Time of death: six thirty a.m.

Awoken with a start from a restless sleep, I grope not for my watch or the battery-operated alarm clock. I do not reach for my smudged glasses, either, but instead, fumble for the switch on the floor to turn on the Christmas tree lights. The miniature lights twinkle. The early, frigid darkness sparkles like counterfeit jewels. Tears dry then moisten as another surge of recognition consumes me.

My mother is going to die.

Save the three days I slept in the ICU waiting room still dressed in the suit I wore when the call from the emergency room about my mother’s hemorrhagic stroke came, this sofa has been my bed. Each evening I pull the cushions off the sofa bed in the living room. I stack the pillows on a dining room chair pushed back from the galley kitchen, piling worn blankets and duvets and stray clothing on the lumpy mattress.
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I read by the light of Christmas tree lights. The lights glow day and night, trying to stave off a sense of impending doom boiling in the pit of my empty stomach. Against the winter darkness, the lights twinkle and sparkle without devotion. Still, without the soft glow and the lights catching the blushing ornaments, I cannot drift off, even if it’s only for a single hour or two.

Drained of sleep and faith, I drift to the living room window and tentatively reach out to touch the frozen glass. Last night, the wind blew in from the north, squealing and moaning, creaking and wailing like me. Snow tendrils creep across the roads. The slender cobwebs braid an icy lair. More than a foot of fresh snow has fallen in the night. My mother’s apartment building has lived for over thirty years is incarcerated in an ice prison. The sky, still pregnant with winter, belies the tempered blizzard, which will likely rage on for a few more hours.

Though a snowplow breaks the path of winter, pushing back the night and the snow’s accumulation, I still wonder if it will be possible to drive to the hospital once the anemic sun rises.

I wander into the galley kitchen. Turn on the electric kettle. Toss a tea bag in a mug. Collect the cream a few days past its expiration date from the refrigerator. Wait. When the pot boils, I pour the water into the cup, watching the teabag bleed ginger brown against the white bone china. Absently, I press and push against the pouch urging it to steep a little faster—lists cascade across my mind.

Setting the steaming mug on the dining room table, I push back the week’s mail: bills that need to be paid, Letters to be answered. Christmas cards have arrived from people who are oblivious to my mother’s condition. Pulling my ‘master’ list of To-Dos, I grasp a pen and start adding tasks to a clean page. Visit the bank manager. Make an appointment with the investment administrator. Buy multiple expandable files and a label maker. Return a page worth of phone calls. Buy more international phone cards.​​

Day Nine: another day of shuttling between my mother’s bedside and hunting down elusive doctors in the maze of hospital hallways. Another day of waiting for updates about my mother’s condition that are few and far between. Her medical situation is not improving, nor is it markedly shifting into the positive column either. Though the bleed in her head shows a mild retraction, its absorption into her brain matter has stalled.

I am lost in the perfunctory world of list-making when the phone rings. I glance at the mantel clock on the piano – 6:20 a.m. The shrill ring of the telephone at this time of the day does not unnerve me. The phone rings until after midnight most evenings with daily calls from or to England or Australia, often commencing by 5:30 a.m. I am juggling four time zones leaving me stretched like a taut drum around the world’s circumference. I pick up the telephone receiver and mumble a distracted hello.

“Is this Anna So Coc E?” The voice is unfamiliar. When I do not answer immediately, the hesitant voice repeats the question—my mind’s roll-a-dex grinds. No accent.

“Yes. I am Anna Sochocky,” I respond, crisply refusing to allow a tone of gloom seep into my voice. Still, my hands begin to shake like a person struck down by tremors. I put the pen down and wait.

“Ms. So Coc E. This is a member of the nursing staff on your mother’s ward. Your mother went into respiratory arrest at six a.m. We have been executing chest compressions for twenty minutes, but your mother is unresponsive. Would you like us to continue with chest compressions and intubate her,” the anonymous nurse’s question hangs by a thread in the silence? The nurse persists. “Did you sign a hospital medical directive? Does your mother have a resuscitation order,” the nurses fire off companion questions.

