Plane’s arc, a definition since childhood

I sit by the airplane window, staring into a pool of shifting darkness. My mother sleeps but not soundly. The plane passes through a bank of clouds like a ghost walking through walls. A few passengers, unable to sleep, turn page after fitful page under miniature spotlights. The disembodied snoring of one wakes another. A flight attendant rises to shake the weariness from her stiff limbs. I have rarely been able to sleep on airplanes carrying this nervous habit over the threshold of my childhood.

I love everything about flying: the not-quite-horizontal folding tray; the astronaut-inspired meals with a taste of salt and cardboard arrayed in molded compartments; the obsolete ashtrays; and the synthetic pillow with the paper-thin blue blanket bundled on each seat. I covet the tinny headphones blaring channels of Euro-pop, smooth jazz, Motown, mediocre blues, and Mozart drive out the plane’s engines. I eagerly anticipate the braided, butter-flavored pretzels. I relish how the overhead light casts a direct beam on my small, cramped world where everything I want or need is in an eighteen-inch-square space. I am enamored with the contradiction between the size of the aircraft and the compactness of the seats.

I impatiently anticipate the taxi down the runway, the gravity-shifting takeoff, and the sight of the curving plane’s silver wings floating miles above a toy city. I watch the wings passing over tiny houses, miniature cars, and trees sprouting from the ground like stalks of broccoli before the machine’s final climb into the sun behind the clouds. Most of all, I love picking up my life, traveling to all the unlikely parts of my imagination before setting myself down in another place entirely.

More than half of this first night flight I have taken with my mother in seventeen years is over. I have watched the movie and read half a book since boarding. The two glasses of wine I drank at dinner have done little more but spawn a headache and a couple of trips to the bathroom. During one of the first night flights I remember taking as a child, an attendant led me by the hand to visit the cockpit. I gazed in wonder at the dials and instruments, stepping behind the curtain to discover the truth; the pilot, not a wizard, gave me plastic wings for my sweater. Hours later, when the same chestnut-haired attendant realized I was still awake, she leaned over my sleeping mother to whisper, “Would you like anything, honey? Another pillow? Some juice?” I mouthed the words; no, thank you. I was too busy meeting the sea for the first time.

Clasped between the stars and the moonlight and staring into the inky darkness, I suspect that a plane’s arc over the Atlantic Ocean has defined me from birth.

Maybe I come from a sea, not a sea shadowed by distant coastlines, but one that reaches to the other side of the earth, cupping its hands around the globe like moonlight—a sea of emotion, not intellect, one of baptism and absolution. The waters embedded in my blood have shorelines made of chalk, not prairie grasses or beach sands, the delicate crystal texture. Instead, I come from a landscape where the soft limestone sighs above the pounding surf with the taste of salt. At twilight, flocks of seagulls rise in a foggy mist like a handful of confetti thrown into the wind, the cliffs shedding stone morsels into the waves.

I do not blame the sea for history’s separations. In the beginning, my father walked on firm soil, miles away from the Black Sea, a sea without oxygen that still keeps the secrets of shipwrecks and preserves ancient bodies like models in a wax museum beneath the surface. War caused his separations, from his family, from his country, from the faith he nearly forgot in the camps. For years, he lived under an Italian sun on the Adriatic coast before crossing over this ocean I traverse now. My father left the sea behind, preferring the sturdiness of land in each direction. Prairie became his north, his south, his east, and his west. He wanted to be landlocked, far from the water he always feared.

I do not blame the sea for coming between my mother and her home, either. The tiny island of my birth lies suspended across the ocean she has crisscrossed repeatedly for thirty years. She has always been apart but never severed from her family and friends, whom she nurtures like a garden through the seasons. My mother knows the sea as simply a consequence of geography.

Indeed, my own journey of return began months ago. The first year of graduate school came and went, and I had uncovered layers of myself in a way that was both familiar and novel. With each passing discovery, though, I sensed that I was slowly drifting away from those around me, an uneasiness that came to a head during dinner with a friend a few weeks before my flight.

“It’s just different, that’s all,” I had sighed, moving the thin ice cubes around the bottom of my scotch glass. The penetrating gaze of my friend seared my bent head. “I guess I have come to the point in my life when I want something else that I can’t seem to find in Minneapolis. I want to walk down the street and see the faces of people who look like me have a similar history to mine, where maybe I fit in a little more than I do here.” Where would that be exactly? England? Ukraine? Another state in this country? I had already lived in four besides Minnesota as well as Washington, D.C.

Greenwich Mean Time -- Foot in Two Hemispheres

I felt wedged between the Unstoppable Force called America that collided with the Immovable Object called England.

Conversations like the one I had found myself immersed in always began innocently enough. Still, after a while, when the friendship appeared to be developing, the boldness of the questions grew, and the tone of genuine curiosity shifted to one closer to that of interrogation. How could your father have been a prisoner of both the Soviets and the Nazis? That doesn’t make any sense. What do you mean when you say that your father’s war is a part of your life? It was his war. You didn’t experience it. You don’t speak with an English accent, so you must not have ever really lived there, did you? You can’t consider yourself an immigrant. You are an American. How would I get out of the conversation that I had not started frankly, but one that had repeated itself so many times over the years? The warmth of my cheeks deepened, and my throat tightened.

