Lexington, Mississippi.

Mississippi stigmata

On the three-day drive, I was imbued with the fantasy of making a mark on the terrors still rocking the south, just like the volunteers of Freedom Summer. Channeling Martin Luther King, Jr’s letter from a Birmingham jail, I was a true believer. Mile upon mile sped by me as I drove through the Midwest’s familiar cornfields until the fields turned to cotton. Sharecropper shacks with pieces of tin hanging askew and doors cast open to the southern heat scattered the roads. The button-shaped cotton hung delicately in the breeze. After two days of driving, I found myself perched on the rolling Mississippi Delta.

Entering Lexington, located in one of the United States’ most impoverished counties, I made my first mistake. I was lost. Slowing my car to a near stop, I asked a young African-American kid for directions to the house I would call home for a few months. He signaled that he was not only deaf and mute but really, he was afraid of my white face. I gave a weak wave and drove away, embarrassed and equally scared.

As the legendary civil rights leader Bob Moses, who led bright-eyed, northern white college students into the rancid belly of the south, said, “When you’re not in Mississippi, it’s not real, and when you’re there, the rest of the world isn’t real.”

Not much had changed since 1964, as I soon discovered.

I parked on the grass outside my assigned housing. No sidewalks. Broken screen doors flapping in the wind. Next door to the house, an aged black woman sat rocking in her chair and nodded once, but before I could respond, the door to my appointed house swung open, and Jay, one of my new roommates, stood on the porch grinning.

“You must be Anna,” he said in an accent that had pooled his Boston roots with his southern exposure into one fluid tone.

And so my summer in the American south began, a summer that many years later is a compilation of random, potent images. Playing games of spades with the neighborhood children and their uncles long into the damp and humid Mississippi nights. Drinking peach-flavored wine coolers with the Franciscan nuns who lived down the street. The week before I arrived, a shotgun blast had torn their front window into splinters, punishment for their work with the same civil rights organization that paid me.

Friday and Saturday nights found me dancing and grinding to rap’s early sounds in roadside juke joints. Open to anyone bringing their bottles of liquor, the mixers provided.

I read Heinrich Böll that summer, the book a gift from Jay’s girlfriend, Sal, an English radical who had picketed with the mineworkers during Margaret Thatcher’s rise. Jay and Sal’s friends Doug and Deidre came from England later in the summer for a few weeks. Most nights, Doug drank himself to sleep, perhaps because the history that hadn’t faded was too much to see firsthand or maybe because his fierce and sharp political wit meant nothing in the segregated south.

A handful of black and white photos record catfish fries with the men and women I came to know and love, men who skinned the scales off the fish before tossing the carcasses into boiling vats of oil, and women who hid the extra Scotch bottle from their husbands and lovers. Catfish and scotch were the only items on the Mississippi menu.

Mississippi fish fry

Rural Organizing and Cultural Center staff catfish fry, Lexington, Mississippi.

Mostly, vignettes of conversation and laughter appear and fade.

Sal standing firm before the town’s white election judges in the shadow of a New York Times reporter sent to cover the Federally mandated election, an outgrowth of a redistricting plan to counter decades of gerrymandering. The quiet voice of an eighty-year-old black woman insisting that she put her ballot in the box to vote as Sal and Jay, Doug and Deidre, and I stand ready to pounce if the woman is denied. Staged arguments between the neighbor kids and challenges over games of cards mixed with the gospel and R & B and George Michael, the only Caucasian artist the disc jockeys on the local radio station, WLTD, played.

And then there was a five-year-old little girl named Lee Lee.

Sharp, like a tack, Lee Lee, the daughter of one of the organization’s community leaders, already had a jaundiced eye of the world. The arrival of outsiders in Lexington failed to impress her. Still, from the beginning, Lee Lee melted the hearts of everyone she encountered, strangers and family alike. With carefully woven braids that her mother, Norzella, pulled and twisted each morning, Lee Lee announced her arrival, her tiny frame with each hand glued to her hips. Lee Lee may have been bossy and engagingly irritable at times, but she was still a child stung by the tragedy of racism.

“Why do white folks hate black folks so much, Anna?” she asked me one day. “You don’t hate black folks. Jay and Sal and Doug and Deidre don’t hate us. Why do people like the man in the grocery store hate us?” Lee Lee’s usually bright eyes clouded over, and her infectious giggle fell silent.

