An Annual Visitation: First Place for Biography Prose, Southwest Writers
In October, Ukraine appears in my rear-view mirror. Driving across the South Dakota prairie alone, I have come to expect this annual visitation. The country’s outline does not emerge near the anniversary of my father’s death. He died on the last day of June. It is disconnected from his birth under an Aquarius sun during the darkest part of winter. Instead, this country, my father’s country, materializes after the sun begins to wither and the blue sky is so crisp that my teeth ache.
Only when the corn stalks have disappeared under the plow, and the air is motionless do I detect a foreign prairie behind me, a land where men once guided themselves across quiet oceans by starlight like Mariners. Under vast Ukrainian skies, bison and antelope, wild horses, and prairie hawks still roam innocently across this country’s unmarked land. The bones of my ancestors lie buried in this black earth, deep within a prairie my father once walked across with faith before the war came.
The sudden trills of red-winged blackbirds and the sharp squawks of geese do not startle me because the film stills of Ukraine rolling by me are not part of this century. I do not see the effects of Chernobyl on the bruised land or drink the poisoned water. I cannot picture the pinched faces of young girls with little to believe in but the familiar strains of pop music and the hands of their boyfriends between their thighs. The empty grocery store shelves and the derelict buildings of a once-grand and fortuitous country do not cross my view. I see my father’s Ukraine, instead.
The sharp smell of wood smoke filtering through my open car window reassigns me to another century. I see Baroque churches with Greek domes and mosaic Virgins pieced together from crimson, turquoise, and emerald fragments. Ox-drawn carts stumble across muddy roads leading into dark forests. I see braided kolach bread wreathed in candles on Christmas Eve and brightly colored Easter eggs in April. I see my father on the back of a horse, his boots dug deep in the stirrups, or is it me in the pale green sweater and t-shirt, my cold hands holding the worn leather reins, my cheeks pink like a pair of apples, that I see?
Behind me, there are wandering minstrels carrying banduras. I see a poet, who was once a serf, argue angrily with Fate as the train banishes him into a frozen exile, pencil, and paper taken from his hands. I sit at a wooden table next to an uncle with the taste of resistance and borscht on his chapped lips in my horizontal, moving picture. My father is at the table too, arguing with his brother – the dissident – pleading tearfully against the path of hunger and violence Fate will lay down for both of them. I see great famine and peasants scorching their own houses, burning the last sheaths of grain before the day’s arrests begin. This country is my father’s Ukraine: a cold, sepia-toned landscape only occasionally marked by firelight, like the months of winter.
I have never traveled to Ukraine. I have not seen how the beech trees cling together in dense forests or how the linden, oak, and pine branches knot together like a spider’s web above the swamps and meadows. On the streets of Kyiv, my Eastern European features have not dissolved into the faces that have not changed for centuries, the ones that belong to lives steeped in cheap Vodka, blunt cigarettes, and unrelenting poverty. Sitting on the docks in Odessa, sipping Turkish coffee, and smoking in the chilly morning air has not been part of my life. Nor have I stood with my father by the Black Sea mesmerized by the ocean-bound freighters crushed together like downtown office buildings.
Would I even feel a connection to Ukraine if I knew where my father stood in the photograph I have of him, amidst bare trees, smiling? Would I understand what he saw as we stood together on the first farmland he owned after the war? This land, saturated with his memory and the typography of the Ukrainian steppe, I stood wanting the mosquitoes to quit feasting on my fat ten-year-old body.
Still, I know this country that stubbornly appears in my rear-view mirror each year: the same blood running through my veins gallops through men and women living amidst this fractured landscape. Though the false borders of politics have crumbled, history continues to keep me apart from my Ukrainian family born after the war, the family I will never meet. Natural geography and aberrant boundaries made by others separated my father from his family and country. Ocean. Land. Politics. Much more than landscape and ocean separates us from each other now. War. History. Language. Revolution. Disintegration. How would I find my family? Would I only exact unhappiness and confusion on the survivors, walking up the path like the prodigal daughter returning, the unwelcome ghost of my father and my uncle, murdered by the Nazis long ago, carved into my cheekbones? Stones unturned, souls at rest, perhaps.
Some days, I think I have fallen from the stars into a prairie landscape I do not recognize. There are no landmarks, no tree branches with their palms open to the heavens to remind me of the familiar. It is as if God pointed to a particular spot on the earth and declared, “There. This place is where this child’s life must begin, underneath a maple tree watching the leaves.” My first memory.
