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.
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.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_6dcaee1dd48344f4a800cac79319d8147Emv2.jpg13851050Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:53:212021-09-01 14:22:59Human equivalent of GMT
After the private funeral, one of the attendants assigned to manage my mother’s services leads me into the room set aside for the visitation. Trays of hand-cut sandwiches, bowls of marigold yellow potato salad, and a selection of sugar cookies arranged in buffet-style line white linen-covered table. Strong coffee brews. Classical music pipes into the room. I am alone for a moment. To assuage my scarce appetite, I pour a Styrofoam cup of coffee and move to stand by the ice-etched window. Outside, after nights of sky-saturated storms, the sun shines, dazzling warmth into the room. Tempered by mourning and memory, I turn away from the glaring reflection of fresh snow.
I have grieved in this room before.
Once upon a time, doctors and nurses streamed into this funeral parlor. My mother and I sat on a plush floral sofa. Synthetic. Lifeless. On display. Strangers to me competed for my mother’s attention and offered me posthumous advice. Be strong like your father. Do well in school, Anna. Face after face drifted past. Everyone knew my name. I knew so few and stayed silent. The voices of former patients reverently recounted how my father had saved their lives. His passion and fierceness beat back my illness, balding men testified. Friends from school huddled around the entrance to the same room I stand in now. Only when their mothers nudged them did my confused friends enter. Emotionally stunted by adolescence, none of us had the vocabulary for loss.
No sandwiches. No salad or cookies.
The room thirty years ago lacked reassurance, so the morning of my father’s funeral, I set my grief on my dresser, promising to return to it another day. Thirty years later, I cannot afford to be silenced and disengaged by grief again.
Librarians, like doctors and educated wolves, travel in packs. Gathering as police officers or military personnel do when one of their own has fallen, my mother’s co-workers stream in from the freezing temperatures — a circle of women sporting tightly permed heads and sensible winter boots forms around me. The woman who drove the bookmobile when I was a child, Shirley, timidly enters the room. Three decades fill the distance between us. We hug awkwardly.
“Do you still check out too many books, Anna? Your mother and I used to have to edit your stack each week. Your mother was such a special lady,” Shirley pronounces, moving to blow her nose.
“Well, instead of checking out too many books from the library, I buy too many used ones on Amazon,” I answer with a wink. “Thank you for coming, Shirley. Please have a sandwich and a cup of coffee.” The memory of plastic-covered, well-worn books I cherished as a child fills my head. I wonder if the engine of the antiquated bus still hums off-key. In the mirror over Shirley’s shoulder, I see the reflection of me sitting with my knees tucked and pressed up against my favorite bookshelf, stacking treasures beside me.
The reference librarian, followed by the woman who staffed the video and young adult books department, arrives, and soon the group of women that formed the nucleus of my mother’s life for seventeen years swells. I nurse a now tepid cup of coffee. My concentration wanders. I only retain snippets of stories told. Janet moves into the fold and supplants my attention, nodding and laughing at all the appropriate moments. I willingly fade into the background. Shifting from greeter to listener, I am relieved by a sudden wave of anonymity.
While the book women trade recycled stories about the library and my mother and nibble on ham sandwiches, I notice a slight woman dressed in a waist-length, brown, faux leather jacket out of the corner of my eye. The mysterious woman nervously shifts back and forth and tries to catch my eye. Gripping her bag as if she is stranded not on an iceberg of grief but in a dicey neighborhood after dark, her behavior attracts my attention. I do not recognize the woman. During a brief lull in conversation with the librarians, I excuse myself. In two long strides, I am at the agitated woman’s side.
“Thank you for coming this morning. I don’t believe we’ve met, but you likely knew my mother. How did you know my mother?” I finish securing a context for this stranger. The woman with closely cropped, dyed hair erupts into a spasm of desperate sobs. Who is this woman?
“Why don’t you and I sit down on the sofa,” I suggest pointing to a loveseat positioned underneath the wall’s mirror. I take her hand, bone-cold from the morning. I rub her hands in mine and wait. Still ignorant of the woman’s identity, I retrieve a couple of Kleenex squares from my pocket and hand them to her.
