Dr. Serhij Sochocky, circa 1980

The great equalizer

Perhaps death is the great equalizer. More so than money or raising a family, more so than love or sex. It can bring those left behind closer together or drive a seemingly permanent wedge between family, friends, and lovers alike. It can coax some to examine a flawed life more closely or be falsely called upon to justify any behavior, good or bad.

Death can turn the coward into the courageous and brave into the charlatan. Certainly, few are prepared for death, and even fewer ready for the lies others tell in its aftermath.

To learn that your second cherished brother has died without warning devastated my father’s sister without question, but to later receive a letter stating that my mother no longer wanted to maintain contact with his family surely broke her fragile heart.

The letter’s content, written less than a week after my father’s death, was a lie penned by a woman who had claimed to be both a friend to him and his family—a woman called Gloria.

Though I mistakenly assumed that the third party, a woman named Gloria, was a person my father had met via the medical community. The person, my father, trusted was one he had known for decades. Gloria, too, hailed from the village my father had once called home.

My father trusted Gloria. She, too, had emigrated to the United States after the war, lost family and friends, and struggled to stay in contact with those who had survived. Gloria, unlike my father, visited Ukraine during the treacherous years of Soviet rule.

Gloria volunteered to transport and deliver warm winter clothing, money, and gifts to Olga — all purchased by my parents. Along with material items, my mother painstakingly organized and labeled photos of my father at the hospital, photos of me through the years, even photos of our family dog. In letters from my father, Olga took comfort in knowing that her older surviving brother would always support her daughters.

Within hours after my father’s death, however, before my mother and I had returned to an apartment reeking with loss, Gloria showed her truest self to both my father’s family and my own. Going behind my mother’s back, Gloria phoned the hospital where my father had worked for years to ascertain the cause of his death. How did Gloria learn that my father had died? Why was she hunting for the cause of my father’s death? The hospital staff stonewalled the woman no one knew, refusing to release any information to her.

Instead, Gloria confronted my mother on the telephone days after our return. Rather than being a voice of solace, Gloria grilled her and demanded to know how my father died, when he died, the reasons why he died. Beaten by jet lag and grief, my mother sobbed to the woman she had never met, besieging her to understand that she was devastated. Her daughter was shattered. Gloria hung up the telephone.

Unbeknownst to my mother, Gloria unleashed her fury in a letter to Olga.

In the letter Gloria penned less than a week after my father’s death, she wrote that my mother had abandoned my father and had taken his precious daughter away for good. Claiming that my mother had had no intention of returning to the United States, Gloria painted a picture of my father’s distraught psyche. She intimated that my mother’s selfish decision caused his heart attack and subsequent death.

Discontent with the first string of lies she had written, Gloria piled on more falsehoods declaring that my mother wanted to sever all contact with Olga and her family.

Olga died many years later, carrying the lie she had been told to the grave.

As investigation unfolds, more questions

I click the green button to accept the call. The faint connection grows stronger until an image of a forty-something-year-old man with closely cropped hair and wire-rim glasses comes into focus. I am aware that my unwashed hair pulled back into a barrette coupled with a repeated bout of neurotic eyebrow rubbing probably does not make the best first impression.

“Hello,” the voice announces in a deep-throated Eastern European accent. Aside from his greeting, the only sound coming from the other side of the world is shuffling books and papers splayed around his desk. He pauses before speaking once more, “My name is Roman Pinyazhko, and you are Anna Sochocky.”

I nod a little too enthusiastically. Out of sight of the screen, my fingers alternate between drumming patterns on the desk’s surface and smoothing the wrinkles creased in the thigh of my gym pants.

“I am glad you and I have an opportunity to speak,” I begin clearing my throat more than once. Before I have an opportunity to continue, Roman seizes the nascent conversation with authority.

“My mother works at L’viv Medical University with your cousin, Yaroslava. Yaroslava searches for you many years.” His English, broken into fragments, proceeds his detailed outline of each element of his dogged investigation.

