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Thunder on the prairie

An Annual Visitation

On autumn days, when I drive across the prairie alone, my father’s country, Ukraine, appears in my rearview mirror. The country’s outline does not emerge near the anniversary of my father’s death. He died on the last day of June. The silhouette is disconnected from his birth under an Aquarius sun during the darkest part of winter, too. Rather, the faint, porous Ukrainian borders materialize long after the sun begins to wither when 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 this foreign vista behind me.Serhij Sochocky - Brody, Ukraine

I have come to expect this annual visitation.

The film stills of Ukraine rolling behind me are not part of this century. I do not see the effects of Chernobyl on the polluted land or drink the poisoned water. I cannot picture the pinched faces of young girls with little to believe in but familiar strains of pop music and their boyfriends’ hands 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.

In the mirror, I see a land where men once guided themselves across quiet, wheat oceans by starlight like mariners. Bison and antelope, wild horses, and prairie hawks still innocently roam across this bruised land. My ancestors’ bones are buried in this black earth too, buried deep within a prairie my father once walked across with faith before the war came.

The sharp smell of wood smoke filtering through my cracked car window reassigns me to a distant 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 I dressed in the pale green sweater and t-shirt, my cold hands gripping worn leather reins, my cheeks pink like a pair of apples, who 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 carries him into a frozen exile, pencil, and paper ripped 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 – arguing 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. These truths, like his cold, sepia-toned landscape, darken the history of my father’s Ukraine.

I have never traveled to my father’s country.

I have not seen how the beech trees cling together in dense forests or how the linden, oak, and pine branches knot in a web above the swamps and meadows. On the streets of Kyiv, my Eastern European features have not dissolved into faces with an architecture that has not changed for centuries, 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 oceangoing freighters crushed together like downtown office buildings.

Would I even feel a connection to Ukraine if I knew where my father stood in the photograph I have of him, amidst bare trees, smiling? Would I understand what he saw as we stood together on the first land he owned after the war when all I wanted was for the mosquitoes to quit feasting on my plump ten-year-old body? It made no difference to my father that the land was part of the Canadian prairie. This land was saturated with his memory and the typography of the Ukrainian steppe. 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 land driven by memory; for me, it is driven by history.

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. His blood, the same blood flowing in my veins, gallops through the arteries of men and women who still live on this fractured landscape. The false borders of politics may have crumbled, but history continues to keep me apart from my Ukrainian family born after the war, the family I will never meet. Ocean. Land. Politics. Much more than geography and the deep separate us from each other now.

War. History. Language. Revolution. Disintegration. More revolution. 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.

Was I wrong to believe that my father’s silence about Ukraine, a silence he kept like an ancient tradition, was a punishment I deserved? Maybe I did not understand that he stayed quiet because he knew his words would never be enough to describe his torment over losing his family, his country, his heart to war. I did not consider that words would always be lacking; his sentences withering like autumn leaves. Perhaps history inevitably starts to fade on the page when a book gathers dust, unread. Maybe I believed in his silence more than I believed in his death.

Still, there is something intrinsically familiar about this country that stubbornly appears to me each autumn. 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, red heart and live as my father did, always in motion. This restlessness is not simply the legacy my father bequeathed to me. The urge to roam was implanted in Ukrainian blood rushing through their veins centuries ago.

This is my inheritance: Ukrainians’ souls have been sad for centuries, and now this loneliness is mine to manage—this hunger.

When I go to Ukraine, I will see an independent country and listen to the echoes of revolution in the streets. I will go to bear witness to the sights and sounds, smells, and touch of my father’s landscape and feed the uneducated part of my soul. I will go for my father because he could never return home without risking imprisonment or death. I will go to Ukraine one day because the act of remembering is a holy one.

The path from the villages of Ukraine to the American prairie is threadbare. The faint trail follows the line of the northernmost railroads, snaking their way across the edges of North Dakota and the southern border of Canada. My father did not follow this trail weaving a well-worn path of history to Canada, one that Ukrainians coming before him had beaten down with muddy boots and hopeful souls. Instead, he set his life down on another prairie with no history of others like him coming before. 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 the topography he once knew.

