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The Politics of Naming

On the page, I play with the words and definitions I have scribbled: exile, refugee, expatriate, immigrant, emigrant, displaced, and evicted. The meanings of these words complement and compete with each other. Each label is by turns romantic and a badge of social disdain.

Exile: forced removal from one’s country, a person involuntarily separating oneself from the original home of place of birth.

Refugee: one who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution.

Expatriate: to withdraw (oneself) from a residence in or allegiance to one’s native country; to leave one’s native country to live elsewhere.

Immigrant: a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence.

Emigrant: a person who departs one’s place of residence or country to live elsewhere.

Displaced: one expelled or forced to flee from home or homeland.

Evicted: to be forced out; ejected.

Or are the definitions in opposition to each other, something like this?

exile/refugee expatriate
immigrant emigrant
displaced evicted

Unbalanced in their linguistic weight, these definitions cross over and intersect, changing positions with each other. None of the descriptions can be categorically applicable to my mother or father, or even to me.
Where do the characters of my family fit?

immigrant (mother, father, self)emigrant (mother, father, ? self)displaced (father)evicted (father)

exile/refugee (father) expatriate (mother)

Each of us, in our own particular way, can claim our own tales of displacement. True, my father was the only real exile in our family, a man condemned by history, by geography, by politics, by war. Still, he was also an immigrant tracing a circuitous path from Ukraine through England to America. The word exile, though, provokes suspicion. Exiled from what exactly? By whom? For what wrongdoing? This demarcation, in particular, tracks an individual through the years and is a mantle not easily discarded.

Likewise, the essential emotional core of an expatriate is forever unchanged: I may live here, but I belong elsewhere. An air of romance infiltrates the definition of an expatriate as if the label suggests universal impermanence, a bargain between here and there that is not fraught with uneasiness but with intrigue. As a foreign property owner with an offshore bank account and a returning citizen to another country other than the one she lives in permanently, my mother is an expatriate.

Still, both my parents were legally and culturally classified as immigrants, foreign citizens with American passports, and in my mother’s case because of the occasional Midwestern vernacular that percolated under the surface of an English accent. Immigration is a choice for some like my father, or a fait accompli for others like my mother. Unlike the categories of exile and expatriate, the classification of ‘immigrant’ is chronically untidy and debatable by those without a clear self-definition.

How do I describe myself? Am I an exile like my father? Absolutely not. Am a British citizen? Yes. My birth certificate bears the stamp of the county government of Bury St. Edmunds. Am I English? Told by my parents for as long as I can remember that I was English, I believed this to be accurate, yet the family joke about my lineage has been that my bloodline is not unlike Heinz 57 steak sauce: a tablespoon each of English and Ukrainian, several teaspoons of Polish and Scottish, a pinch of Irish, and a third of a cup full of American by experience. Over the years, the Heinz 57 metaphor became my truth.

Am I an expatriate like my mother? I opened an offshore bank account in Jersey a few years ago, but this tangible authenticity does not make me an expatriate. Am I an immigrant? I am legally considered an immigrant, but because my accent is not English and I have never lived for what others think to be a sufficient length of time in England, many do not consider this to be one of my truths. Still, to be naturalized into another country of citizenship at the tender age of thirteen when so much of one’s understanding of origin and place in the world has already set like gelatin is perennially troublesome.

Sometimes, my immigrant status reveals a romantic view of others. Years ago, on a shopping trip with a friend and her mother to find a maid of honor dress to wear at my friend’s wedding, the mother prattled on about how my parents’ lives were like the characters in the movie, Dr. Zhivago. Romantic, larger than life, so delightfully foreign and mysterious, both affected by war, by separation, by immigration. I felt like I was on display next to the mannequins.

“Where are you from?” strangers ask, and my response changes with my mood. I am filled with dread when this question arises because any answer I give feels slippery or shifty and is always at least partially inaccurate. The borders of my strange history are porous like Ukraina’s geography or the edges of England’s seacoast that is slowly being taken back by the sea. What does it mean to be “from” somewhere, anyway? Does this reference mean a dot on a map? A culture? A family lineage? A particular house or street? A landscape or a continent? A specific time in history?

How long does it take to claim a place as home anyway? I always seem to be more committed to the four walls I live in rather than its actual geographic location, four walls like my grandmother’s house, the apartment at the Veterans Administration, or my mother’s own haven in Sioux Falls. There are the English four walls I write about, those I write in, the home I imagine buying in England. But how does one describe what it feels like to be unmoored from one’s own history when the ground underneath either shifts or sinks but is never firm?

Is there another set of definitions, ones that apply to me more than all the others? Do not be trite. Do not even consider writing words like a gypsy on the page. You are not a gypsy. You are not a wanderer. You are not a newcomer. Fine. How about rooted. Absolutely not, I grunt, crossing out the word with my pencil. Rooted implies something entrenched, fixed, a person with a historical lineage that can be easily accessed. Try again.

I am English because of my birth and experience, and, in truth, I am Ukrainian by blood only. What would my life have been like if my family had returned to England? Was it my intolerable grief over my father’s death that forced my mother to choose to stay in America in the end? Did I ever really want America? Is my longing for home a particularly American obsession or an immigrant one? I scribble the word “unrooted” in the margins of the paper.

