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.
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.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_6dcaee1dd48344f4a800cac79319d8147Emv2.jpg13851050Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:53:212021-09-01 14:22:59Human equivalent of GMT
After the private funeral, one of the attendants assigned to manage my mother’s services leads me into the room set aside for the visitation. Trays of hand-cut sandwiches, bowls of marigold yellow potato salad, and a selection of sugar cookies arranged in buffet-style line white linen-covered table. Strong coffee brews. Classical music pipes into the room. I am alone for a moment. To assuage my scarce appetite, I pour a Styrofoam cup of coffee and move to stand by the ice-etched window. Outside, after nights of sky-saturated storms, the sun shines, dazzling warmth into the room. Tempered by mourning and memory, I turn away from the glaring reflection of fresh snow.
I have grieved in this room before.
Once upon a time, doctors and nurses streamed into this funeral parlor. My mother and I sat on a plush floral sofa. Synthetic. Lifeless. On display. Strangers to me competed for my mother’s attention and offered me posthumous advice. Be strong like your father. Do well in school, Anna. Face after face drifted past. Everyone knew my name. I knew so few and stayed silent. The voices of former patients reverently recounted how my father had saved their lives. His passion and fierceness beat back my illness, balding men testified. Friends from school huddled around the entrance to the same room I stand in now. Only when their mothers nudged them did my confused friends enter. Emotionally stunted by adolescence, none of us had the vocabulary for loss.
No sandwiches. No salad or cookies.
The room thirty years ago lacked reassurance, so the morning of my father’s funeral, I set my grief on my dresser, promising to return to it another day. Thirty years later, I cannot afford to be silenced and disengaged by grief again.
Librarians, like doctors and educated wolves, travel in packs. Gathering as police officers or military personnel do when one of their own has fallen, my mother’s co-workers stream in from the freezing temperatures — a circle of women sporting tightly permed heads and sensible winter boots forms around me. The woman who drove the bookmobile when I was a child, Shirley, timidly enters the room. Three decades fill the distance between us. We hug awkwardly.
“Do you still check out too many books, Anna? Your mother and I used to have to edit your stack each week. Your mother was such a special lady,” Shirley pronounces, moving to blow her nose.
“Well, instead of checking out too many books from the library, I buy too many used ones on Amazon,” I answer with a wink. “Thank you for coming, Shirley. Please have a sandwich and a cup of coffee.” The memory of plastic-covered, well-worn books I cherished as a child fills my head. I wonder if the engine of the antiquated bus still hums off-key. In the mirror over Shirley’s shoulder, I see the reflection of me sitting with my knees tucked and pressed up against my favorite bookshelf, stacking treasures beside me.
The reference librarian, followed by the woman who staffed the video and young adult books department, arrives, and soon the group of women that formed the nucleus of my mother’s life for seventeen years swells. I nurse a now tepid cup of coffee. My concentration wanders. I only retain snippets of stories told. Janet moves into the fold and supplants my attention, nodding and laughing at all the appropriate moments. I willingly fade into the background. Shifting from greeter to listener, I am relieved by a sudden wave of anonymity.
While the book women trade recycled stories about the library and my mother and nibble on ham sandwiches, I notice a slight woman dressed in a waist-length, brown, faux leather jacket out of the corner of my eye. The mysterious woman nervously shifts back and forth and tries to catch my eye. Gripping her bag as if she is stranded not on an iceberg of grief but in a dicey neighborhood after dark, her behavior attracts my attention. I do not recognize the woman. During a brief lull in conversation with the librarians, I excuse myself. In two long strides, I am at the agitated woman’s side.
“Thank you for coming this morning. I don’t believe we’ve met, but you likely knew my mother. How did you know my mother?” I finish securing a context for this stranger. The woman with closely cropped, dyed hair erupts into a spasm of desperate sobs. Who is this woman?
“Why don’t you and I sit down on the sofa,” I suggest pointing to a loveseat positioned underneath the wall’s mirror. I take her hand, bone-cold from the morning. I rub her hands in mine and wait. Still ignorant of the woman’s identity, I retrieve a couple of Kleenex squares from my pocket and hand them to her.
The nameless woman’s words come slowly. Tangled and chastened by an attack of sadness-induced hiccups at first, her story crystallizes like a car gaining traction in the snow, Not from the library, not from a past life as a doctor’s wife, the woman sobbing beside me is Sherry, my mother’s hairpiece stylist. For as long as I can remember, my mother wore a tasteful hairpiece, a well-coiffed bun perched on the back of her head to cover thinning hair and a bald spot. In every childhood photo in which my mother plays a supporting role, Sherry’s tailored handiwork silhouette is evident.
Once gaining her composure, Sherry speaks of how shocked she was to pick up the newspaper and find the obituary I wrote. “Your mother was such a kind lady. When my son died, she called and wrote to me. I still have those letters. She was so very kind.” Sherry’s effort to choke these few words out into the air produces another round of tears. Is she grieving for my mother or her son? The circumstances of the son’s death had always been in question. Although never charged with murder, the son’s wife had come under the glare of police suspicion when the husband’s autopsy detected poison in his body. Sherry, convinced of her daughter-in-law’s role in her son’s death, poured out her suspicions to my mother. “I won’t keep you,” Sherry interjects as I shake my head no and insist she stay for a coffee.
“I won’t stay. I just wanted to pay my respects to your mother. Thank you for sitting with me. Even though this is the first time we have met, I can tell you are kind of like your mother. I will miss your mother,” she declares, rising to her feet and slipping out the door like a shadow.
“Who was that woman?” Janet asks in mid-step. Approaching the sofa where I remain sitting, she announces, “I think the librarians are getting ready to leave.”