The nameless woman’s words come slowly. Tangled and chastened by an attack of sadness-induced hiccups at first, her story crystallizes like a car gaining traction in the snow, Not from the library, not from a past life as a doctor’s wife, the woman sobbing beside me is Sherry, my mother’s hairpiece stylist. For as long as I can remember, my mother wore a tasteful hairpiece, a well-coiffed bun perched on the back of her head to cover thinning hair and a bald spot. In every childhood photo in which my mother plays a supporting role, Sherry’s tailored handiwork silhouette is evident.
Once gaining her composure, Sherry speaks of how shocked she was to pick up the newspaper and find the obituary I wrote. “Your mother was such a kind lady. When my son died, she called and wrote to me. I still have those letters. She was so very kind.” Sherry’s effort to choke these few words out into the air produces another round of tears. Is she grieving for my mother or her son? The circumstances of the son’s death had always been in question. Although never charged with murder, the son’s wife had come under the glare of police suspicion when the husband’s autopsy detected poison in his body. Sherry, convinced of her daughter-in-law’s role in her son’s death, poured out her suspicions to my mother. “I won’t keep you,” Sherry interjects as I shake my head no and insist she stay for a coffee.
“I won’t stay. I just wanted to pay my respects to your mother. Thank you for sitting with me. Even though this is the first time we have met, I can tell you are kind of like your mother. I will miss your mother,” she declares, rising to her feet and slipping out the door like a shadow.
“Who was that woman?” Janet asks in mid-step. Approaching the sofa where I remain sitting, she announces, “I think the librarians are getting ready to leave.”
I nod and glance over at the disassembling group reaching for purses and coats. My husband, Steve, holds coats and guides arms into sleeves in the midst of the pending departures. Though he has met so few mourners, Steve falls into conversations stunted by shock and sadness with ease, comforting strangers with a kind word or a brief but firm hug. Though I have barely had a moment to say two words to him since early this morning, I will be able to manage this day because I know he is close.
“The woman you were talking to was pretty upset,” Janet hints a second time, bringing me back to the present.
“Oh, that was Sherry, the woman who did my mother’s hairpiece for years. I never met her. Her son died, and I think she was thinking about him as much as Mom. Nice woman. I probably will never see her again, though. Funerals are weird that way, I guess. You have really intense conversations that evaporate as quickly as they brew. If she signed the guestbook, I’d send her a note.”
With one eye on the entryway, I make a mental list of new arrivals, greeting and thanking each person individually. I recognize my mother’s acupuncturist and his assistant, but their faces will not stay with me. The car salesman who sold my parents each of their Buicks since the late 1960s corners me between the sofa and the entrance. His body language, polyester trousers, and a cheap gold chain peeking over his shirt collar suggest anything but chaste condolence. I squirm. Nod. Smile. Say, thank you. I raise my eyebrow. Janet sees my signal. Just as the one-sided conversation switches gears to what a lovely young woman I have become, Janet swoops in with the news that another guest has arrived. Leaving Janet to distract the harmless flirt, I intercept new arrivals.
A stout, short woman surveying the gathering of mourners enters the room and stops abruptly. Evaluating each person with beady, twitching eyes, her gaze lands on me. I examine her for a moment as well, and after a deep inhale, I reach her in one stride with my hand outstretched.
“You must be Anna,” the stranger declares, taking positive note of my conservative but stylish suit. “I’m glad you are not wearing black. So predictable and dismal. I am Madge Wilson, your father’s senior nurse on 4 East Ward. I never met your mother though I am sure she was a lovely person, but I recognized the name, Sochocky, in the obituaries and knew that she must have been married to your father.” Madge takes a wheezing breath and turns to sit on the couch by the door. I follow silently. I suspect there will be little opportunity to squeeze a word between Madge’s monologues. For this, I am thankful.
“As I said, I was your father’s senior nurse and, boy was he a challenge to work with each day. But he was the best doctor on the ward, and he liked me because I stood up to him. Madge, he would shriek, standing in the doorway to his office, and I would take my own sweet time getting to his door. Your father was an excellent doctor, though. So compassionate. Never gave up when so many others would pack it in too early. He used to call me into an examination room and put his feet up on the gurney while I cleaned up the mess left behind. Domestic, he wasn’t. And another interesting feature of your father is he was obsessed with the condition of his bowel movements. He always wanted me to judge his stool samples. Very strange. I think he was a hypochondriac,” Madge muses before exploding into laughter.