In death, Ukrainian ancestors reside in the fields, in the orchards, in the forests, and their homeland’s skies. Yet, like thousands of Ukrainians who pulled the roots of their lives from one unforgiving landscape before setting their lives down in another halfway around the world, my father discovered his memory of the prairie after the war. And now, in a part of the world where my father found peace, each autumn, his country that pursues me like a panther telling me it is time to come.

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 own 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.

Serhij Sochocky - Brody, Ukraine

This is your father

I stare at the truncated sentence and accompanying photo that has surfaced on my Facebook page. Five days before this morning’s Internet shocker, a similar message sans photo arrived in my inbox.

This is your father.

The light glare bursting from the photo’s left side manages to obscure the people’s faces in the image, yet, I see a hint of my father’s receding hairline and elevated cheekbones.

This is your father.

I re-read the message and read it once more. The name of my father’s niece rings true, but who is trying to contact me? Why now? Thirty-five years after his death? The dormancy of my father’s life became my own truth years ago.

Internet scams abate, but so too do erroneous searches for lost family members, discarded affections, or friendships. Social media often fans the flames of loss, guilt, and isolation, seducing people into seeking out relationships that are best left dormant. Reunion fantasies imbue these searches seducing lonely people to ignore the reasons behind a severed relationship. Stones unturned, souls at rest, perhaps?

I learned to write around the absence of half my family, half my history, treating the few photographs and stories (or myths), documents, and snatches of conversation I heard as a child as ‘family gospel.’ I revered the absences, resented those my father bequeathed me with his death, ignored each one, yet found comfort in their oddities. I claimed my isolation drinking in its potency like an addict.

Absence defined me. And now? What?

“I’m afraid I cannot see the faces because of the glare,” I type, my fingers striking the keyboard not with the confidence of a seasoned typist but like a novice hunting and pecking each letter. I wait.

The author claims to know the daughter of my father’s sister, Olga. Olga, the cherished sister my father, fretted about listening to the BBC for any hint about her life behind the Iron Curtain. Long ago, strange photos of Olga’s little girls arrived without warning, too. Manila envelopes with stamps not from Ukraine but Maryland had the aura of contraband. These black and white photos of my Ukrainian aunt’s daughters brought tears to my father’s eyes.

History cannot be kept silent forever, but its emergence on a crisp, autumn Santa Fe day unsettles me.

Only ten minutes will pass before all that I have known, all that I have surmised and believed will evaporate into the mists of a once-forgotten history.

 

Serhij Sochocky, registration papers, Chief Medical Officer, Redgrave Park, England

A riddle I could never solve

Great grandfather, Greek Orthodox priestTiny morsels of my father’s life have always appeared without warning, a crumb here, a mystery unraveled there, only to be followed by a dead end, pieces that leave unanswered questions in their wake. The unwritten residue from which I built my account about my father’s life over the years usually came by accident – a weighted remark at the dinner table or a story surreptitiously overheard – shocking and unexpected.

From time to time,, when I was tiny, I crawled out of bed and lay curled up on the floor of my bedroom,, pressing my ear to the space between the door frame and the carpet and waited. Waiting for what, I was never quite sure, but when wrinkled summer light bled stubbornly through the Venetian blinds of my room, I hoped that my nightly missions might produce clues about my father. My father hunted for his own clues, too. Every evening, he sat crouched forward,, fiddling with the knobs on the radio,, searching for a report from behind something called the Iron Curtain. My father was a puppeteer trying to drive the gravel out of the foreign voices.

The walls in our small apartment were thin. I lay in bed with my ear pressed to the wall, straining to hear my mother turn into the living room from the hallway after she closed my bedroom door. When I thought it was safe, I climbed out of bed and padded across the bedroom floor. Once the sound of voices rumbling from my father’s radio and the chimes of their teacups on saucers seeped through the narrow opening, I knew I would not be discovered.

Some nights, when I did not make a discovery, I lay quietly,, clutching my teddy bear before falling asleep on the floor. I have not made a discovery for several evenings,, and this evening does not look promising.

Gingerly, I ease my coloring book off the bookshelf and hold my breath when the crayons spill out onto the white, worn carpet. I lay still for a minute until I convince myself my mother has not heard my accident.