“Your father’s name was Serhij. He was a member of the Polish Army and, later, the Ukrainian Division Galicia. He was born in the village Krugeiv. His father’s name was Michael. He was a lawyer. His mother, your grandmother’s name, was Irena. Your grandfather was a priest. Your father’s sister’s name is Olga. You have three cousins – Yaraslava, Zaraslavia, and Lydia.” (Zaraslava, my oldest cousin pictured)

Roman pauses to shuffle through a labyrinth of papers. The hesitation evaporates into another round of facts always known to me. “Your father was in Rimini camp? Roman does not wait for my ascent and continues. “After his detention in Rimini, he traveled to England.”

Sensing an opportunity to respond, I interject that after my father’s detention in Rimini, he was transferred to a processing camp at Redgrave Park, where he remained for two more years. Roman pauses to take in this information. “I can email you a photograph if you like,” reminded me of the fragments I still had in my possession.

“Your father worked as a doctor in Cambridge. He worked at a sanatorium in North Carolina and then South Dakota,” Roman regains his footing. “There is much I have to tell you.”

Ronan continues. “Your father died of a heart attack. You and your mother were in England, yes?”

I swallow. Hard. Our benign conversation has shifted. So few people knew that my mother and I were in England when my father passed. How on earth would a man I do not know have this information?

Yet, Roman’s following statement will rewrite the reasons why contact with my father’s family did not simply evaporate but was unknowingly severed by a woman who claimed to be a friend.

Serhij Sochocky with sister Olga, western Ukraine

I have much to tell you

A photograph of me dressed in my third-grade school uniform materializes. Only then do I truly understand that the urgent emails and Facebook messages are not fiction but fact.

Do I remember the child in the photograph? The girl appears happy enough, but like most of my school photographs, each one tells a secret story of anxiety, household discord, and, most of all, isolation.

Was this photograph taken the year I first believed that the twin afflictions of war and immigration would subsume me?

Nursing my private pathos for decades, I did not question the absence of half my history, half my family, half my self, yet the genetic chasm left behind a burn scar in my psyche.

The next message jolts me back from the throes of history and sends a chill down the length of my spine. Each lick of my lips accentuates the dryness in my throat. I dial the number, but the call does not connect. I text, please send me your country code. A curt message is immediate admonishing me that I have all that I need.

I try placing the call once more, only to be met with a digitized message of failure. Your call cannot be connected. Please check the number and dial again. After the third failed attempt, I toss the phone across my desk. Running my fingers through my hair, my thumb finds my familiar spot of anxiety above my left eyebrow. Now what?

Apparently, the world isn’t as connected as the technological genies suggest, I grunt. Abandoning my neurotic eyebrow rubbing, I choose another obsessive activity — refreshing the Facebook page again and again.

The Skype ring tone breaks my reverie. I watch the answer and reject items flash on my screen.

History has come calling. Am I ready to answer?

This is your father

I stare at the truncated sentence and accompanying photo that has surfaced on my Facebook page. Five days before this morning’s Internet shocker, a similar message sans photo arrived in my inbox.

This is your father.

The light glare bursting from the photo’s left side manages to obscure the people’s faces in the image, yet, I see a hint of my father’s receding hairline and high cheekbones.

This is your father.

I re-read the message and read it once more. The name of my father’s niece rings true, but who is trying to contact me? Why now? Thirty-five years after his death? The dormancy of my father’s life became my truth years ago.

Internet scams abate, but so too do erroneous searches for lost family members, discarded affections, or friendships. Social media often fans the flames of loss, guilt, and isolation, seducing people into seeking out relationships that are best left dormant. Reunion fantasies imbue these searches luring lonely people to ignore the reasons behind a severed relationship. Stones unturned, souls at rest, perhaps?