The content rather than the location of her telling leaves me nonplussed. My father’s hypochondria, the subject of his daily constitution’s quality and condition, often drove him back to Duke University for evaluation.
Janet shoots me a look over Madge’s shoulder. I stare past both Janet and Madge wondering how many people can count stool sample stories told by a woman who does not even know the person who has died as part of their ‘strange things that happened at my mother’s funeral stories’? If Madge weren’t so genuinely quirky and florid with her description of my father’s obsessive medical habits, grief would win the battle for my attention.
As the two hours pass, I retrace both my parents’ past and moments of my own adolescent life as well. During a lull, my high school English teacher and yearbook advisor peers into the room. Dressed in corduroys, an elbow-patched topcoat, and a thick fabric tie, he smiles and hugs me.
“Thank you so much for coming, Doug. I am just about out of conversation with people I barely know if I know them at all. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I am exhausted.”
“I know. Talking to everyone is so tiring, but I saw you making your way around the room like a skilled politician,” he winks and pats my arm. Politics, as well as books, cemented our friendship from the beginning. “I had to come. I was so shocked to read her obituary. She was such a lovely woman. Let’s sit down,” my favorite teacher gestures to the couch where I learned about my father’s stool obsession only moments before.
Sinking into the familiar fabric pricks me like a balloon, and I burst into tears that I have managed to keep at bay since the private service. As he had done thirty years ago, Doug retakes the reins as my confidante and listens to my rambled recounting of the past six months. Shaking his head, he comments, “The past few months must have been terrible for you and your husband. I have requested a Mass be said in your mother’s honor.”
“Doug, I’m afraid that my ambivalence about God hasn’t congealed much over the years, but thank you. Thank you for having a Mass said for Mom, and thank you for coming. Mom really liked you, but I suspect that’s because you always gave me good grades and kept me out of trouble with the priests and the nuns.” I grimace and then smile at the memories of how many occasions Doug had rescued me from punishment after one of my argumentative outbursts.
“Parent-teacher conferences were always enjoyable when I saw your mother. And I gave you good grades because you earned them. You probably still earn them. Besides, you are the best yearbook editor I ever had the pleasure to work with past and present.” The visitation numbers swell again, and Doug rises to his feet. “I signed the guestbook. Take care of yourself, Anna. Please. I know you are facing a mountain, but take care of yourself. I’m really glad I came,” he finishes.
When my high school boyfriend, Mark, sans braces, walks across our thirty-year gap, the two of us engage in a nostalgic but vaguely uncomfortable conversation. I stay mute, growing disconnected from the ambiance of a distant history he retells, a history of summer evenings when we drove through a maze of unpaved roads. For six adolescent weeks, summer evenings passed sweetly but awkwardly between us. With Elton John whining through the glowing dashboard, the ping, ping of gravel jumping under the tire rims cracked the melody of Benny and the Jets into pieces. The sweet smell of corn stalks dangled in the muggy air. Red-winged blackbirds descended on plowed remains in the fields to feed. This was the South Dakota I once knew, the South Dakota I had to leave.
Condolences and nostalgia only carry a conversation so far, however. Our exchange about humid summer evenings collapses into a discussion about how Mark cannot believe he is raising two teenagers. I glance at my watch when he turns his head for a moment, making a mental note to ask for his email when a disembodied photo waves in front of me. Mark laughs. Both of us have seen this photo before.
For a moment, I look at the Polaroid image of the sign made by my stablemates. In the Polaroid image, crepe paper decorations and a stenciled sign read: “Welcome Back, Anna. Dino and all of us love you.” At the sight of my first horse, his head thrust over his decorated stall door, standing under the sign, crepe paper strings falling off the dirty walls and gently waving in the breeze, I am catapulted back thirty years. I turn to see my high school riding instructor’s brown eyes welling with tears and collapse in her arms.
