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.

 

 

 

 

Time Between Hours: Finalist for Spiritual Poetry, Southwest Writers

For three days and three nights, the wind did not blow. I did not dream,
but listened to coyotes singing off-key in the cattail reeds and cornfields.
The wind has gone out of the farm because Dad isn’t here, you said.  Still,
on the day of the funeral, a breeze like a faint exhale came over the slough,
bending around the corners of the farmstead, pushing dense heat through our lungs,
until our muscles ached with longing.

 

The first few days after your father’s death, the details hung in the air like humidity.
Hymns.  Scripture.  Flowers.  The suit.  Death keeps you busy.  There was no time
to look at photographs of him clutching dead pheasants, their marble eyes staring
absently into blue sky.  No time to consider the smell of grain dust in the air at twilight
or the reasons why it is good for the earth to lie fallow, to rest sometimes.

 

But later…
…time between hours lengthened…and there was more time to talk about combining
at midnight when you and your brother watched Sputnik satellites and B52s making
patterns in the prairie sky.  More time for stories about prairie blizzards and hunting
feasts, arrowheads dug out of dry earth,and your father’s memory of seeing bands of
Lakota crossing the horizon.  There was more time to smile at the way he once stood,
one hand in his pressed Levis, the other, low on his sweetheart’s waist
as if it were their first date, not a 50th anniversary…

 

…and still, there would be more time…
more time for the stain of red wine
and the precious taste of a fresh grief to settle
on our lips.

 

The Politics of Naming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evicted: to be forced out; ejected.

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

exile/refugee expatriate
immigrant emigrant
displaced evicted

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

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

exile/refugee (father) expatriate (mother)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am I unrooted? Without question.

A past that never arrives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steamer trunks and shabby suitcases —

the essentials – linen, utensils, wool sweaters –

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

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

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

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

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

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

this ring.

II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

his stony hands clasped the burning scripture.

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

The only artifact I still want.

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

will never compete with the touch of something solid.

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

This hunger.

III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m told that I have always been callous

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

that bread is enough carries the burden of choosing

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

a fugitive, still running from

this history.

Serhij Sochocky, Brody, Ukraine

The Inventory of War

Wars fought in books are orderly.

Only dates and figures box suffering between worn covers.

In truth, those who survive remember everything:

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

those who refuse to forget. Inventories are taken.

These are the dead.

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

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

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

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

Nothing is forgotten; little is forgiven.

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

the smell of bread baking in the hearth,

family photographs wrinkled by years of sweat and doubt,

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

….and all of childhood.

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.

Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk

Lost in Translation

I am eight years old. After my mother and I arrive at Heathrow Airport, an announcement boom through the loudspeakers over the baggage claim carousels instructing people to move towards the nearest exits as quickly as possible. There has been a bomb threat in the Departures Terminal, and swarms of people spill over into the Arrivals terminal. Maneuvering a cart of our luggage, my mother grips my hand tightly, so tightly, I cry out in a fog of jet lag, jostled and pushed by the controlled panic.

“Anna. Please do not argue, darling. We have to do what the Bobbies say. Just keep hold of my hand and don’t let go,” my mother says firmly, awkwardly steering the cart through a maze of travelers.Face of hope and possibility

From behind the concrete pillars, police officers with enormous German Shepherds materialize and begin to scour the quickly disintegrating area into chaos. A woman dressed in a brightly colored sari, her ample belly peaking from beneath the fabric, talks animatedly to her husband, who struggles to steer their own luggage cart stacked high with cases. A frantic Japanese businessman in a crisp pinstriped suit brushes past me. Still, he is quickly intercepted by a police officer and turned in the opposite direction—an elderly couple dressed in dark, wool clothing trudge beside us with their nearly empty cart.

When the woman comes close, the smell of fried onions and sweat lingers a little too long, and I turn my head towards my mother’s suede-covered arm. The two strangers speak in broken English that sounds like my father when he phones his Ukrainian friends in Canada to talk about medicine, land, and beekeeping before his words collapse into a riddle of a language I cannot decipher.