“I think you spend too much time thinking about your history, Anna. All of this history is just that – history. It doesn’t have anything to do with your life now. And now you want to go to England. Ever since your English godmother and mother came to visit, you think you need to go there. What do you think you will find? Your life is here, Anna, not England,” my friend had summarily declared before taking a long sip of scotch.

At least my friend had been correct on one score: the visit from my godmother, Jean, had etched my first inkling of return in my brain. Three weeks after this difficult conversation had upended my emotional axis, I packed my suitcase for my first trip to England in seventeen years. Now, as the sun peeks through the clouds, I wonder if maybe my perturbed friend had been right. Perhaps I was chasing a history that did not belong to me. Maybe I was searching for my own fantastical Albion. Still, I felt like I was going to England to seal some of the holes in a story I was starting to uncover. This story may have been created with my frantic desire to grasp more than the circumference of my family’s history, but what if my trip was the next chapter of the story and informed my future?

The breakfast trolleys shiver when the plane dips through a cloudbank. Passengers stir, shuddering from the bright sun behind their plastic shades, and stand to stretch. My mother mumbles good morning and unbuckles her seatbelt; I move past her to the bathroom before the food trays arrive. I want coffee more than sleep, more than movement. I stand in the aisle, peering out the bulkhead window. We will land at Gatwick soon. I am with my mother crossing the ocean and time zones, childhood, and history.

All I want is coffee. I am tired and a little nervous. When the plane lands, my mother turns to me and says, “Now you are back in England.”

I follow her through the narrow hallway and down the escalator to Gatwick Airport’s immigration stations at my mother’s heels. She hasn’t flown into Heathrow for many years, not since a local carrier added a direct flight from Minneapolis to Gatwick. I walk through the airport like a tourist, eyes up and not directly ahead, weaving past other passengers and airport personnel, trolleys, and small children. Though I am over thirty, my mother carries our passports and our landing cards. My mother knows the routine intimately. I am a neophyte.

I maneuver our luggage cart around the corners of the steep, flat passageway down to the coach station with clumsy movements. At the ticket desk, my mother fishes her ‘English’ wallet out of her purse to buy two one-way tickets to Newmarket, where my second godmother, Patricia, will fetch us when we arrive at about 2:00 p.m. After finding a bench, I search for coffee but am forced to be content with a vending- machine version in the station lounge. Sipping the tepid, weak mixture, I wait with my mother in a pleasant silence until the coach arrives.

Once aboard, I doze uncomfortably against the window. The sun streaming through the glass is fierce. Weeks have passed since I have felt the heat as pure as this, and I turn my face to the light like a sunflower. The coach rattles without mercy, rudely jogging me awake when my head bumps against the glass.

The last time I traveled across any country on a bus was in the middle of winter. I read most of a 500-page book to take my mind off the cold. The heater on the Greyhound bus broke down twenty miles outside of Minneapolis, and I had six hours to go before reaching Sioux Falls for Christmas.

Now, I am cranky, like a tired child without sleep. I snap at my mother when she asks me to shift my bag and am immediately contrite. Her face has reddened from the heat; she pushes stray wisps of hair away with the back of her hand. I apologize quietly. We are together in England again, and it has been such a long time. She has already settled into the journey’s routine and the uncharacteristic heat. I am still finding my sea legs. Again.

Each time I open my eyes, we move in circles, passing a sign I am sure I saw minutes ago. It cannot be possible. Haven’t we left the airport complex yet? Twisting in and out of roundabouts, I pray for a straight motorway to unwind outside the window. To Let signs mounted on building walls and in windows multiply, and for a moment, in my jet lag haze, I think the painted advertisements say Toilet. I am close to crying from the heat. Is this frustration? I am so tired I cannot seem to complete one thought. Confusion? The last time we left England to return to the States, we went home to my father’s funeral. Perhaps I am weepy because all I see is the English countryside. Golden fields of blossoming hay, bursts of red poppies along the road, acres of a wooden fence, rising and falling with the contours of the landscape, and emerald hills with river paths I follow until the coach turns another corner. It has been ages since I have seen a landscape lovely enough to bring me to tears.

After an hour, the coach grinds to a halt in a country village I do not remember; its arrival in the middle of town does not cause much of a stir. Women in floral printed dresses tow metal shopping baskets and little terriers behind them, stopping to chat with friends on the corner. Store windows boast tender meat and fresh vegetables along with sensible shoes. People walk in the middle of cobblestone streets, moving reflexively to the side when a car turns the corner. The coach pauses long enough for passengers to step into the brilliant sunlight before it pulls away from the curb.

I see the local church’s spire before I see the green sign announcing Newmarket’s town limits. In the distance, little cottages dot the landscape. I imagine stone flowerpots and metal watering cans and cobalt blue doors hidden like a secret behind halos of roses. Inside my country cottages, wooden trays lay across antique bathtubs set out for guests with a new bar of lavender soap, a water jug for washing one’s hair, and towels fresh from the clothesline.