My mother is dying. My mother is dead. For a few seconds, I cannot speak, do not speak. I stare out the window into the black morning. The wind grows fierce. The invisible squall’s direction changes and tosses the snow into somersaults. I have grieved for nine days. From the moment I walked into the ICU unit, I knew that my mother was gone. Why does death always arrive in the darkest part of the night or early morning? I gaze into the blizzard wind.

My mother is dying. My mother is dead.

I return to the present with a vengeance. “I gave you copies of the medical power of attorney stating that my mother did not want extraordinary measures taken. I signed the medical directive that you gave me three days ago, specifically not to do any chest compressions or intubation. Don’t you have these instructions noted on her chart or in a file somewhere?”

I march around the tiny living room, desperate to be focused through the rapid onset of tears, tripping over the corner legs of the unmade sofa bed, looking for my clothes, my shoes, my watch, my heart.

“Stop compressions now. DO NOT intubate my mother. Mom wouldn’t want any of this! You’ve probably broken her ribs pounding on her chest! Stop breaking her! I’ll be at the hospital as soon as I can be.”

“Ok. We will stop all resuscitative efforts,” confirming my answer. I am sorry,” the nurse adds before the receiver tone clicks in my ear.

Half-dressed and stunned, I dial Janet’s number. When she answers, I cannot speak. I cannot breathe. I must breathe.

“What’s happened,” Janet whispers.

“She’s gone, Janet. Mom is gone.” Leaping to my feet and weaving around the bed, the chairs, the loss, I race to the kitchen sink and try to spit, expecting to find acidic bile in the basin. My stomach is empty. I emit dry heaves, instead. I nod mutely into the phone, listening to panicked noises on the other end of the line. A chair’s legs scrape across the floor. Boots are selected and quickly discarded. Affronted grunts from Janet’s two dogs register their displeasure with being disturbed in the pre-dawn dark.

“I’ll be there as soon as I can. It will take me a few minutes to warm up the truck, and it’s snowing hard again, but I’ll be there as soon as I can. I am so sorry. We’ll get through this together, ok,” but Janet’s weak declaration dissolves amidst choking sobs on both ends of the line.

With nothing left to say, I hang up the phone and aimlessly begin to throw the pillows off the sofa bed and fold blankets. Halfway through pushing the mattress into the hidden compartment, the frame refuses to collapse. The sofa bed is stuck. I am stuck, too.

Do I get on the phone or finish getting dressed? I crumble to the carpet and lean against the bent steel frame. Who do I call next? My husband, of course, but should I call the funeral home before we get to the hospital? Will anyone even answer the phone at this time of day? Should I post a notice on the website that I have been using to update people about Mom’s condition?

The tree lights fuse. The ornaments bleed color into a watery pool. I cannot breathe. I must breathe. Struggling to my feet, I shove the bed violently into place and reconstruct the sofa, cramming pillows onto the frame and fluffing the accent ones into place. The phone rings a second time.

Believing it is Janet to tell me her truck has skidded into a snowdrift, I answer the phone with a question – are you stuck? The person on the other end of the line is not Janet, but the hospital again tells me that one of the nurses found my mother’s pulse. Sign of life is thready, but there is a pulse.

My mother is being transported to the ICU. How can this be? Is she alive after all? My mother’s still alive.

I hang up the phone and toss the receiver onto the sofa. Wriggling into another sweater, I am zipping up my boots when the phone rings a third time. Once again, an anonymous nurse asks me to confirm my name and follows with an apology. “We are sorry, but we were mistaken. Your mother does not have a pulse. Time of death six-thirty.”

By now, any tears of mine have evaporated. Dulled and confused by the hospital’s conflicting messages, I scream without a hint of grace into the phone receiver. “What the hell are you people doing? You violate my mother’s wishes and ignore or cannot FIND the directive I signed, the PDA you asked me to bring to the hospital. She’s dead. She’s alive. Now she’s dead. Are you sure this time, or do you want to check again? Leave my mother alone, for Christ’s sake. You have done more than enough.”

Racing on the edge of madness, I slam the receiver down on its cradle.

After nine days of ambiguity, my mother is dead, and I have moved up a generation.