Split between two worlds and countries

Near the Arrivals hall entrance, dozens of people hold placards with names written in thick black markers. These strangers hover, looking expectantly into the faces of travelers streaming towards the exits. An older man dressed in a tweed suit dabs his eyes intermittently with his handkerchief and waves a piece of cardboard with a girl’s name. “I am waiting for my granddaughter, but she has not come through Arrivals yet,” he tells the police officer in an agitated voice. “She is only eleven years old, her mother has died in a car crash, and I am her only family left. She is coming from America. I have to meet her,” the man whimpers.

I watch the police officer calmly turn the man around by his shoulders and tell him in a firm but the kind voice that he is sure that his granddaughter will be all right. I cannot look away from the consuming sadness on this man’s face and keep him in my sight until he, too, melts into a sea of people.

The voice echoing through the loudspeakers, more insistent and agitated than the first time, instructs us again to move as quickly as possible. The automatic doors fly open as our cart hits the plastic mat, and my mother and I are cast into a throng of people and the blinding sunlight. No one is meeting us at the airport.

Though a suspicious package will later be located in the Heathrow complex, an explosive is not found. However, seventeen days after our arrival, a bomb planted by members of the I.R.A. will cause extensive damage in the Houses of Parliament and injure eleven people. Another bomb blast with the I.R.A. imprint but not an admission of responsibility will kill one person and injure forty-one others at the Tower of London, days after my family’s visit to this historic site.

Once on the Tube into central London, I sink into plush plaid cushioned seats. Before we arrive in Bury St. Edmunds, my mother and I will ride two additional trains intersecting across southeast England. At Liverpool Street, my mother guides us deftly through the hordes of commuters and tourists to one of the trains parked at the end of the track. The white letters declare their destination on the front panel: Cambridge. A red-faced man, dressed head to toe in a navy blue uniform, his gold buttons glistening in the artificial light, heaves our bags onto the waiting train. I follow my mother, my hand still clasped in hers, down the narrow passageway as she glances in each compartment, hoping to find one vacant.

 

“Here’s an empty one, Anna. We’ll sit here.” With a sigh, I collapse into the hounds-tooth-covered seat opposite my mother. I am so tired. “You may have to move if another person comes in this compartment,” my mother says wearily, sliding the glass door shut, turning to stack our bags on the metal rack above us.

“I know,” I whine. “I want to sit here, o.k.? I like sitting backward. Sitting in the other direction makes me feel sick.” Besides, I want to see where I have come from. I mumble as the train trundles out of the station.

Years before England became two worlds, one steeped in history and tradition and one obsessed with all things contemporary, I walked through this layered history of familiar streets, historical streets that mapped the skeleton of my genetic code, my authentic self. This world was the world I was born into on an early April morning, a world where generations of women moved quietly around me like the earth revolving gently around the sun.

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.

Is a passport still a winning ticket?

I type “British embassy + Washington, D.C.” into the Google search function of my computer. With one click, I am immediately thrust into a world of immigration, visas, employment regulations, and tips for foreign travelers.

“Welcome to the Consular and Passport Services section of the website. In this section, you will find information about applying for or renewing a British passport and about the services we provide for British citizens in the USA.”

I click on the Application Form and wait for the document to download before spying the Dual Nationality for Adults and Children link.

British passport defines more than a country“Although acquisition or use of US citizenship does not of itself jeopardize retention of British citizenship, and there is no objection on the part of British authorities to a dual citizen using a US passport, it should not be assumed the reverse is true. The US authorities expect dual citizens to travel out of and into United States territory only on US passports. British citizens who are also US citizens are therefore advised to consult the US State Department (or if overseas a US Consul) before taking any action which might be regarded as inconsistent with their status as US citizens.”

Does this mean that if I obtain a British passport after all these years, I may lose my US citizenship? Frantically, I click through the pages to find the British Embassy’s phone number and dial the D.C. number. A tinny automated woman’s voice answers.