The kitchens must look like the best a flea market has to offer, with baskets of wood by porcelain stoves, dried flowers hanging from the rafters, cushions on polished window seats, hand-thrown mortar, and pestles next to lion-colored onions. The books, the pictures, the way garden flowers collar the afternoon sunlight, all these things I am seeing with my heart and not my mind as if my senses have been startled to attention for the first time.

Finally, the coach trundles onto the high street in Newmarket with a sigh. The two of us wait in our seats as others spring to their feet, only to have to stand completely still while expectantly watching for the doors to open. After a time, I pull the hand luggage from the rack, strapping two pieces over one shoulder, inching my way to the door. My mother is behind me. I cannot wait to get off this coach.

The luggage swings violently to the right, and I lurch forward, my hand reaching for the handle. I am looking at my sandaled feet, trying to regain my balance before stepping onto the pavement. I look up into a sea of people before me, searching for Patricia’s face. She stands not two feet in front of me, and I step forward to greet her, my voice low, caught in a passage of my throat.

“Hello, Patricia,” but she does not seem to hear me. Perhaps I am only forming the words with my lips, the sound of my voice inside my head. I start to speak again, but she has noticed me standing before her, head bent in the heat. I feel her cool, slender hands cup my cheeks. Am I home?

Legal definition of home

With three probate attorneys in my employ, I grimace, my index finger hesitating, before clicking on the mouse to open an email marked Probate Inquiry from my English solicitor. The sky outside my study sluggishly lightens, yet I lost all sense of day and night weeks ago.

An insomniac driven not by an inability to sleep but by emails laden with documents to sign, notarize, and express mail return, I compile records requested by my English lawyer. Today’s list is the most overwhelming one to date:

  • an original death certificate;
  • original U.S. court-certified copy of my mother’s handwritten will;
  • original U.S. and Canadian court orders admitting my mother’s will to formal probate;
  • original U.S. and Canadian court orders appointing Steve and me as executors;
  • copies of my mother’s most recent British savings and checking account statements;
  • statements of the income and expenses for the bungalow in Bury St. Edmunds

As the moon ascends, I print out a lengthy document to read. The mini-tome, produced by the inheritance tax office of the HM Revenue and Customs department, meant to guide British citizens’ taxation responsibilities and/or working abroad, neglects to elucidate any answers to my frenzied questions. On the page, I scribble another set of words and definitions cited in the document.

Domicile: the place where a person has his/her permanent principal home to which he/she intends to return. Where a person has several “residences,” it may be a matter of proof as to which is considered a person’s permanent state of domicile;

Resident: person residing 183 or more days in the UK in the tax year; owned, rented, or lived in a home for at least 91 days in total or at least 30 days in a tax year;

Non-resident: a person spending less than 16 days in the UK (or 46 days if not classed as a UK resident for the 3 previous tax years) or working abroad full-time (averaging at least 35 hours a week) and spending less than 91 days in the UK, of which less than 31 days were spent working;

Visitor: a person who visits, as for reasons of friendship, business, duty, travel, or the like.

“You and I are English, Anna,” my mother once maintained to me in a crowded Chicago terminal. England is the country in which you and I were born, and it is the country we are going to return to one day to live,” she insisted for decades, yet her bi-annual journeys of return to visit cast a shadow posthumously on my mother’s life.

Indeed, the question of her domicile, the nexus of not only my mother’s estate but also the definition of her life, pricked the interest of my attorney.

“I have been giving a lot of further thought to matters, particularly the domicile issue,” solicitor number three wrote. “The only possible stumbling blocks here are the visits your mother made to the UK, and the fact that she owned a property over here,” the man nearing retirement, who preferred handling our interactions by email rather than by phone, mused.

“I will need to know the frequency of your mother’s visits, whether she visited other countries other than England, and the duration of her visits,” he added, his inquiry confirming the amorphous and shifting boundaries of my mother’s and, as a consequence of her choices, my own life. “Playing devil’s advocate: it could be that our Revenue and Customs could say that your mother had not severed all ties with this country. All I can do is put everything forward and await the outcome,” he wrote after his email with a not so subtle tone of ambivalence.

West Road, Bury St. Edmunds, SuffolkIf my mother’s domicile were classified as England due to her regular visits and a bungalow encumbered with structural weaknesses, the estate worldwide would be subject to an inheritance tax, a third of which would land in the Queen’s coffers. A person has several “residencies,” it may be a matter of proof as to which is considered a person’s permanent state of domicile; the legal definition is about as clear as a pea fog. One person’s proof is another person’s obfuscation.

Has my mother’s life and mine been permanently tainted by the muddied question of domicile? As my mother neared her death, she referred to her Sioux Falls apartment as her ‘home’ embracing the protection of the only four walls she could claim, yet, nowhere in the Revenue and Customs definitions is a definition of ‘home,’ the only word that ever mattered to both my parents and to me.