Am I unrooted? Without question.

Immigrants carry their lives

A past that never arrives

Heirlooms from my father’s family wrapped in brown paper packages

with blue ink and foreign postmarks faded by a prairie rain burst

will not be delivered to the cream house with green trim and gable roof

where I live. The house belongs to my husband in name only —

that’s what he tells me. But I am relieved by my own perceived lack of responsibility

to stone and wood, glass and metal, to a past that will never arrive

neatly parceled without warning on the doorstep in bundles survivors always carry.

Steamer trunks and shabby suitcases —

the essentials – linen, utensils, wool sweaters –

the familiar possessions – family photos and violins, clocks, and silver candlesticks.

In a movie, the refugee husband tells his wife, “You must choose — the lamp or the vase,” tossing the sacrificed object over his shoulder

in the farmer’s field. Is my grandmother’s engagement ring still buried in the mud?

Maybe another woman wore the ring without guilt, passing on my inheritance

to her own daughter, sidestepping my anonymous birth like a salver of food

handed over the heads of guests at a king’s banquet. I will never inherit

this ring.

II.

My mother wears her wedding band with the sapphire ring he gave her

on Christmas morning. Her gift to him that year: a hand-carved music box

played Lara’s Theme to the Ukrainian couple nestled in a winter sleigh,

the woman’s pink cheeks and bow smile, the man’s firm hands on the reins.

It went unnoticed. Each note collapsed under the weight of my father’s memory.

The war made objects a burden, you see. His family’s land, home, brother,

freedom, and all taken, he came to America to see if the streets were paved

with gold. Coins buried deep in his shaving stick, a watch, his glasses —

my father carried little. He hid photos of his parents across the continents between the pages

of his prayer book I did not inherit. After his death,

his stony hands clasped the burning scripture.

This, the marker of his life, this, the reminder of his death I cannot hold between my fingers.

The only artifact I still want.

The inheritance I carry in my suitcase does not let me choose between the lamp and the vase

will never compete with the touch of something solid.

This is not the loneliness of my father. I believe the souls of Ukrainians have been sad for centuries. This loneliness is mine to manage.

This hunger.

III.

The choice has always been mine to make. In empty spaces, my voice

bounces against blank walls. Driving past old apartments, I leave

the address, the phone number, the streets behind easily. Because the choice

has always been mine to make between my Barbies and Beatrix Potter books

I am not like my mother. Not like my father in the war, hanging on to the things I cannot hold.

In my red, red heart, do I ask too much from the world? The small desires that get me

up in the morning, but the large ones make me dangerous and holy, carnal, and blameless.

I tell the truth. I want a life that is not neutral.

This is my inheritance. Silent as snow falling at midnight on Christmas Eve in London.

Long ago, I learned that verse is the solace for whom bread is not enough.

I can choose between the lamp and the vase without remorse.

I’m told that I have always been callous

with my belongings, but this is a lie. A child born to parents who believe

that bread is enough carries the burden of choosing

between sacrifice and desire without punishment. I am on the run —

a fugitive, still running from

this history.

Time of death: six thirty a.m.

Awoken with a start from a restless sleep, I grope not for my watch or the battery-operated alarm clock. I do not reach for my smudged glasses, either, but instead, fumble for the switch on the floor to turn on the Christmas tree lights. The miniature lights twinkle. The early, frigid darkness sparkles like counterfeit jewels. Tears dry then moisten as another surge of recognition consumes me.

My mother is going to die.

Save the three days I slept in the ICU waiting room still dressed in the suit I wore when the call from the emergency room about my mother’s hemorrhagic stroke came, this sofa has been my bed. Each evening I pull the cushions off the sofa bed in the living room. I stack the pillows on a dining room chair pushed back from the galley kitchen, piling worn blankets and duvets and stray clothing on the lumpy mattress.
​​
I read by the light of Christmas tree lights. The lights glow day and night, trying to stave off a sense of impending doom boiling in the pit of my empty stomach. Against the winter darkness, the lights twinkle and sparkle without devotion. Still, without the soft glow and the lights catching the blushing ornaments, I cannot drift off, even if it’s only for a single hour or two.

Drained of sleep and faith, I drift to the living room window and tentatively reach out to touch the frozen glass. Last night, the wind blew in from the north, squealing and moaning, creaking and wailing like me. Snow tendrils creep across the roads. The slender cobwebs braid an icy lair. More than a foot of fresh snow has fallen in the night. My mother’s apartment building has lived for over thirty years is incarcerated in an ice prison. The sky, still pregnant with winter, belies the tempered blizzard, which will likely rage on for a few more hours.

Though a snowplow breaks the path of winter, pushing back the night and the snow’s accumulation, I still wonder if it will be possible to drive to the hospital once the anemic sun rises.

I wander into the galley kitchen. Turn on the electric kettle. Toss a tea bag in a mug. Collect the cream a few days past its expiration date from the refrigerator. Wait. When the pot boils, I pour the water into the cup, watching the teabag bleed ginger brown against the white bone china. Absently, I press and push against the pouch urging it to steep a little faster—lists cascade across my mind.