My father has turned the radio off,, and my parents are not talking. Another evening without a discovery, I sigh when I unexpectedly hear my father’s voice, low and distant.

“All of the soldiers were shot. Shot. Point blank. On the train. I overslept and missed the train. Pure luck. Luck and God. God kept me off that train. I, too, would have been killed if…,” my father’s voice fades.

Where was my father going on a train? What does my father mean by point-blank? I am glad that God kept my father off that train and that my father was so lucky.

“What happened after the ambush,” my mother asks my father in the gentle and soothing voice she has when I have skinned my knee.

“Ah…it was a long time ago. It does not matter. It does not matter anymore,” my father answers. I hear his chair flying back into the bookshelf and his footsteps moving quickly towards the kitchen. The click, click, click of my mother’s knitting needles fills the space.

The sun has finally gone down, and my toy wagon and dresser shapes shapes have taken on scary forms. My eyes dart around the room. Is that a witch peaking out at me from behind my dresser? Is there a monster behind my toy wagon? If I can just run quickly from the floor to my bed, I can be safe. I scamper to my bed and burrow down under the covers to hide from the monster I am sure is behind my toy wagon. I fall asleep dreaming of a train moving fast through dark forests…Serhij Sochocky with Polish soldiers, World War Two

…in my dream, it is frigid. The finely falling snow has made a damp halo of my father’s head. He is smoking. He glances at his watch before tossing his burning cigarette on the hard, gray ground. Dozens of men walk around my father,,, but I cannot see their noses or lips, eyes,,, or cheeks. My father does not notice these faceless men but boards the waiting train with them, the train steaming and snorting like an anxious horse. Why is he getting on the train? Doesn’t he know it isn’t safe? Wait, Daddy…no…do not get on the train. From the window, he presses his face to the glass, as if searching for a distant glimpse of something familiar. He seems to look directly at me,, but when I wave and cry, “Daddy!” he does not respond. The wheels grind sharply against the steel rails,, and the train, once eager to lunge forward, now strains to move, creeping ahead with the sound of metal on metal. Wait. Wait. Don’t go, Daddy. Wait for the next train. This one is not safe. But my cries are too late…

Years after I fell asleep on the floor of my bedroom dreaming about this murderous train, I learned the true context of this story. During the years Poland ruled western Ukraine, my father, a member of the Polish army, was to travel from Lviv with hundreds of other soldiers to fight the Soviets after the invasion of eastern Poland but missed his train. Word soon filtered back to Lviv that the Soviet army had intercepted the train and murdered all the soldiers aboard before closing off the Eastern Front.

On my bedroom floor, I did not simply learn snippets of history. I also gathered stories like a small bird collecting discarded objects for its fragile nest.

I was always the family archaeologist. Beginning with the nugget about the train, over the years, I built my own private inventory from fragments I collected:

      • a country called Ukraine that none of my family could visit;
      • a sister, my aunt, and her children, my cousins, whom my father could never contact directly living behind the Iron Curtain;
      • a brother murdered by the hand of a Nazi soldier for being a member of the anti-German resistance and left to die on the family farm;
      • soup my father made from stolen cabbages and grass in a string of prisoner-of-war camps;
      • a daring escape from a Soviet camp in the throes of a bitter winter;
      • the leather prayer book my father smuggled through multiple detentions;
      • a handful of gold rubles hidden deep within the base of a shaving stick, rubles my father had made into an exquisite bracelet for me;
      • photographs of prisoner-of-war camps in Rimini, Italy,, and Redgrave Park, England.

Many years would pass before I told anyone about my inventory. At the time of my father’s death, even though my commitment to uncovering these stories had been unwavering for years, my inventory was painfully thin. My father was not unlike the country of his birth to me – a riddle I could never solve.

I understood that my father was not born in America but in Ukraine and had lived in England before coming to South Dakota. Yet, my father’s Ukraine was never like my mother’s England to me. While England seemed like a jewel in the middle of a cold ocean, infused with brilliant light, Ukraine was dark and terrifying, a place I was never be allowed to visit. There was a weight connected to the country’s name – Ukraine – as if the entire landscape shouldered a devastating burden it could never discard.