The politics of bread

Why is it always about fucking bread?

I reach deep into the freezer on a crusade to vilify the starchy culprits, violently casting everything I find to the floor. Stiff hamburger buns skid across the linoleum. Two slices of pita bread soar over my shoulder. Half-eaten loaves of focaccia and olive bread come to an unceremonious halt at the edge of the stove. Why can’t I ever manage to finish any of this bread? I dig like a wild animal into the farthest corner of the freezer only to find one orphan bun wedged against a package of bread dough. One frozen bun and I am saving this because I am afraid that the grocery store will stop making buns? Why do I have this dough? When was the last time I made bread? When have I ever made bread? I hurl the dough to the floor, but it hits my barefoot instead. The icy air numbs every inch of my sunburned arm to my shoulder. I open my hand to find four tiny ovals of bruschetta. Why four? I scream, hurling the pieces across the kitchen—the bag arcs over the counter before landing in the dining room.

The graceless exit of the bruschetta temporarily suspends my tirade, and I burst into tears. Touching my hand to my chest, I stand sobbing into the open freezer. My breathing shallow, my hands shaking, I whisper, I am so sorry, Daddy. I am so, so sorry. Mournfully, I stare around my kitchen, gazing at the consequences of my tantrum. I retrieve each piece of bread with trembling hands and gently place each bundle back in the freezer. As if my fingers hold not bread but an expensive crystal, I rescue the tiny bruschetta pieces from the dining room and collect the pita bread and the solitary bun.

Why does bread continue to define me, haunt me, disgrace me? Will my father’s words that stung me with a shame I still carry ever waste away? I wait for the final wave of my storm to pass. On the floor, no evidence of my careless anger remains.

I did not want to write about bread today. Yet, bread has always been the leading actor in my history, a fixture in my memory. What did my father value like gold? Bread. What did my mother bake for my father on days when the winter air was thirty below zero or on sizzling summer mornings when the heat and humidity suffocated the kitchen? Bread. What kept my father alive in the Nazi concentration camps? Bread, of course.

Bread was not only my father’s obsession; it was my terror, too. Bread muscled its way to life’s center stage in my family, awakening memory like a dangerous spell ingrained in every meal and embedded in the flour and yeast of each slice. Persistent shadows of my family dinner table resurface without warning, my mind replaying treacherous nights when dinner became a bleak and perfunctory affair, nights that my parents and I revisited each day like a penance for our sins, nights that I cannot expunge from my memory.

I listen closely to the past and hear the chafing sound of my father’s spoon scraping the sides of his glass bowl filled with pallid white rice. Scrape, scrape, silence, as he raises his spoon to his mouth. Scrape, scrape, another pause until the silver spoon grazes the glass again. My mother and I stare at our plates, pushing tender meat and Brussels sprouts onto our forks with our knives. Cut a piece of meat, divide the spherical sprout, and maybe add a dash of potato or carrot, our rhythm shifts with each hesitant bite. The pinched expression on my mother’s hurt face, so hurt by my father’s refusal to eat the meal she carefully prepared, stifles my urge to eat. I fix my eyes on my plate, knowing that my father’s anger will be the fourth, uninvited guest at our table again tonight.

Serhij Sochocky - POW in Rimini, Italy WWII

Serhij Sochocky was a prisoner-of-war in Austria and Italy during World War II.

“You are not in the camps anymore, Serhij. You have meat and vegetables. Why do you insist on eating rice,” my mother pleads.“I have to stay fit. Too many doctors are overweight, and that is a terrible example for my patients,” my father replies, dismissing her question as if it were a fly.

“But you are so lean and fit, Serhij. Do you remember when we worked together in England, you ate so robustly,” my mother soothes, refusing to relinquish the argument.

“Stella enough. I do not want to talk about it anymore. Besides, I was very overweight when we worked together, don’t you remember,” my father snaps. “Anna, what are you doing? Eat your dinner! Now!”

I’m not too fond of Brussels sprouts, but I don’t want my father to be angry with me, so I maneuver the tiny cabbages around in a circle before taking a bite and swallowing hard. Most evenings, I manage to eat the sprouts but cannot bear the strips of gristle that I carefully remove from the meat. The thought of trying to chew the fat tightens my stomach into an iron ball.