“I don’t know, darling. I don’t know,” I said, scooping her up in my arms as I had done so many times before. Burying my face in her braids, I bit my lip too hard.

On the morning I left Lexington, the heavens opened. Rain rivers rushed along the roads, turning parched earth to mud. The cockerel that crowed at all hours of the day and night outside my bedroom window stayed still. Jay and I loaded my bags in my station wagon and were soaked from the moment we stepped off the porch. Reports of tornado-ripe conditions peppered WLTD’s airwaves. First gray, then black, then green, then black again, the sky rolled and curled. Scampering back in the house, I hugged Sal and Deidre with promises to write. Doug was asleep, still in the early morning haze of alcohol from the night before. One more stop to make before I headed north.

Lexington, Mississippi.

As I drove up to the house, Norzella stood on her porch, watching the torrential rain. Seeing my car, Lee Lee bounded out of the house shouting over the thunder and leaped into my wet arms.

“Anna. Why do you have to leave? You can stay. Anna. Stay,” she said as if she scolded an errant puppy.

“Lee Lee. You’re soaking wet. Let’s go stand on your porch and get out of this rain.”

I stepped onto the porch and met Norzella’s eye for a moment. Both of us knew that this goodbye would not go smoothly.

“Lee Lee, sweetheart, I have to go now.” I gently set her down on the porch, but as I go to hug Norzella, Lee Lee lunged towards my legs and wrapped her arms around my soaked jeans.

“No! No! I won’t let you go!”

With each wail, her grip tightened. Soaked and sobbing, I bent down to hug the little girl who, while wise beyond her years, was inconsolable. I stroked her damp beaded braids. “Come on, darling. I don’t want to go, but I have to leave. You know that.”

Alternately crying and hiccupping, Lee Lee’s rage soared. “Then don’t,” she wailed. Always resourceful, Lee Lee grabbed onto my hands and pushed her tiny fingernails into my palms until spots of blood poked through my skin – my Mississippi stigmata.

I left.

In my rearview mirror, I kept my eyes on Lee Lee tightly wrapped up in her mother’s arms in the rain. A few miles outside of town, I saw an accident by the side of the road and pulled over. The mother and father stood in the rain, inspecting the damage on the fender. Their Sunday clothes were ruined. The man’s head was bleeding.

I shouted to him over the rain, asking him if I should drive back into town to find an ambulance. The mother turned away and climbed back in the car, where three sobbing, frightened children sat in the back seat.

“Follow me back into town to the hospital, sir. You are bleeding,” I shouted over the thunder to no avail.

Not wanting to be seen talking to a white woman, he backed away from me, climbed in the car, and floored the accelerator, tearing up the road. An offer of aid did not matter.

Mississippi was still Mississippi.

I left again, but this time I wept all the way to Nashville.

Serhij Sochocky, registration papers, Chief Medical Officer, Redgrave Park, England

A riddle I could never solve

Great grandfather, Greek Orthodox priestTiny morsels of my father’s life have always appeared without warning, a crumb here, a mystery unraveled there, only to be followed by a dead end, pieces that leave unanswered questions in their wake. The unwritten residue from which I built my account about my father’s life over the years came by accident – a weighted remark at the dinner table or a story surreptitiously overheard – shocking and unexpected.

From time to time, when I was tiny, I crawled out of bed and lay curled up on the floor of my bedroom, pressing my ear to the space between the door frame and the carpet, and waited. Waiting for what, I was never quite sure, but when wrinkled summer light bled stubbornly through the Venetian blinds of my room, I hoped that my nightly missions might produce clues about my father. My father hunted for his clues, too. Every evening, he sat crouched forward, fiddling with the knobs on the radio, searching for a report from behind something called the Iron Curtain. My father was a puppeteer trying to drive the gravel out of the foreign voices.

The walls in our tiny apartment were thin. I lay in bed with my ear pressed to the wall, straining to hear my mother turn into the living room from the hallway after she closed my bedroom door. When I thought it was safe, I climbed out of bed and padded across the bedroom floor. Once the sound of voices rumbling from my father’s radio and the chimes of their teacups on saucers seeped through the narrow opening, I knew I would not be discovered.

Some nights, when I did not make a discovery, I lay quietly, clutching my teddy bear before falling asleep on the floor. I have not made a discovery for several evenings, and this evening does not look promising.

Gingerly, I ease my coloring book off the bookshelf and hold my breath when the crayons spill out onto the white, worn carpet. I lay still for a minute until I convince myself my mother has not heard my accident.