I am bold enough to argue. You have made a mistake, I say, pointing to the middle of a torn book. Where are the missing pages describing the characters in my history that have come and gone? I was a fool to believe in my father’s silence about Ukraine and in the reasons why he kept it as if it were an ancient tradition. Maybe I was wrong to think he stayed silent because he did not have faith that words would ever be enough, that language would always be lacking somehow, that his sentences would dry up like autumn leaves, the way history starts to fade on the pages when a book gathers dust, unread. Perhaps I believed in his silence more than I believed in his death. I am half Ukrainian because my father was Ukrainian because of the spelling of my last name, yet, I do not know what this means, what it meant to him.
Like my father’s love of the folktale about the evil serpent crushing his chains and stalking the earth if too few pysanky remain unpainted at Easter, I, too, am driven to argue against the circle of Fate that others try to lay down for me. I hang on to the things I cannot hold in my red heart and live as my father did as if I am about to move. This restlessness is not merely the legacy my father bequeathed to me. I believe the urge to roam was implanted in those with Eastern European blood rushing through their veins centuries ago. I claim this as my inheritance: the souls of Ukrainians have been sad for centuries, I think, and now this loneliness is mine to manage — this hunger.
Ukraine, July 1998. I nearly went to Ukraine. In fact, my American passport has an approved Visa stamp allowing me entry. The Cyrillic letters were written in likely black detail, my entry point, my Visa classification, and the person’s name stamping my passport, yet, the script is incomprehensible to me. Only the proposed dates of entry and required exit are clear.
My pre-packaged travel itinerary included a daily breakfast, transportation by train and private car, and stays at respectable hotels in Kyiv, Odesa, and Yalta. Finally, I would see Swallow’s Nest Castle on the Black Sea, the site where Stalin managed to convince Roosevelt and Churchill that he was to be trusted to bring Hitler to his knees and that his murderous rampage was secondary. I would look skyward into the Crimean Mountains that shield the Baltic coast from Arctic winds and spend an afternoon on the Dnieper River, the river that my father crossed when he escaped from the Soviet prisoner-of-war camp. I would explore the catacombs where the Partisans hid during the war; I learned that Ukraine is a landscape that has never been neutral.
After my guided travel was complete, I added ten more days of a tour through the Polish countryside. I planned to go to L’viv, where my father attended medical school before the Soviets arrested him, and Krakov, where every corner of the cobble-stoned streets still carries its history lesson with plaques commemorating both resistance and abdication. I would go to Brody, where my father was born. The entire trip was to cost $4,000. I planned to use some of my graduate school money and earn it back after returning and writing the hefty deposit check.
I did not go to Ukraine.
During a tearful conversation with my mother, she convinced me that spending that kind of money was folly since I had only been operating my independent consulting business for a couple of years.
“But I can make up the work when I return. The business has always been a means to end. Now that I am only working the legislative session during the first six months, I have more time to write. The goal is writing Mom, not the business,” I pleaded.
The narrow afternoon sunlight settled between my nervous fingers as I traced patterns in the tablecloth that covered my desk strewn with pieces of my manuscript. My mother and I had already had one of our circular conversations a few months ago about whether I should defer my graduation a year to spend more time on the manuscript. There had been many tears that night as well, I thought, and though I was thirty-two years old, I found myself still begging my mother to approve my decisions. In the end, I “won” the debate about graduation, but the “victory” felt hollow, and peculiar remorse took root. I was tired. We were both exhausted. Was it because she and I only had each other that I needed her approval? Did I still believe my mother still harbored regret about coming to America with my father and leaving her home in England? Was it my guilt over her decision to stay in this country after his death?
“Why can’t I go my way, Mom,” my voice slowly rising. “My father left me with nothing. Not a damn thing. He never talked about anything. The war. His family. Ukraine. Nothing. Half of my life is a blank page. Frankly, I think he feared the prospect of even talking into a tape recorder, but I also do not conclude that he was part of the walking wounded the way others describe survivors like him. He had humor, grace, compassion, and faith, but he worked so hard that he ran out of time, and now his entire story is gone.
I have been back to England with you as an adult and so many times as a child, Mom. I have that part of my life that you left behind and, in the end, sacrificed for me. I take risks, and yes, I suffer the consequences sometimes, but the stakes are worth it to me, I thought. Why can’t I have just a tiny sliver of my father’s life now!”
“Your father wanted to protect you from what he went through, honey. How do you think I feel? He never told me anything either. I was married to the man for fourteen years. You will go to Ukraine one day, honey, but I don’t think you should spend all that money right now.”
In the end, I relented and turned against my instinct, against my desire. True, I had no financial plan aside from using my loan money to finance the trip, but I had always been resourceful. When I called the travel company, I pleaded for my $2,000 deposit and my passport back, citing an unforeseen family crisis in my life. That summer, instead of going to Ukraine, I sat in my apartment working on a grant my clients had hired me to write.