I nod and glance over at the disassembling group reaching for purses and coats. My husband, Steve, holds coats and guides arms into sleeves in the midst of the pending departures. Though he has met so few mourners, Steve falls into conversations stunted by shock and sadness with ease, comforting strangers with a kind word or a brief but firm hug. Though I have barely had a moment to say two words to him since early this morning, I will be able to manage this day because I know he is close.
“The woman you were talking to was pretty upset,” Janet hints a second time, bringing me back to the present.
“Oh, that was Sherry, the woman who did my mother’s hairpiece for years. I never met her. Her son died, and I think she was thinking about him as much as Mom. Nice woman. I probably will never see her again, though. Funerals are weird that way, I guess. You have really intense conversations that evaporate as quickly as they brew. If she signed the guestbook, I’d send her a note.”
With one eye on the entryway, I make a mental list of new arrivals, greeting and thanking each person individually. I recognize my mother’s acupuncturist and his assistant, but their faces will not stay with me. The car salesman who sold my parents each of their Buicks since the late 1960s corners me between the sofa and the entrance. His body language, polyester trousers, and a cheap gold chain peeking over his shirt collar suggest anything but chaste condolence. I squirm. Nod. Smile. Say, thank you. I raise my eyebrow. Janet sees my signal. Just as the one-sided conversation switches gears to what a lovely young woman I have become, Janet swoops in with the news that another guest has arrived. Leaving Janet to distract the harmless flirt, I intercept new arrivals.
A stout, short woman surveying the gathering of mourners enters the room and stops abruptly. Evaluating each person with beady, twitching eyes, her gaze lands on me. I examine her for a moment as well, and after a deep inhale, I reach her in one stride with my hand outstretched.
“You must be Anna,” the stranger declares, taking positive note of my conservative but stylish suit. “I’m glad you are not wearing black. So predictable and dismal. I am Madge Wilson, your father’s senior nurse on 4 East Ward. I never met your mother though I am sure she was a lovely person, but I recognized the name, Sochocky, in the obituaries and knew that she must have been married to your father.” Madge takes a wheezing breath and turns to sit on the couch by the door. I follow silently. I suspect there will be little opportunity to squeeze a word between Madge’s monologues. For this, I am thankful.
“As I said, I was your father’s senior nurse and, boy was he a challenge to work with each day. But he was the best doctor on the ward, and he liked me because I stood up to him. Madge, he would shriek, standing in the doorway to his office, and I would take my own sweet time getting to his door. Your father was an excellent doctor, though. So compassionate. Never gave up when so many others would pack it in too early. He used to call me into an examination room and put his feet up on the gurney while I cleaned up the mess left behind. Domestic, he wasn’t. And another interesting feature of your father is he was obsessed with the condition of his bowel movements. He always wanted me to judge his stool samples. Very strange. I think he was a hypochondriac,” Madge muses before exploding into laughter.
The content rather than the location of her telling leaves me nonplussed. My father’s hypochondria, the subject of his daily constitution’s quality and condition, often drove him back to Duke University for evaluation.
Janet shoots me a look over Madge’s shoulder. I stare past both Janet and Madge wondering how many people can count stool sample stories told by a woman who does not even know the person who has died as part of their ‘strange things that happened at my mother’s funeral stories’? If Madge weren’t so genuinely quirky and florid with her description of my father’s obsessive medical habits, grief would win the battle for my attention.
As the two hours pass, I retrace both my parents’ past and moments of my own adolescent life as well. During a lull, my high school English teacher and yearbook advisor peers into the room. Dressed in corduroys, an elbow-patched topcoat, and a thick fabric tie, he smiles and hugs me.
“Thank you so much for coming, Doug. I am just about out of conversation with people I barely know if I know them at all. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I am exhausted.”
“I know. Talking to everyone is so tiring, but I saw you making your way around the room like a skilled politician,” he winks and pats my arm. Politics, as well as books, cemented our friendship from the beginning. “I had to come. I was so shocked to read her obituary. She was such a lovely woman. Let’s sit down,” my favorite teacher gestures to the couch where I learned about my father’s stool obsession only moments before.
Sinking into the familiar fabric pricks me like a balloon, and I burst into tears that I have managed to keep at bay since the private service. As he had done thirty years ago, Doug retakes the reins as my confidante and listens to my rambled recounting of the past six months. Shaking his head, he comments, “The past few months must have been terrible for you and your husband. I have requested a Mass be said in your mother’s honor.”
“Doug, I’m afraid that my ambivalence about God hasn’t congealed much over the years, but thank you. Thank you for having a Mass said for Mom, and thank you for coming. Mom really liked you, but I suspect that’s because you always gave me good grades and kept me out of trouble with the priests and the nuns.” I grimace and then smile at the memories of how many occasions Doug had rescued me from punishment after one of my argumentative outbursts.
“Parent-teacher conferences were always enjoyable when I saw your mother. And I gave you good grades because you earned them. You probably still earn them. Besides, you are the best yearbook editor I ever had the pleasure to work with past and present.” The visitation numbers swell again, and Doug rises to his feet. “I signed the guestbook. Take care of yourself, Anna. Please. I know you are facing a mountain, but take care of yourself. I’m really glad I came,” he finishes.
When my high school boyfriend, Mark, sans braces, walks across our thirty-year gap, the two of us engage in a nostalgic but vaguely uncomfortable conversation. I stay mute, growing disconnected from the ambiance of a distant history he retells, a history of summer evenings when we drove through a maze of unpaved roads. For six adolescent weeks, summer evenings passed sweetly but awkwardly between us. With Elton John whining through the glowing dashboard, the ping, ping of gravel jumping under the tire rims cracked the melody of Benny and the Jets into pieces. The sweet smell of corn stalks dangled in the muggy air. Red-winged blackbirds descended on plowed remains in the fields to feed. This was the South Dakota I once knew, the South Dakota I had to leave.