Ukraine was consigned to my imagination, a place with dangerous forests and unfamiliar faces, a country where everyone was always hungry. There were no heirlooms from my father’s family on the bookshelves or on the coffee table in our apartment. I never knew anything about any member of his family, by experience or by anecdote, only by fiction and myths I created.

An Omission

Only one photograph of my father and his sister together survived my father’s war. Olga sits with her legs curled beneath her like the English women in my mother’s photographs. She has a lovely, tiny dimple on her right cheek. The low shadows of late afternoon cross her face and chest. She leans back against my father, reclining in a field of wildflowers beside a still river. Brother and sister look too contented for the photograph to have been taken during the war; it must have been taken some time during the early 1930s.

My father looks like a film star. A freshly pressed hat with a wide, curved brim like Humphrey Bogart wore conceals part of his young and handsome face. He does not smile but looks quite satisfied. My father and aunt are not alone, though. In the deep background, a man stands along the river banks with one hand on his hip, the other leaning on a walking stick. He is wearing a hat, his face completely obscured by the grainy image.

Is this their brother, my dead uncle, or is this my own selfish desire to believe?

The Ukrainian uncle I never knew was older than my father. This is the only physical detail about my uncle, I know. I do not remember ever hearing my father refer to his brother by name as if the uttered syllables might burn his mouth. No photos of my uncle survived my father’s treacherous journey of survival through war-torn Europe. When I lay out my father’s family photographs, there is a blank space where my uncle should be. He has always been a family myth.

If I could print my uncle’s image from a negative, he would be taller than my father with thin, chapped lips, tanned skin, and a lean and muscular build. He would have earnest, unrelenting eyes the color of fossilized amber, shaded by a sloping forehead with a wisp of sandy hair falling on his brow. If only the curve of his Slavic cheekbones were visible, one would presume the photograph is of a girl on the precipice of womanhood.

In my ethereal image, my uncle pulls his shoulders back, one hand in the pocket of his wool trousers. Suspenders with large, round buttons curve over his collarbones and cross his back—streaks of mud cake on his once-white shirt. The dampness of his sweat draws the material closer to his chest and arms. His rolled-up sleeves reach to his elbows. His boots, dulled by the earth and labor, are his favorite pair. Evidence of a careful repair on the left boot, a patch of leather taken from an unused saddlebag, form a circle the size of his watch face.

My uncle holds a cigarette in his right hand, and his pouch of tobacco bulges from his shirt pocket. He stands beside the family’s team of workhorses, and the rusting plow he steers by hand is behind him. Though worn by sun and wind, the bridles are polished; the leather is a rich, dark chestnut. The bits glisten in the anemic sunlight. The sky sags, heavy with rain for the first time in days. The collars of the harness rest limply around the team’s thick necks. The edge of the plow’s scythe lies hidden underneath clods of parched earth.

My uncle looks directly into the camera. He does not smile, but his face is calm. His eyes look as if his mind wanders. Perhaps he is thinking about the field that he must finish plowing before the storms arrive. The earth is harder to turn over when it is parched and stale. Though he is only in his mid-thirties, worry lines cross his forehead like parallel railroad tracks. Around his mouth, a dimple in the shape of a horseshoe curve toward the square chin he inherited from his grandfather. Maybe my uncle knows that the German soldiers will find him.

If I turned on the light in the darkroom, the image would be so sharp it would hurt my eyes. The blacks would be dense and impenetrable, the whites crisp like fresh linen. There would be so many gray shades that it would take me days to count the tones in the pebbles and dirt alone. Each strand of loose hay, each wrinkle in his leather boots, each particle of perspiration above his sparse lips, is so animate, I am afraid that the man in my ghostly photograph stands next to me, my uncle’s sweet tobacco breath grazing the nape of my neck.

Looking closely at his face, I see the early growth of the next morning’s beard between the lines of his mouth. His translucent eyes are the color of the stone found along the Sea of Azov. I trace his knuckles, scratched and torn from the plow, and follow the lines of his cheekbones curving like the wings of a butterfly. I spy where his mother or his sister mended his trousers along the inside seam. I see my uncle, married to the land for which he would give his life, the tension of his soul, his struggle between hope and fear, joy and sorrow, darkness and light, before the image I will never hold vanishes before my eyes.

He is an omission.