Breathing in history

The decades after the last world war may have accelerated the desire for modern conveniences during the 1970s. Still, in my grandmother’s mind, the old manual washer sufficed, its very existence a rebuke to the growing obsession with expediency. Indeed, even simple everyday habits like washing clothes spoke volumes in the cultural conversation I both consciously and awkwardly traversed as a young child. T

After connecting the washer’s tubing to the kitchen sink, my grandmother sorted the laundry with a military commander’s efficiency. Delicate blouses and sweaters. Undergarments and stockings. Sheets and towels. Pushing the kitchen table back until it was wedged between the wood-burning stove and the pantry door, my mother shuffled the manual washer across the red tile floor until the hose reached the kitchen faucet.

After my grandmother filled the washer with water through a small metal opening, the steam rising as if from a pot of boiling water, she grasped a wooden pole, the shape, and length of a walking stick, and stirred the clothes. Slowly, she mixed the clothes and poked the dry surfaces deep into the soapy water.

Clothes bubbled and boiled, simmered and steeped until my grandmother hoisted the clothes from the machine with the end of her stick. The dripping clothes sailed through the kitchen like kites caught on a tree branch before my grandmother deposited them in a plastic washbasin. Clapping her wet hands and reaching for her walking cane to steady herself, my grandmother guided me to my station, “Come on, darling, you like to turn the handle for Grandma, don’t you?”

She selected a blouse and wrung out the excess water, squeezing and twisting, before carefully feeding it between the mangle’s rollers with her fingers. I turned the wooden handle sluggishly at first until the two cylinders clenched the blouse between smooth jaws. A corner of blue peeked through on the other side. As more of the blouse appeared, the handle loosened in my hand until the piece of clothing emerged, flattened, and only slightly damp.

Three generations of clothes hung next to each other on the clothesline all afternoon. Shetland cardigans and silk stockings. Pairs of their thigh-length knickers and embroidered slips, gray and chestnut tweed skirts, and floral print dresses rocked in the wind beside my cotton t-shirts and blue jeans and my mother’s bras and polyester pants.

When I buried my face in the fabric, I smelled sunlight, wind, and roses and breathed in history.

Last will and testament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something else portended my mother’s fate, however.

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

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

Once a refuge, now a haunting

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

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

Each evening I pull the cushions off the sofa bed in the living room, stacking them on a dining room chair pushed back from the galley kitchen, and the pile is worn blankets, duvets, and pillows on the bony mattress. I read by the light of Christmas tree lights, which glow day and night. Against the winter darkness, the lights twinkle and sparkle without devotion. Still, without the soft glow and the lights catching the blushing ornaments, I cannot sleep, if only drifting off for an hour or two.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baking away grief

The fruitcake batter, rich with Brazil nuts, walnuts, pecans, dried cherries, cranberries, and dates, rises slowly. Resisting the overwhelming urge to open the oven door for the third time, I wait to learn if my cakes match my mother’s ones once made at Christmas. She baked for friends and old workmates from the public library; her cakes attained a legendary holiday status as the best fruitcake ever tasted. Trays of mince pies line every surface of my kitchen counter, too. The scallop-shaped button pastries burst with hot, sticky, dried fruit.

Though I bake the mince pies in the shadow of my mother’s history, I adjust the fruitcake recipe with the fruits of my own time. Gone are the maraschino cherries, green candied fruit, and orange peel. Dried cherries and dates, steeped cranberries, freshly roasted green chili, and a hint of ginger replace the familiar holiday fruitcake.

A month before her death, my mother’s memory of baking her jeweled fruitcakes failed her ultimately. “I never bake!” she angrily claimed to those who ate the rich, dense fruitcake slices year after year.

Mince pies triggered more soothing images in my mother’s deteriorating memory. Weeks before her death, she retrieved the baking tins I now use from her cupboard and a jar of mincemeat to bake the dainty pastries.

Entering her apartment, after spending three days and nights in the ICU at my mother’s bedside, when I found my grandmother’s tins and the candied fruit on the kitchen counter, I burst into tears.

Like my mother, I am conscientious about food and purposefully eat smaller portions and leftovers without hesitation. I do not waste food. I love food and will eat anything offered to me except liver and game of any kind, the taste of blood and death is too consuming for me. I relish the simple process of eating with my fingers, moving hands to mouth. I love the earthy smell of green vegetables pulled from the dirt with the sweat of honest labor. The sweet smell of berries and nectarines in summer and apples and rhubarb in autumn reminded me of my grandmother’s flourishing garden and the days when I used to crawl under the netting in the summer heat to pick the pregnant fruit.

Though I ferret out offbeat food vendors like my father, buying fish and vegetable curries with a few Thai bot coins or freshly rolled tortillas from a child on a rural South American road, I do not starve myself as he did. I do not eat raw garlic – an old Ukrainian habit – preferring to suffocate omelets, lasagna, and salads with the pungent cloves of his addiction. I do not compulsively monitor my calorie intake, and my evening meals do not consist of bowls of white rice, either. Instead, I prefer the ecstasies of cheesecake and blindingly rich artichoke dip.