Condolences and nostalgia only carry a conversation so far, however. Our exchange about humid summer evenings collapses into a discussion about how Mark cannot believe he is raising two teenagers. I glance at my watch when he turns his head for a moment, making a mental note to ask for his email when a disembodied photo waves in front of me. Mark laughs. Both of us have seen this photo before.
For a moment, I look at the Polaroid image of the sign made by my stablemates. In the Polaroid image, crepe paper decorations and a stenciled sign read: “Welcome Back, Anna. Dino and all of us love you.” At the sight of my first horse, his head thrust over his decorated stall door, standing under the sign, crepe paper strings falling off the dirty walls and gently waving in the breeze, I am catapulted back thirty years. I turn to see my high school riding instructor’s brown eyes welling with tears and collapse in her arms.
Too many reminders. Too much conversation. Too many days to come as a motherless daughter. The emotional tank I filled early this morning is running on empty. The string of condolences repeated replays of stories and saddened questions about the cause of my mother’s death left me mentally scorched. When the room empties for the last time, I exhale all the conversations, all the tears, and all the memory stirred by the grief of others. I sit alone on the sofa. Kick my heels off. Lean back into the plumped pillows, staring without focus into the empty room.
My mother’s funeral may be over, but the aftermath of her death has only just begun.
I have moved up a generation.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_e0eaf95eadc34fa38cc26975cd798f307Emv2.jpg200300Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:53:132021-07-29 12:57:11Moving up a generation
I climb the stairs and duck under the canopy-shielded entrance. The plum-colored tarp bends and twists from the force of the thirty-mile an hour wind. With effort, I heave the glass door open, lodging it with my elbow until I manage to scuttle into the foyer. I step out of the subzero temperatures. Only 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and all the steps have been shoveled; pellets sprinkled like breadcrumbs across the pavement melt the ice.
The Miller Funeral Home hums with a buzz of foreign activity. Funeral directors, older men with graying temples, glide silently across the carpet, their silence and presence as pronounced as helpful monks. The earliest hours on a Saturday morning, yet each man is dressed in full suits, their crisp white or cream shirts ironed and unblemished by the day. Ready to attend to the business of grief, a receptionist, seated at a weighted mahogany desk, crouches over a phone receiver. She wedges hushed tones of sympathy between scheduling a new appointment.
The parlor revolves around the air of an airport terminal’s baggage conveyor belt. Arrivals of the living, departures of the dead, the motion of loss infinite. As my swollen eyes adjust to the muted light thrown off by small lamps peppered around the foyer and track lighting sequestered in the ceiling, another wave of shock and horror sweeps over me, and I burst into tears. With a hint of my knees giving way, a funeral attendant materializes and gathers me into his muscled, aged arms.
“I am so sorry for your loss; weep as long as necessary. We are here to help in any way we can. The shock is still fresh. Don’t feel like you have to make any decisions right now,” he murmurs. His hand rubs my back in a circular motion, and with each move of his hands, my breath settles. After a few minutes, as the wave subsides, he asks, “Who in your life has passed on?”
Passed on. Such a strange, perfunctory, predictable phrase. Passed on where, when, how, why, passed on, uttered to reassure, to console, perhaps even to obfuscate a pain that is often more physical than emotional. I find it difficult to silence my ping pong mind with so little sleep, my thoughts scuttling across my mind. One minute I am contemplating what the phase ‘passed on’ means, and seconds later, my head is in another plane entirely listing people I need to phone and in which country.
Questions rather than answers flood my mind. Should I schedule a religious service? Why does death always seem to come in the darkness? Why is my mother gone? I cannot silence my philosophical paradigm. First, I am numb, then suddenly analytic. Every activity, every thought I observe and record, then promptly forget. As quickly as my emotional breakers recede, I am clear-eyed. I gaze over the funeral attendant’s broad shoulder, noting the funeral staff’s natural choreographed entrances and exits into the reception area. All move across the stage of loss as naturally as breathing.
“My mother. My mother has died. Someone found her slumped over her steering wheel in a Walgreen’s parking lot, the one on Minnesota Avenue. Who found her, I wonder? When I was in Sioux Falls in August, I thought our visit might be the last time I saw her alive. Why did I know? Did I know she was going to die,” I string question after nonsensical question together, praying that I will find the focus to stop talking? “Mom lived for nine days after her hemorrhagic stroke. I knew she was going to die from the moment I saw her in ICU,” I babble without limit or effort. For someone who could barely string a sentence together at the hospital, I have reverted to my chronic habit of providing too much information in answer to a question.
“I am indeed very sorry for your loss,” he responds, nonplussed by my verbal incontinence. “Your mother is at peace, and our job is to help you assure that she rests in eternal peace. Why don’t I get you a cup of coffee,” signaling to a second man hovering on the edge of our conversation? “Would you like cream and sugar,” he asks, reaching for a packet of tissues; his wingman offers; my clenched hand releases long enough for me to accept the offering.
I shake my head no but quickly change my mind. “Cream, please. I want some cream. Thank you.” Every pore of my body wilts, and though I have ingested little more than coffee in the past few days, the prospect of a warm, Styrofoam cup shimmers like a cairn in the mountains, guiding me to certain safety.