I learned to write around the absence of half my family, half my history, treating the few photographs and stories (or myths), documents, and snatches of conversation I heard as a child as ‘family gospel.’ I revered the absences, resented those my father bequeathed me with his death, ignored each one, yet found comfort in their oddities. I claimed my isolation drinking in its potency like an addict.

Absence defined me. And now? What?

“I’m afraid I cannot see the faces because of the glare,” I type, my fingers striking the keyboard not with the confidence of a seasoned typist but like a novice hunting and pecking each letter. I wait.

The author claims to know the daughter of my father’s sister, Olga. Olga, the cherished sister of my father, fretted about listening to the BBC for any hint about her life behind the Iron Curtain. Long ago, strange photos of Olga’s little girls arrived without warning, too. Manila envelopes with stamps not from Ukraine but Maryland had the aura of contraband. These black and white photos of my Ukrainian aunt’s daughters brought tears to my father’s eyes.

History cannot be kept silent forever, but its emergence on a crisp, autumn Santa Fe day unsettles me.

Only ten minutes will pass before all that I have known, all that I have surmised and believed will evaporate into the mists of a once-forgotten history.

 

Serhij Sochocky, registration papers, Chief Medical Officer, Redgrave Park, England

A riddle I could never solve

Great grandfather, Greek Orthodox priestTiny morsels of my father’s life have always appeared without warning, a crumb here, a mystery unraveled there, only to be followed by a dead end, pieces that leave unanswered questions in their wake. The unwritten residue from which I built my account about my father’s life over the years came by accident – a weighted remark at the dinner table or a story surreptitiously overheard – shocking and unexpected.

From time to time, when I was tiny, I crawled out of bed and lay curled up on the floor of my bedroom, pressing my ear to the space between the door frame and the carpet, and waited. Waiting for what, I was never quite sure, but when wrinkled summer light bled stubbornly through the Venetian blinds of my room, I hoped that my nightly missions might produce clues about my father. My father hunted for his clues, too. Every evening, he sat crouched forward, fiddling with the knobs on the radio, searching for a report from behind something called the Iron Curtain. My father was a puppeteer trying to drive the gravel out of the foreign voices.

The walls in our tiny apartment were thin. I lay in bed with my ear pressed to the wall, straining to hear my mother turn into the living room from the hallway after she closed my bedroom door. When I thought it was safe, I climbed out of bed and padded across the bedroom floor. Once the sound of voices rumbling from my father’s radio and the chimes of their teacups on saucers seeped through the narrow opening, I knew I would not be discovered.

Some nights, when I did not make a discovery, I lay quietly, clutching my teddy bear before falling asleep on the floor. I have not made a discovery for several evenings, and this evening does not look promising.

Gingerly, I ease my coloring book off the bookshelf and hold my breath when the crayons spill out onto the white, worn carpet. I lay still for a minute until I convince myself my mother has not heard my accident.

My father has turned the radio off, and my parents are not talking. Another evening without a discovery, I sigh when I unexpectedly hear my father’s voice, low and distant.

“All of the soldiers were shot. Shot. Point blank. On the train. I overslept and missed the train. Pure luck. Luck and God. God kept me off that train. I, too, would have been killed if…,” my father’s voice fades.

Where was my father going on a train? What does my father mean by point-blank? I am glad that God kept my father off that train and that my father was so lucky.

“What happened after the ambush,” my mother asks my father in the gentle and soothing voice she has when I have skinned my knee.

“Ah…it was a long time ago. It does not matter. It does not matter anymore,” my father answers. I hear his chair flying back into the bookshelf and his footsteps moving quickly towards the kitchen. The click, click, click of my mother’s knitting needles fills the space.