I am also a liar.

I buy twice the food I need if it is on sale, squirreling it away in cupboards and the freezer, yet I ration what I believe, metering it out for a holiday, or a birthday, or for an undisclosed moment when hunger will surely strike. I am lazy about food, too. I skip meals choosing work over food. If I can finish this project, I will have something to eat. Sometimes, I even tell myself that I have to earn the right to eat.

War habits never truly fade, especially when the patterns are not one’s own.

Yet, each time I extract another perfectly browned cake or platter of mince pies from the oven, my addiction to history and my obsession with memory dims a little more. Pressing the ready-made dough into the bottoms of freshly washed and greased tins and spooning fresh mincemeat into the tiny dimples repairs my ruptured union with the past.

Baking might have guided me through the first year of fresh grief, but redemption itself comes in many forms, especially when it silences the politics of bread for good.

War’s soundtrack

In almost every photograph of my mother taken when she was a child, she was by the sea. Sometimes she beamed right into the camera, posing as if she was on the stage. In my favorite, she giggles entirely to herself, clutching her seashells as her polka dot dress balloons in the breeze. Her tiny body casts a huge shadow across the sand. Caught by the photographer, her arms extended, she leaned into her unsteady steps in cream buckled shoes—a bundle of blond innocence in motion by the seaside.

Days before England declared war against Germany, families stubbornly trekked down to the East Anglian beachfront, not knowing how long the memories of what could be their final holiday for some time would have to last. Less than a month before Prime Minister Chamberlain laid down the gauntlet, my mother and her family, like other families, spent their last few days by the sea at West Runton, a seaside resort on the north Norfolk coast.

This is the way I picture my mother’s last holiday by the sea. The salty breeze had nearly chased a sluggish cold from my mother’s chest, and she, anxious to enjoy the waning days of the summer sea, absorbed the wind, the sunlight, and the beach. For hours, she sat mesmerized by bobbing sailboats the size of milk cartons dwarfed by miles of ocean. Oblivious to the cheerful voices soaring over the radio, she waited patiently in the warmth for her mother to unpack the picnic basket full of cucumber, tomato, and beef sandwiches, sliced apples, and orange sponge cake.

Pinched strains of organ music drifted between the sculpted legs of winking ceramic horses on the carousel, each rotation a kaleidoscopic blur. Children clamored at the skirts of their mothers, begging for a turn on the merry-go-round, its colors bright against the faltering sky. Mothers glanced at each other, waiting for the first handbag to open. The women knew that the first days of war were around the calendar’s corner. An unspoken signal passed faintly between the young women. Purses clasped shut. “Look at the sea darling and the seagulls diving into the water to pluck a fish for their midday dinner. Soon we shall have a picnic on the beach,” one mother tried in vain to turn her child’s attention away from the silent ponies.

Along the East Anglian beachfront, holiday visitors rented huts along the boardwalk. Shelves piled with swimsuits and towels, picnic baskets and thermoses, puzzles and toys, books, and straw hats burst at the seams. Children trimmed sandcastles with smooth pebbles worn by centuries’ waves. The men poured over crossword puzzles, listening to cricket games broadcast over portable radios. Women engaged in animated conversations swapped sandwiches back and forth across blankets.

Next door to my grandmother’s beach hut, a man named Dr. Ware, also from Bury St. Edmunds, stared intently at his radio. With his discarded crossword beside him, he gazed hopelessly at sea, watching the children chase each other through the sand and the foam. Turning to my grandmother, he declared, “There is going to be a war. Let’s go home.”

Vulnerable since before the Napoleonic Wars and during Elizabeth I, the East Anglian coastline was a primary target for invasion by Hitler, especially after the fall of the Netherlands and Belgium in 1940. Coastal stretches of pebbled and sandy beaches, emptied of holiday visitors, resembled a prison yard. Tentacles of eight-foot-high, barbed wire barricades slithered along the coast for miles to impede invasion and along the coast of southern England; the areas of Plymouth, Portsmouth, and Dover earned the unsavory title of Hell’s Corner.

That August day, word spread across blankets and over picnic hampers, along the shoreline, and through the line of beach huts. Within hours, my mother’s family left for home. At age three, my mother glimpsed her first image of war from a train window. Passing through the Norwich station, the train slowed long enough for her to see hundreds of sobbing young children, crammed shoulder to shoulder, reluctantly listening to Red Cross workers. London’s children, shepherded into lines matching their destination tags, were being evacuated to the country, away from the bombing, away from their families. My mother saw children like her huddled together with their name tags and gas mask boxes swaying around their necks through plate glass. The government had issued gas masks months before, and evacuation waves were escalating. My mother remembers the gas masks made the children look like miniature elephants, their noses shifting and swinging with each step.

Arriving home from West Runton, my mother and grandmother returned to find two little girls, and their mother from Bethel Green had been billeted with the family. Though the three evacuees had traveled only seventy miles from London to Bury St. Edmunds, the country surroundings and the absence of noisy red Double Decker busses and black taxicabs unnerved the East End children; many children arriving in the English countryside during the evacuation waves had never seen a cow or a sheep before their journey.