“Did you phone from the hospital a couple of hours ago,” the old ‘monk’ inquires, gently turning my shoulders, guiding me to a well-positioned chair. When I mutely nod yes, he suggests that I sit down, and he will inquire as to whom I will be meeting with to make final arrangements for my mother, bowing ever so slightly before moving away towards the receptionist’s desk. Like the man with gentle eyes who caught me before I kissed the ground, the younger man with coffee appears like a specter, and I slump into the chair’s warm, plump, floral fabric. Plucking two tissues from the plastic packet, I blow on the coffee’s surface. Sensing the burning heat, I set the cup on the square faux wood accent table on my left.
Thirty years have passed since I have been in this building for my father’s visitation and his meager funeral, and little seems to have changed. Or has it? Stunned by grief at the age of fourteen, I really wouldn’t have noticed if the décor had been deep, tonal wood paneling or bright blue linoleum. But now, with the cold comfort of coffee, my eyes swivel around the foyer and across the passageway’s entrance. Every surface – pedestals with potted chrysanthemums or deep crimson Christmas poinsettias, corner tables and chairs, the receptionist’s central desk, the sideboard against the pinstriped wallpaper in the hall – is populated with clusters of travel tissue compacts.
Slumping further into the chair, I watch the funeral staff navigate unchartered waters for the newly bereft. I reach for the thick notebook I have carried for nine days like a worn talisman and absently begin to turn pages of penciled lists, lists that have come to define not only by days and nights but my new self. I tick items off the bloated list. Cremation – yes. Private funeral; only close friends. Open visitation. Timing should be over the lunch hour; friends and co-workers can dash out of their jobs and drop by to pay their own respects and grieve. Small sandwiches and cookies? Definitely. With the cold winter wind, people must be fed.
Questions of religious services stump me. Faithful but not religious, my mother opted never to join a congregation. Religion is different in this country, she frequently declared. After my father’s death, attending church services became my mother’s lifeline, but as the years waned, her commitment diminished as well. Instead, she clung to a country lost, past lost, dreams lost until she was incapable of moving forward and taking up the reins of her life for a time. I never saw my mother pray; my mother kept her faith to herself as well.
With my father’s death, decisions that were not my own to make seeped through the telephone and under the front door, peppered our mail, and masked our emotions. Now, it was my time to make all the decisions. Making choices and facing facts is my forte. I sip the cooled coffee – how much better if it were it laced with brandy.
Perhaps I dozed in the warm foyer, I don’t know, but when Janet finally walks into the building, I startle at her voice. “So, we’re parked in the Starbucks parking lot. None of the roads have been plowed yet, and Starbucks is the only lot cleared. It’s about a block and a half from here. Have you talked to funeral staff yet,” she asks, stomping her snow-caked boots on the entry rug.
“Monks,” I replied. “I spoke to one of the ‘monks.’ Someone should be ready to meet with us soon.”
“Monks? What are you talking about? Are you alright, well as alright as you can be right now.”? Janet brushes the snow from her down jacket and stamps her boots once more.
“The funeral attendants. They seem to glide across the carpet like ‘monks.’ Look at these men,” I insist, “all of them dressed in suits and ties. I heard the receptionist tell a caller that the funeral home is open twenty-four hours a day. And it’s so busy, even though it’s barely nine o’clock,” my voice trailing into an unexpected wave of tears.
My body absorbs shock from my mother’s death like a violent contusion. Unable to hold my limbs up with intentional will, my body crumbles as if my bones are disintegrating into dust. Efforts at conversation, normally as clear as a winter sky, have become a foreign language.
The call from the hospital three hours ago fades into the funeral home’s floral carpet and is absorbed by other families’ arrivals, stunned into silence by loss. Fresh coffee percolates somewhere, the smell benignly drifting into the belly of equally fresh grief.
Long minutes pass before Janet asks, “Did you phone people in England? Not everyone needs to be called today, Anna. Can others make calls for you?” I nod mutely into my coffee cup. Sobs that had once been violent have transposed into a few seconds of quiet tears.
Janet’s question dangles, unanswered, and she does not repeat it.
Death keeps you busy. I have inherited my mother’s penchant for manufactured control over capricious situations, a mistress of the list. Meticulous, organized, and prioritized enslavement comes from the pen as well as the phone.
I do not have time to grieve. I am drowning, simply drowning.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_e0eaf95eadc34fa38cc26975cd798f307Emv2.jpg200300Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:53:122021-07-29 12:47:34Death keeps you busy
In the premature dark, the snow squeaks and crunches beneath our ginger steps. The icy winter resurfaced, plummeting the temperature below zero and into the negative double digits.
“Of course, our appointment with an attorney we have never met has to be on one of the bitterest of nights since Mom died,” I mutter through my wool scarf. “The lawyer’s office is in the building is across the street, one with the time and temperature sign flashing. “How can sign’s electronics even register negative thirty,” I snort, my breath inside the scarf’s dampening the wool.
After crossing the freshly plowed road, Steve casts open a glass door. The cold air meets the stolid warmth inside, and a thick film of condensation forms on the glass. Pausing to knock the snow off his boots on the entryway’s beige carpet, Steve locates the office floor and suite number on the building’s wall index. I shift my weight on the carpet, well past its saturation point from a day’s worth of entrances and exits, and chew another fingernail.
We ride the elevator in relieved silence. Earlier, the culmination of tension from the funeral, ceaseless, lengthy phone calls about the Canadian farmland and the house in England, and a handful of our bills that passed their due date by one or two days had ignited a spark of simmering frustration between us. When Steve left the apartment to buy more U-Haul boxes, I beseeched Janet: “He is driving me nuts, Janet,” I sobbed, striking the dining room table with my fists. “When Steve was in Santa Fe, before the funeral, I had a routine. I have my way of handling calls and meetings and letters and priorities. Steve doesn’t mean to, but he interferes, tells me I am doing things wrong. I have known the players in England and Canada for years. Tell him to get off my bloody back,” I railed, the onset of tears dissolving into a foul puddle of marital discord.
