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.

When the desert unfolds

It is not in every landscape that one searches for God.

But in the terrible, terrible beauty of desert mountains

where roadside shrines bunch together like wild rose bushes, we sit

on Joy’s porch talking about heaven and loss, drought and wind. She sighs,

“If heaven is no better than this, I’m o.k.” Her flinty brown eyes flare

like polished agate in the sand. A woman waters green thickets across the road; pulling the hose behind her, she weaves through blanched tree stubs

between the animal bones scattered around the paddock. Her dogs bark

as the blue pickup circles again. The buckskin mare moves closer to the gate.

Does the desert always smell like apples?

Falling asleep, I listen to cicadas rubbing their legs together like violin bows

and the voices of children playing tag in the hot wind. Under a splinter of the moon,

I dream of history with secret ancestors. Along this diamond road,

dust rains from lavender stains in the sky. Under the promise of its turquoise

swallowing red rock and fawn-colored lizards, the horse, the fading sun,

the smell of apples does not belong to me, but they could.

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.

British passport defines more than a country“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.

British passport as part of European Union

Human equivalent of GMT

Greenwich Mean Time -- Foot in Two Hemispheres

Under the shadow of the domed Greenwich telescopes, I lean over a thin, black line bordered with twinkling red lights, the geographical collision I have longed to see for years. When I was a child, I ardently scoured my grandmother’s Suffolk garden for evidence, convinced that the slender furrow snaking through the carrots and runner beans was actually the Prime Meridian Line in dusty disguise.

I am still on the hunt to understand the line that has divided me from birth.

In front of me, a little sign points in opposite directions towards the eastern and western hemispheres. I glance around quickly to make sure no one is looking before I begin to play childish games with myself hopping back and forth over the embedded black ribbon. One minute I am standing with both feet planted in the western hemisphere. I scamper over to the other side, dipping my toes back over its edge like I am Goldilocks trying to find a porridge that is neither too hot nor too cold. Eastern hemisphere. I was born on this side of the line. I stand quietly for a few minutes, looking at the side of the world. I cross the line. Western hemisphere. This is the side of the world in which I have lived most of my life. The story behind this geographical split in my life may not be evident to many others, but as the Prime Meridian Line, the line’s divide, like my own, has always been irrefutable to me.

In a photograph taken of my mother at age thirteen, she does not see a hint of the divide to come. Around this time, the photograph was taken, my mother and her classmates from the East Anglican girls’ school in Bury St. Edmunds climbed on a bus twice a week to travel to another school for swimming lessons. The bus rambled past a processing camp. The men behind barbed wire were not English but Ukrainian prisoners-of-war waiting to be granted legal status as newly arrived immigrants by British government authorities. With naïve and youthful enthusiasm, my mother and her classmates waved madly to the anonymous men hovering near the fences of the Surrendered Enemy Personnel Camp 231, Redgrave Park.

The year before my father died, when I was thirteen years, my parents and I visited the camp remains. The buildings looked like giant mushrooms. Their arching, corrugated iron roofs stretched across broken concrete floors marooned in acres of wild grass and farmland. The remnants of these shelters were the only buildings protruding through the landscape. The only artifacts left. All the medical tents, sleeping quarters, and wire fencing had been torn down decades ago.

My father had wanted me to see Redgrave so that I would understand a part of him, but instead, he stayed silent, and I was still the spectator. I remember gazing at the colony of prefabricated Nissan huts that remained, trying to imagine my father living in this camp, looking over his shoulder to see if soldiers followed him to the farm so he could steal a farmer’s cabbages to make soup. I could not picture my father’s face, gaunt from hunger, or the barricades circling the tents. I was looking at a photograph in the history book of a stranger.

Camp 231 Redgrave Park -- Redgrave Park, England, WWII

That day, I watched my father’s mind travel across decades, seeing each family member he lost, recreating the barracks and the barbed wire. He was both out of place and at home. He stood with arms crossed, rocking back and forth on his heels, nodding as if reconciling the English countryside with his memory. The water tower withered beneath choking ivy vines. Moonbeams had replaced the searchlights long since extinguished on the lake’s surface. Only a silent orbit of a wild swan disturbed the horizon of liquid glass.

Abruptly, my father turned and looked right through me to the other side of his history.

I was born to one of the men living behind barbed wire and the woman who sailed past him in a battered school bus. Indeed, their marriage assured me that my life would always be tethered to another part of the world. I am not responsible for the history that continues to unravel on both sides of this invisible line; yet, this legacy the fates have dealt me is mine. I have not always known these truths. Decades isolate the adult woman I am now from the teenage girl when I crossed over this line. Told by my parents for as long as I can remember that I was English, I believed this to be true. Yet, our family joked that my true lineage not unlike Heinz 57 steak sauce: a tablespoon of English and Ukrainian, several teaspoons of Polish and Scottish, a pinch of Irish, and a third of a cup of American by experience.

The Heinz 57 metaphor became my truth. Perhaps I have always been Anna, from America.

Part of me believes that today I must choose one side of the line over the other. If I had to decide at this exact moment, if I could not reverse my choice once made, on which side would I claim as my own, on which side of the ocean would I call home? I place one foot in the western hemisphere and leave the other one on the eastern side. I straddle over the line, a position with which I am most familiar.

Partitioned like the human equivalent of 0 degrees Longitude and 0 degrees Latitude, I came of age looking not forwards but backward.

My mother crossed this line for love. She stayed on the western side of the line for the same reason after my father died, believing that my future and, therefore, hers was in America. My grandmother expected us to return to England after the funeral and could not understand why her daughter would not come to return home. Yet, my mother’s friends said that she made the best decision for both of us. Years later, I am not so sure.

I stare at the line before moving to the eastern side. Do I imagine I have caught a glimpse of a place called home? Or am I simply trying to imagine the life I might have had if my family had not come to America but stayed in England? How would my past have unfolded differently if all the pages of my parents’ history and lives had stayed intact?

What does it mean to be ‘from’ somewhere anyway? Does this reference mean a dot on a map? A culture? A family lineage? Four walls in a particular house? A landscape of a continent? A time in history?

I am more committed to the four walls I live in rather than an actual geographic location. My grandmother’s house, the Veterans Administration’s apartment, my mother’s own haven in Sioux Falls. I write about the English four walls, the walls I write in, the house I imagine buying in England. Maybe the home left behind is more accurate in one’s imagination. Was it my intolerable grief over my father’s death that forced my mother to choose to stay in America?

Did I ever really choose one country over the other?

In the brilliant and sweltering late afternoon sun, so uncharacteristic of an English summer day, history wells up inside of me once more. I am still divided, still learning to live with the burden of my own survival, which I inherited, one that almost broke me. I remain lured by the magnetic pull between what might have been with what is still hungry for a place to call home.

Plane’s arc, a definition since childhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greenwich Mean Time -- Foot in Two Hemispheres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breathing in history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baking away grief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am also a liar.

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

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

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

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

War’s soundtrack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black and white footprints in a snowstorm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ukrainian grandparents

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

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

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

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.