The sun has finally gone down, and my toy wagon and dresser shapes have taken on scary forms. My eyes dart around the room. Is that a witch peaking out at me from behind my dresser? Is there a monster behind my toy wagon? If I can dash from the floor to my bed, I can be safe. I scamper to my bed and burrow down under the covers to hide from the monster I am sure is behind my toy wagon. I fall asleep dreaming of a train moving fast through dark forests…Serhij Sochocky with Polish soldiers, World War Two

…in my dream, it is frigid. The finely falling snow has made a damp halo of my father’s head. He is smoking. He glances at his watch before tossing his burning cigarette on the hard, gray ground. Dozens of men walk around my father, but I cannot see their noses or lips, eyes, or cheeks. My father does not notice these faceless men but boards the waiting train with them, the train steaming and snorting like an anxious horse. Why is he getting on the train? Doesn’t he know it isn’t safe? Wait, Daddy…no…do not get on the train. From the window, he presses his face to the glass as if searching for a distant glimpse of something familiar. He seems to look directly at me, but when I wave and cry, “Daddy!” he does not respond. The wheels grind sharply against the steel rails, and the train, once eager to lunge forward, now strains to move, creeping ahead with the sound of metal on metal. Wait. Wait. Don’t go, Daddy. Wait for the next train. This one is not safe. But my cries are too late…

Years after I fell asleep on the floor of my bedroom dreaming about this murderous train, I learned the actual context of this story. During the years Poland ruled western Ukraine, my father, a member of the Polish army, traveled from Lviv with hundreds of other soldiers to fight the Soviets after the invasion of eastern Poland but missed his train. Word soon filtered back to Lviv that the Soviet army had intercepted the train and murdered all the soldiers aboard before closing off the Eastern Front.

On my bedroom floor, I did not simply learn snippets of history. I also gathered stories like a small bird collecting discarded objects for its fragile nest.

I was always the family archaeologist. Beginning with the nugget about the train, over the years, I built my private inventory from fragments I collected:

      • a country called Ukraine that none of my family could visit;
      • a sister, my aunt, and her children, my cousins, whom my father could never contact directly living behind the Iron Curtain;
      • a brother murdered by the hand of a Nazi soldier for being a member of the anti-German resistance and left to die on the family farm;
      • soup my father made from stolen cabbages and grass in a string of prisoner-of-war camps;
      • a daring escape from a Soviet camp in the throes of a bitter winter;
      • the leather prayer book my father smuggled through multiple detentions;
      • a handful of gold rubles hidden deep within the base of a shaving stick, rubles my father had made into an exquisite bracelet for me;
      • photographs of prisoner-of-war camps in Rimini, Italy, and Redgrave Park, England.

Many years would pass before I told anyone about my inventory. At the time of my father’s death, even though my commitment to uncovering these stories had been unwavering for years, my inventory was painfully thin. My father was not unlike the country of his birth to me – a riddle I could never solve.

I understood that my father was not born in America but Ukraine and had lived in England before coming to South Dakota. Yet, my father’s Ukraine was never like my mother’s England to me. While England seemed like a jewel in the middle of a cold ocean, infused with brilliant light, Ukraine was dark and terrifying, a place I was never be allowed to visit. There was a weight connected to the country’s name – Ukraine – as if the entire landscape shouldered a devastating burden it could never discard.

Ukraine was consigned to my imagination, a place with dangerous forests and unfamiliar faces, a country where everyone was always hungry. There were no heirlooms from my father’s family on the bookshelves or the coffee table in our apartment. I never knew anything about any member of his family, by experience or by anecdote, only by fiction and myths I created.

An Omission

Only one photograph of my father and his sister together survived my father’s war. Olga sits with her legs curled beneath her like the English women in my mother’s photographs. She has a lovely, tiny dimple on her right cheek. The soft shadows of late afternoon cross her face and chest. She leans back against my father, reclining in a field of wildflowers beside a still river. Brother and sister look too contented for the photograph to have been taken during the war; it must have been taken some time during the early 1930s.

My father looks like a film star. A freshly pressed hat with a broad, curved brim like Humphrey Bogart wore conceals part of his young and handsome face. He does not smile but looks quite satisfied. My father and aunt are not alone, though. A man stands along the river banks with one hand on his hip, the other leaning on a walking stick in the deep background. He is wearing a hat, his face entirely obscured by the grainy image.