My father has turned the radio off, and my parents are not talking. Another evening without a discovery, I sigh when I unexpectedly hear my father’s voice, low and distant.

“All of the soldiers were shot. Shot. Point blank. On the train. I overslept and missed the train. Pure luck. Luck and God. God kept me off that train. I, too, would have been killed if…,” my father’s voice fades.

Where was my father going on a train? What does my father mean by point-blank? I am glad that God kept my father off that train and that my father was so lucky.

“What happened after the ambush,” my mother asks my father in the gentle and soothing voice she has when I have skinned my knee.

“Ah…it was a long time ago. It does not matter. It does not matter anymore,” my father answers. I hear his chair flying back into the bookshelf and his footsteps moving quickly towards the kitchen. The click, click, click of my mother’s knitting needles fills the space.

The sun has finally gone down, and my toy wagon and dresser shapes have taken on scary forms. My eyes dart around the room. Is that a witch peaking out at me from behind my dresser? Is there a monster behind my toy wagon? If I can dash from the floor to my bed, I can be safe. I scamper to my bed and burrow down under the covers to hide from the monster I am sure is behind my toy wagon. I fall asleep dreaming of a train moving fast through dark forests…Serhij Sochocky with Polish soldiers, World War Two

…in my dream, it is frigid. The finely falling snow has made a damp halo of my father’s head. He is smoking. He glances at his watch before tossing his burning cigarette on the hard, gray ground. Dozens of men walk around my father, but I cannot see their noses or lips, eyes, or cheeks. My father does not notice these faceless men but boards the waiting train with them, the train steaming and snorting like an anxious horse. Why is he getting on the train? Doesn’t he know it isn’t safe? Wait, Daddy…no…do not get on the train. From the window, he presses his face to the glass as if searching for a distant glimpse of something familiar. He seems to look directly at me, but when I wave and cry, “Daddy!” he does not respond. The wheels grind sharply against the steel rails, and the train, once eager to lunge forward, now strains to move, creeping ahead with the sound of metal on metal. Wait. Wait. Don’t go, Daddy. Wait for the next train. This one is not safe. But my cries are too late…

Years after I fell asleep on the floor of my bedroom dreaming about this murderous train, I learned the actual context of this story. During the years Poland ruled western Ukraine, my father, a member of the Polish army, traveled from Lviv with hundreds of other soldiers to fight the Soviets after the invasion of eastern Poland but missed his train. Word soon filtered back to Lviv that the Soviet army had intercepted the train and murdered all the soldiers aboard before closing off the Eastern Front.

On my bedroom floor, I did not simply learn snippets of history. I also gathered stories like a small bird collecting discarded objects for its fragile nest.

I was always the family archaeologist. Beginning with the nugget about the train, over the years, I built my private inventory from fragments I collected:

      • a country called Ukraine that none of my family could visit;
      • a sister, my aunt, and her children, my cousins, whom my father could never contact directly living behind the Iron Curtain;
      • a brother murdered by the hand of a Nazi soldier for being a member of the anti-German resistance and left to die on the family farm;
      • soup my father made from stolen cabbages and grass in a string of prisoner-of-war camps;
      • a daring escape from a Soviet camp in the throes of a bitter winter;
      • the leather prayer book my father smuggled through multiple detentions;
      • a handful of gold rubles hidden deep within the base of a shaving stick, rubles my father had made into an exquisite bracelet for me;
      • photographs of prisoner-of-war camps in Rimini, Italy, and Redgrave Park, England.

Many years would pass before I told anyone about my inventory. At the time of my father’s death, even though my commitment to uncovering these stories had been unwavering for years, my inventory was painfully thin. My father was not unlike the country of his birth to me – a riddle I could never solve.

I understood that my father was not born in America but Ukraine and had lived in England before coming to South Dakota. Yet, my father’s Ukraine was never like my mother’s England to me. While England seemed like a jewel in the middle of a cold ocean, infused with brilliant light, Ukraine was dark and terrifying, a place I was never be allowed to visit. There was a weight connected to the country’s name – Ukraine – as if the entire landscape shouldered a devastating burden it could never discard.

Ukraine was consigned to my imagination, a place with dangerous forests and unfamiliar faces, a country where everyone was always hungry. There were no heirlooms from my father’s family on the bookshelves or the coffee table in our apartment. I never knew anything about any member of his family, by experience or by anecdote, only by fiction and myths I created.