Too many reminders. Too much conversation. Too many days to come as a motherless daughter. The emotional tank I filled early this morning is running on empty. The string of condolences repeated replays of stories and saddened questions about the cause of my mother’s death left me mentally scorched. When the room empties for the last time, I exhale all the conversations, all the tears, and all the memory stirred by the grief of others. I sit alone on the sofa. Kick my heels off. Lean back into the plumped pillows, staring without focus into the empty room.
My mother’s funeral may be over, but the aftermath of her death has only just begun.
I have moved up a generation.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_e0eaf95eadc34fa38cc26975cd798f307Emv2.jpg200300Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:53:132021-07-29 12:57:11Moving up a generation
I climb the stairs and duck under the canopy-shielded entrance. The plum-colored tarp bends and twists from the force of the thirty-mile an hour wind. With effort, I heave the glass door open, lodging it with my elbow until I manage to scuttle into the foyer. I step out of the subzero temperatures. Only 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and all the steps have been shoveled; pellets sprinkled like breadcrumbs across the pavement melt the ice.
The Miller Funeral Home hums with a buzz of foreign activity. Funeral directors, older men with graying temples, glide silently across the carpet, their silence and presence as pronounced as helpful monks. The earliest hours on a Saturday morning, yet each man is dressed in full suits, their crisp white or cream shirts ironed and unblemished by the day. Ready to attend to the business of grief, a receptionist, seated at a weighted mahogany desk, crouches over a phone receiver. She wedges hushed tones of sympathy between scheduling a new appointment.
The parlor revolves around the air of an airport terminal’s baggage conveyor belt. Arrivals of the living, departures of the dead, the motion of loss infinite. As my swollen eyes adjust to the muted light thrown off by small lamps peppered around the foyer and track lighting sequestered in the ceiling, another wave of shock and horror sweeps over me, and I burst into tears. With a hint of my knees giving way, a funeral attendant materializes and gathers me into his muscled, aged arms.
“I am so sorry for your loss; weep as long as necessary. We are here to help in any way we can. The shock is still fresh. Don’t feel like you have to make any decisions right now,” he murmurs. His hand rubs my back in a circular motion, and with each move of his hands, my breath settles. After a few minutes, as the wave subsides, he asks, “Who in your life has passed on?”
Passed on. Such a strange, perfunctory, predictable phrase. Passed on where, when, how, why, passed on, uttered to reassure, to console, perhaps even to obfuscate a pain that is often more physical than emotional. I find it difficult to silence my ping pong mind with so little sleep, my thoughts scuttling across my mind. One minute I am contemplating what the phase ‘passed on’ means, and seconds later, my head is in another plane entirely listing people I need to phone and in which country.
Questions rather than answers flood my mind. Should I schedule a religious service? Why does death always seem to come in the darkness? Why is my mother gone? I cannot silence my philosophical paradigm. First, I am numb, then suddenly analytic. Every activity, every thought I observe and record, then promptly forget. As quickly as my emotional breakers recede, I am clear-eyed. I gaze over the funeral attendant’s broad shoulder, noting the funeral staff’s natural choreographed entrances and exits into the reception area. All move across the stage of loss as naturally as breathing.
“My mother. My mother has died. Someone found her slumped over her steering wheel in a Walgreen’s parking lot, the one on Minnesota Avenue. Who found her, I wonder? When I was in Sioux Falls in August, I thought our visit might be the last time I saw her alive. Why did I know? Did I know she was going to die,” I string question after nonsensical question together, praying that I will find the focus to stop talking? “Mom lived for nine days after her hemorrhagic stroke. I knew she was going to die from the moment I saw her in ICU,” I babble without limit or effort. For someone who could barely string a sentence together at the hospital, I have reverted to my chronic habit of providing too much information in answer to a question.
“I am indeed very sorry for your loss,” he responds, nonplussed by my verbal incontinence. “Your mother is at peace, and our job is to help you assure that she rests in eternal peace. Why don’t I get you a cup of coffee,” signaling to a second man hovering on the edge of our conversation? “Would you like cream and sugar,” he asks, reaching for a packet of tissues; his wingman offers; my clenched hand releases long enough for me to accept the offering.