Serhij Sochocky with sister Olga, western Ukraine

Is this their brother, my dead uncle, or is this my selfish desire to believe?

The Ukrainian uncle I never knew was older than my father. This is the only physical detail about my uncle I know. I do not remember ever hearing my father refer to his brother by name as if the uttered syllables might burn his mouth. No photos of my uncle survived my father’s treacherous journey of survival through war-torn Europe. When I lay out my father’s family photographs, my uncle should have a blank space. He has always been a family myth.

If I could print my uncle’s image from a negative, he would be taller than my father with thin, chapped lips, tanned skin, and a lean and muscular build. He would have earnest, unrelenting eyes the color of fossilized amber, shaded by a sloping forehead with a wisp of sandy hair falling on his brow. If only the curve of his Slavic cheekbones were visible, one would presume the photograph is of a girl on the precipice of womanhood.

In my ethereal image, my uncle pulls his shoulders back, one hand in the pocket of his wool trousers. Suspenders with large, round buttons curve over his collarbones and cross his back—streaks of mud cake on his once-white shirt. The dampness of his sweat draws the material closer to his chest and arms. His rolled-up sleeves reach to his elbows. His boots, dulled by the earth and labor, are his favorite pair. Evidence of a careful repair on the left boot, a patch of leather taken from a new saddlebag, form a circle the size of his watch face.

My uncle holds a cigarette in his right hand, and his pouch of tobacco bulges from his shirt pocket. He stands beside the family’s team of workhorses, and the rusting plow he steers by hand is behind him. Though worn by sun and wind, the bridles are polished; the leather is a rich, dark chestnut. The bits glisten in the anemic sunlight. The sky sags, heavy with rain for the first time in days. The collars of the harness rest limply around the team’s thick necks. The edge of the plow’s scythe lies hidden underneath clods of parched earth.

My uncle looks directly into the camera. He does not smile, but his face is calm. His eyes look as if his mind wanders. Perhaps he is thinking about the field that he must finish plowing before the storms arrive. The earth is more brutal to turn over when it is parched and stale. Though he is only in his mid-thirties, worry lines cross his forehead like parallel railroad tracks. Around his mouth, a dimple in the shape of a horseshoe curve toward the square chin he inherited from his grandfather. Maybe my uncle knows that the German soldiers will find him.

If I turned on the light in the darkroom, the image would be so sharp it would hurt my eyes. The blacks would be dense and impenetrable, the whites crisp like fresh linen. There would be so many gray shades that it would take me days to count the tones in the pebbles and dirt alone. Each strand of loose hay, each wrinkle in his leather boots, each particle of perspiration above his sparse lips, is so animate, I am afraid that the man in my ghostly photograph stands next to me, my uncle’s sweet tobacco breath grazing the nape of my neck.

Looking closely at his face, I see the early growth of the next morning’s beard between the lines of his mouth. His translucent eyes are the color of the stone found along the Sea of Azov. I trace his knuckles, scratched and torn from the plow, and follow the lines of his cheekbones curving like the wings of a butterfly. I spy where his mother or his sister mended his trousers along the inside seam. I see my uncle, married to the land for which he would give his life, the tension of his soul, his struggle between hope and fear, joy and sorrow, darkness and light, before the image I will never hold vanishes before my eyes.

He is an omission.

Precious, dark secret

I am marooned on my bed.

In the early evening, the apartment complex maintenance man steers his mower over the lawn under my window, the blinds tipping in and out from the slight breeze. The smell of the freshly clipped grass blends into the sound of the blades moving backward and forwards across the earth until the gardener accidentally scrapes against one of the concrete window wells. The trees outside splash shadows on the floor; the white carpet is my sea. I sit on top of blue and white striped sheets. The thin, summer comforter sprinkled with exaggerated and recurring images of Raggedy Ann and Andy, tulips, and rabbits carrying baskets of flowers.