“Good morning, and welcome to the Embassy of Great Britain. If you are inquiring about a visa, press one. If you have lost your passport or if it has been stolen, press two. For citizenship inquiries, press three.”

Suddenly nervous about making this phone call bordered precariously between the legal and the criminal, I cradle the receiver between my shoulder and my ear and repeatedly press three. A male voice abruptly ricochets across the line. I scribble the man’s answers to my questions on a handful of post-it notes and thank him for his time, printing out another application before the dial tone buzzes in my ear. My application is in the afternoon mail.

Each day when the mail comes, I leap to the front door like a dog expecting its master and flick through the ads, and the credit card offers only to discover that nothing from the British Embassy has arrived. Again.

One day, after a month had passed, there is a letter.

I am heartsick. Instead of a shiny new passport, the letter has a list of requests. Another call to the British Embassy and another thirty minutes in the phone queue produced a bit of reassurance. I type another letter – signed, sealed, and mailed – I wait.

Less than a week passes, and there is a response from the British embassy in a crisp, white envelope with another list of requests, including school records covering as many years as possible, a clear copy of my resident alien card or US passport, and a letter on letterhead paper from a professional person such as my doctor, dentist, teacher, religious instructor, etc. stating how long this person has known me and in what capacity. This person must also sign a photo of me attesting to the face. This photo is a true likeness.

School records. How the hell am I supposed to get my grade school records as my grade school is now an assisted living community; the chances of obtaining my grade for French and Reading in the fourth grade are slim to none. I have my college and high school diplomas and transcripts. I spend another day making phone calls and collecting the information requested that I already had in hand. The letter to the British Embassy flies off my keyboard without effort.

Six weeks after my initial application, my British passport arrives with little fanfare in a tightly sealed envelope requiring confirmation of its receipt. On the cherry red cover, the words European Union, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and Passport are sandwiched between the United Kingdom’s lion and unicorn insignias. Inside, the first page, emblazoned with a gold inscription with a copy of my photograph pasted next to block letters, reads,

Surname: Sochocky

Given Names: Anna Irena

Nationality: British citizen

No longer on a treasure hunt, in my hands, I am holding gold. With this passport’s addition to complement my American one, I am now legally entitled to travel on two passports and work anywhere in the European Union.

A passport may only be a ticket into a country, not a culture, but now I have the opportunity to claim both.

British passport as part of European Union

Human equivalent of GMT

Greenwich Mean Time -- Foot in Two Hemispheres

Under the shadow of the domed Greenwich telescopes, I lean over a thin, black line bordered with twinkling red lights, the geographical collision I have longed to see for years. When I was a child, I ardently scoured my grandmother’s Suffolk garden for evidence, convinced that the slender furrow snaking through the carrots and runner beans was actually the Prime Meridian Line in dusty disguise.

I am still on the hunt to understand the line that has divided me from birth.

In front of me, a little sign points in opposite directions towards the eastern and western hemispheres. I glance around quickly to make sure no one is looking before I begin to play childish games with myself hopping back and forth over the embedded black ribbon. One minute I am standing with both feet planted in the western hemisphere. I scamper over to the other side, dipping my toes back over its edge like I am Goldilocks trying to find a porridge that is neither too hot nor too cold. Eastern hemisphere. I was born on this side of the line. I stand quietly for a few minutes, looking at the side of the world. I cross the line. Western hemisphere. This is the side of the world in which I have lived most of my life. The story behind this geographical split in my life may not be evident to many others, but as the Prime Meridian Line, the line’s divide, like my own, has always been irrefutable to me.

In a photograph taken of my mother at age thirteen, she does not see a hint of the divide to come. Around this time, the photograph was taken, my mother and her classmates from the East Anglican girls’ school in Bury St. Edmunds climbed on a bus twice a week to travel to another school for swimming lessons. The bus rambled past a processing camp. The men behind barbed wire were not English but Ukrainian prisoners-of-war waiting to be granted legal status as newly arrived immigrants by British government authorities. With naïve and youthful enthusiasm, my mother and her classmates waved madly to the anonymous men hovering near the fences of the Surrendered Enemy Personnel Camp 231, Redgrave Park.