Setting the steaming mug on the dining room table, I push back the week’s mail: bills that need to be paid, Letters to be answered. Christmas cards have arrived from people who are oblivious to my mother’s condition. Pulling my ‘master’ list of To-Dos, I grasp a pen and start adding tasks to a clean page. Visit the bank manager. Make an appointment with the investment administrator. Buy multiple expandable files and a label maker. Return a page worth of phone calls. Buy more international phone cards.​​

Day Nine: another day of shuttling between my mother’s bedside and hunting down elusive doctors in the maze of hospital hallways. Another day of waiting for updates about my mother’s condition that are few and far between. Her medical situation is not improving, nor is it markedly shifting into the positive column either. Though the bleed in her head shows a mild retraction, its absorption into her brain matter has stalled.

I am lost in the perfunctory world of list-making when the phone rings. I glance at the mantel clock on the piano – 6:20 a.m. The shrill ring of the telephone at this time of the day does not unnerve me. The phone rings until after midnight most evenings with daily calls from or to England or Australia, often commencing by 5:30 a.m. I am juggling four time zones leaving me stretched like a taut drum around the world’s circumference. I pick up the telephone receiver and mumble a distracted hello.

“Is this Anna So Coc E?” The voice is unfamiliar. When I do not answer immediately, the hesitant voice repeats the question—my mind’s roll-a-dex grinds. No accent.

“Yes. I am Anna Sochocky,” I respond, crisply refusing to allow a tone of gloom seep into my voice. Still, my hands begin to shake like a person struck down by tremors. I put the pen down and wait.

“Ms. So Coc E. This is a member of the nursing staff on your mother’s ward. Your mother went into respiratory arrest at six a.m. We have been executing chest compressions for twenty minutes, but your mother is unresponsive. Would you like us to continue with chest compressions and intubate her,” the anonymous nurse’s question hangs by a thread in the silence? The nurse persists. “Did you sign a hospital medical directive? Does your mother have a resuscitation order,” the nurses fire off companion questions.

My mother is dying. My mother is dead. For a few seconds, I cannot speak, do not speak. I stare out the window into the black morning. The wind grows fierce. The invisible squall’s direction changes and tosses the snow into somersaults. I have grieved for nine days. From the moment I walked into the ICU unit, I knew that my mother was gone. Why does death always arrive in the darkest part of the night or early morning? I gaze into the blizzard wind.

My mother is dying. My mother is dead.

I return to the present with a vengeance. “I gave you copies of the medical power of attorney stating that my mother did not want extraordinary measures taken. I signed the medical directive that you gave me three days ago, specifically not to do any chest compressions or intubation. Don’t you have these instructions noted on her chart or in a file somewhere?”

I march around the tiny living room, desperate to be focused through the rapid onset of tears, tripping over the corner legs of the unmade sofa bed, looking for my clothes, my shoes, my watch, my heart.

“Stop compressions now. DO NOT intubate my mother. Mom wouldn’t want any of this! You’ve probably broken her ribs pounding on her chest! Stop breaking her! I’ll be at the hospital as soon as I can be.”

“Ok. We will stop all resuscitative efforts,” confirming my answer. I am sorry,” the nurse adds before the receiver tone clicks in my ear.

Half-dressed and stunned, I dial Janet’s number. When she answers, I cannot speak. I cannot breathe. I must breathe.

“What’s happened,” Janet whispers.

“She’s gone, Janet. Mom is gone.” Leaping to my feet and weaving around the bed, the chairs, the loss, I race to the kitchen sink and try to spit, expecting to find acidic bile in the basin. My stomach is empty. I emit dry heaves, instead. I nod mutely into the phone, listening to panicked noises on the other end of the line. A chair’s legs scrape across the floor. Boots are selected and quickly discarded. Affronted grunts from Janet’s two dogs register their displeasure with being disturbed in the pre-dawn dark.

“I’ll be there as soon as I can. It will take me a few minutes to warm up the truck, and it’s snowing hard again, but I’ll be there as soon as I can. I am so sorry. We’ll get through this together, ok,” but Janet’s weak declaration dissolves amidst choking sobs on both ends of the line.

With nothing left to say, I hang up the phone and aimlessly begin to throw the pillows off the sofa bed and fold blankets. Halfway through pushing the mattress into the hidden compartment, the frame refuses to collapse. The sofa bed is stuck. I am stuck, too.

Do I get on the phone or finish getting dressed? I crumble to the carpet and lean against the bent steel frame. Who do I call next? My husband, of course, but should I call the funeral home before we get to the hospital? Will anyone even answer the phone at this time of day? Should I post a notice on the website that I have been using to update people about Mom’s condition?

The tree lights fuse. The ornaments bleed color into a watery pool. I cannot breathe. I must breathe. Struggling to my feet, I shove the bed violently into place and reconstruct the sofa, cramming pillows onto the frame and fluffing the accent ones into place. The phone rings a second time.

Believing it is Janet to tell me her truck has skidded into a snowdrift, I answer the phone with a question – are you stuck? The person on the other end of the line is not Janet, but the hospital again tells me that one of the nurses found my mother’s pulse. Sign of life is thready, but there is a pulse.

