For Ukrainians, both in Ukraine and worldwide, death is not viewed simply as the cold, lonely end to a life. Indeed, life itself is composed of three parts: the living, those ‘departed,’ and those not yet born. The Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko dedicated one of his works, “To the dead, the living, and the unborn countrymen of mine, living in and outside of Ukraine, my friendly epistle” (1845).
The Christmas Eve table includes a place setting for the souls of the ancestors. To remove any food on the plate before Christmas morning is considered a sin. When family members sit down to eat the non-dairy, twelve-course meal, each pauses to blow upon and brush their chair if a visiting soul is occupying it.
In the winter of my sophomore year in college, I experienced first Ukrainian Christmas Eve with my father’s friends, Bohdan and Nusia Rozdilsky, and their family in Saskatoon.
Rich geometric patterns of orange, ruby, black, and gold sewed into Ukrainian linen peak through platters of jellied fish, fruit and potato varenyky, and blood-red borscht. In the center of the table, the kolach bread, braided in three strands – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – is swathed in candlelight. One place setting, its knives, and forks, plates, and glasses laid with care, remains empty to remember those souls that have gone before.
The child at the table desperately searches the corner of the room for the hidden sheaf of wheat she has learned hidden each Christmas Eve to bring health, abundance, and good luck to those seated at the table in the coming year. The child loves the movement of light casting shadows in and out of the crystal wine glasses and silver candlesticks. Some think the child’s eyes are green, and others gray, steal a glance at the candle in the window. The steady flame burned all evening to remind the family of Ukrainian soldiers who fought in wars past.
In the near silence, the head of the family recites holy prayers in Ukrainian. The man’s strapping, translucent voice collapses into the incandescent play of the candlelight and consoles the remotest part of this child’s heart, nearly rocking the child into a peaceful sleep.
Long ago, there was another child, one who also loved the twinkling lights of the sacrosanct night. Before this child was a man of thirty, he would learn to fear light in the darkness. He would not remember light as salvation like his daughter but as a remorseless terror when the sweeping columns of search beacons moved across his frozen body in the camps, his heartbeat as if it might explode. The moon that his daughter loves so much frightened him years after he was no longer a prisoner, its rays disrupting his fragile sleep even when his wife’s cool hands reached out to comfort him in the night.
I was the child at this sacred table, enchanted by the light, the sounds, and the tastes of my first Ukrainian Christmas Eve.
Nearly fifteen years later, I flew to Saskatoon for Bohdan’s funeral.
The funeral was held in an ornate Ukrainian church. Behind the altar, a gold screen embedded with saints’ visages glowed in the dim light as the dense smell of incense dissipated. The priest, chanting prayers in Ukrainian, walked around the open casket wreathed in candles, the heat warming the cold face of the man I once called uncle.
Later, by the gravesite, a group of men, graying and fragile, moved towards the closed casket. On their breasts, rows of gold and bronze medals chimed, the ribbons, blue, red, and green, bright against the anemic Canadian winter sky. These men were survivors of the war, members of the Ukrainian National Army, like my father and Bohdan. Their voices, reedy at first, deepening with each octave, told a story about how a man, knowing that he can never be buried in the Ukrainian steppe, prays that his soul will return home one day.
Like the man in the Ukrainian lament, my father never returned to his homeland, nor did he live to see the Berlin Wall crumble, and the Soviet Union disintegrate into fragile republics. This is the tragedy of history: when history we should have witnessed happens without us, both the dead and the living are so far away from it. Maybe Bohdan found my father in the mists of time, and they are wandering the streets of Kyiv with chants of the Orange and Maidan Revolutions on their lips.
The song called, Look There, Brother Mine is actually a poem set to music and is traditionally sung at the end of Ukrainian exiles’ funerals to symbolize sorrow for the homeland.
Look there, brother mine,
Look dear friend of mine,
The cranes are winging south, migrating.
In a long grey line.
Cru! Cru! Cru! They cry,
Far from home, I’ll die,
Crossing o’er the sea’s wide waters,
Weary wings I’ll ply,
Weary wings I’ll ply,
Dazzling to the eyes,
Endless in the skies,
Fading, fading in grey clouds
The cranes’ trail dies.
Maybe their deaths will only be a long sleep.
Maybe these old friends are finally home.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_d2909d495b0247ce89caafb0463fcba17Emv2.jpg11641374Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:52:262021-03-30 15:38:30Death is not a cold, lonely end to life
In last week’s blog post, I wrote that perhaps death was the great equalizer. Yet, class and gender once segregated the commonality of death between rich and poor, men and women.
The Victorian Age, marked by good manners, industrial and technological advancements, the widening chasm between rich and poor, and that pesky ‘woman question’ wrote its chapter in the book of mourning etiquette, too.
A complex set of rules, guided by one’s station in life, dictated appropriate mourning behavior and rituals. In the house, clocks would be stopped and reset to the deceased’s exact time of death. Mirrors covered with black crepe prevented the deceased spirit from being trapped in the glass. To prevent the devil’s possession of anyone still living, photographs were turned over.
Superstition may have guided a household; mourning between the genders was segregated by fashion and behavior. A woman’s funereal clobber, comprised of black clothing meant to conceal a body’s shape and a veil of black crepe, became known as ‘widow’s weeds.’ Mourning jewelry rose to prominence in the upper class. People often wore a cameo brooch or a locket designed to hold a lock of the deceased hair.