After introductions, the mothers agreed to consider boundaries dividing the house between the two families. Routines for preparing meals, quietly arranged by the two young mothers, go unnoticed by the children. My mother’s family retreated to the back of the house, the East End family to the front rooms, only meeting in the evenings around the wireless to listen to news about the war.

September 3, 1939. A Sunday morning. Gardens, spared by an early frost, still bloomed. The air carried summer winds inland from the sea. The shipping forecast predicted steady waters and a cloudless sky. Great Britain declared war against Germany. The women around my mother sipped cups of rationed tea in West Road’s front room, listening to Prime Minister Chamberlain’s declaration of war against Germany on the wireless.

France and the Netherlands had fallen to the German invasion within days, and now only eighteen miles of the English Channel separated the French coast from England.

When the church bells rang, the circle of women around my mother wept. The thundering church bells, silenced by government order, would ring again only if England faced invasion or if the war was over.

A disembodied voice of the radio commentator, church bells fading into the crackling wireless, and the sound of her mother crying, this was the soundtrack of war my mother always remembered.

Black and white footprints in a snowstorm

Long before I knew the details, I understood that my parents’ lives were formed differently. Indeed, the worn, brown photographs from my competing European bloodlines testify to this divergence of history. On my mother’s side of the Culley family, I have many photos of smiling great aunts and children enjoying a day at the beach before the war. The women, legs tucked beneath them like rabbits, sit on wool blankets. The children, naked except for their bonnets and diapers, clumsily shovel teaspoons of sand into marmalade jars or coffee tins.

I move the pictures around like pieces to a puzzle, putting them in order by person, by location, by pastime. All the pictures of my mother with her family at the beach in one pile, all my grandmother’s photographs holding my mother in another. I play games with these images and concoct stories about the women in the photographs for entertainment, not from necessity. This side of my family moves through everyday life, photographed next to the things they valued – a prized rose, houses, and farms. I imagine days spent by the sea and afternoons rowing on the river and smile at their proud poses in military uniforms and nurses’ capes.

Yet, like five o’clock shadows, fathers, grandfathers, and uncles do not figure prominently in my life on this side of my family either. The absence of photographs is my proof for this hypothesis. I can only fill a small corner of my dining room table with the few photographs I have of the Culley men. Unguarded moments like the one of my mother’s Irish grandfather and great uncle sitting by the seaside in three-piece suits while reclining in canvass chairs are rare images. These men belong to history, not memory.

Even my mother had difficulty recalling much about these men who are largely silent and have always been silent to me. Conversely, photographs of the next generation of Culley men – like my mother’s first cousins, Ted, Alan, and Fred, dressed in military uniforms and ready to die for God and country – were men I sat across from during Sunday dinners, the table long and plentiful of both food and history.

Culley women have always been a different story. Dozens of their photographs demand center stage. Year after year of class pictures record my great Aunt Stella gazing intently at the camera beside her eager-faced and freshly scrubbed pupils.

Before she married my Scottish grandfather and relinquished the Culley name, my grandmother stands on the Loma ship deck with her right hand behind her head and her left knee half-bent, posing like a film star against the railing in a photo taken in 1931. In another, my grandmother sits with six other nurses, not on a bench outside the West Suffolk hospital but in a boat. All are dressed from head to toe in World War I uniforms, their crisp caps starched into stone, and their pinafores pressed sharply by the iron blocks heated on wood-burning stoves.

I cannot reenact stories told or untold with my father’s family photographs that are left. I only have one image each of my grandparents, my great grandfather Jonah (his name I learned from a condolence card my mother received from a man in Chicago after my father’s death), and my father with his sister, Olga, in Ukraine. I have several prints of my father in Rimini’s detention camp and a handful of tiny, square photographs of him as a young man, the context, location, and story unknown.

Among the few photographs I have, some, like the photograph of my Ukrainian grandparents, are so damaged that the images look like part of a ship’s wreckage, half-hidden in the sea’s sandy bottom. White streaks and creases have weakened Their faces, and only parts of their bodies are visible. This damage makes sense to me. After all, my grandfather and grandmother have never been anything more than apparitions. Because of the ruined image, I inventory my grandparents’ parts I can see.

Grandmother Irena. She sits on my grandfather’s right hand on an invisible chair. Patches of her thinning hair look like straw pulled back in a bun. Her close-set eyes sink into her face like an owl’s beneath her bony eyebrows. Her nose, angular and square, overshadows a serious mouth set in a straight line. The half-moon circles under her eyes sag into her cheeks. Her lace collar, an island of beauty, stretches over her cardigan. I see where her sweater ends, and her opaque arms begin, one hand folded over the other in her lap. Her shoes are stout and heavy; her limbs are frail from age, not simply hunger. Her body is diminutive; her face austere.