Precious, dark secret

I am marooned on my bed.

In the early evening, the apartment complex maintenance man steers his mower over the lawn under my window, the blinds tipping in and out from the slight breeze. The smell of the freshly clipped grass blends into the sound of the blades moving backward and forwards across the earth until the gardener accidentally scrapes against one of the concrete window wells. The trees outside splash shadows on the floor; the white carpet is my sea. I sit on top of blue and white striped sheets. The thin, summer comforter sprinkled with exaggerated and recurring images of Raggedy Ann and Andy, tulips, and rabbits carrying baskets of flowers.

With great effort, I pull my wooden toy wagon over to the edge of the mattress. The cream wagon is on wheels that often lock like one of the carts my mother maneuvers between the fruit and vegetable aisles at the grocery store. The wheels squeak so I cannot pull too hard or risk alerting my mother to my project. When the wagon is close enough to my bed, and I can reach into it from my perch, I survey its contents.

I have to decide which toys to save.

Luckily, my bed floats in water, but the toy wagon, I know, will sink to the bottom of the sea once I have retrieved my favorites. Those I do not choose will be lost. Once I select the lucky ones, I will push the wagon away from my bed with my tiny feet and set it adrift.

Nearly every summer afternoon, I played this game when I was supposed to be taking a nap. Teddy, my favorite bear, is not sure if he likes this game or not. He does not want to imagine being lost at sea.

“Will anyone find us,” my cherished companion whimpers surveying the wagon’s pile of toys beside the bed.

“Yes,” I whisper, stroking his soft fur behind his worn ears. “A sailor will find us, and we shall be safe, and then we shall have tea. Don’t worry,” I assure him. “Let’s decide which toys to save so we can play with them when we are rescued.”

Carefully, I begin pulling my toys out of the wooden chest, examining each one before stacking my most treasured ones on the bedspread. I will save all the stuffed animals first. I will not save the plastic rings that stack like doughnuts on a pointed bar. I will save the round puzzle with a picture of a miniature doll’s village painted on wooden pieces that my grandmother gave me.

I do not think I can save my battery-operated yellow dog even though she is wearing a red ribbon around her neck and white tufts of hair sprout from her head and paws. I adore this barking dog and the way she marches as she yelps when I wind her up, but she is too heavy and cannot be saved. I am immeasurably sad about this loss and resolve to save her the next time I play this game.

The caterpillar, each plastic segment decorated with a red dot inside yellow ones, is also awkward to keep. The wind-up clock plays Frére Jacques and may keep us company in the dark when we float at sea, so I carefully lay it on the bed next to my pillow. I retrieve a stuffed bunny from underneath a second puzzle, thankful that I have found him to join the other animals on the bed. By the time I finish sorting through my toy chest, the bedspread is nearly covered with puzzles and books, stuffed animals, and coloring books. It may be some time before the sailor finds Teddy and me, so we have to be prepared for many days at sea.

Finally, I retrieve my red purse that opens like a fish’s mouth and empties its meager contents on the bedspread in front of my crossed spindly legs. I count out the worn and tarnished coins: 15 pence and one quarter. Maybe that will be enough for Teddy and me to survive when we are rescued. I don’t know. I look at my wares arranged in neat piles in front of me and decide that I cannot leave my barking dog behind after all. I rescue her from the toy wagon before pushing it away from the edge of my bed.

I do not tell anyone about my little game, not my friends at school, not the neighbor brothers, Kendall or Willis, not my mother. I am not convinced anyone would understand my rationale for such a sad fantasy.

This precious, dark secret belongs only to me.

I do not have to choose between my toys stacked untidily in my wagon. I do not have to leave my barking yellow dog behind or my brightly painted caterpillar. If I wanted to, I could save all my toys and hoist them onto my imaginary life preserver. I am not lost at sea, nor do I think I ever will be. Still, each summer afternoon when my mother closes the bedroom door, this fantasy, with all its sinister gloom, yet curiously vast solace returns, and once again, I am marooned.

Maybe I will lie down and close my eyes. I will be safe on my bed. My toys will be safe, too, I repeat to myself as my eyes begin to droop and the hard edges of the toy wagon begin to soften. I imagine the waves lapping up against my mattress, and I snuggle down deep into the soft sheets. This bed is my home and my universe. Maybe being marooned would not be so bad, I conclude; before my thoughts become scrambled before I fall asleep dreaming, I am drifting alone in the middle of a great blue sea.