Later, after I left the apartment upon Steve’s return, fleeing to Barnes and Noble under the pretense that I needed a book about the legalities of settling an estate, Janet quietly approached my husband. “Anna is in “campaign mode.” You know she gets like this, and I learned years ago to stand back and allow her to move at her speed. I know her behavior drives all of us crazy sometimes, but part of her mania is a way of dealing with her grief, too,” Janet reasoned, soon soothing Steve’s anxiety. Janet recognized another truth: my frenzy to pack up my mother’s apartment and understand my responsibilities for a moderate yet intricate estate was a response not only instigated by grief and practical necessity but also by a compulsion to erase a life without my mother in it. I returned to the apartment and calmer marital waters.
The elevator door opens, and Steve and I peer out into a nearly colorless, symmetrical passageway. Decorated in a palette restricted to brown shades, both sides of the hallway host equally nondescript artwork featuring Latin legal lexicons and graphic allusions to justice being blind. “I hope our lawyer is more invigorating than this hall,” I quip, forcing a tepid smile.
Near the end of the hallway, a light casts a shadow on my boots. Steve nods and follows me into a seemingly barren office. While we struggle out of our winter coats, a slight and wiry man with a hooked nose appears, his bony hand outstretched towards both of us. Whether due to my grief, the lateness of the hour on a frigid winter evening, or simply our lawyer’s way of doing business, introductions are made and disposed of expeditiously.
After Steve and I are seated, the man with a face like one of the Gringott bankers in Harry Potter listens. At the same time, I begin retracing an abbreviated version of the events leading up to our visit, starting with my mother’s stroke, winding through the discovery of the covert will she penned after my stay in August, before culminating with her death.
“As well, my mother’s bank and investment representatives froze all accounts after her death.” The gnome-faced lawyer nods without comment.
I fail to mention that the bank manager has turned a blind eye to any checks I write for bills.
Bending over a fresh piece of yellow legal paper, he records the events described with an expensive Montblanc fountain pen, its tip scratching across the once virgin page. “Do you have a copy of your mother’s will?” he inquires without looking up.
“Two wills.” The fervent note-taking ceases for a moment, and the lawyer shoots me a penetrating look through his round spectacles. Worried that the admission suggests nefarious behavior on my part, I continue without allowing our counsel to interject. “I have a copy of the will she had drawn up in the early 1980s by an attorney after my father died. All of the beneficiaries mentioned in this will are dead. But I also have a handwritten will that my mother wrote herself five months ago,” I state, cautiously choosing my words and handing both wills across the desk. For a few minutes, no one speaks.
With effort, I suppress the urge to chew another fingernail.
“Well, the handwritten will is the most current demonstration of your mother’s wishes, thereby nullifying the one drafted thirty years ago.” The breath I have been holding expires like a punctured balloon. “Of course, you are Anna, and you are Steve,” he affirms, glancing first at me and then at Steve. We nod. “A holographic or handwritten will does not present a problem in and of itself. Many states, including South Dakota, accept handwritten directives as part of probate proceedings.” I breathe out. Pinpricks of tears gather. I don’t understand my mother’s motivations for writing a second will. I never learn her reasons for keeping it a secret from me. “But, there is a problem with your mother’s will in that there is only one witness signature,” the Gringott banker’s doppelganger continues.
The room falls into silence once more. I turn to Steve and mouth the words, “Now what?” drumming the stubs of my fingernails on the armrest. The proximity of my rising anger overtakes the threat of an embarrassing wave of tears. Has my mother made a legal mess because of her stubbornness?
“Interestingly enough, only two states allow the use of a holographic will with only one signature in matters of probate. Once again, South Dakota is one of those states. However, you will have to sign a legally binding affidavit attesting to the fact that this is your mother’s handwriting,” he announces.
Shooting me another probing glance before continuing to scribble notes, he asks, “Can you attest to this writing being in your mother’s hand?”
“Yes, I can. Without question, my mother wrote the will,” I answer without hesitation. While over the years, the words my mother wrote shrunk, the letters were growing closer together. The directive printed in block letters on a gray paper was undoubtedly written by my mother, signed by her, and witnessed by her friend, Margaret.
“With this holographic will and your signature on an affidavit attesting to the validity of the writing, I can request the court to open probate proceedings on behalf of your mother’s estate. Customarily, such a request is made, and a judge assigned to the case appoints the named parties as executors, you and Steve, within two weeks. However, given that Christmas is two days away and several district court judges are on vacation, I anticipate this result will take longer. In the interim, you may not access your mother’s bank and investment accounts, nor will you be able to sell or change any lease agreements with regards to the property in England and Canada.” Upon completing his recitation of the ins and outs of prairie probate proceedings, the man who will be the first of five lawyers to settle my mother’s estate lays down his pen. Reaching for a tissue, lawyer “number one” removes his circular glasses and wipes a speck of dust from the lens before an afterthought occurs to him.
“Do you have legal counsel in Canada and England?” I shake my head, picking at the corner of my index finger’s half-bitten nail sensing my responsibilities tighten into a legal pretzel. “Probate proceedings differ from country to country, even state to state, so I strongly advise you to retain legal counsel in both England and Canada as it is likely that separate probate proceedings will be required.
Once you are named executors in this country, your standing will be legally established and may be helpful as you proceed in other countries.”