I shake my head no but quickly change my mind. “Cream, please. I want some cream. Thank you.” Every pore of my body wilts, and though I have ingested little more than coffee in the past few days, the prospect of a warm, Styrofoam cup shimmers like a cairn in the mountains, guiding me to certain safety.
“Did you phone from the hospital a couple of hours ago,” the old ‘monk’ inquires, gently turning my shoulders, guiding me to a well-positioned chair. When I mutely nod yes, he suggests that I sit down, and he will inquire as to whom I will be meeting with to make final arrangements for my mother, bowing ever so slightly before moving away towards the receptionist’s desk. Like the man with gentle eyes who caught me before I kissed the ground, the younger man with coffee appears like a specter, and I slump into the chair’s warm, plump, floral fabric. Plucking two tissues from the plastic packet, I blow on the coffee’s surface. Sensing the burning heat, I set the cup on the square faux wood accent table on my left.
Thirty years have passed since I have been in this building for my father’s visitation and his meager funeral, and little seems to have changed. Or has it? Stunned by grief at the age of fourteen, I really wouldn’t have noticed if the décor had been deep, tonal wood paneling or bright blue linoleum. But now, with the cold comfort of coffee, my eyes swivel around the foyer and across the passageway’s entrance. Every surface – pedestals with potted chrysanthemums or deep crimson Christmas poinsettias, corner tables and chairs, the receptionist’s central desk, the sideboard against the pinstriped wallpaper in the hall – is populated with clusters of travel tissue compacts.
Slumping further into the chair, I watch the funeral staff navigate unchartered waters for the newly bereft. I reach for the thick notebook I have carried for nine days like a worn talisman and absently begin to turn pages of penciled lists, lists that have come to define not only by days and nights but my new self. I tick items off the bloated list. Cremation – yes. Private funeral; only close friends. Open visitation. Timing should be over the lunch hour; friends and co-workers can dash out of their jobs and drop by to pay their own respects and grieve. Small sandwiches and cookies? Definitely. With the cold winter wind, people must be fed.
Questions of religious services stump me. Faithful but not religious, my mother opted never to join a congregation. Religion is different in this country, she frequently declared. After my father’s death, attending church services became my mother’s lifeline, but as the years waned, her commitment diminished as well. Instead, she clung to a country lost, past lost, dreams lost until she was incapable of moving forward and taking up the reins of her life for a time. I never saw my mother pray; my mother kept her faith to herself as well.
With my father’s death, decisions that were not my own to make seeped through the telephone and under the front door, peppered our mail, and masked our emotions. Now, it was my time to make all the decisions. Making choices and facing facts is my forte. I sip the cooled coffee – how much better if it were it laced with brandy.
Perhaps I dozed in the warm foyer, I don’t know, but when Janet finally walks into the building, I startle at her voice. “So, we’re parked in the Starbucks parking lot. None of the roads have been plowed yet, and Starbucks is the only lot cleared. It’s about a block and a half from here. Have you talked to funeral staff yet,” she asks, stomping her snow-caked boots on the entry rug.
“Monks,” I replied. “I spoke to one of the ‘monks.’ Someone should be ready to meet with us soon.”
“Monks? What are you talking about? Are you alright, well as alright as you can be right now.”? Janet brushes the snow from her down jacket and stamps her boots once more.
“The funeral attendants. They seem to glide across the carpet like ‘monks.’ Look at these men,” I insist, “all of them dressed in suits and ties. I heard the receptionist tell a caller that the funeral home is open twenty-four hours a day. And it’s so busy, even though it’s barely nine o’clock,” my voice trailing into an unexpected wave of tears.
My body absorbs shock from my mother’s death like a violent contusion. Unable to hold my limbs up with intentional will, my body crumbles as if my bones are disintegrating into dust. Efforts at conversation, normally as clear as a winter sky, have become a foreign language.
The call from the hospital three hours ago fades into the funeral home’s floral carpet and is absorbed by other families’ arrivals, stunned into silence by loss. Fresh coffee percolates somewhere, the smell benignly drifting into the belly of equally fresh grief.
Long minutes pass before Janet asks, “Did you phone people in England? Not everyone needs to be called today, Anna. Can others make calls for you?” I nod mutely into my coffee cup. Sobs that had once been violent have transposed into a few seconds of quiet tears.