My father’s gaze, persistent and angry, scorch my already flushed cheeks. With his attention turned to me, his hand reaches out to yank my chair closer to my plate. I brace myself, waiting for his voice to detonate.

“Anna! Stop it! Stop pushing your food around your plate,” he growls, his anger rapidly rising before coming to a rolling boil. “Anna! Aah! My daughter is selfish. She has food to eat, and still, she is selfish,” my father bellows.

“Oh, Anna, please eat darling,” my mother begs. She stops eating and waits. My mother’s eyes, weary from my father’s anger, weary from night after night of my father’s refusals to eat anything but rice, fill not with tears but with resignation as deep as Hades.

Because I know what will come next, I push a piece of the pork chop fat onto my fork quickly and press a sprout on the end to mask the taste. I chew furiously, trying to swallow, but the gristle will not break apart. I chew faster and faster, but still, the fat refuses to slide down my throat. The texture of the fat is so vile. When my eyes start to water, I reach for my glass of milk.

The kitchen falls silent.

“When I was in the concentration camps, Anna, do you know what I had to eat,” my father hisses.

I nod and swallow hard. This is one of the few stories from the war my father tells, a story he repeats in tune with his anger.

“A stale piece of bread and a handful of grapes. We had to make soup from the grass. Grass soup. You are a selfish little girl. Here you have meat, but you refuse to finish it.”

“I’m sorry, Daddy. I am full. I cannot finish.”

“You will sit at this table – alone – until you finish your dinner, Anna,” my father shouts as he shoves his chair back, leaving the table in a fit of anger I know will last for days. I sit staring at my plate until the trees melt into the darkness.

So many years after the war, I think my father starved himself with intention. At dinner, a bowl of rice was his staple, but he foraged the cupboards for bread and cookies after dinner. In the mornings, when my mother came into the kitchen, she found the deflated skin of a banana that my father had eaten in the middle of the night.

Did my father think that he did not deserve to eat? Did he not trust that the refrigerator would be well-stocked when he opened it? Or did his diet obsession camouflage his conviction that no one would ever control him again by starving his body — a tenuous shield against the ambiguity of a future he never learned to trust?

Maybe my father was right. I am selfish. Images of sprouts and gristle, the bread once littered across my kitchen floor, pulls me under, deep into a familiar eddy of guilt.

When eyes of war meet

Outside, five unshaven men dressed in black t-shirts, khaki shorts, and faded blue jeans whistle in our direction on our approach. “Just keep moving and keep your eyes straight ahead,” I mutter to Brenda Passing one of the men, the oldest, I level the coldest stare I can summon.

“I like your scarf. I like how you have it wrapped around your blonde hair, honey,” the man responds, but not in kind, brushing cigarette ash off his t-shirt. His frame, unbalanced by a beer-induced paunch, weaves.

“Heh, my friend and I just want a beer and something to eat, o.k.?” I know that my attempt at a snarl is weak in its innocence, but the stranger’s move to block the door only emboldens me to cross his path.

“Are you here to celebrate the fourth of July, honey? Come on, let my friends and I buy you both a beer.” The man plants his Birkenstock clad feet apart at the bar’s threshold. A dozen empty beer glasses line the steps and one of his friends, a small man with a mass of long curly red hair and a beard to match, sets another one down. He is the only one in the close group that is dressed in army fatigues. He does not talk but flashes a slightly disconcerting smile over and over again, a smile that seems to have little to do with the present.

“That’s Sonny,” the man in the Birkenstocks says, noting my stare. “Now Sonny, why don’t you introduce yourself to these lovely young girls. I’m Leighton, by the way. This here is John, and over there is Richard.” The man named Richard suddenly looks up from what appears to be his stand up comedy act with one audience member and nods. The man named John does not speak. Instead, he continues a long conversation with his beer.

“Look, we just want something to eat, o.k.,” I grunt, grabbing Brenda’s hand and pushing my way past the man named Leighton’s broad and imposing figure.

