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Plane’s arc, a definition since childhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greenwich Mean Time -- Foot in Two Hemispheres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twin afflictions: war

The photo taken of me in the fourth grade does not resemble others from earlier years. I am older, and my hair is longer, yes, but the photo differs ut because my smile lacks conviction. I am not looking into the squinted face of the man who came each year with his camera cases and tripods, silver screens, and flashbulbs, his wares spread out like a picnic on the wooden gymnasium floor. Rather my hazel eyes are staring out into the world inside my head.

While the 1970s may have been a decade when the events that continue to tear at the fabric of American politics and cultural priorities today were quietly incubating, the pivotal markers of my own generation quietly washed over me. Born, not in America, but in England to European parents who survived a catastrophic world war, one as a child, one as a prisoner before following in the footsteps of millions of others by emigrating to the United States, I was living on the periphery of another potent and chilling history, one that did not belong to me.

This history would shape me long into adulthood.

This history would almost break me.

I was ten years old when my fourth-grade photo was taken. It was 1976. Patty Hearst marshaled a semi-automatic and sported a beret on the cover of Newsweek. Charlie’s Angels topped the Nielsen ratings, breaking the hearts of prepubescent boys across America. Captain and Tennille stormed the record charts with Love Will Keep Us Together, battling Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody for attention. Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer from Georgia, beat Gerald Ford in the November presidential election, only to be doomed by the Iranian hostage tragedy and the deepening oil crisis.

At first blush, I was not unlike other children I knew growing up on the prairie in a state some call “flyover country.” I worked hard in school. My report cards logged “As” in Reading, Language, Spelling, Social Studies, Arithmetic, and Science, but “B+s” in Music and French and a “C+” in Physical Education. That year, I entered the “Flying Fish” advanced swimming class. Several of my friends and I earned a certificate from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society Read-a-Thon. I clamored onto the Bicentennial Train, the traveling museum that crisscrossed the country to celebrate America’s 200-year-old independence in the heat of July.

Yet, I was distinguishable by my differences with all my conspicuous integration into normal American life. My mother and father spoke with foreign accents. I did not sound like my parents nor my young peers. My Ukrainian last name’s complexity with both its spelling and pronunciation spawned any number of adaptations in a classroom full of Johnsons and Larsons each September when my face grew warm and pink, waiting for the inevitable moment a new teacher asked me to say my name for the class.

My family tree was one-sided replete with Ukrainian uncles, aunts, and cousins I could never meet. I lived within the bounds of a tight-fisted prairie community where the family members of most people I knew were scattered on nearby farms or across town, not in countries behind the Berlin Wall, living at the mercy of a feared Communist regime. And then there were the aftershocks of my father’s war. I had no one to talk to about my father’s harrowing emotional explosions, his devastating silences, or explain to the terrors that the aftermath of his war brought to the dinner table, terrors that came in the dead of night or on days when the sun glowed like a new penny. No one I knew shared this kind of history. Grandparents around me may have survived the same war, uncles, and even aunts perhaps, but the parents of children I knew did not walk out of Europe alive after spending ten years in prisoner-of-war camps like my father. Besides, I had no idea what to tell, even if I had someone to tell.

War was not the only taboo in our household. The issue of where my parents and, by extension, myself, called “home,” was equally provocative and uniformly indistinct. From the very beginning, our sojourn in this country was always meant to be brief and England, not America, was home. Until I entered high school, I lived with the secret knowledge that Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was a layover, a train stop, on my family’s perpetual journey of return to settle permanently in England. A plane’s arc over a cold ocean defined me from birth. Far from my friends’ childhood intrigues, the side of my family I knew, I saw intermittently. This fact alone stymied my schoolmates with grandparents and cousins living across town rather than across an ocean.

I was both a spectator to my parents’ tragedies and a supporting character in my family’s narrative, trying fretfully to navigate my way through the murky waters of a war I did not witness and understand a country that was by turns both my birthright and a puzzle to me. No, I have never been in a war zone, yet, the war my mother and my father witnessed and its psychological aftermath that my father, in particular, struggled with until his death, pierced the walls of my mind until the silence became my desperate prayer. No, I had never relinquished a home, an embedded community of family and friends stretching back decades, or a country that breathes life into the heart like my mother did when she made her decision to come to America with my father.

Yet, I have spent nearly half my life trying to understand how their history, this legacy has shaped me. Though I understand that I cannot live my life through the lens of a distant past that never belonged to me, this history still resonates in the frantic decisions I make sometimes and defines the hunger I may never truly satiate to find a place I can call home.

Pensive was the word my mother used to describe my face when she looked at my fourth-grade photo, asking me in a worried tone of voice if I was sad. No, I replied, honestly believing in the truthfulness of my answer. Years later, when I look at this school picture, I understand why my school photo did not resemble others coming before or after. That year, I realized that I would have to learn to live with the precious burden of my own survival. In the photograph, my tiny face is weighted with the knowledge that I would carry the twin afflictions of war and a hunger for a home in my young heart for many years to come.