Janet’s question dangles, unanswered, and she does not repeat it.
Death keeps you busy. I have inherited my mother’s penchant for manufactured control over capricious situations, a mistress of the list. Meticulous, organized, and prioritized enslavement comes from the pen as well as the phone.
I do not have time to grieve. I am drowning, simply drowning.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_e0eaf95eadc34fa38cc26975cd798f307Emv2.jpg200300Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:53:122021-07-29 12:47:34Death keeps you busy
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.
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?
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/m-2707146__340.webp340582Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:53:042021-09-01 14:25:53Plane’s arc, a definition since childhood
In the premature dark, the snow squeaks and crunches beneath our ginger steps. The icy winter resurfaced, plummeting the temperature below zero and into the negative double digits.
“Of course, our appointment with an attorney we have never met has to be on one of the bitterest of nights since Mom died,” I mutter through my wool scarf. “The lawyer’s office is in the building is across the street, one with the time and temperature sign flashing. “How can sign’s electronics even register negative thirty,” I snort, my breath inside the scarf’s dampening the wool.
After crossing the freshly plowed road, Steve casts open a glass door. The cold air meets the stolid warmth inside, and a thick film of condensation forms on the glass. Pausing to knock the snow off his boots on the entryway’s beige carpet, Steve locates the office floor and suite number on the building’s wall index. I shift my weight on the carpet, well past its saturation point from a day’s worth of entrances and exits, and chew another fingernail.
We ride the elevator in relieved silence. Earlier, the culmination of tension from the funeral, ceaseless, lengthy phone calls about the Canadian farmland and the house in England, and a handful of our bills that passed their due date by one or two days had ignited a spark of simmering frustration between us. When Steve left the apartment to buy more U-Haul boxes, I beseeched Janet: “He is driving me nuts, Janet,” I sobbed, striking the dining room table with my fists. “When Steve was in Santa Fe, before the funeral, I had a routine. I have my way of handling calls and meetings and letters and priorities. Steve doesn’t mean to, but he interferes, tells me I am doing things wrong. I have known the players in England and Canada for years. Tell him to get off my bloody back,” I railed, the onset of tears dissolving into a foul puddle of marital discord.
Later, after I left the apartment upon Steve’s return, fleeing to Barnes and Noble under the pretense that I needed a book about the legalities of settling an estate, Janet quietly approached my husband. “Anna is in “campaign mode.” You know she gets like this, and I learned years ago to stand back and allow her to move at her speed. I know her behavior drives all of us crazy sometimes, but part of her mania is a way of dealing with her grief, too,” Janet reasoned, soon soothing Steve’s anxiety. Janet recognized another truth: my frenzy to pack up my mother’s apartment and understand my responsibilities for a moderate yet intricate estate was a response not only instigated by grief and practical necessity but also by a compulsion to erase a life without my mother in it. I returned to the apartment and calmer marital waters.
The elevator door opens, and Steve and I peer out into a nearly colorless, symmetrical passageway. Decorated in a palette restricted to brown shades, both sides of the hallway host equally nondescript artwork featuring Latin legal lexicons and graphic allusions to justice being blind. “I hope our lawyer is more invigorating than this hall,” I quip, forcing a tepid smile.
Near the end of the hallway, a light casts a shadow on my boots. Steve nods and follows me into a seemingly barren office. While we struggle out of our winter coats, a slight and wiry man with a hooked nose appears, his bony hand outstretched towards both of us. Whether due to my grief, the lateness of the hour on a frigid winter evening, or simply our lawyer’s way of doing business, introductions are made and disposed of expeditiously.
After Steve and I are seated, the man with a face like one of the Gringott bankers in Harry Potter listens. At the same time, I begin retracing an abbreviated version of the events leading up to our visit, starting with my mother’s stroke, winding through the discovery of the covert will she penned after my stay in August, before culminating with her death.
“As well, my mother’s bank and investment representatives froze all accounts after her death.” The gnome-faced lawyer nods without comment.
I fail to mention that the bank manager has turned a blind eye to any checks I write for bills.