Dr. Serhij Sochocky, circa 1980

An Exile in Spirit

My darling Anna…

When I was alive, I was like a house haunted by the spirits of all I lost in the war, the faces of my family never leaving me, even while I slept. I walked out of the camps and into your mother’s arms. Yes, your mother’s love was strong enough to assuage the memories I carried, but still, I could not relinquish the hold the war held on my soul. After you were born, your mother and I moved to the States to live thousands of miles away from the soil I had known as a child and a young man, far away from the countries I knew during the war, but still, I could not escape this haunting. This haunting became my silence.

I tried to race the war like a young boy attempts to outrun a train on horseback, galloping through fields, gripping the reins and the saddle, dangerously close to losing his balance. The young boy realizes it is dangerous to try to beat the train, for the horse could shy at the sudden whistle throwing him into the train’s path or underneath the animal’s striking hooves. But the boy ignores all the warnings his mother gives him. The child believes that one day his horse will run faster than the train, its strides will be longer, its muzzle passing the driver angrily waving at him from the train window. I was this young boy.

You must understand, I could not give in to my grief that morning when my family’s world fell away when I stood helplessly by as my brother lay in the dirt covered in blood. I was a doctor, but I could not save him. I blamed myself for this. No, there was nothing I could have done, but you see, I believed that God would come into my thoughts quietly, tell me how to stop the bleeding, but He did not, He could not. These are the horrible deeds of men, ones they choose when they turn away from their faith.

I desperately did not want you to know these terrible things borne into my memory so many years ago. You were an innocent child. I could not allow you to know such sorrow; I wanted to protect you from my painful history. I also knew that I could not bear to hear my own voice telling these stories, for I believe I would have been driven behind the walls of insanity. Medicine and my promise to my brother kept me from falling into this abyss of despair, the belief that I would one day outrun the war like the young boy and his horse. I had no choice but to be silent, to take my revenge against the war by trying to heal men like my brother, men I could save.

My darling daughter, I believe the soul moves naturally towards life as one looks into the sky at night for comfort and towards the sun to feel the heat on one’s face in the morning. To be faced with death is to meet unrelenting despair, one that you cannot control, you cannot reverse, you cannot change. Death is as permanent as abiding as heaven’s stars. After the war, my soul knew I had no other choice but to give my life to medicine. Each one of my patients became a man I could not treat in the camps, their faces ones I remembered losing during the war. Each one was a man I swore to save while the commander stood over me, pointing a gun at a sick man’s temples. Each death became my brother, and each time I grieved. I prayed that these men too ill to live would go peacefully, for their family’s well-being as well as their own. Their sons and daughters, wives and sisters, their families deserved a quiet, gentle passing, one my brother did not have. Understand, I mourned my patients because I could not mourn my family, these acts I took to sustain another man’s life or simply to make him a little more comfortable as he began drifting towards his own death, were affirmations of my brother’s spirit.

Rimini, Italy after the World War II armisticeWhat does it mean to be a witness and survive? I have seen you scribble this question with your pencil, tracing the letters over and over. I have left you to ask this question, along with many others. I honestly did not expect you to grow into these questions with such an obsession. I assumed that I would live long enough so that I could have answered all your questions when you were old enough to understand. I am curious…would you have been so driven to know these answers if I had lived, if I had filled in absences I left behind for you? No matter. Yes, I was a witness. I survived. For me, this meant I was always to be an exile, living in a foreign land. I could never return to my home. Italy, England, America – all of these countries my heart would never own.

I was also an exile in spirit. My stories were too terrible to be believed by those who have never looked down the barrel of a gun isolated me. The war, my survival, forced me inside my own mind until all I understood was my own silence.

I never meant for you to carry this silence with you. I wept in the knowledge you absorbed my silence when I tried so hard in life to shield you from such sadness. I do not want you to be the young boy on the horse, foolishly trying to pass the train. I do not want you to become like me, believing you can fill the absences inside yourself with work and persistent brooding. Place your faith in your writing, in the pages that free you from the sadness life visits upon you, from the chaos you feel, from the restlessness you have inherited from me. Place your faith in the words you read and write in the words that do not lie to you. Do not think you can outrun the train because you cannot.

This is the letter I wish I had written to you when I still lived, the one you deserved to have all these years. I would have left you this letter rather than all my silence, but I did not because I loved you too much.

Your loving Father

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.