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. Instead, 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 critical markers of my 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 everyday 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 its spelling and pronunciation spawned any number of adaptations in a classroom full of Johnsons and Larsons. Each September, 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. These terrors 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 endless 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. I tried 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 know 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 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.