Twin afflictions: immigration

Contrary to my father’s unwillingness to relinquish the past, I am desperate to remain in its tender embrace. At the living room window, I balance precariously on my tiptoes, watching for Mr. Carsrud to pull the squat orange bus with its rounded roof against the snow-crusted curb outside our apartment building. Globe-sized headlights and cranberry-lit bumpers pepper 22nd Street in the early morning dark. When the bus arrives, I bend over to hug Sandy and tell him to be a good dog while I am at school. My mother shoos me out the door, warning me to be careful on the sidewalks still layered with ice from the last storm. Outside, giant snowflakes tumble from the pre-dawn sky in a near blur before clinging together on the cement pavement. I turn and look up at the living room window, searching for the outline of my mother against the snowy darkness. When I reach the end of the sidewalk, Mr. Carsrud swings open the doors with a silver handle, the doors crunching together like an accordion bellows.

“Good morning, good morning, Anna,” says the bus driver who has taken me to school every day since my first day of Kindergarten. “And how are you this morning, my dear?” he asks after I am safely inside, turning the crank once more to lock the cold outside.

“Fine. I guess. Mr. Carsrud, I spilled tea on my homework this morning when I was trying to finish the questions I was stuck on last night. I hope I won’t get into trouble.” The hot cereal my mother made for breakfast has turned my stomach into a circus act.

“Ah, my dear. My dear. Don’t worry. You finished your homework, didn’t you? I am sure Mrs. Pratt won’t mind a little tea, will she? You will have to be a little more careful next time, won’t you?” He winks at me, braking sharply for a stoplight. I nod furiously.

Familiar and reassuring, Mr. Carsrud reminds me of my grandmother’s friends’ husbands, who dress in layers even on summer days. Maybe it’s his thinning hair on the back of his head that I study each morning or the scent of his clothes smelling of spent tobacco, old wool, and the dust that lingers between the curving radiator pipes in my close, airless classrooms.

With a steady hand, Mr. Carsrud maneuvers the rattling bus through freshly plowed streets. Under flickering street lamps, pine-tree silhouettes line Phillips Avenue. Lit houses and others still in darkness shiver in the near silence of the early morning. Cars left running in driveways groan, the exhaust streams curling, separating, and curling again in the frigid air.

Glistening and iridescent snow covers the rolling hills inside the entrance to the All Saints school grounds. With great effort, the bus creeps up the steep drive. Under his breath, Mr. Carsrud announces to no one in particular that he shall have to go over the road with sand again. As the bus turns, the enormous Quartzite cross in a snowy depression dug deep into the hillside comes into view marking Bishop William Hare’s grave. Our pastor tells us that Bishop Hare started All Saints during chapel service because he believed that God’s work was to bring unbelievers closer to the Almighty and educate missionary children on the South Dakota prairie.

The bus moves slowly past the mottled pink and white Quartzite chapel, looming like a haunted castle in the approaching light. Later in the day, when the whole school walks across the snow-packed pavement to the chapel, its turret will throw a bulbous, onion-shaped shadow over the cross, and all afternoon Bishop Hare will be in the shade. Mr. Carsrud maneuvers the bus near the front steps of the school. The heavy wooden front doors seem a little out of place in a sea of pink stone.

I climb off the school bus and solemnly wave goodbye to Mr. Carsrud. Though he will take me home with the other children later this afternoon, for some reason, the bus ride this morning feels like it should be my last one. He looks at me quizzically, smiles, and returns my wave. The door closes behind me, and I am pierced with the understanding that next year I will not ride the bus every morning with Mr. Carsrud. I will not be a student at All Saints anymore. I do not know where I will be going to school next year, however. My name has been on the list for acceptance into an English boarding school since I was born, and now the fateful time is almost here. If I pass the entrance exam next year, I will go to Culford Boarding School after turning thirteen. If not, I will go to the local Catholic junior high school in Sioux Falls.

Once inside the school building, I slowly climb the spiraled marble staircase that curves to the right, leading to my sixth-grade classroom on the third floor. I tell myself to prepare for the real goodbye that I know is coming. I pause on the landings of each floor, standing in the path of a cold draft seeping through the closed, iron-sculpted window frames. The frosted patterns on the glass are faint in the darkness, but when the sky slowly lightens, curlicues and elaborate icy webs will appear as if by magic. In winter, Mr. Carsrud spends a lot of time bleeding the radiators to keep the school warm. Still, in spring, when he pushes the windows wide open to let the fresh air inside, the overwhelming scent of lilac and apple blossoms silently winds a path around the stairs, making it hard to concentrate. This spring will be my last one at All Saints School. I whisper into the nearly empty hallway.

I resolve to walk around the entire campus before I leave for good and begin to make a mental list of my goodbyes to the classrooms, the chapel, the lunchroom, and the playground. The spooky tunnel connecting our school building with the chapel, the lunchroom, and the principal’s offices that becomes a haunted house at Halloween each year for our school carnival will be last on my farewell list.

Outside the door to my classroom, I hesitate and peer inside at the bulletin boards crammed with paper snowflakes, world maps, and photographs carefully torn from the pages of National Geographic magazines and at the letters of the alphabet cut out from crisp colored paper pasted along the walls of the chalkboard. I race to my desk and frantically begin to engrave my initials into the worn, creaky lid with a pen, hiding my imprint in the sea of doodles that have come before me. I barely finish the ‘S’ when Mrs. Pratt strides past my desk and instructs us to open our green textbooks on South Dakota history.