Ukrainian grandparents

Michael, my grandfather, really does look like a specter that might wither at the first hint of sunlight. Much of my grandfather’s body is hidden; only the arc of his shoulders, the left triangle of his coat, the collar, the edges of his shirtsleeves peeking out from under his coat, his stocky fingers, and the fold in his pant leg emerges from the ghostly background. I cannot see his feet though I can tell he is a small man in stature but with a stolid chest like a horse’s barrel. His dark suit blends into the trees and the sallow stains of the photograph. His bald head, thin lips, and protruding ears are the clearest parts of him. The edges of his long coat cover his misty fingers above the crease of his trousers. His blanched collar mistakenly suggests he was a priest like his father, Jonah. My grandparents’ necklines, her lace, and his false holiness shed clues to their personalities and are marks of their wholeness.

I do not have any pictures of my father as a child. In black and white, my father has always been a man. He wears adult clothes. A military uniform. A doctor’s coat. A wool sweater and khaki pants. I cannot quite picture my father as a child, his dark, thick hair falling over his huge, blue eyes. I cannot see him learning to walk, clinging to his mother’s skirts like a dancer’s barre. Even as a child, he surely looked like a man dressed in neatly pressed trousers and a crisp white shirt with a pair of suspenders and beautifully polished leather shoes. After the war, in photographs I have, he rarely smiled. A shame, really. He had such a brilliant grin. His blue eyes twinkled like sunlight on water, and when he poured his entire body into laughter, he seemed surprised like a child startled by the sound of his own voice.

War erased my father’s past like a pair of footprints in the snow after a storm, leaving me the scar of his silence. His photographs are like open wounds to me because, unlike my mother’s family, I knew precious few of the survivors.

Mandy, by Julie Edwards

Home

The central character in a cherished worn and tea-stained children’s book I still own is a cheerful orphan. Befriending younger children coming to the orphanage after their young lives implode, the little girl is kind and generous with her heart. The child is good too, eating all her vegetables and meat without complaint before wiping her dishes clean. But in the evenings, when the ten-year-old child should be studying, instead, she sits on the window ledge in her attic bedroom looking past the orphanage’s black wrought-iron gates and flintstone orchard wall.

Her daydreaming spirals into an obsession until one day. The good girl resolves to see the other side of hunger. On her ascent, she scrapes her knees on the flinty stone before scrambling down the plump apple tree branches.

Mandy, by Julie Edwards

Curious, the child follows a grassy path through the woods, only to find an abandoned cottage. The girl sneaks through the orchard through the seasons and climbs the wall to visit her cottage each day. She pulls weeds and plants the flowers she buys with her pocket money, sweeps the creaking wood floors, and washes the windows in the room with walls made of seashells. The child, Mandy, has found the object of her desire – four walls she can call her own — nursing a private ache that she does not share with anyone, a longing she, herself, barely understands.

The first time I read the book, Mandy, I was on an airplane with my mother flying the well-worn path of my childhood from London to Chicago, finishing the last page as the sky lightened, and the plane began its heady descent into America. At the time, I was not an orphan like the central character though I think I was “the good girl” as a child, eating my meat and vegetables and diligently finishing my homework on time.

Maybe I was even a good friend to others before friendships became situational, often connected with jobs skating the surface like an early frost before history and loss began to chip away at my heart.

The book I first read on an airplane, worn from years of love and desolation, is one I sometimes reread when something triggers the acute hunger I have never learned to satiate. I keep this hunger close and do not tell those around me that after all these years, I am still looking for a place that truly belongs to me, one where I might finally banish the “ghost of belonging” from my cellular memory.

Like my fictitious heroine, I always wanted a house. A house of my own, not one owned by a relative. Not an apartment or a duplex either. Not a communal house shared in college with roommates I do not remember.

My late-blooming transformation between ‘worst home occupier/renter on the planet’ to tidy, organized, ‘borderline OCD homeowner’ materialized the day the ink of my signature on the purchase papers had barely dried.

I bought my first house at the age of forty-four and six months after my multiple sclerosis diagnosis. Unlike Mandy, I hired window washers and fumigators, painters, and stone workers to cleanse a house that may have been ours but one that still housed the previous owner’s remnants everywhere. Still, I scrubbed every bookshelf and kitchen counter, bought a new refrigerator and freezer, and labeled every spice container in the spice drawer.

When I cleared my mother’s apartment, I was reminded that she kept her clutter out of public view.

My mother’s hallway between the front door and the bedrooms was lined with floor-to-ceiling closets, each shelf, every inch of the floor locked in a war for space. In the ‘office supply’ end of the far closest opposite, my adolescent bedroom stacks of envelopes of every size leaned precariously. Inside, I found battery stashes and dozens of unopened scotch tape rolls, post-it note packages of every size and color packed into a cardboard box with the Union Jack on its lid. Paper clips and file folders, white and yellow padded envelopes, tubes of brightly colored Christmas paper scattered with images of scarf-clad penguins and bow-tied teddy bears, bags of bows, my mother saved for a day that will never come.