One day after my mother’s funeral and two days before Christmas, my executor’s year began.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_a24c2d7a28a54429b153f614603ad3bc7Emv2_d_3024_4032_s_4_2-scaled.jpg25601920Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:53:002021-09-01 14:32:13Executor’s year begins
In my effort to categorize my mother’s world, I discover that my mother still has her instinct to hide envelopes of money around the apartment. Burying bills between the folds of her bras and underwear, underneath my grandmother’s pearls in her jewelry case, on the lower shelf of her closet in an old Tiffany’s box, in every pocket of her purses and wallets, she maintained her obsession to save every dollar for an emergency. At first, I count the found envelopes’ contents, marking the totals on the adhesive flaps, and occasionally cram a twenty or two into my own wallet to pay for hospital parking or gas, but rarely to pay for food. A week since my mother’s stroke, I am still not eating.
Turning a blind eye to the paper maze on the bed and envelopes of money, another web of questions that cannot be answered arises. At lunch earlier today, my mother’s friend, Margaret, asked me if I had found my mother’s handwritten will recalling that she had witnessed my mother’s signature. To shield my shock and growing unease, I lied, saying that though I had not found this will, my mother had told me that she had written it.
I turn away from the closet and survey the room. Why did my mother handwrite a second will? What does it say, and in a silhouette of Ukrainian paranoia, I wonder if she has sliced me out of her will like an amputation? Where did she bury it? Why did she hide it, to begin with, and fail to tell me that it existed in the first place? The will my mother had prepared by an attorney thirty years ago after my father died was the only will I knew existed.
To say that my mother is private is an understatement, but there is an uncomfortable undercurrent to her behavior. A lack of trust between us budded before my father died and bloomed with the glory of spring after his death when my answer to a question she asked to set our course for the next twenty years.
Do you want to return to England to live? Even in the tenderness of grief, I realized the question had only one correct answer to assuage my mother’s brittle state. Yes. But, in a flood of tears, I answered incorrectly. My mother created a mythology of her England in time, subsisting on a diet of remorse, bitterness, and longing until she became a reluctant American.
Only when I read the condolence letters my mother received after my father died did I realize that I might have put myself in the invisible prison as well. Living straddled between two countries and cultures, with no steady footing in either one, I considered that I really did deserve the subtle punishment my mother unwittingly inflicted upon me when I said I did not want to return to England to live. In the end, however, the decision she made to stay in South Dakota, a decision she made in a spinning world of crisis, built an impenetrable wall between us long into my adulthood.
Frantic to replace all that I believed I stole from my mother, I read the same books as she did, all about England, all about the Second World War, trying to understand her England. As before, when I was a child, I listened to the intonations of her accent, trying to mimic each syllable. Each morning, I scoured British newspapers and websites, searching for a common thread to discuss with my mother with authority. Television programs written with a British lens of self-deprecation or shrewd and dry humor became my cultural lifeline, severing connection to the culture and country in which I lived.
Over time, I metamorphosed into a life that did not belong to me.
A show pony that just wanted to be pastured, I obediently produced hollow success, too. Ribbons and trophies when I was in high school, excellent grades, for the most part, scholarships and awards, my reputation in my mother’s eyes improved when I succeeded, but plummeted when I stumbled. Knowing that errors in practice or judgment would compromise a scholarship or, more likely, her respect, I denigrated myself for every mistake I made, blaming myself for every failure, real or perceived. The undercurrent of her sacrifice subsumed me, though my mother relinquished her country for me, to be anything less than worthy of the decision she forced herself to make would be tantamount to betrayal.
Writing cases. I should have thought to look for the other will in her two writing cases. The newer ones, a dark wood box with her initials engraved on a piece of metal, is the one she uses most often, but where is the scarlet red leather box my mother received for her twenty-first birthday? Crouching on my knees, my hands tap the dark space of her desk, touching emptiness until…leaning deeper into the cavity, my index finger rubs against a hardened object. Inching the unknown object closer to me, the abandoned, forgotten writing case emerges.
With my mother’s writing box under my arm and a wine glass in my left hand, I clear enough space on the bed to sit and lay the case beside me. Once always firmly clasped to prevent curious eyes, the lock releases with a press of a button. Contents spill over the sides onto the floor. Clippings detail the demise of the local coop in Bury St. Edmunds and the latest innovation in heart treatment at Papworth Hospital, the fateful location where my parents met working on the medical ward.
Turquoise colored airmail letters in my grandmother’s handwriting leak with regret she felt for being unsuccessful in her attempts to discourage my mother’s marriage. Dozens upon dozens of obituaries recap my sixth-grade teacher’s life, my riding instructor’s father, long past doctors and nurses that comprised my father’s daily life, librarians who my mother worked with over seventeen years, and one of my mother’s first boyfriends. To feed the inclination, to sum up, decades of life, but abbreviated entries in any local paper neglect to verify a history of spent dreams or devastating loss or joyful moments peeking through the too familiar clouds of disappointment.
The fact that my mother kept each obituary, refusing to throw away memory or history, failed to surprise me. All these years, ever since I was a small child, my mother kept track of all those who entered her circle, even those whose stay was brief. I did not inherit her commitment to keeping track of those crossing into my life over the years. I severe connections with employers, lovers, and friends alike, placing the memory in a chest that remains unopened like her writing box once did.
Buried between the pages, I find a letter written in my own hand at the age of ten, imploring my mother to return from England. Upon my great aunt Stella’s death, my mother returned home, leaving me at ten to care for my father.
In a child’s handwriting, the letters cascade into a steeper slant with each desperate line. In places, the paper puckers. Our dog was dying before my eyes. Why couldn’t my father see the dog was dying, I wrote? How long did the letter take to arrive in my mother’s hands? Was the dog still alive when she read my pleas? Memory fails me on that score, but I remember hiding in my bedroom closet. Wedged between a dented wagon and Barbie’s pumpkin orange mobile camper, writing. I hid from my father for fear that he would see my letter as a betrayal. Even at the tender age of ten, I feared the consequences of speaking uncomfortable truths, burying my voice in the silence.