“O.k. O.k. Just wanted to buy you a beer all right. My boys and I won’t give you any trouble, right boys?’ Richard returns to his stand-up routine. John stares at the ground. Sonny smiles his creepy, clown-like smile once again. Brenda and I squeeze our way into the dark bar.

The walls of the main room’s interior are made of deep rich wood. The vaulted ceiling hangs close to the bartender’s head. One decoration leftover from St. Patrick’s Day dangles from the mantel of the well-stocked backlit bar: everybody’s Irish on St. Paddy’s Day. Brenda spots an empty booth and waves me over as she beetles towards it.

At one o’clock in the afternoon, the bar is full. If they had a beer at lunch, members of the D.C. political machine have long since scuttled back to their air-conditioned offices. Instead, the bar is full of men standing in clusters and smoking Marlboro Reds, men like the ones hovering at the front door. Some have scraggly beards while others are clean-shaven and sport pierced ears. One man, his face hidden under the shadow of his MIA/POW baseball cap, do shots of whiskey alone. When he raises his head, I realize the man is one of the men we met at the entrance.

“Brenda. Look around. Many of the men in this bar are wearing the same t-shirt that the man, Leighton, was wearing. I think these guys are Vietnam vets. Maybe something is going on today at the Vietnam Memorial.”

Brenda nods. A waitress comes over to our table. Brenda and I decided to split a burger and onion rings. We order two beers. When the waitress returns, she sets down two frosted mugs and two Heinekens, telling us that our food will be ready shortly. Brenda carves the burger down the middle of the plump bun with her knife when our food arrives. “I think we should go down to the Mall and see what’s going on there. Maybe we should even stay if there are fireworks. Oh, shit. Two o’clock at the bar. That guy at the door who wanted to buy us beer is coming our way.”

Leighton appears at the edge of our table with a Heinekin in each hand. The smirk on his face grows as he pretends to be something like a butler and begins topping up our beer glasses.

“Afternoon again, ladies. I hope you are enjoying this fine weather that our nation’s Capitol is providing us this holiday. My name is Leighton, and I will be your bartender for the rest of the afternoon. May I sit down for a moment?” Leighton squeezes into the booth next to Brenda before waiting for a response. He does not see Brenda rolling her eyes. I respond with silence, pushing my now full beer glass away and raising the nearly empty beer bottle to my lips. Leighton winks.

“Look, we are not interested in anything you have on offer. Why don’t you shove off and leave my friend and me alone!” Brenda raises her eyebrow and quickly starts to rearrange the glasses on the table.

“Now, is that any way to treat your butler? Today is a day to celebrate—the birth of our country and all that. Come over here, Richard, you too, Sonny, come over and meet these nice young girls,” Leighton motions to his friends at the bar.

“I would think that there is not a lot for you to celebrate after being shipped off to Vietnam,” I snort without regret.

Brenda raises her eyebrow again at me, a little higher this time, as if to say, you better tone it down a bit. “I’m Brenda. You are sitting next to my roommate, Anna,” Brenda chirps, attempting to gloss over the tension that I created.

“Finally, an introduction,” Leighton exclaims, thrusting his muscular arm over the table. “Let’s make some more room for everyone. Sonny, you squeeze in next to Brenda. You’re both little. You too, Richard, there should be room for you. I’ll sit next to you, Anna, if you don’t mind,” I flash Brenda a ‘is this ok with you’ look, and she nods and shrugs her shoulders.

A couple of hours of conversation melt into the heat of the holiday. Richard has found a willing audience member in Brenda for his comedy routine. With each joke or story he tells, witty or uninspired, she bursts out in unrestrained laughter. Leighton and I trade mild-tempered insults with each other. John stares into his beer glass. Sonny’s gaze feels like it is burning a hole into my shoulder.

Soon, Leighton starts talking about his war. I do not tell him that I want to know everything about the war – the smells, the images, the physical feeling of an adrenaline charge that men like him experience when faced with their imminent demise. I want to understand the marks on bodies and psyches alike that war leaves behind.

“I am a deserter. I deserted the war,” Sonny suddenly announces, dialing up the intensity of the uncomfortable gaze.