The entire class groans at the prospect of our twenty-minute sessions. Twenty minutes seem like the longest twenty minutes of our young lives. Our history textbooks have a badly drawn replica of Mount Rushmore on the green cover. Mrs. Pratt pulls a goofy face and spends more time than she needs organizing her desk before our lesson, mandated by the state legislature, begins. I suspect we will not be reading from the book today. I smile faintly in anticipation, waiting for Mrs. Pratt to ask the same question she has asked every week since I have been her student: “Now, class, if there is a fire, what is the first thing you should do?” Mrs. Pratt snorts, barely able to get to the end of her question without laughing.

Wall Drug, Wall, South Dakota“Toss the South Dakota history books into the fire on our way out of the building, Mrs. Pratt,” the whole class shouts with glee. Mrs. Pratt explodes with laughter, and we know that another week will pass when we do not have to read from these awful books.

Mrs. Pratt is married to a member of the Lakota Indian tribe. She does not laugh when telling stories about how the settlers stole the stone from the Lakota Indians. The people who built this school raided their quarries and left the chiefs with little rock to make their peace pipes. I know she is telling the truth. I have been to Pipestone with my parents, and the displays describe how pioneers mined the stone, though their effort is not defined as theft. I feel a little guilty about playing with the stone bits that have fallen away from the buildings at recess, using the pieces for etching patterns in the pavement.

When Mrs. Pratt closes the textbook with great drama, I put my head down on my desk. Today may be one of the last times I hear Mrs. Pratt tell stories about hunting feasts, buffalo hunts, and why Lakota medicine men use pipestone to make their pipes and collect wild herbs for injuries and illnesses. Mrs. Pratt confirms what I have long suspected. History is more than words between the covers of a book. I silently say goodbye to my favorite teacher, burying my face in my school sweater.

Before lunchtime, Father G. leads the solemn procession of first through sixth graders into the chapel. Each day, one of the teachers assigns one of the 6th-grade students to carry the silver-plated cross and the American flag into a chapel. Phillip and Jane are carrying the flag and the cross today. The boys, dressed in navy trousers and white turtlenecks, push each other in line, trying to make those with untied shoelaces trip. Opposite, the girls, wearing plaid jumpers and pearl blouses, whisper behind cupped, tiny hands before walking through the arched doorway. All of us wear Santa red sweaters with the purple and gold school emblem sewn onto our chests: “All Saints School. From Glory to Glory.”

The chapel’s narrow pews are worn thin in lopsided patches. Underneath my fingers, the wood feels slippery. I search for patterns in the wood and trace profiles of faces in the seat beside me. Father G. walks slowly to the intricately carved wooden pulpit and methodically climbs the stairs to give his sermon. Behind him, a solitary gold cross on the altar gleams against the deep amethyst cloth. The slightly slanted magnetic numbers on the board are telling us which hymns we will sing today. Our pastor turns the pages of the enormous Bible and begins to speak in a weary voice. He seems to bear the weight of God on his stooped shoulders, a weight like my father’s secret burden.

Instinctively, I finger the outline of the silver cross underneath my jumper and turtleneck. Each year, as part of the All Saints Day celebrations, all the sixth graders sit at the Head Table with our pastor and eagerly bite into cupcakes, hoping to find the unique coin in the sweet dough. The student lucky enough to strike the metal coin is allowed to wear a silver-plated replica of the All Saints cross on an ivory ribbon for the entire school year.

The cross, hidden under my school uniform, is my fragile secret. I never take it off, even when I go to bed. When I hear my parents argue about returning to England to live, I stroke the smooth, worn surface until the cross is warm like a radiator. The frequency of their arguments has grown in the past year, and sometimes I hear loud declarations from my father about my mother and me becoming American citizens. If we are moving to England if I am going to school there soon, why do we need to have American citizenship? I am glad I was lucky enough to wear the cross.

After chapel, nearly the entire school, grades one through six, files down the stairs into the compact lunchroom cramped with round tables. Teachers and children pass around plastic baskets of hard-toasted bread chunks called ‘rusks,’ steaming bowls of canned green beans, hamburger goulash, and blue pitchers of fresh milk. Mrs. Pratt sits squarely at the center of my table, peeling a grapefruit. She has a grapefruit every day for lunch and passes each dish to the student sitting next to her without pausing to heap a spoonful on her plate.

When the goulash bowl is empty, I volunteer to go to the kitchen for another helping and crane my head around the corner of the counter, hoping to catch a glimpse of Mr. Carsrud’s wife. Mrs. Carsrud sees me and wipes her hands on her apron on her way to the kitchen window. “May we have another bowl of goulash, Mrs. Carsrud?” I try to convince myself that my voice is firm, pressing my wobbling legs further into the wooden floor.

Do not cry. Do not cry.

Mrs. Carsrud hands me a replenished bowl. I silently tell her how I will miss seeing her at lunch every day. I will miss sitting in the worn wooden pews of the chapel upstairs and smelling your cooking while our pastor talks about God and goodness. “Thank you, Mrs. Carsrud,” I say, forcing myself to smile broadly before raising my chin and walking with determined steps back to my table: the penetration of her kind eyes in my back nearly makes me faint.

Twin afflictions: war

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

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

This history would shape me long into adulthood.

This history would almost break me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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