My mother is being transported to the ICU. How can this be? Is she alive after all? My mother’s still alive.

I hang up the phone and toss the receiver onto the sofa. Wriggling into another sweater, I am zipping up my boots when the phone rings a third time. Once again, an anonymous nurse asks me to confirm my name and follows with an apology. “We are sorry, but we were mistaken. Your mother does not have a pulse. Time of death six-thirty.”

By now, any tears of mine have evaporated. Dulled and confused by the hospital’s conflicting messages, I scream without a hint of grace into the phone receiver. “What the hell are you people doing? You violate my mother’s wishes and ignore or cannot FIND the directive I signed, the PDA you asked me to bring to the hospital. She’s dead. She’s alive. Now she’s dead. Are you sure this time, or do you want to check again? Leave my mother alone, for Christ’s sake. You have done more than enough.”

Racing on the edge of madness, I slam the receiver down on its cradle.

After nine days of ambiguity, my mother is dead, and I have moved up a generation.

Serhij Sochocky, Brody, Ukraine

The Inventory of War

Wars fought in books are orderly.

Only dates and figures box suffering between worn covers.

In truth, those who survive remember everything:

those who wept, those with faith, those bearing false witness,

those who refuse to forget. Inventories are taken.

These are the dead.

From war. A family walks the earth to find an unmarked grave.

From hunger. Ruins on a blistered land shiver under a dawning sky.

From grief. Steam rises from a son’s body after a spray of bullets.

Every town, every farm hides something: an anonymous death, a mass killing, ashes from torched houses.

Nothing is forgotten; little is forgiven.

After war’s spasms, only those things eternal remain –

the smell of bread baking in the hearth,

family photographs wrinkled by years of sweat and doubt,

the soft light of a candle on a wooden table in winter

….and all of childhood.

The politics of bread

Why is it always about fucking bread?

I reach deep into the freezer on a crusade to vilify the starchy culprits, violently casting everything I find to the floor. Stiff hamburger buns skid across the linoleum. Two slices of pita bread soar over my shoulder. Half-eaten loaves of focaccia and olive bread come to an unceremonious halt at the edge of the stove. Why can’t I ever manage to finish any of this bread? I dig like a wild animal into the farthest corner of the freezer only to find one orphan bun wedged against a package of bread dough. One frozen bun and I am saving this because I am afraid that the grocery store will stop making buns? Why do I have this dough? When was the last time I made bread? When have I ever made bread? I hurl the dough to the floor, but it hits my barefoot instead. The icy air numbs every inch of my sunburned arm to my shoulder. I open my hand to find four tiny ovals of bruschetta. Why four? I scream, hurling the pieces across the kitchen—the bag arcs over the counter before landing in the dining room.

The graceless exit of the bruschetta temporarily suspends my tirade, and I burst into tears. Touching my hand to my chest, I stand sobbing into the open freezer. My breathing shallow, my hands shaking, I whisper, I am so sorry, Daddy. I am so, so sorry. Mournfully, I stare around my kitchen, gazing at the consequences of my tantrum. I retrieve each piece of bread with trembling hands and gently place each bundle back in the freezer. As if my fingers hold not bread but an expensive crystal, I rescue the tiny bruschetta pieces from the dining room and collect the pita bread and the solitary bun.

Why does bread continue to define me, haunt me, disgrace me? Will my father’s words that stung me with a shame I still carry ever waste away? I wait for the final wave of my storm to pass. On the floor, no evidence of my careless anger remains.

I did not want to write about bread today. Yet, bread has always been the leading actor in my history, a fixture in my memory. What did my father value like gold? Bread. What did my mother bake for my father on days when the winter air was thirty below zero or on sizzling summer mornings when the heat and humidity suffocated the kitchen? Bread. What kept my father alive in the Nazi concentration camps? Bread, of course.

Bread was not only my father’s obsession; it was my terror, too. Bread muscled its way to life’s center stage in my family, awakening memory like a dangerous spell ingrained in every meal and embedded in the flour and yeast of each slice. Persistent shadows of my family dinner table resurface without warning, my mind replaying treacherous nights when dinner became a bleak and perfunctory affair, nights that my parents and I revisited each day like a penance for our sins, nights that I cannot expunge from my memory.

I listen closely to the past and hear the chafing sound of my father’s spoon scraping the sides of his glass bowl filled with pallid white rice. Scrape, scrape, silence, as he raises his spoon to his mouth. Scrape, scrape, another pause until the silver spoon grazes the glass again. My mother and I stare at our plates, pushing tender meat and Brussels sprouts onto our forks with our knives. Cut a piece of meat, divide the spherical sprout, and maybe add a dash of potato or carrot, our rhythm shifts with each hesitant bite. The pinched expression on my mother’s hurt face, so hurt by my father’s refusal to eat the meal she carefully prepared, stifles my urge to eat. I fix my eyes on my plate, knowing that my father’s anger will be the fourth, uninvited guest at our table again tonight.

Serhij Sochocky - POW in Rimini, Italy WWII

Serhij Sochocky was a prisoner-of-war in Austria and Italy during World War II.