“Sonny, no, you are not! Quit lying. Have another beer.” Leighton shifts uncomfortably in his seat and tries to regain my attention. Brenda and I glance uneasily at each other. Our morning, which began as a fit of pique, has quickly degenerated into an afternoon of questionable decisions.

“I can’t tell you stories about singed flesh or arms lying without bodies in the mud, bodies where the only recognizable part is the powder-burned fatigues, but I can tell you the truth if you can stand it. I am a deserter,” Sonny slams his empty beer glass on the table without losing his stride.

“Sonny, stop. Come on, man. Why go down that road,” Leighton leans forward into Sonny’s face but is met with his trademark smile. “Just stop all that, Sonny!”

“O.k.” Sonny looks down into his beer for a few minutes then raises his head in a bright, devastating smile. “I’m Sonny, and I’m sunny!” he shouts, causing a few heads at the bar to turn towards our table.

“O.k. Sonny. Yes, you are sunny, Sonny. Do you want me to get you another beer,” Leighton asks nervously, beginning to raise his arm to motion the waitress over.

“I just wanted to tell a story, Leighton,” he says, his voice shaking and rising. “I wanted to tell HER this story. Do you know why,” Sonny asks, pounding on the table until the bar pauses? Abruptly, the men leaning against the bar stop talking in mid-sentence. The waitress quietly busies herself with wiping a clean table next to us, her ears cocked.

“It’s o.k. Sonny. You don’t have to do this, buddy. Just sit back and relax.” Leighton’s voice is even. He looks directly at Sonny and reaches out to slap him on the shoulder. “It’s o.k., man. Just hold on. We’ll go to The Wall later, and everything will be better, o.k.?

“Dammit. I am going to tell my story. I want to tell HER my story because when I look at her face, I see war. She understands it. I can see it in her eyes,” he whimpers, staring across the table at me. “Anna understands what she sees because I see it in her face,” Sonny whispers before pushing past Richard and Brenda, disappearing down the length of the bar towards the bathroom.

“What the hell was that all about? What happened to him over there?” Brenda’s voice is insistent and fierce on my behalf. I am grateful, but for the first time this afternoon, I am frightened. Frightened of the situation, Brenda and I have found ourselves in or frightened of Sonny’s pathos that is my own. I am not sure.

“First of all, Sonny is not a deserter,” Leighton, the man, once full of his own bravado whispers, his shoulders slumped forward in resignation. “Maybe this visit to D.C. wasn’t such a good idea, after all, Richard.” Richard nods his head thoughtfully and looks towards the door. Sonny is standing at the end of the bar doing shots.

“What the hell does Sonny mean?” The pit in my stomach sinks a little lower, knowing that my question is one I may regret asking.

“Well, I don’t know if Sonny was going to tell you about why he left Vietnam, but Sonny is not a deserter,” Leighton leans back against the booth before bringing the last of his beer to his lips before continuing. “Sonny’s father did not want him to go to Vietnam, but he was drafted. We were all drafted. His father wanted him to stay in school. Sonny refused. Said that if his friends were going, he had to go. When the fighting got really bad over there, Sonny’s father decided that he had to get Sonny out of the jungle one way or another. He figured Sonny deserved a discharge that would not mar his record. Sonny came home to take care of his mother because of a family emergency…,” Leighton pauses, his sentence drifting. “Do either of you want something to drink. Scotch? Brandy? Another beer,” Leighton asks, desperate to change the subject.

“What was a family emergency? You need to tell us, Leighton.” Brenda’s face tightens, and her voice is unsteady.

Leighton exhales hard. “Sonny’s father committed suicide by slicing his wrists open so that his son could come home. Sonny carries a lifetime of guilt over his father’s decision. Look, if Sonny comes back to the table, let’s try and be bright and laugh again. He forgets things sometimes, especially when he has too much to drink like he seems to be doing this afternoon.”

https:\www.whig.com/20170515/life-stories-Vietnam-vet-carries-ptsd-in-silence-for-35-years

Leighton gets up and begins to collect the beer glasses on the table. “I have known Sonny for twenty years. He never talks about his father. He must have seen something in you, Anna,” Leighton shakes his head turning towards me, “something that he thought he could trust because you haven’t been anywhere near any war as far as I know.”

