An Annual Visitation: Finalist 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.

Ukrainian bandura player's song of sorrowThe 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.

Serhij Sochocky, Brody, UkraineWould 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.

Ukrainian grandparentsMy 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.

Dr. Serhij Sochocky, circa 1980

The last photo was taken of Dr. Serhij Sochocky before his death.

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.

 

 

 

 

Cremation changes our deaths

Marking the first loss

When a man answered the phone at a local Minneapolis crematorium, I prefaced the reason for my call with feeble qualifiers for my inquiry. My father died and chose cremation; I began. Recently, he asked. No. A long time ago. I decided not to be present, not to see his body before the cremation. Would it be possible for me to visit with a staff member about the cremation process? The man on the other end of the line received my question graciously. I was thankful. Come by tomorrow at 11:30 a.m., he replied. I hung up the phone and exhaled.

I arrived at the cremation society the next day and sat in a mauve room with lace curtains and low light. A mahogany table sat between two finely upholstered chairs, the fabric the shade of the painted walls. A matching loveseat faced the wall to my left, perpendicular to the seat in which I fidgeted. The muted light cast motionless shadows of a marble urn on the wall. A vase with a lid, I thought ruefully. Outside, a hearse idled, the driver waiting for the signal to proceed to the cemetery. In a room of exquisite quiet, barely alert to the strains of classical music wafting through the building, I waited.

Daughter grieves for a father.

Dr. Serhij Sochocky died on June 30, 1980.

The door opened. I introduced myself to a man in his forties or fifties, with chestnut eyes magnified by thick lenses. After explaining the reasons for my visit, he appeared both curious and solicitous. He spoke slowly, listing the available alternatives for concluding services: burial, cremation, entombment, and donation to a medical facility for research purposes. Thirty-three percent of dispositions are cremations. Concern over the amount of space set aside for cemeteries, more than the cost, accounts for cremation’s rising popularity, though the choice to be cremated does not preclude a funeral. Indeed, he encouraged final services for both the benefit of the deceased as well as the living.

The man paused while I scribbled notes. He crossed his leg and stroked his well-kept beard. When I asked him why he chose to become a funeral director, he replied that he came of age at a time in history when death did not frighten the living, when the passing of a loved one was marked over a period of days and months to accommodate the tides of grief.

Our conversation turned to the desires of the departed and their families. What is the most unusual item, in your experience, that a person has been buried with? I asked. Raising his hands for emphasis, he ticked off a litany of things he once deposited in a casket of a woman: a six-pack of beer, Eddie Arnold records, a Dairy Queen cup, two pairs of socks, some carpeting, and a bottle of whiskey. She loved beer and whiskey, Eddie Arnold, and Dairy Queen ice cream. Her feet were always cold, and after years in the same house, she finally saved enough to carpet the floors.

As he finished the list, the funeral director remarked, “Good thing we put the body in the casket first!” After forty minutes in conversation, I was convinced that his gentle commitment to both the living and the dead, and the pride with which he spoke could melt a stone. I asked to see the crematorium. I followed the funeral director through the hushed hallways. I could not help but think I was slightly mad to be in this place on my lunch hour, as if I was an amateur reporter scribbling notes for a three-inch article in a neighborhood paper, only to be lost amidst the want ads and garage sale notices. At the bottom of the stairs, a compact maze of rooms and hallways unfolded like the cellars underneath a restaurant.

The cold temperature of preservation breathed between pale, gray walls. I swallowed hard, realizing the draft originated from refrigeration. Silently, I told myself not to cry in front of this kind man when he opened the door to the cremation chamber. Usually, a cremation lasts between two to four hours he began. Most family members do not attend. In some communities, like in the Hindu culture, tradition requires the oldest son to light the pyre or push the ignition button in contemporary crematoriums. Once laid in a shallow cardboard container with handle grips, each body is placed inside the brick chamber. Varied sources of heat reach temperatures of 2,000 to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Skin, organs, and muscles vaporize immediately.

Dr. Serhij Sochocky, circa 1980

After cremation, a body’s silhouette, mapped by bone fragments, lingers. The cranium, femur, tibia, humerus, and sternum fragments are swept into a container beneath the chamber and are ground to ashes. Though his lips moved, gradually, his softly spoken commentary evaporated, and I fell into the real reason for my visit. I was seeking forgiveness.