Bending over a fresh piece of yellow legal paper, he records the events described with an expensive Montblanc fountain pen, its tip scratching across the once virgin page. “Do you have a copy of your mother’s will?” he inquires without looking up.
“Two wills.” The fervent note-taking ceases for a moment, and the lawyer shoots me a penetrating look through his round spectacles. Worried that the admission suggests nefarious behavior on my part, I continue without allowing our counsel to interject. “I have a copy of the will she had drawn up in the early 1980s by an attorney after my father died. All of the beneficiaries mentioned in this will are dead. But I also have a handwritten will that my mother wrote herself five months ago,” I state, cautiously choosing my words and handing both wills across the desk. For a few minutes, no one speaks.
With effort, I suppress the urge to chew another fingernail.
“Well, the handwritten will is the most current demonstration of your mother’s wishes, thereby nullifying the one drafted thirty years ago.” The breath I have been holding expires like a punctured balloon. “Of course, you are Anna, and you are Steve,” he affirms, glancing first at me and then at Steve. We nod. “A holographic or handwritten will does not present a problem in and of itself. Many states, including South Dakota, accept handwritten directives as part of probate proceedings.” I breathe out. Pinpricks of tears gather. I don’t understand my mother’s motivations for writing a second will. I never learn her reasons for keeping it a secret from me. “But, there is a problem with your mother’s will in that there is only one witness signature,” the Gringott banker’s doppelganger continues.
The room falls into silence once more. I turn to Steve and mouth the words, “Now what?” drumming the stubs of my fingernails on the armrest. The proximity of my rising anger overtakes the threat of an embarrassing wave of tears. Has my mother made a legal mess because of her stubbornness?
“Interestingly enough, only two states allow the use of a holographic will with only one signature in matters of probate. Once again, South Dakota is one of those states. However, you will have to sign a legally binding affidavit attesting to the fact that this is your mother’s handwriting,” he announces.
Shooting me another probing glance before continuing to scribble notes, he asks, “Can you attest to this writing being in your mother’s hand?”
“Yes, I can. Without question, my mother wrote the will,” I answer without hesitation. While over the years, the words my mother wrote shrunk, the letters were growing closer together. The directive printed in block letters on a gray paper was undoubtedly written by my mother, signed by her, and witnessed by her friend, Margaret.
“With this holographic will and your signature on an affidavit attesting to the validity of the writing, I can request the court to open probate proceedings on behalf of your mother’s estate. Customarily, such a request is made, and a judge assigned to the case appoints the named parties as executors, you and Steve, within two weeks. However, given that Christmas is two days away and several district court judges are on vacation, I anticipate this result will take longer. In the interim, you may not access your mother’s bank and investment accounts, nor will you be able to sell or change any lease agreements with regards to the property in England and Canada.” Upon completing his recitation of the ins and outs of prairie probate proceedings, the man who will be the first of five lawyers to settle my mother’s estate lays down his pen. Reaching for a tissue, lawyer “number one” removes his circular glasses and wipes a speck of dust from the lens before an afterthought occurs to him.
“Do you have legal counsel in Canada and England?” I shake my head, picking at the corner of my index finger’s half-bitten nail sensing my responsibilities tighten into a legal pretzel. “Probate proceedings differ from country to country, even state to state, so I strongly advise you to retain legal counsel in both England and Canada as it is likely that separate probate proceedings will be required.
Once you are named executors in this country, your standing will be legally established and may be helpful as you proceed in other countries.”
One day after my mother’s funeral and two days before Christmas, my executor’s year began.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_a24c2d7a28a54429b153f614603ad3bc7Emv2_d_3024_4032_s_4_2-scaled.jpg25601920Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:53:002021-09-01 14:32:13Executor’s year begins
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.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/A-Contemporary-American-Memoir-68.jpg12001200Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:52:582021-03-30 15:21:42Breathing in history
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.
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.
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.
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.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Father-by-Sea-Unknpwn.jpg470612Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:52:382021-09-01 14:37:57Black and white footprints in a snowstorm
For Ukrainians, both in Ukraine and worldwide, death is not viewed simply as the cold, lonely end to a life. Indeed, life itself is composed of three parts: the living, those ‘departed,’ and those not yet born. The Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko dedicated one of his works, “To the dead, the living, and the unborn countrymen of mine, living in and outside of Ukraine, my friendly epistle” (1845).