When art was my mystery

I had loved art as a child. Swirling my paintbrush in red and white, watching the bristles turn to pink delighted me. There were pallets of carefully measured primary colors, rationed to avoid the excesses children adore, margarine containers of muddied water, too clouded to rinse the color from the old brushes, two-foot-high easels with pieces of masking tape in the corner imprinted with each child’s name, and denim smocks riddled with dried paint.

The morning I stood before my easel with my pallet in hand feels like yesterday. Autumn leaves of red, orange, and yellow sprinkled my construction paper, spinning in gales of a silent wind. I had an active imagination and could hear the leaves chattering in the breeze. I believed the leaves, like the birds, sensed winter approaching. I would paint my picture and preserve the leaves until spring.

I did not hear Mrs. Johnson hesitate behind me until I felt her fingernails grazed my neck as she snatched my hair and pulled my head back. Her voice shook with rage as she hissed in my ear, “You are painting the wrong way! You will ruin the brush!’

My voice stammered as I tried to explain why some of the leaves needed stems. Mrs. Johnson responded by seizing more strands of my short hair. My eyes swelled with hot tears. I knew if Mrs. Johnson saw my disobedience, she would pull harder. She growled in my ear once more, “Anna! You are painting wrong! You are not supposed to hold your brush that way! Stop painting upwards,” before wrenching the brush from my quaking fingers, reinserting it between my thumb and forefinger, and squeezing my little hand until my fingertips throbbed.

Head down, I watched my tears evaporate into the paint fragments of my smock and could feel the stares of my classmates on my back. That day, art became a mystery, secrets others knew but refused to share with me. When once I had seen the music of colors, shapes, and brushstrokes, I saw only an ugly, wretched piece of yellowed construction paper. In those few brief, devastating moments, art lost its innocence. The belief that I should never try to paint or draw or write stories again without risking the wrath of others is rooted firmly in my consciousness.

Over the years, half-heartedly, I raged against the memory of childhood betrayal by landing parts in school plays and memorizing literary pieces for oral interpretation contests in high school, but mostly I capitulated. For a study away semester in college, I had desperately wanted to go to Florence to study Michelangelo and Botticelli, lose myself in the maze of Renaissance architecture, and sip red wine as the sun cast a burnt orange glow over the cobblestone streets.

Instead, I went to Chicago to study urban politics. Partly due to the money I knew my mother did not have but mostly a result of not having the temerity to resist my childhood wound, the prospect of traveling to Italy disintegrated.

Art continued to be both a mystery and curiosity. Occasionally flirting with a class or entering a museum, I stared at paintings and sculptures from a place of ignorance and shame. Art history stymied me with its complexity and breadth of history. I lacked the language to interpret what I saw and felt in contemporary or modern galleries.

Art intimidated me. That is until I discovered William Blake.

With anger and passion, outrageous Biblical storylines, the radical artist pulled me into his web of madness. In graduate school, the passions for art and mystery, myth, and story returned and took hold of my heart. As part of the semester, I studied Blake with reverence and astonishment, I wrote a serious of fictitious letters to my rebel hero, and with the guidance of a kindred spirit, I found my voice on the page.

The following is one of the last letters in the series I wrote when our relationship had bridged the gap of time, and I learned my resistance to the hunger of the soul was futile.

My dearest William,

Last night, my fingers entwined in yours, you led me to the edge of an endless pool of red-hot fire. Molten rocks exploding, surging rivers glowing with their own consumption. In awe, I watched you reach into the fires of imagination. Spoonfuls of flames cupped between your fingers bloomed like lotus flowers with petals of sapphire, emerald, and gold. Terrified your hands would burn, I wept into your palms until the flames vanished. I held your hands to my cheek to soothe the blisters, my eyes would surely see, but when I turned your palms over in my own, your hands had healed.