Forgiveness for turning away from my mother’s sage counsel that I see my father one last time. Forgiveness for swallowing my grief so wholly until it poisoned my spirit’s well. Forgiveness for disavowing any intimation, my grief required a marker. And forgiveness for failing to see the affirmation of life in the rituals left behind after death.

Sometimes it takes years to mark a loss, especially when the loss is not only the inevitability of death but the passage of a history that has defined you.

A Loss So Exquisite

(the old cowboy finds it uncomfortable to sit in a chair)

and when he walks, his limbs form an exquisite denim wishbone.

On horseback, he has built his house a thousand times over – in the valley, on the mesa,

cast out in the middle of desert sand – he is marooned among stretches of pinion pine

in the elbow of a river. Octopus arms and crimson floral hands bend in the wind

before storm clouds gather. His horse’s pointed hooves follow charcoal steers,

their bodies, enormous stains, form dust tornados across acres of cracked golden wheat

across tree branches the color of burnt bone. A silver and icy blue bird’s tail unfolds

on the red rock like a Victorian fan. Under a desert moon, he counts the stars

balanced between Greek constellations and the long shadow of his life.

he is lost, lost in a sweet fantasy of gentleness.

(heaven is different for everyone)

perhaps a pinch of the desert, a cup of sea, or a quart of pine leads to salvation

in the end. Do sanctuaries only complicate a person’s relationship with God?

And what of men once raising their spires from stony rubbles on the backs of myth

knowing many would never see the climax of marble and mortar. These men suffered.

In the desert moonlight and across an ocean, others came upon their cathedrals on dangerous peaks

with turrets like elephants’ toes. Weather built these sanctuaries closer to the sun until the priests came,

shouting sermons from unfinished mounts of stone. The wind swallowed their faith,

their holy words falling on deaf ears of reluctant souls. And when rainy fingers tumble,

does Moses still part red rock, each shard split apart deep beneath a counterfeit sea?

(buried in my glass heart)

and alone on a carpet of dunes by the ocean, I awoke baptized. Shivering from weariness, the apricot streaks of dawn cast shadows

along the tanned ridges of my feet. I waited for the tide to rise. On the edge of a desert sea, it is not the relief of rock beneath my feet

but the crown of the incline and the distance between the ridge and the car that lengthened like a swollen river. When I climb out

of the canyon, my stiff, strong limbs step first one foot, then the other, like a rider without a horse.

I move across the shadow of bronze earth, knowing that I have lived too long without intention.

Is a passport still a winning ticket?

I type “British embassy + Washington, D.C.” into the Google search function of my computer. With one click, I am immediately thrust into a world of immigration, visas, employment regulations, and tips for foreign travelers.

“Welcome to the Consular and Passport Services section of the website. In this section, you will find information about applying for or renewing a British passport and about the services we provide for British citizens in the USA.”

I click on the Application Form and wait for the document to download before spying the Dual Nationality for Adults and Children link.

British passport defines more than a country“Although acquisition or use of US citizenship does not of itself jeopardize retention of British citizenship, and there is no objection on the part of British authorities to a dual citizen using a US passport, it should not be assumed the reverse is true. The US authorities expect dual citizens to travel out of and into United States territory only on US passports. British citizens who are also US citizens are therefore advised to consult the US State Department (or if overseas a US Consul) before taking any action which might be regarded as inconsistent with their status as US citizens.”

Does this mean that if I obtain a British passport after all these years, I may lose my US citizenship? Frantically, I click through the pages to find the British Embassy’s phone number and dial the D.C. number. A tinny automated woman’s voice answers.

“Good morning, and welcome to the Embassy of Great Britain. If you are inquiring about a visa, press one. If you have lost your passport or if it has been stolen, press two. For citizenship inquiries, press three.”

Suddenly nervous about making this phone call bordered precariously between the legal and the criminal, I cradle the receiver between my shoulder and my ear and repeatedly press three. A male voice abruptly ricochets across the line. I scribble the man’s answers to my questions on a handful of post-it notes and thank him for his time, printing out another application before the dial tone buzzes in my ear. My application is in the afternoon mail.

Each day when the mail comes, I leap to the front door like a dog expecting its master and flick through the ads, and the credit card offers only to discover that nothing from the British Embassy has arrived. Again.

One day, after a month had passed, there is a letter.

I am heartsick. Instead of a shiny new passport, the letter has a list of requests. Another call to the British Embassy and another thirty minutes in the phone queue produced a bit of reassurance. I type another letter – signed, sealed, and mailed – I wait.