The Christmas Eve table includes a place setting for the souls of the ancestors. To remove any food on the plate before Christmas morning is considered a sin. When family members sit down to eat the non-dairy, twelve-course meal, each pauses to blow upon and brush their chair if a visiting soul is occupying it.
In the winter of my sophomore year in college, I experienced first Ukrainian Christmas Eve with my father’s friends, Bohdan and Nusia Rozdilsky, and their family in Saskatoon.
Rich geometric patterns of orange, ruby, black, and gold sewed into Ukrainian linen peak through platters of jellied fish, fruit and potato varenyky, and blood-red borscht. In the center of the table, the kolach bread, braided in three strands – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – is swathed in candlelight. One place setting, its knives, and forks, plates, and glasses laid with care, remains empty to remember those souls that have gone before.
The child at the table desperately searches the corner of the room for the hidden sheaf of wheat she has learned hidden each Christmas Eve to bring health, abundance, and good luck to those seated at the table in the coming year. The child loves the movement of light casting shadows in and out of the crystal wine glasses and silver candlesticks. Some think the child’s eyes are green, and others gray, steal a glance at the candle in the window. The steady flame burned all evening to remind the family of Ukrainian soldiers who fought in wars past.
In the near silence, the head of the family recites holy prayers in Ukrainian. The man’s strapping, translucent voice collapses into the incandescent play of the candlelight and consoles the remotest part of this child’s heart, nearly rocking the child into a peaceful sleep.
Long ago, there was another child, one who also loved the twinkling lights of the sacrosanct night. Before this child was a man of thirty, he would learn to fear light in the darkness. He would not remember light as salvation like his daughter but as a remorseless terror when the sweeping columns of search beacons moved across his frozen body in the camps, his heartbeat as if it might explode. The moon that his daughter loves so much frightened him years after he was no longer a prisoner, its rays disrupting his fragile sleep even when his wife’s cool hands reached out to comfort him in the night.
I was the child at this sacred table, enchanted by the light, the sounds, and the tastes of my first Ukrainian Christmas Eve.
Nearly fifteen years later, I flew to Saskatoon for Bohdan’s funeral.
The funeral was held in an ornate Ukrainian church. Behind the altar, a gold screen embedded with saints’ visages glowed in the dim light as the dense smell of incense dissipated. The priest, chanting prayers in Ukrainian, walked around the open casket wreathed in candles, the heat warming the cold face of the man I once called uncle.
Later, by the gravesite, a group of men, graying and fragile, moved towards the closed casket. On their breasts, rows of gold and bronze medals chimed, the ribbons, blue, red, and green, bright against the anemic Canadian winter sky. These men were survivors of the war, members of the Ukrainian National Army, like my father and Bohdan. Their voices, reedy at first, deepening with each octave, told a story about how a man, knowing that he can never be buried in the Ukrainian steppe, prays that his soul will return home one day.
Like the man in the Ukrainian lament, my father never returned to his homeland, nor did he live to see the Berlin Wall crumble, and the Soviet Union disintegrate into fragile republics. This is the tragedy of history: when history we should have witnessed happens without us, both the dead and the living are so far away from it. Maybe Bohdan found my father in the mists of time, and they are wandering the streets of Kyiv with chants of the Orange and Maidan Revolutions on their lips.
The song called, Look There, Brother Mine is actually a poem set to music and is traditionally sung at the end of Ukrainian exiles’ funerals to symbolize sorrow for the homeland.
Look there, brother mine,
Look dear friend of mine,
The cranes are winging south, migrating.
In a long grey line.
Cru! Cru! Cru! They cry,
Far from home, I’ll die,
Crossing o’er the sea’s wide waters,
Weary wings I’ll ply,
Weary wings I’ll ply,
Dazzling to the eyes,
Endless in the skies,
Fading, fading in grey clouds
The cranes’ trail dies.
Maybe their deaths will only be a long sleep.
Maybe these old friends are finally home.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_d2909d495b0247ce89caafb0463fcba17Emv2.jpg11641374Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:52:262021-03-30 15:38:30Death is not a cold, lonely end to life