The year before my father died, when I was thirteen years, my parents and I visited the camp remains. The buildings looked like giant mushrooms. Their arching, corrugated iron roofs stretched across broken concrete floors marooned in acres of wild grass and farmland. The remnants of these shelters were the only buildings protruding through the landscape. The only artifacts left. All the medical tents, sleeping quarters, and wire fencing had been torn down decades ago.

My father had wanted me to see Redgrave so that I would understand a part of him, but instead, he stayed silent, and I was still the spectator. I remember gazing at the colony of prefabricated Nissan huts that remained, trying to imagine my father living in this camp, looking over his shoulder to see if soldiers followed him to the farm so he could steal a farmer’s cabbages to make soup. I could not picture my father’s face, gaunt from hunger, or the barricades circling the tents. I was looking at a photograph in the history book of a stranger.

Camp 231 Redgrave Park -- Redgrave Park, England, WWII

That day, I watched my father’s mind travel across decades, seeing each family member he lost, recreating the barracks and the barbed wire. He was both out of place and at home. He stood with arms crossed, rocking back and forth on his heels, nodding as if reconciling the English countryside with his memory. The water tower withered beneath choking ivy vines. Moonbeams had replaced the searchlights long since extinguished on the lake’s surface. Only a silent orbit of a wild swan disturbed the horizon of liquid glass.

Abruptly, my father turned and looked right through me to the other side of his history.

I was born to one of the men living behind barbed wire and the woman who sailed past him in a battered school bus. Indeed, their marriage assured me that my life would always be tethered to another part of the world. I am not responsible for the history that continues to unravel on both sides of this invisible line; yet, this legacy the fates have dealt me is mine. I have not always known these truths. Decades isolate the adult woman I am now from the teenage girl when I crossed over this line. Told by my parents for as long as I can remember that I was English, I believed this to be true. Yet, our family joked that my true lineage not unlike Heinz 57 steak sauce: a tablespoon of English and Ukrainian, several teaspoons of Polish and Scottish, a pinch of Irish, and a third of a cup of American by experience.

The Heinz 57 metaphor became my truth. Perhaps I have always been Anna, from America.

Part of me believes that today I must choose one side of the line over the other. If I had to decide at this exact moment, if I could not reverse my choice once made, on which side would I claim as my own, on which side of the ocean would I call home? I place one foot in the western hemisphere and leave the other one on the eastern side. I straddle over the line, a position with which I am most familiar.

Partitioned like the human equivalent of 0 degrees Longitude and 0 degrees Latitude, I came of age looking not forwards but backward.

My mother crossed this line for love. She stayed on the western side of the line for the same reason after my father died, believing that my future and, therefore, hers was in America. My grandmother expected us to return to England after the funeral and could not understand why her daughter would not come to return home. Yet, my mother’s friends said that she made the best decision for both of us. Years later, I am not so sure.

I stare at the line before moving to the eastern side. Do I imagine I have caught a glimpse of a place called home? Or am I simply trying to imagine the life I might have had if my family had not come to America but stayed in England? How would my past have unfolded differently if all the pages of my parents’ history and lives had stayed intact?

What does it mean to be ‘from’ somewhere anyway? Does this reference mean a dot on a map? A culture? A family lineage? Four walls in a particular house? A landscape of a continent? A time in history?

I am more committed to the four walls I live in rather than an actual geographic location. My grandmother’s house, the Veterans Administration’s apartment, my mother’s own haven in Sioux Falls. I write about the English four walls, the walls I write in, the house I imagine buying in England. Maybe the home left behind is more accurate in one’s imagination. Was it my intolerable grief over my father’s death that forced my mother to choose to stay in America?

Did I ever really choose one country over the other?

In the brilliant and sweltering late afternoon sun, so uncharacteristic of an English summer day, history wells up inside of me once more. I am still divided, still learning to live with the burden of my own survival, which I inherited, one that almost broke me. I remain lured by the magnetic pull between what might have been with what is still hungry for a place to call home.