Less than a week passes, and there is a response from the British embassy in a crisp, white envelope with another list of requests, including school records covering as many years as possible, a clear copy of my resident alien card or US passport, and a letter on letterhead paper from a professional person such as my doctor, dentist, teacher, religious instructor, etc. stating how long this person has known me and in what capacity. This person must also sign a photo of me attesting to the face. This photo is a true likeness.

School records. How the hell am I supposed to get my grade school records as my grade school is now an assisted living community; the chances of obtaining my grade for French and Reading in the fourth grade are slim to none. I have my college and high school diplomas and transcripts. I spend another day making phone calls and collecting the information requested that I already had in hand. The letter to the British Embassy flies off my keyboard without effort.

Six weeks after my initial application, my British passport arrives with little fanfare in a tightly sealed envelope requiring confirmation of its receipt. On the cherry red cover, the words European Union, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and Passport are sandwiched between the United Kingdom’s lion and unicorn insignias. Inside, the first page, emblazoned with a gold inscription with a copy of my photograph pasted next to block letters, reads,

Surname: Sochocky

Given Names: Anna Irena

Nationality: British citizen

No longer on a treasure hunt, in my hands, I am holding gold. With this passport’s addition to complement my American one, I am now legally entitled to travel on two passports and work anywhere in the European Union.

A passport may only be a ticket into a country, not a culture, but now I have the opportunity to claim both.

Last will and testament

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.

Lexington, Mississippi.

Mississippi stigmata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mississippi fish fry

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

Mostly, vignettes of conversation and laughter appear and fade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lexington, Mississippi.

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

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

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

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

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

“No! No! I won’t let you go!”

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

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

I left.

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

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

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

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

Mississippi was still Mississippi.

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

Death is not a cold, lonely end to life

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.

As investigation unfolds, more questions

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.

Serhij Sochocky with sister Olga, western Ukraine

I have much to tell you

A photograph of me dressed in my third-grade school uniform materializes. Only then do I truly understand that the urgent emails and Facebook messages are not fiction but fact.

Do I remember the child in the photograph? The girl appears happy enough, but like most of my school photographs, each one tells a secret story of anxiety, household discord, and, most of all, isolation.

Was this photograph taken the year I first believed that the twin afflictions of war and immigration would subsume me?

Nursing my private pathos for decades, I did not question the absence of half my history, half my family, half my self, yet the genetic chasm left behind a burn scar in my psyche.

The next message jolts me back from the throes of history and sends a chill down the length of my spine. Each lick of my lips accentuates the dryness in my throat. I dial the number, but the call does not connect. I text, please send me your country code. A curt message is immediate admonishing me that I have all that I need.

I try placing the call once more, only to be met with a digitized message of failure. Your call cannot be connected. Please check the number and dial again. After the third failed attempt, I toss the phone across my desk. Running my fingers through my hair, my thumb finds my familiar spot of anxiety above my left eyebrow. Now what?

Apparently, the world isn’t as connected as the technological genies suggest, I grunt. Abandoning my neurotic eyebrow rubbing, I choose another obsessive activity — refreshing the Facebook page again and again.

The Skype ring tone breaks my reverie. I watch the answer and reject items flash on my screen.

History has come calling. Am I ready to answer?

When history speaks

The first image streaming across my Facebook page is one I remember from family photo albums. My father stands at the nurse’s station at the Veteran Administration Hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, making chicken scratch notes to a patient’s chart. A light glare interrupts the photo once more, yet the man in the photograph is unmistakably my father.

Voice from Ukraine

After all these years, why has history come calling? Who is the person making contact with me? How is a photograph I remember from my childhood in someone else’s possession halfway around the world?

I stare at the image, unable to pull my eyes away. Scrolling backward, I locate the haunting message.

“I write in the name of your cousin Yaroslava from Ukraine, your father, serhij niece.”

Still pondering the mysterious message, another photo filtered across my screen. My mother and I at Christmas in our tiny apartment at the Veterans Administration campus. The green shag carpet I once ran my toes through in summer, the line of Barbie dolls on the shelf of an end table, the squat artificial Christmas tree of all the years of my childhood, my mother.

I bite my lip, drawing a pinprick of blood, and reach for my cup of cold tea. Stunned, yes, but more curious than nervous, I wait for the next chapter of my history to materialize.

Absently, I click on an unrelated website link scanning the news headlines. For some reason staring at the stranger’s photographic evidence of my own life makes me feel like a voyeur.

Stones now turned, souls definitely not at rest.