After two hours reading faded newspaper clippings, opening each envelope including the one I penned, scanning the lines of each letter, I acquiesced to the knowledge that the writing case did not hide the secret will.
Something else portended my mother’s fate, however.
When I go to close the lid, a passport-sized, black and white photo of my mother, wedged between the folds of a leather pocket, catches my eye. Sliding it out of the compartment, I stare at the image of my mother clad in a turtleneck sweater, her everyday hairpiece perfectly coiffed. A thought as faint as her ambiguous expression in the image crosses my mind.
I have found the photo to use for her obituary, the obituary I know I will have to write. Tucking the unfamiliar photograph in my wallet, the last of my faith in my mother’s recovery slip away.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_115cbbf01eba445eb7d7cf3517ac7e527Emv2.jpg275275Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:52:512021-03-30 15:26:25Last will and testament
The pain in my left knee is so unbearable that my joint buckles when I try to walk. For the past six days, I have watched hundreds of other riders succumb to injuries, weary muscles, and the blistering heat, but now, after nearly a week on a bike ride to raise money for local HIV/AIDS hospices, I cannot stand on my leg without wincing. I lie down on the immaculate lawn of an anonymous suburban Chicago home and reach into my backpack for the Advil, washing four capsules down with warm, lime Gatorade.
Mobile medical crews hover like grounded helicopters waiting to pounce. If I am too far from the finish line in central Chicago, one of these crews will radio ahead, and my bike and I will be loaded on one of the flatbed trailers rolling past me.
The deadline is 2:00 p.m. It is 11:00 a.m. I am forty miles from the finish line.
Each passing flatbed truck renews my resolve to bike every remaining mile. Yet, I know that more than my knee is collapsing in suburban Illinois. In a maze of twisting roads and cornfields, I have painfully acknowledged that the career I have built in politics is one I no longer wanted. Drawn to anyone stained with a history of suffering like my parents, I wondered if my work had been nothing more than a feeble attempt to assuage my own anguish over the residual effects of my family’s narrative.
The commitment that had once been genuine crumbled with each passing mile, and by the time I had reached the eastern Wisconsin border, I doubted my integrity completely.
I might have chosen a different path. On the eve of my graduation from college, my British journalism professor, a quiet mentor who would later die tragically from lung cancer at the age of 62 a few years after I graduated from college, tried to persuade me to get a job writing instead of as a union organizer.
During the last week of class of my senior year, on an afternoon that portended long, lazy summer days ahead, he and I walked across the lush, green college campus lawn towards the parking lot of the college’s fine arts building after having coffee together.
“So, you are going off to Mississippi then to Montana, is it, to work for a union? Are you sure that you have made the right decision? There are many ways to make a difference in this world, Anna, besides being a professional activist. Many heartaches go unrecorded, and political policies remain unchanged because no one understands how the decisions made affect people. In this country. In Africa and Europe. In South America. On every continent,” he mused in his clipped British accent, leaning against his car.
“Yes, that’s why I am so excited to be making some real change in this country, especially since I am going to spend the summer in rural Mississippi working for a civil rights group before going to Montana,” I said with a vaguely false conviction.
“Life has not changed in the South, Anna; in fact, life is almost the same as it was in the 60s. People are poor and disenfranchised, neglected by those who have the power to make a difference, but Anna, we also need witnesses to history, not just people to try and often fail to make a change. If no one is there to witness how the human condition unfolds, problems go unrecorded and, worse yet, unresolved. You are such a good writer, Anna. I am afraid that you will be worn out chasing cause after cause when you are thirty. Writing allows you to step back, reflect, debate, consider. It would help if you wrote,” he said emphatically. “Think about it.” Squinting at me in the brilliant afternoon, he moved to open his car door.
I never saw my professor again.
I did not want to be a witness. A witness was all I had been in my life, I thought angrily. A witness to my father’s anger and loss witnessed my mother’s loneliness living in a country that was not her own. Let someone else be the bloody witness. Besides, politics is what I did. Politics is what I knew. Wasn’t it?
Indeed, weeks before the ride, ten years after my college graduation, I had solicited dozens of opinions from others about graduate school options. People in my orbit pointedly steered me towards law schools or MBA and public policy master’s programs. Yet, my journalism professor’s advice nagged at me.
The last dose of advice I swallowed came during breakfast with a professional colleague. Between bites of pancakes, my friend was resolute in her opinion. “All your experience in politics will go to waste if you don’t focus your academic interests in the same direction. People look to you as a leader, and a graduate degree in your field will only solidify your position.”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t feel right to me. I want to write….” I had answered, my unsteady words quelled by the clatter of dishes and requests for coffee. Something, or rather, someone’s opinion, had nagged me for months.
Though I had ignored my journalism professor’s sage advice to write, I wondered whether he had been right with each turn of the pedals. Somewhere along the line, I had abandoned what my heart had always wanted – to write – and what it had always needed to understand – my history. Surely the prospect of going to school to study creative writing was not a Herculean effort?
My journalism professor had envisaged my eventual disintegration. His declaration, like my family’s history, had certainly pursued me like a panther tracking its prey across every state border I crossed. An hour passed before I guardedly begin to stretch my knee.
I swallow more Advil. With trepidation, I climb on my bike, forcing myself to concentrate on the brilliant blue sky and the acres of horse farms sprawling in front of me. I count telegraph poles marked with the ride’s crimson ribbons for miles. Once I reach the Chicago city limits, the pain in my knee has evaporated, and my decision was made.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_f5d0c988b9f744b88429b5afe0d6ae477Emv2.jpg17331158Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:52:342021-07-29 13:00:01Pedaling away from the past
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.