“You are not in the camps anymore, Serhij. You have meat and vegetables. Why do you insist on eating rice,” my mother pleads.“I have to stay fit. Too many doctors are overweight, and that is a terrible example for my patients,” my father replies, dismissing her question as if it were a fly.

“But you are so lean and fit, Serhij. Do you remember when we worked together in England, you ate so robustly,” my mother soothes, refusing to relinquish the argument.

“Stella enough. I do not want to talk about it anymore. Besides, I was very overweight when we worked together, don’t you remember,” my father snaps. “Anna, what are you doing? Eat your dinner! Now!”

I’m not too fond of Brussels sprouts, but I don’t want my father to be angry with me, so I maneuver the tiny cabbages around in a circle before taking a bite and swallowing hard. Most evenings, I manage to eat the sprouts but cannot bear the strips of gristle that I carefully remove from the meat. The thought of trying to chew the fat tightens my stomach into an iron ball.

My father’s gaze, persistent and angry, scorch my already flushed cheeks. With his attention turned to me, his hand reaches out to yank my chair closer to my plate. I brace myself, waiting for his voice to detonate.

“Anna! Stop it! Stop pushing your food around your plate,” he growls, his anger rapidly rising before coming to a rolling boil. “Anna! Aah! My daughter is selfish. She has food to eat, and still, she is selfish,” my father bellows.

“Oh, Anna, please eat darling,” my mother begs. She stops eating and waits. My mother’s eyes, weary from my father’s anger, weary from night after night of my father’s refusals to eat anything but rice, fill not with tears but with resignation as deep as Hades.

Because I know what will come next, I push a piece of the pork chop fat onto my fork quickly and press a sprout on the end to mask the taste. I chew furiously, trying to swallow, but the gristle will not break apart. I chew faster and faster, but still, the fat refuses to slide down my throat. The texture of the fat is so vile. When my eyes start to water, I reach for my glass of milk.

The kitchen falls silent.

“When I was in the concentration camps, Anna, do you know what I had to eat,” my father hisses.

I nod and swallow hard. This is one of the few stories from the war my father tells, a story he repeats in tune with his anger.

“A stale piece of bread and a handful of grapes. We had to make soup from the grass. Grass soup. You are a selfish little girl. Here you have meat, but you refuse to finish it.”

“I’m sorry, Daddy. I am full. I cannot finish.”

“You will sit at this table – alone – until you finish your dinner, Anna,” my father shouts as he shoves his chair back, leaving the table in a fit of anger I know will last for days. I sit staring at my plate until the trees melt into the darkness.

So many years after the war, I think my father starved himself with intention. At dinner, a bowl of rice was his staple, but he foraged the cupboards for bread and cookies after dinner. In the mornings, when my mother came into the kitchen, she found the deflated skin of a banana that my father had eaten in the middle of the night.

Did my father think that he did not deserve to eat? Did he not trust that the refrigerator would be well-stocked when he opened it? Or did his diet obsession camouflage his conviction that no one would ever control him again by starving his body — a tenuous shield against the ambiguity of a future he never learned to trust?

Maybe my father was right. I am selfish. Images of sprouts and gristle, the bread once littered across my kitchen floor, pulls me under, deep into a familiar eddy of guilt.

Breathing in history

The decades after the last world war may have accelerated the desire for modern conveniences during the 1970s. Still, in my grandmother’s mind, the old manual washer sufficed, its very existence a rebuke to the growing obsession with expediency. Indeed, even simple everyday habits like washing clothes spoke volumes in the cultural conversation I both consciously and awkwardly traversed as a young child. T

After connecting the washer’s tubing to the kitchen sink, my grandmother sorted the laundry with a military commander’s efficiency. Delicate blouses and sweaters. Undergarments and stockings. Sheets and towels. Pushing the kitchen table back until it was wedged between the wood-burning stove and the pantry door, my mother shuffled the manual washer across the red tile floor until the hose reached the kitchen faucet.

After my grandmother filled the washer with water through a small metal opening, the steam rising as if from a pot of boiling water, she grasped a wooden pole, the shape and length of a walking stick, and stirred the clothes. Slowly, she mixed the clothes and poked the dry surfaces deep into the soapy water.

Clothes bubbled and boiled, simmered and steeped until my grandmother hoisted the clothes from the machine with the end of her stick. The dripping clothes sailed through the kitchen like kites caught on a tree branch before my grandmother deposited them in a plastic washbasin. Clapping her wet hands and reaching for her walking cane to steady herself, my grandmother guided me to my station, “Come on, darling, you like to turn the handle for Grandma, don’t you?”

She selected a blouse and wrung out the excess water, squeezing and twisting, before carefully feeding it between the mangle’s rollers with her fingers. I turned the wooden handle, sluggishly at first, until the two cylinders clenched the blouse between smooth jaws. A corner of blue peeked through on the other side. As more of the blouse appeared, the handle loosened in my hand until the piece of clothing emerged, flattened, and only slightly damp.