Years have passed since I did not go to Ukraine. I still want and need to travel to this country, but I do not want to go to Ukraine to be closer to the details of my father’s war that scorched this landscape. Nor do I want to go because I still carry grief over his death. I have long since learned to manage this sorrow. If I go, I will not find his Ukraine I see in my rear-view mirror. I do not have any illusions of a family homecoming. I am not looking for my own Albion. My desire to go to Ukraine has less to do with the absence of my father’s narrative. I do not need the facts anymore; I can survive on the legends.
When I go to Ukraine, I will go because there is something intrinsically familiar about the soul of this country for me. Years ago, when I walked into a Polish art gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the owner immediately spoke to me in Polish. Even in America, I have the look of Eastern Europe on my skin and the mannerisms in my step. I have inherited this country’s obsessions, its melancholy and dogged approach to life, its evolving sense of identity, borne from centuries of occupation, and its commitment to beauty, myth, and story.
When I go to Ukraine, I will go because my father did not live to see the Berlin Wall crumble and the Soviet Union disintegrate into fragile republics. I will see an independent country and listen to the echoes of the Orange Revolution in the streets. The tragedy of history echoes when the past we should have witnessed happens without us. Both the dead and the living are so far away from it. I will bear witness to the sights and sounds, smells, and the touch of my father’s landscape and feed the uneducated part of my soul.
I will go for him because he could never return to his home after the war without risking imprisonment or death. I will go to Ukraine for my father because the act of remembering is a holy one.
The last professional photograph taken of my father accompanies an article published posthumously in the University of South Dakota Medical School newsletter. In the picture, he does not smile in keeping with his reluctance to be photographed. Seated at his desk in a white doctor’s coat and stethoscope, the hospital window behind him looks out towards spring.
In the corresponding article, the author described how my father reached into his top desk drawer and pulled out a handful of postcards from all over the world. Israel. Germany. Japan. Poland. Australia. France. Yugoslavia. Each one was a request for a reprint of research papers he had written and presented worldwide. The reporter asked my father if international travel came easier because of his working knowledge of seven languages. He responded that while it takes him a little time to pick up a language again, it comes back effortlessly once he walks amongst the people.
At the end of the commentary, when asked if he enjoyed his work at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, my father exclaimed, “I am happy now. I am happier now than any time.” A well-educated man and a man of many languages, he could have set his life down in any country, in any landscape, but instead, he found his way back to a landscape most like the one he carried in his heart.
The path from the villages of Ukraine to the American prairie is threadbare. The faint trail follows the line of the northernmost railroads, snaking its way across the edges of North Dakota. After the war, my father’s best friend, Bohdan, a man he met in the prisoner-of-war camps, followed another well-worn path of history to Canada, one that others who came before him had beaten down with muddy boots and hopeful souls. My father did not go down this trail. Instead, he set his life down in South Dakota on a prairie with no history of others like him coming before. Perhaps the prospect of living in proximity to others sharing his particular kind of loss unnerved him. My father’s motivations and the circumstances of his choices are like the details of his life during the war – ephemeral – like the moondust children believe fairies sprinkle over their fragile and unformed hearts in the night.
My knowledge of the history of South Dakota, the state my father chose to live out his life, in the end, is sketchy at best. Sometimes I think that my understanding of this part of America consists of Custer, Crazy Horse, Mt. Rushmore, Wounded Knee, rose quartz, wild buffalo, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Wall Drug, and Laura Ingalls Wilder stories.
My command of the prairie is much better. I know that there are fewer trees to change color and gauge the nearness of winter in the fall. I recognize the movement of the horizon as it draws closer to the earth when the sun slouches lower and lower with each passing day. I can predict when coveys of geese will begin to meet at a singular point in the scarlet and flaxen sky. I understand that few street lamps glow on the prairie, only acres and acres of stars. Sometimes, one loses its balance, falling to earth without emotion. Is the same true in Ukraine?
When I was in grade school, my father bought several parcels of land in Saskatchewan. It made no difference to my father that the land was part of the Canadian prairie. I inherited this land saturated with his memory and the typography of the Ukrainian steppe after my mother’s death eight years ago. I did not understand what my dad saw when we stood together on this land; all I wanted was for the mosquitoes to quit feasting on my plump ten-year-old body.
Land loved. Land labored. Land lost. The spiritual and historical life of an entire nation revolves around Ukrainians’ intimate relationship with the earth. For my father, Ukraine was a country driven by memory; for me, it is driven by history.
My father discovered his memory of the prairie after the war. He joined thousands of Ukrainians who had pulled the roots of their lives from one unforgiving landscape before setting their lives down in another halfway around the world.
His country tracks me like a panther, pursuing me each October, telling me it is time for me to come.