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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.

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.

War’s soundtrack

In almost every photograph of my mother taken when she was a child, she was by the sea. Sometimes she beamed right into the camera, posing as if she was on the stage. In my favorite, she giggles entirely to herself, clutching her seashells as her polka dot dress balloons in the breeze. Her tiny body casts a huge shadow across the sand. Caught by the photographer, her arms extended, she leaned into her unsteady steps in cream buckled shoes—a bundle of blond innocence in motion by the seaside.

Days before England declared war against Germany, families stubbornly trekked down to the East Anglian beachfront, not knowing how long the memories of what could be their final holiday for some time would have to last. Less than a month before Prime Minister Chamberlain laid down the gauntlet, my mother and her family, like other families, spent their last few days by the sea at West Runton, a seaside resort on the north Norfolk coast.

This is the way I picture my mother’s last holiday by the sea. The salty breeze had nearly chased a sluggish cold from my mother’s chest, and she, anxious to enjoy the waning days of the summer sea, absorbed the wind, the sunlight, and the beach. For hours, she sat mesmerized by bobbing sailboats the size of milk cartons dwarfed by miles of ocean. Oblivious to the spirited voices soaring over the radio, she waited patiently in the warmth for her mother to unpack the picnic basket full of cucumber, tomato, and beef sandwiches, sliced apples, and orange sponge cake.

Pinched strains of organ music drifted between the sculpted legs of winking ceramic horses on the carousel, each rotation a kaleidoscopic blur. Children clamored at the skirts of their mothers, begging for a turn on the merry-go-round, its colors bright against the faltering sky. Mothers glanced at each other, waiting for the first handbag to open. The women knew that the first days of war were around the calendar’s corner. An unspoken signal passed faintly between the young women. Purses clasped shut. “Look at the sea darling and the seagulls diving into the water to pluck a fish for their midday dinner. Soon we shall have a picnic on the beach,” one mother tried in vain to turn her child’s attention away from the silent ponies.

Along the East Anglian beachfront, holiday visitors rented huts along the boardwalk. Shelves piled with swimsuits and towels, picnic baskets and thermoses, puzzles and toys, books, and straw hats burst at the seams. Children trimmed sandcastles with smooth pebbles worn by centuries’ waves. The men poured over crossword puzzles, listening to cricket games broadcast over portable radios. Women engaged in animated conversations swapped sandwiches back and forth across blankets.

Next door to my grandmother’s beach hut, a man named Dr. Ware, also from Bury St. Edmunds, stared intently at his radio. With his discarded crossword beside him, he gazed hopelessly at sea, watching the children chase each other through the sand and the foam. Turning to my grandmother, he declared, “There is going to be a war. Let’s go home.”

Vulnerable since before the Napoleonic Wars and during Elizabeth I, the East Anglian coastline was a primary target for invasion by Hitler, especially after the fall of the Netherlands and Belgium in 1940. Coastal stretches of pebbled and sandy beaches, emptied of holiday visitors, resembled a prison yard. Tentacles of eight-foot-high, barbed wire barricades slithered along the coast for miles to impede invasion and along the coast of southern England; the areas of Plymouth, Portsmouth, and Dover earned the unsavory title of Hell’s Corner.

That August day, word spread across blankets and over picnic hampers, along the shoreline, and through the line of beach huts. Within hours, my mother’s family left for home. At age three, my mother glimpsed her first image of war from a train window. Passing through the Norwich station, the train slowed long enough for her to see hundreds of sobbing young children, crammed shoulder to shoulder, reluctantly listening to Red Cross workers. London’s children, shepherded into lines matching their destination tags, were being evacuated to the country, away from the bombing, away from their families. My mother saw children like her huddled together with their name tags and gas mask boxes swaying around their necks through plate glass. The government had issued gas masks months before, and evacuation waves were escalating. My mother remembers the gas masks made the children look like miniature elephants, their noses shifting and swinging with each step.

Arriving home from West Runton, my mother and grandmother returned to find two little girls, and their mother from Bethel Green had been billeted with the family. Though the three evacuees had traveled only seventy miles from London to Bury St. Edmunds, the country surroundings and the absence of noisy red Double Decker busses and black taxicabs unnerved the East End children; many children arriving in the English countryside during the evacuation waves had never seen a cow or a sheep before their journey.

After introductions, the mothers agreed to consider boundaries dividing the house between the two families. Routines for preparing meals, quietly arranged by the two young mothers, go unnoticed by the children. My mother’s family retreated to the back of the house, the East End family to the front rooms, only meeting in the evenings around the wireless to listen to news about the war.

September 3, 1939. A Sunday morning. Gardens, spared by an early frost, still bloomed. The air carried summer winds inland from the sea. The shipping forecast predicted steady waters and a cloudless sky. Great Britain declared war against Germany. The women around my mother sipped cups of rationed tea in West Road’s front room, listening to Prime Minister Chamberlain’s declaration of war against Germany on the wireless.

France and the Netherlands had fallen to the German invasion within days, and now only eighteen miles of the English Channel separated the French coast from England.

When the church bells rang, the circle of women around my mother wept. The thundering church bells, silenced by government order, would ring again only if England faced invasion or if the war was over.

A disembodied voice of the radio commentator, church bells fading into the crackling wireless, and the sound of her mother crying, this was the soundtrack of war my mother always remembered.