Three generations of clothes hung next to each other on the clothesline all afternoon. Shetland cardigans and silk stockings. Pairs of their thigh-length knickers and embroidered slips, gray and chestnut tweed skirts, and floral print dresses rocked in the wind beside my cotton t-shirts and blue jeans and my mother’s bras and polyester pants.

When I buried my face in the fabric, I smelled sunlight, wind, and roses and breathed in history.

Mandy, by Julie Edwards

Home

The central character in a cherished worn and tea-stained children’s book I still own is a cheerful orphan. Befriending younger children coming to the orphanage after their young lives implode, the little girl is kind and generous with her heart. The child is good too, eating all her vegetables and meat without complaint before wiping her dishes clean. But in the evenings, when the ten-year-old child should be studying, instead, she sits on the window ledge in her attic bedroom looking past the orphanage’s black wrought-iron gates and flintstone orchard wall.

Her daydreaming spirals into an obsession until one day, the good girl resolves to see the other side of hunger. On her ascent, she scrapes her knees on the flinty stone before scrambling down the plump apple tree branches.

Mandy, by Julie Edwards

Curious, the child follows a grassy path through the woods only to find an abandoned cottage. The girl sneaks through the orchard through the seasons and climbs the wall to visit her cottage each day. She pulls weeds and plants the flowers she buys with her pocket money, sweeps the creaking wood floors, and washes the windows in the room with walls made of seashells. The child, Mandy, has found the object of her desire – four walls she can call her own — nursing a private ache that she does not share with anyone, a longing she, herself, barely understands.

The first time I read the book, Mandy, I was on an airplane with my mother flying the well-worn path of my childhood from London to Chicago, finishing the last page as the sky lightened, and the plane began its heady descent into America. At the time, I was not an orphan like the central character though I think I was “the good girl” as a child, eating my meat and vegetables and diligently finishing my homework on time.

Maybe I was even a good friend to others before friendships became situational, often connected with jobs skating the surface like an early frost before history and loss began to chip away at my heart.

The book I first read on an airplane, worn from years of love and desolation, is one I sometimes reread when something triggers the acute hunger I have never learned to satiate. I keep this hunger close and do not tell those around me that after all these years, I am still looking for a place that truly belongs to me, one where I might finally banish the “ghost of belonging” from my cellular memory.

Like my fictitious heroine, I always wanted a house. A house of my own, not one owned by a relative. Not an apartment or a duplex either. Not a communal house shared in college with roommates I do not remember.

My late-blooming transformation between ‘worst home occupier/renter on the planet’ to tidy, organized, ‘borderline OCD homeowner’ materialized the day the ink of my signature on the purchase papers had barely dried.

I bought my first house at the age of forty-four and six months after my multiple sclerosis diagnosis. Unlike Mandy, I hired window washers and fumigators, painters and stone workers to cleanse a house that may have been ours but one that still housed the remnants of the previous owner everywhere. Still, I scrubbed every bookshelf and kitchen counter, bought a new refrigerator and freezer, and labeled every spice container in the spice drawer.

When I cleared my mother’s apartment, I was reminded that she kept her clutter out of public view.

My mother’s hallway between the front door and the bedrooms was lined with floor to ceiling closets, each shelf, every inch of the floor locked in a war for space. In the ‘office supply’ end of the far closest opposite, my adolescent bedroom stacks of envelopes of every size leaned precariously. Inside, I found battery stashes and dozens of unopened scotch tape rolls, post-it note packages of every size and color packed into a cardboard box with the Union Jack on its lid. Paper clips and file folders, white and yellow padded envelopes, tubes of brightly colored Christmas paper scattered with images of scarf-clad penguins and bow-tied teddy bears, bags of bows, all had been saved for a day that will never come.

The home my mother had created gave her sanctuary from her memories of my father’s arbitrary, war-induced rages, her loss of England, and the foundation for a new life. I plucked random objects infused with invisible memory: objects I lived with through high school and college. Still, others that my mother added later, ones that appeared during the years, I tried to put my own life in order, others where no memory resonated for me. In her absence, the once familiar vase or salt savor I held was strange to me as if instead, my hand stroked an unfamiliar object like worry beads, desperately attempting to drive the pit of loss away. Now, I was the one left behind to salvage an unfinished life.

In hindsight, I recognize that my false, manic transformation, obsessed with order in our new house, was misplaced grief. Grief over my mother’s death. Grief over my diagnosis.

In my past, apartments and houses were simply an address, a place to sleep, a refuge to lament another broken relationship; these structures were not places to make plans or dream of possibility.

Even the address of our house was promising on the first day I stepped over the threshold. Eldorado. The Lost City of Gold, the city of the Muisca chief who covered himself in gold dust and became king. The mythology of Muisca represents energy constituting creative power. Place. All that I have sought, to find a place of belonging, a place of meaning, a place of sanctuary.

 

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.