With great effort, I pull my wooden toy wagon over to the edge of the mattress. The cream wagon is on wheels that often lock like one of the carts my mother maneuvers between the fruit and vegetable aisles at the grocery store. The wheels squeak so I cannot pull too hard or risk alerting my mother to my project. When the wagon is close enough to my bed, and I can reach into it from my perch, I survey its contents.

I have to decide which toys to save.

Luckily, my bed floats in water, but the toy wagon, I know, will sink to the bottom of the sea once I have retrieved my favorites. Those I do not choose will be lost. Once I select the lucky ones, I will push the wagon away from my bed with my tiny feet and set it adrift.

Nearly every summer afternoon, I played this game when I was supposed to be taking a nap. Teddy, my favorite bear, is not sure if he likes this game or not. He does not want to imagine being lost at sea.

“Will anyone find us,” my cherished companion whimpers surveying the wagon’s pile of toys beside the bed.

“Yes,” I whisper, stroking his soft fur behind his worn ears. “A sailor will find us, and we shall be safe, and then we shall have tea. Don’t worry,” I assure him. “Let’s decide which toys to save so we can play with them when we are rescued.”

Carefully, I begin pulling my toys out of the wooden chest, examining each one before stacking my most treasured ones on the bedspread. I will save all the stuffed animals first. I will not save the plastic rings that stack like doughnuts on a pointed bar. I will save the round puzzle with a picture of a miniature doll’s village painted on wooden pieces that my grandmother gave me.

I do not think I can save my battery-operated yellow dog even though she is wearing a red ribbon around her neck and white tufts of hair sprout from her head and paws. I adore this barking dog and the way she marches as she yelps when I wind her up, but she is too heavy and cannot be saved. I am immeasurably sad about this loss and resolve to save her the next time I play this game.

The caterpillar, each plastic segment decorated with a red dot inside yellow ones, is also awkward to keep. The wind-up clock plays Frére Jacques and may keep us company in the dark when we float at sea, so I carefully lay it on the bed next to my pillow. I retrieve a stuffed bunny from underneath a second puzzle, thankful that I have found him to join the other animals on the bed. By the time I finish sorting through my toy chest, the bedspread is nearly covered with puzzles and books, stuffed animals, and coloring books. It may be some time before the sailor finds Teddy and me, so we have to be prepared for many days at sea.

Finally, I retrieve my red purse that opens like a fish’s mouth and empties its meager contents on the bedspread in front of my crossed spindly legs. I count out the worn and tarnished coins: 15 pence and one quarter. Maybe that will be enough for Teddy and me to survive when we are rescued. I don’t know. I look at my wares arranged in neat piles in front of me and decide that I cannot leave my barking dog behind after all. I rescue her from the toy wagon before pushing it away from the edge of my bed.

I do not tell anyone about my little game, not my friends at school, not the neighbor brothers, Kendall or Willis, not my mother. I am not convinced anyone would understand my rationale for such a sad fantasy.

This precious, dark secret belongs only to me.

I do not have to choose between my toys stacked untidily in my wagon. I do not have to leave my barking yellow dog behind or my brightly painted caterpillar. If I wanted to, I could save all my toys and hoist them onto my imaginary life preserver. I am not lost at sea, nor do I think I ever will be. Still, each summer afternoon when my mother closes the bedroom door, this fantasy, with all its sinister gloom, yet curiously vast solace returns, and once again, I am marooned.

Maybe I will lie down and close my eyes. I will be safe on my bed. My toys will be safe, too, I repeat to myself as my eyes begin to droop and the hard edges of the toy wagon begin to soften. I imagine the waves lapping up against my mattress, and I snuggle down deep into the soft sheets. This bed is my home and my universe. Maybe being marooned would not be so bad, I conclude; before my thoughts become scrambled before I fall asleep dreaming, I am drifting alone in the middle of a great blue sea.