The home my mother had created gave her sanctuary from her memories of my father’s blind, war-induced rages, her loss of England, and the foundation for a new life. I plucked random objects infused with invisible memory: objects I lived with through high school and college. Still, others that my mother added later, ones that appeared during the years, I tried to put my own life in order, others where no memory resonated for me. In her absence, the once familiar vase or salt savor I held was strange to me as if instead, my hand stroked an unfamiliar object like worry beads, desperately attempting to drive the pit of loss away. Now, I was the one left behind to salvage an unfinished life.

In hindsight, I recognize that my false, manic transformation, obsessed with order in our new house, was misplaced grief. Grief over my mother’s death. Grief over my diagnosis.

In my past, apartments and houses were simply an address, a place to sleep, a refuge to lament another broken relationship; these structures were not places to make plans or dream of possibility.

Even the address of our house was promising on the first day I stepped over the threshold. Eldorado. The Lost City of Gold, the city of the Muisca chief who covered himself in gold dust and became king. The mythology of Muisca represents energy constituting creative power. Place. All that I have sought, to find a place of belonging, a place of meaning, a place of sanctuary.

 

West Road, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk

Treading another’s path of loss

Three days before my mother’s memorial in Bury St. Edmunds, my husband and I enter my mother’s, now my bungalow with the estate agent. I walk across the house’s slanted floorboards, my fingers tracing the wall cracks brought on by damp, and purse my lips in disappointment. The place that my mother once told me was her last tie with England was a dump. When a gleam of light in the middle of the living room’s wall catches my eye, I discover that I can put my finger in a small hole through the mortar and have a keyhole view of the front garden.

Though my mother had spent thousands of pounds a few years ago to refurbish the kitchen and the bathroom, the well-executed improvements had the appearance of roses blooming in a patch of thistles. Marginally better outfitted and constructed than one of the college houses I preferred to forget, this house was legally mine. With the probate maze conclusion, my husband and I were now absentee landowners of a dilapidated house built between the First and Second World Wars when building materials were in short supply.

My parents bought the house for 4,000 pounds from old Mrs. Ridley, my grandmother’s friend. Mrs. Ridley’s failing memory led to her death when she forgot to turn the gas off the stove and accidentally asphyxiated herself. The house that once had been the answer to my mother’s dream of reclamation of her English life was the cornerstone of my modest inheritance.

The scales abruptly fall from my eyes; the prospect of ever living in this house has never been dimmer. The diagonal crack in the wall may indicate damp seeping through the plaster but maybe more damaging; the house was likely sinking into the earth recently saturated by weeks of rain.

West Road, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk

“I’m afraid this house should be torn down,” Steve whispered as I opened the back door to the rickety conservatory my parents had built in the 1970s. Upon invitation, I played with the tenant’s children in this narrow tube, scuttling in and out of the open doors. Painfully overgrown and neglected foliage blocks any view of the cantilevered fence I once climbed over from my great Aunt Stella’s garden. I can neither see the present nor the past in this garden, in this house, and now the prospect of its future dissolves.

“With the departure of the current tenants, new ones will have to be found unless you want to sell,” my mother’s estate agent muses. “Trees will have to be seen to and clipped back, too. The garden is truly wretched,” the woman, with a verbal pace of any Londoner, frowns.

Tracing a pattern with my shoe in the dirt, I pick dead leaves off a bush. Thinking? Dreaming? Panicking? Finally, turning my attention from the bush in need of much more help than my distracted pruning, I respond.“I think it’s best, Pat, if we find another tenant. Though my mother made some improvements to the bungalow over the years, I fear that the house has some structural issues that should be addressed before we hope to sell it. I agree that the trees in both the front and back gardens are sorely overgrown. Please go ahead and contact a trimmer as soon as possible so it can be done before another tenant moves in,” I answer, noting that my statement is my first instruction uttered as a property owner and will likely be far from the last one.

I turn away, not quite ready to tread my mother’s path of loss.

Each morning, a cacophony of crisis emails flood my inbox. Cracks in the house’s interior walls widen. Plaster disintegrates into dust. Rainwater and birds destroy the roofing—roots from a tree near the front door rupture the concrete walkway. Bit by bit, stone by stone, tree by tree, the property that was once my mother’s salvation has become my inherited nightmare. Though I approve bids for repairs long overdue and request detailed accounts of work completed, paying invoices from contractors suggested by the estate agent, the house, and its future, like my mother ignoring her chronic, life-threatening symptoms, is terminal.

The proverbial shoe I waited for dropped like a bomb six months into my overseas ownership. The mortar’s degrading in the brickwork jointing was due to a chemical reaction, probably a sulfate attack requiring mortar testing on the affected walls for laboratory testing. A sulfate attack, the source of the house’s crumbling in the mortar joint, had been evidenced when I poked my finger through the brickwork after my mother’s memorial. The rapid expansion of the evident plaster cracks diagonally crossing the house’s interior walls suggested a weakening of its structure.

With this internal assault of chemistry and its resultant damage, all my suspicions pointed in one direction; my mother’s house, the first house I have ever owned, was crumbling.