Twin afflictions: immigration

Contrary to my father’s unwillingness to relinquish the past, I am desperate to remain in its tender embrace. At the living room window, I balance precariously on my tiptoes, watching for Mr. Carsrud to pull the squat orange bus with its rounded roof against the snow-crusted curb outside our apartment building. Globe-sized headlights and cranberry-lit bumpers pepper 22nd Street in the early morning dark. When the bus arrives, I bend over to hug Sandy and tell him to be a good dog while I am at school. My mother shoos me out the door, warning me to be careful on the sidewalks still layered with ice from the last storm. Outside, huge snowflakes tumble from the pre-dawn sky in a near blur before clinging together on the cement pavement. I turn and look up at the living room window, searching for the outline of my mother against the snowy darkness. When I reach the end of the sidewalk, Mr. Carsrud swings open the doors with a silver handle, the doors crunching together like an accordion bellows.

“Good morning, good morning, Anna,” says the bus driver who has taken me to school every day since my first day of Kindergarten. “And how are you this morning, my dear?” he asks after I am safely inside, turning the crank once more to lock the cold outside.

“Fine. I guess. Mr. Carsrud, I spilled tea on my homework this morning when I was trying to finish the questions I was stuck on last night. I hope I won’t get into trouble.” The hot cereal my mother made for breakfast has turned my stomach into a circus act.

“Ah, my dear. My dear. Don’t worry. You finished your homework, didn’t you? I am sure Mrs. Pratt won’t mind a little tea, will she? You will have to be a little more careful next time, won’t you?” He winks at me, braking sharply for a stoplight. I nod furiously.

Familiar and reassuring, Mr. Carsrud reminds me of my grandmother’s friends’ husbands, men who dress in layers even on summer days. Maybe it’s his thinning hair on the back of his head that I study each morning or the scent of his clothes smelling of spent tobacco, old wool, and the dust that lingers between the curving radiator pipes in my close, airless classrooms.

With a steady hand, Mr. Carsrud maneuvers the rattling bus through freshly plowed streets. Under flickering street lamps, pine-tree silhouettes line Phillips Avenue. Lit houses and others still in darkness shiver in the near silence of the early morning. Cars left running in driveways groan, the exhaust streams curling, separating, and curling again in the frigid air.

Glistening and iridescent snow covers the rolling hills inside the entrance to the All Saints school grounds. With great effort, the bus creeps up the steep drive. Under his breath, Mr. Carsrud announces to no one in particular that he shall have to go over the road with sand again. As the bus turns, the enormous Quartzite cross in a snowy depression dug deep into the hillside comes into view marking the grave of Bishop William Hare. During chapel service, our pastor tells us that Bishop Hare started All Saints because he believed that God’s work was to bring unbelievers closer to the Almighty and educate missionary children on the South Dakota prairie.

The bus moves slowly past the mottled pink and white Quartzite chapel looming like a haunted castle in the approaching light. Later in the day, when the whole school walks across the snow-packed pavement to the chapel, its turret will throw a bulbous, onion-shaped shadow over the cross, and all afternoon Bishop Hare will be in the shade. Mr. Carsrud maneuvers the bus near the front steps of the school. The heavy wooden front doors seem a little out of place in a sea of pink stone.

I climb off the school bus and solemnly wave goodbye to Mr. Carsrud. Though he will take me home with the other children later this afternoon, for some reason, the bus ride this morning feels like it should be my last one. He looks at me quizzically, smiles, and returns my wave. The door closes behind me, and I am pierced with the understanding that next year I will not ride the bus every morning with Mr. Carsrud. I will not be a student at All Saints anymore. I do not know where I will be going to school next year, however. My name has been on the list for acceptance into an English boarding school since I was born, and now the fateful time is almost here. If I pass the entrance exam next year, I will go to Culford Boarding School after turning thirteen. If not, I will go to the local Catholic junior high school in Sioux Falls.

Once inside the school building, I slowly climb the spiraled marble staircase that curves to the right, leading to my sixth-grade classroom on the third floor. I tell myself to prepare for the real goodbye that I know is coming. I pause on the landings of each floor, standing in the path of a cold draft seeping through the closed, iron-sculpted window frames. The frosted patterns on the glass are faint in the darkness, but when the sky slowly lightens, curlicues and elaborate icy webs will appear as if by magic. In winter, Mr. Carsrud spends a lot of time bleeding the radiators to keep the school warm. Still, in spring, when he pushes the windows wide open to let the fresh air inside, the overwhelming scent of lilac and apple blossoms silently winds a path around the stairs, making it hard to concentrate. This spring will be my last one at All Saints School. I whisper into the nearly empty hallway.

I resolve to walk around the entire campus before I leave for good and begin to make a mental list of my goodbyes to the classrooms, the chapel, the lunchroom, and the playground. The spooky tunnel connecting our school building with the chapel, the lunchroom, and the principal’s offices that becomes a haunted house at Halloween each year for our school carnival will be last on my farewell list.

Outside the door to my classroom, I hesitate and peer inside at the bulletin boards crammed with paper snowflakes, world maps, and photographs carefully torn from the pages of National Geographic magazines and at the letters of the alphabet cut out from crisp colored paper pasted along the walls of the chalkboard. I race to my desk and frantically begin to engrave my initials into the worn, creaky lid with a pen, hiding my imprint in the sea of doodles that have come before me. I barely finish the ‘S’ when Mrs. Pratt strides past my desk and instructs us to open our green textbooks on South Dakota history.