The dictates of appropriate mourning behavior did not end with the content of one’s wardrobe, however. Widows were expected to not only wear their mourning ensemble for at least two years and up to four years and were discouraged from entering society for twelve months. During a widow’s mourning period, clothing restrictions were relaxed at six or nine-month increments, effectively ensuring the grieving woman lived as a hostage to her grief.
Anyone who has had to plan a funeral for a loved one understands that death is a business. Caskets and urns, florists, and stationary are not contemporary choices of grieving. Indeed, the Victorians may have originated the entire industry! Money and status plays have always been central to how a passing is marked and a person recognized.
However, fashion, behavior, and money may not be the preeminent influence on one’s approach to mourning. The Victorians may have been Christians, but deep in the cultural bloodstream beats a Pagan’s heart, too.
Indeed, superstition weighed heavily on behavior as much if not more than social mores. I leave you with a handful of superstitions to ponder, courtesy of the Victorian age!
Never wear anything to a funeral, especially shoes.
Stop the clock in a death room, or you will have bad luck.
If you don’t hold your breath when going by a graveyard, you will not be buried.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_25c3b164449c42f8802c628f2c4474a07Emv2.jpg227236Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:52:252021-07-29 13:03:43A segregation of mourning
Tiny 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…
…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.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/img027-1.jpg14282208Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:52:032021-03-30 15:48:56A riddle I could never solve
I did not need CT results to view a life interrupted. The evidence met me when I turned the key in my mother’s apartment’s lock for thirty years and entered.
A handwritten grocery list for the week hung from a magnet on the refrigerator. In my adolescent bedroom, wrapped presents without name tags but labeled with tiny yellow post-it notes instead lined the floor. Addressed but unwritten Christmas cards to friends and family remained where she had left them in neatly stacked piles next to sheets of international stamps on the dining room table.
The dust ruffle, unmoved since the last morning she made the bed, gathered in all the right places along the floor. A lavender scent lingered on her pillows. Tucked under the one closest to her bedroom door, a book she was reading at the time of her stroke suggested a life still being lived. A change of clothes, neatly piled on the chair by her desk, would never be worn again. Organization resonated with each list, in the stillness of each object, in each room.
Nothing had changed. Everything had changed.
As evening hours ticked into another day, I frantically culled and filed, sorted, and discarded objects, letters, and magazines often over ‘dinners’ of sherry and bowls of nuts and crackers that remained uneaten. Most nights, I wandered through the apartment, absently entering and exiting each room, and mentally sifted through my mother’s belongings to save and pack, which to give away or discard. I silently categorized the paintings on the wall she had collected with care. I debated whether to keep the china figurines of a nurse and a woman dressed in hunt attire. I packed paperweights on the unplayed piano, along with assorted mementos from my grandmother’s house in England.
Once upon a time, my mother’s job was to sort through her own family’s belongings. Diligently she sorted linens and china from bustles and pearls, emptying each drawer and wardrobe of cardigans, cotton nightgowns, handkerchiefs, and blouses. There were blankets and comforters, cast iron pots, and crystal vases to sort through. My mother saved the candlesticks from the front room mantelpiece, my grandmother’s silver hairbrush, comb, and dimpled mirror, the brass turtle and maiden handbell from the sitting room, Shetland wool throws, the hand-carved mahogany bellows from the front hall, and a small collection of books by the Bronte sisters. She found brand new sweaters from a woolen shop in Scotland in an old cedar trunk, still sealed in the original plastic bags.
Sixteen years later, these hints of her family home blended into my mother’s apartment. The hand-carved wooden bellows hung in her hallway, retired from duty, silent and breathless. The mahogany chest of drawers stored her winter sweaters and the local telephone book. My grandmother’s silver hairbrush, comb, and mirror laid on the dresser, unused.
I don’t live in the past, yet, I was still trying to measure the beauty of lost articles, too.
From room to room, I wandered, plucking random objects infused with invisible memory my mother and I both understood, hers perhaps more indelible like a scar, mine skating on the surface like a blemish. Objects I lived with through high school and college, and still, others that my mother added after I left home, I recognized. Others that appeared during the years when I tried to put my own life in order are ones in which no memory resonated for me. No perception of security echoed in my fingertips when I held an unfamiliar vase or a silver salt savor. Instead, my hand stroked objects like worry beads, desperately attempting to drive the pit of impending loss away from my mind.
With a routine, I savagely carved through a maze of sleep deprivation and grief; slowly, I dismantled my mother’s life. My mother never returned to her apartment to live, the four walls she once called home.
Mounds of paper I handled with aplomb, but the thought of stripping the walls bare and folding and stacking sweaters still smelling of her hair and perfume crippled me. I moved without focus, hunting through one drawer – boxes and garbage bags beside me – before leaving the room and starting another unfocused search for what I did not know in another room.
One night, I shuffled into my mother’s bedroom and surveyed the contents on her bed’s surface. Decades of annuity and investment records, brown-edged deeds to overseas properties, crisp cream bank statements, tax filings dating back to my father’s death thirty years ago crowded the corners of the floral duvet. A colony of her American and British passports, my father’s too, as well as my own, jumbled our collective web of identity. To sleep in my mother’s bedroom seemed sacrilegious, but to clear her past seemed like I defiled my mother’s waning life, too.
Nothing had changed. Everything had changed.
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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.
“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.