Again, you reached into the fire to gather a bouquet of imagination’s fury alighting tree limbs and stones, books of poetry, and lost photographs. Beneath heaven’s starry blanket, I leaped to extinguish the flames with my breath. I stamped my feet mercilessly until my bare soles bled. I searched in vain for waters to control the unruly blaze. I begged you to harness the fires, fearful of their roaring heights. Your eyes twinkled with a hint of madness. Your gaze pierced through my own skin, boring a bloodless hole into my trembling heart. I wept again, begging you to discipline the frenzy until I sank to my knees, convinced my own horrible, fiery death was at hand.

It was then you knelt beside me, your hands on my face, wiping the tears of dread from my eyes. In a voice as gentle as a man in love, you said to me, “Why do you resist that which you know you cannot,” holding my eyes to yours until I surrendered to the flames of my own imagination and desire.

Anna

Lost in Translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

British rail car London to Cambridge

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

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

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

South Dakota prairie vista

Prairie Whispers

There was a prairie in your past. The glow of a dashboard in an old Buick, the ping, ping of gravel jumping under tire rims. There were bonfires and kegs and midnight visits to the horses, their bodies, a black stain against the midnight. There were back seats with fumbling hands, Elton John, coarse dry wind, and the sound of 4-wheelers filling your head. With the smell of stinkweed and lilac, in your past, you threw hay bales over your shoulder with your pitchfork, scraping mud off your boots with a stick. There was a low creek and the redbreast of a pheasant leaping from the brittle corn, jeans ripped from barbed wire, the smell of hot coffee, and polished leather.

But you left the prairie.

Later, when your heart stumbled, you heard a faint voice in your head – go to the prairie. Get in your car and drive until you can taste pine and black earth on your lips. You listened for once and drove west on the single interstate. There were train cars stacked with black coal and a gray sky pressing down on wheat fields. There was a green tractor winding backward and forwards across the earth. A truck followed behind, its mouth open and ready like a baby bird, ready for the harvested grain that fell like water into its steel beak.

Slowly, the smell of pine and lilac came back to you, first like a terrible stench, but later like the strange scent of salvation. You learned to scrape your boots again and heave hay bales. You tried concentrating on the smell of hot coffee at dawn and polished the saddles with a terrible urgency until one day when your boots were so worn, any other pair of shoes made your feet ache, the smell of stinkweed made you weep. Remember these details: the sound of your boots on crushed gravel, the last humming of crickets before daybreak, and the aching chill moving through your denim jacket before the heat sets in for the day.

The morning of your last ride, the one you still hold onto like a precious photograph, Billy told you what he knew: “When you came here, you were sick. I don’t know what made you sick, but you were sick. The lies we tell ourselves never fill the holes inside us. I think you will be alright, but be gentle with your heart.

Deep in the months of a prairie winter, you still remember how Billy believed in your own redemption long before you did, a redemption only the prairie of your past could offer.

Is a passport still a winning ticket?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surname: Sochocky

Given Names: Anna Irena

Nationality: British citizen

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

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

Plane’s arc, a definition since childhood

I sit by the airplane window, staring into a pool of shifting darkness. My mother sleeps but not soundly. The plane passes through a bank of clouds like a ghost walking through walls. A few passengers, unable to sleep, turn page after fitful page under miniature spotlights. The disembodied snoring of one wakes another. A flight attendant rises to shake the weariness from her stiff limbs. I have rarely been able to sleep on airplanes carrying this restless 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 barely drive out the plane’s engines. I even eagerly anticipate the braided, butter-flavored pretzels; I relish the way 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, thoroughly enamored with the contradiction between the size of the aircraft and the compactness of 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, 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 of prairie grasses or beach sands, the fine crystal texture. Rather, 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 in the ocean she has crisscrossed repeatedly for thirty years. She has always been apart but never severed from her family and friends, whom she nurtures like a garden through the seasons. My mother knows the sea as simply a consequence of geography.

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

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

Greenwich Mean Time -- Foot in Two Hemispheres

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

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

At my mother’s heels, I follow her through the narrow hallway and down the escalator to Gatwick Airport’s immigration stations. 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 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 the town limits of Newmarket. 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 own 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 really home?

War’s soundtrack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black and white footprints in a snowstorm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ukrainian grandparents

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

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

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