The entire class groans at the prospect of our twenty-minute sessions. Twenty minutes seem like the longest twenty minutes of our young lives. Our history textbooks have a badly drawn replica of Mount Rushmore on the green cover. Mrs. Pratt pulls a goofy face and spends more time than she needs organizing her desk before our lesson, mandated by the state legislature, begins. I suspect we will not be reading from the book today. I smile faintly in anticipation, waiting for Mrs. Pratt to ask the same question she has asked every week since I have been her student: “Now, class, if there is a fire, what is the first thing you should do?” Mrs. Pratt snorts, barely able to get to the end of her question without laughing.

“Toss the South Dakota history books into the fire on our way out of the building, Mrs. Pratt,” the whole class shouts with glee. Mrs. Pratt explodes with laughter, and we know that another week will pass when we do not have to read from these awful books.

Mrs. Pratt is married to a member of the Lakota Indian tribe. She does not laugh when telling stories about how the settlers stole the stone from the Lakota Indians. The people who built this school raided their quarries, she reminded us, and left the chiefs with little stone to make their peace pipes. I know she is telling the truth. I have been to Pipestone with my parents, and the displays describe how pioneers mined the stone, though their effort is not exactly described as theft. I feel a little guilty about playing with the stone bits that have fallen away from the buildings at recess, using the pieces for etching patterns in the pavement.

When Mrs. Pratt closes the textbook with great drama, I put my head down on my desk. This may be one of the last times I hear Mrs. Pratt tell stories about hunting feasts, buffalo hunts, and why Lakota medicine men use pipestone to make their pipes and collect wild herbs for injuries illness. Mrs. Pratt confirms what I have long suspected. History is more than words between the covers of a book. I silently say goodbye to my favorite teacher, burying my face in my school sweater.

Before lunchtime, Father G. leads the solemn procession of first through sixth graders into the chapel. Each day, one of the teachers assigns one of the 6th-grade students to carry the silver-plated cross and the American flag into a chapel. Phillip and Jane are carrying the flag and the cross today. The boys, dressed in navy trousers and white turtlenecks, push each other in line, trying to make those with untied shoelaces trip. Opposite, the girls, wearing plaid jumpers and pearl blouses, whisper behind cupped, tiny hands before walking through the arched doorway. All of us wear Santa red sweaters with the purple and gold school emblem sewn onto our chests: “All Saints School. From Glory to Glory.”

The chapel’s narrow pews are worn thin in lopsided patches. Underneath my fingers, the wood feels slippery. I search for patterns in the wood and trace profiles of faces in the seat beside me. Father G. walks slowly to the intricately carved wooden pulpit and methodically climbs the stairs to give his homily. Behind him, a solitary gold cross on the altar gleams against the deep amethyst cloth. The slightly slanted magnetic numbers on the board telling us which hymns we will sing today. Our pastor turns the pages of the enormous Bible and begins to speak in a weary voice. He seems to bear the weight of God on his stooped shoulders, a weight like my father’s secret burden.

Instinctively, I finger the outline of the silver cross underneath my jumper and turtleneck. Each year, as part of the All Saints Day celebrations, all the sixth graders sit at the Head Table with our pastor and eagerly bite into cupcakes, hoping to find the special coin in the sweet dough. The student lucky enough to strike the metal coin is allowed to wear a silver-plated replica of the All Saints cross on an ivory ribbon for the entire school year.

Hidden under my school uniform, this cross is my own fragile secret. I never take it off even when I go to bed. When I hear my parents argue about returning to England to live, I stroke the smooth, worn surface until the cross is warm like a radiator. The frequency of their arguments has grown in the past year, and sometimes I hear loud declarations from my father about my mother and me becoming American citizens. If we are moving to England if I am going to school there soon, why do we need to have American citizenship? I am glad I was lucky enough to wear the cross.

After chapel, nearly the entire school, grades one through six, files down the stairs into the compact lunchroom cramped with round tables. Teachers and children pass around plastic baskets of hard-toasted bread chunks called ‘rusks,’ steaming bowls of canned green beans, hamburger goulash, and blue pitchers of fresh milk. Mrs. Pratt sits squarely at the center of my table, peeling a grapefruit. She has a grapefruit every day for lunch and passes each dish to the student sitting next to her without pausing to heap a spoonful on her plate.

When the goulash bowl is empty, I volunteer to go to the kitchen for another helping and crane my head around the corner of the counter, hoping to catch a glimpse of Mr. Carsrud’s wife. Mrs. Carsrud sees me and wipes her hands on her apron on her way to the kitchen window. “May we have another bowl of goulash, Mrs. Carsrud?” I try to convince myself that my voice is firm, pressing my wobbling legs further into the wooden floor.

Do not cry. Do not cry.

Mrs. Carsrud hands me a replenished bowl. I silently tell her how I will miss seeing her at lunch every day. I will miss sitting in the worn wooden pews of the chapel upstairs and smelling your cooking while our pastor talks about God and goodness. “Thank you, Mrs. Carsrud,” I say, forcing myself to smile broadly before raising my chin and walking with determined steps back to my table: the penetration of her kind eyes in my back nearly makes me faint.