Other Side of Sadness Found in Objects

After the funeral and the memorial, after delivering twenty boxes of clothes and kitchen wares to the local domestic violence shelter, and before the task of stripping the walls of my mother’s apartment of her coveted ‘art gallery’ of English scenes of memory, one morning I fled the four walls that had cosseted me in high school to seek sanctuary from my grief.

I fled to a local book store.

Wandering the aisles of self-help tomes, the titles of which made me cringe, I read the spines of various books on how to manage grief. Workbooks outlined Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief, posing the question, how do you know if you are progressing? Texts outline how belief in God was the only path to recovering from acute sadness. One or two admonishing the reader to dig down and focus on survival alone.

Needless to say, my place of sanctuary transposed into four walls of dread until I located one book tucked in the corner of the ‘grief shelf,’ a manuscript that flew in the face of the conventional view of grieving, encapsulated in the mantra of five stages, suggesting that the only option any of us have when a loved one dies is to accept and endure. In other words, get over it, and mind you do so quickly.

The book that became my solace and a reminder of not only my inner strength to not only accept and endure but learn how to thrive again is The Other Side of Sadness: What New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss.

Author George A. Bonanno guides the reader through topics both honest and uncomfortable for some to acknowledge, each one pointing to the central tenet of resiliency.

After my mother died and after the initial few months of death’s aftermath, yes, feelings of loss overtook me sometimes, but also a recognition that my life was now my own and not lived in the shadow of her history or my father’s life.

While eight months later, grief resurfaced, I understood that the decisions I made regarding my mother’s estate were mine to make. No eyebrow would raise in doubt. No sigh would undermine my confidence in knowing that it was the correct decision to leave my job and focus on my writing. I did not have to explain my shift in priorities or defend choices to anyone, even myself.

After clearing my mother’s apartment, my husband and I drove back a sixteen-foot truck half full of my mother’s things. I had to be ruthless. I gave most of my mother’s belongings to friends or charity shops. Parting with her artwork, commemorative Royal wedding mugs, English cottage sculptures, and jewelry stymied me. Yet, over time, the presence of ‘motherabilia’ suffocated my ability to move up a generation.

Last Saturday, I said goodbye to the remainder of the ‘motherabilia’ at a local flea market.

Among the items that brought joy to others were: 44 pairs of earrings; 13 watches; 82 silver and gold necklace chains with about 24 different charms; 59 rings; 12 commemorative Royal Family wedding mugs; and 11 porcelain boxes.

Some readers may find the term ‘motherabilia’ and the act of selling off a parent’s effects churlish. In my case, I discovered that keeping the most meaningful items instead of cramming others into boxes that never see the light of day imbues good memories of my mother. I saved and still enjoy many of her books. Others I donated to a local library for the quarterly book sale. This act would please my mother, I know. All of my mother’s bookmarks receive regular attention and use, too.

We build our lives around objects through the decades, but sometimes ridding ourselves of symbols of another’s life is the only way to the other side of sadness for good.

Twin afflictions: war

The photo taken of me in the fourth grade does not resemble others from earlier years. I am older, and my hair is longer, yes, but the photo differs ut because my smile lacks conviction. I am not looking into the squinted face of the man who came each year with his camera cases and tripods, silver screens, and flashbulbs, his wares spread out like a picnic on the wooden gymnasium floor. Instead, my hazel eyes are staring out into the world inside my head.

While the 1970s may have been a decade when the events that continue to tear at the fabric of American politics and cultural priorities today were quietly incubating, the critical markers of my generation quietly washed over me. Born, not in America, but in England to European parents who survived a catastrophic world war, one as a child, one as a prisoner before following in the footsteps of millions of others by emigrating to the United States, I was living on the periphery of another potent and chilling history, one that did not belong to me.

This history would shape me long into adulthood.

This history would almost break me.