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Perhaps death is the great equalizer. More so than money or raising a family, more so than love or sex. It can bring those left behind closer together or drive a seemingly permanent wedge between family, friends, and lovers alike. It can coax some to examine a flawed life more closely or be falsely called upon to justify any behavior, good or bad.
Death can turn the coward into the courageous and brave into the charlatan. Certainly, few are prepared for death, and even fewer ready for the lies others tell in its aftermath.
To learn that your second cherished brother has died without warning devastated my father’s sister without question, but to later receive a letter stating that my mother no longer wanted to maintain contact with his family surely broke her fragile heart.
The letter’s content, written less than a week after my father’s death, was a lie penned by a woman who had claimed to be both a friend to him and his family—a woman called Gloria.
Though I mistakenly assumed that the third party, a woman named Gloria, was a person my father had met via the medical community. The person, my father, trusted was one he had known for decades. Gloria, too, hailed from the village my father had once called home.
My father trusted Gloria. She, too, had emigrated to the United States after the war, lost family and friends, and struggled to stay in contact with those who had survived. Gloria, unlike my father, visited Ukraine during the treacherous years of Soviet rule.
Gloria volunteered to transport and deliver warm winter clothing, money, and gifts to Olga — all purchased by my parents. Along with material items, my mother painstakingly organized and labeled photos of my father at the hospital, photos of me through the years, even photos of our family dog. In letters from my father, Olga took comfort in knowing that her older surviving brother would always support her daughters.
Within hours after my father’s death, however, before my mother and I had returned to an apartment reeking with loss, Gloria showed her truest self to both my father’s family and my own. Going behind my mother’s back, Gloria phoned the hospital where my father had worked for years to ascertain the cause of his death. How did Gloria learn that my father had died? Why was she hunting for the cause of my father’s death? The hospital staff stonewalled the woman no one knew, refusing to release any information to her.
Instead, Gloria confronted my mother on the telephone days after our return. Rather than being a voice of solace, Gloria grilled her and demanded to know how my father died, when he died, the reasons why he died. Beaten by jet lag and grief, my mother sobbed to the woman she had never met, besieging her to understand that she was devastated. Her daughter was shattered. Gloria hung up the telephone.
Unbeknownst to my mother, Gloria unleashed her fury in a letter to Olga.
In the letter Gloria penned less than a week after my father’s death, she wrote that my mother had abandoned my father and had taken his precious daughter away for good. Claiming that my mother had had no intention of returning to the United States, Gloria painted a picture of my father’s distraught psyche. She intimated that my mother’s selfish decision caused his heart attack and subsequent death.
Discontent with the first string of lies she had written, Gloria piled on more falsehoods declaring that my mother wanted to sever all contact with Olga and her family.
Olga died many years later, carrying the lie she had been told to the grave.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_cc343942592e43c09e3c4941d28369fd7Emv2_d_2022_1380_s_2.jpg13802022Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:52:222021-09-01 14:36:53The great equalizer
I click the green button to accept the call. The faint connection grows stronger until an image of a forty-something-year-old man with closely cropped hair and wire-rim glasses comes into focus. I am aware that my unwashed hair pulled back into a barrette coupled with a repeated bout of neurotic eyebrow rubbing probably does not make the best first impression.
“Hello,” the voice announces in a deep-throated Eastern European accent. Aside from his greeting, the only sound coming from the other side of the world is shuffling books and papers splayed around his desk. He pauses before speaking once more, “My name is Roman Pinyazhko, and you are Anna Sochocky.”
I nod a little too enthusiastically. Out of sight of the screen, my fingers alternate between drumming patterns on the desk’s surface and smoothing the wrinkles creased in the thigh of my gym pants.
“I am glad you and I have an opportunity to speak,” I begin clearing my throat more than once. Before I have an opportunity to continue, Roman seizes the nascent conversation with authority.
“My mother works at L’viv Medical University with your cousin, Yaroslava. Yaroslava searches for you many years.” His English, broken into fragments, proceeds his detailed outline of each element of his dogged investigation.
“Your father’s name was Serhij. He was a member of the Polish Army and, later, the Ukrainian Division Galicia. He was born in the village Krugeiv. His father’s name was Michael. He was a lawyer. His mother, your grandmother’s name, was Irena. Your grandfather was a priest. Your father’s sister’s name is Olga. You have three cousins – Yaraslava, Zaraslavia, and Lydia.” (Zaraslava, my oldest cousin pictured)
Roman pauses to shuffle through a labyrinth of papers. The hesitation evaporates into another round of facts always known to me. “Your father was in Rimini camp? Roman does not wait for my ascent and continues. “After his detention in Rimini, he traveled to England.”
Sensing an opportunity to respond, I interject that after my father’s detention in Rimini, he was transferred to a processing camp at Redgrave Park, where he remained for two more years. Roman pauses to take in this information. “I can email you a photograph if you like,” reminded me of the fragments I still had in my possession.
“Your father worked as a doctor in Cambridge. He worked at a sanatorium in North Carolina and then South Dakota,” Roman regains his footing. “There is much I have to tell you.”
Ronan continues. “Your father died of a heart attack. You and your mother were in England, yes?”
I swallow. Hard. Our benign conversation has shifted. So few people knew that my mother and I were in England when my father passed. How on earth would a man I do not know have this information?
Yet, Roman’s following statement will rewrite the reasons why contact with my father’s family did not simply evaporate but was unknowingly severed by a woman who claimed to be a friend.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_771b374a2be0421391831c451a3931dc7Emv2.jpg1332918Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:52:212021-07-29 13:05:37As investigation unfolds, more questions