I wore once in high school hangs out-of-date. My fingers spread out the remaining letters. One more. My hand circles the letters like I am picking a card for a magic trick. Some of the handwriting is too difficult for me to read. I look at the envelopes, selecting one written in black ink from a Mr. Bridges. A few hours ago, I read another one from this man and copied it on a yellow legal pad, his words so gentle, so calm and lucid. He wrote the second one in response to my mother’s holiday letter. He was a widower, a friend of my grandmother’s, a man who never met my father.

I read past his thanks for my mother’s Christmas card and various other incidentals, thinking that perhaps I won’t read the entire letter until I come across the following paragraph:

“I had realized before you told me that your mother would be shattered that you weren’t coming to live in England. She has not mentioned it to me, but, of course, as your Mother, she must have felt she wants to be close to help you. But I’m sure; by now, she must have realized (even if she is deeply disappointed) that you have made the right decision. In a majority of ways, Anna is an American and must finish her education in the U.S.A. You had already made this decision while Serhij was with you, and I’m sure both your decisions have been the right ones. The ‘pull’ to you, personally, back to England must be strong, but Anna’s is the young life, which holds the future, and you must – as you have done – put that first.”

I have always understood that my mother sacrificed her country, her family, her home for me. Reading this letter confirms what I have always known: it is time for my mother to go home.