I was ten years old when my fourth-grade photo was taken. It was 1976. Patty Hearst marshaled a semi-automatic and sported a beret on the cover of Newsweek. Charlie’s Angels topped the Nielsen ratings, breaking the hearts of prepubescent boys across America. Captain and Tennille stormed the record charts with Love Will Keep Us Together, battling Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody for attention. Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer from Georgia, beat Gerald Ford in the November presidential election, only to be doomed by the Iranian hostage tragedy and the deepening oil crisis.

At first blush, I was not unlike other children I knew growing up on the prairie in a state some call “flyover country.” I worked hard in school. My report cards logged “As” in Reading, Language, Spelling, Social Studies, Arithmetic, and Science, but “B+s” in Music and French and a “C+” in Physical Education. That year, I entered the “Flying Fish” advanced swimming class. Several of my friends and I earned a certificate from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society Read-a-Thon. I clamored onto the Bicentennial Train, the traveling museum that crisscrossed the country to celebrate America’s 200-year-old independence in the heat of July.

Yet, I was distinguishable by my differences with all my conspicuous integration into everyday American life. My mother and father spoke with foreign accents. I did not sound like my parents nor my young peers. My Ukrainian last name’s complexity with its spelling and pronunciation spawned any number of adaptations in a classroom full of Johnsons and Larsons. Each September, my face grew warm and pink, waiting for the inevitable moment a new teacher asked me to say my name for the class.

My family tree was one-sided replete with Ukrainian uncles, aunts, and cousins I could never meet. I lived within the bounds of a tight-fisted prairie community where the family members of most people I knew were scattered on nearby farms or across town, not in countries behind the Berlin Wall, living at the mercy of a feared Communist regime. And then there were the aftershocks of my father’s war. I had no one to talk to about my father’s harrowing emotional explosions, his devastating silences, or explain to the terrors that the aftermath of his war brought to the dinner table. These terrors came in the dead of night or on days when the sun glowed like a new penny. No one I knew shared this kind of history. Grandparents around me may have survived the same war, uncles, and even aunts perhaps, but the parents of children I knew did not walk out of Europe alive after spending ten years in prisoner-of-war camps like my father. Besides, I had no idea what to tell, even if I had someone to tell.

War was not the only taboo in our household. The issue of where my parents and, by extension, myself called “home” was equally provocative and uniformly indistinct. From the very beginning, our sojourn in this country was always meant to be brief and England, not America, was home. Until I entered high school, I lived with the secret knowledge that Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was a layover, a train stop, on my family’s endless journey of return to settle permanently in England. A plane’s arc over a cold ocean defined me from birth. Far from my friends’ childhood intrigues, the side of my family I knew, I saw intermittently. This fact alone stymied my schoolmates with grandparents and cousins living across town rather than across an ocean.

I was both a spectator to my parents’ tragedies and a supporting character in my family’s narrative. I tried to navigate my way through the murky waters of a war I did not witness and understand a country that was by turns both my birthright and a puzzle to me. No, I have never been in a war zone, yet, the war my mother and my father witnessed and its psychological aftermath that my father, in particular, struggled with until his death pierced the walls of my mind until the silence became my desperate prayer. No, I had never relinquished a home, an embedded community of family and friends stretching back decades, or a country that breathes life into the heart like my mother did when she made her decision to come to America with my father.

Yet, I have spent nearly half my life trying to understand how their history, this legacy has shaped me. Though I know that I cannot live my life through the lens of a distant past that never belonged to me, this history still resonates in the frantic decisions I make sometimes and defines the hunger I may never truly satiate to find a place I can call home.

Pensive was the word my mother used to describe my face when she looked at my fourth-grade photo, asking me in a worried tone of voice if I was sad. No, I replied, honestly believing in the truthfulness of my answer. Years later, when I look at this school picture, I understand why my school photo did not resemble others coming before or after. That year, I realized that I would have to learn to live with the precious burden of my survival. In the photograph, my tiny face is weighted with the knowledge that I would carry the twin afflictions of war and a hunger for a home in my young heart for many years to come.