In A Love Letter to America, Yuri Bezmenov, alias Tomas David Schuman, argues that “in the final stage of Communist aggression, military confrontation has very little to do with rivalry for territorial or geopolitical gains . . . [This aggression] is a war against humanity and human civilization.” Bezmenov’s rattling analysis of KGB tactics, outlined in an interview with G. Edward Giffen the year of A Love Letter’s publication, sets out a program of “conquer[ing] an enemy from within by distorting perceptions of reality, to the point a populace could no longer ‘come to sensible conclusions in the interest of defending themselves, their families, their community and their country’.”
How might such a thing happen?
Let me tell you a story.
“Everything is ashes and I feel burned.”
Paul’s voice breaks the silence. We stand at a distance from the family gravestone, side by side. Paul runs his hands along his arms, slowly exfoliating his grief. He stares ahead. Pale clouds filter the light. Heat clings to us. He’s so close, but I have a strange sensation that he’s not inside his shirt, pants, shoes. I feel the weight of that emptiness. Despite the cloying heat, I feel a cold sensation between my shoulders. I turn my face toward him, but he won’t meet my eyes. His shirt sticks to his back. His moist eyelashes flicker behind his thick glasses.
Hesitating, I reach out for Paul’s hand and fit my palm around his fingers.
“Come, let me show you the words I chose for the engraving.”
I admire the smoothness of the mauve, polished stone. An elegant oblong that rises into a peak on one side. Engraved on the monument are phrases that our mother had written to our father. Years ago. She had left a page from her Hilroy pad on our dining room table, at the place, beside the pole lamp, where he would sit to read his weeklies and, occasionally, a novel. In the note, she asked, “De dilysia metioly? What became of the matthiolas?” Those he had planted in his garden. Whose scent she remembered. After reading the note, our father left it where she had placed it. Days passed. Neither of them claimed it. I retrieved the page and hid it among my personal mementoes.
Paul and I ordered the gravestone after our father died in 2002.
“The stone is a wasteful expense and serves no purpose,” Victor, our elder brother, said. He had wanted no part of it. When our mother died in 2003, the stone had still not arrived from India.
And now, the week we’re burying Victor, the masons have only just finished engraving and placing the stone at the head of our parents’ plots. In the two years since Mom died, I’ve been almost crazy with grief about their unmarked graves. In a few days Victor’s ashes will be dropped into this same plot of earth. He had chosen cremation, not sanctioned by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Waiting for the coroner to release Victor’s body for cremation, we made preparations for the interment of Victor’s ashes with our parents’ remains. Like our father, Paul was a gardener; I was the picker, the one tasked with stemming and preserving fruits and berries. I wanted the family plot to look tended and dignified, and, with Paul in charge, we made the rounds of West End nurseries. I wheeled the cart. Paul walked the outdoor aisles briskly, stopping abruptly to examine a plant or squint at the fine print on a bag. We loaded four bags of sheep’s manure and small perennials into his trunk and drove the 40 kilometers to the Ukrainian cemetery, dedicated to St. Volodymyr. The Crown Victoria, a model Paul had researched and purchased for its smooth, quiet ride, made it possible for him to travel distances without aggravating his tinnitus. Seated by his side, it felt as if he was far away, swathed and safe in his own chamber, like he was in a maze car traveling through transportation tubes in Logan’s Run, a futuristic movie we’d seen with Vic at the cinema back in the 70s. Divided as we were by age and temperament, watching movies together was something the three of us relished.
We pass through the gates following the winding dirt road into the section where we had buried both parents two years before. I purchased the plot near a small ravine tufted with old maples, because Dad came from Polissia, a marshy, forested, and biodiverse region, and had attended forestry school in Ukraine. In Canada, he was a blue-collar worker who drove a truck. I made the arrangements myself the day after he suddenly died.
Years before, Paul fled our mother’s madness, blamed our father, buried himself in his work, and abandoned me on the home front. He couldn’t stop the ringing in his ears.
After Victor learned that he was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), we disagreed about funeral arrangements. Victor insisted that there be no funeral. I asked him what he would permit me to do with his ashes and he responded, “Wash them down the drain for all I care.”
I tried to muffle my shock. I pictured him holding the receiver, gauging the impact of his words, sitting in the living room at his small, almost child-sized desk where he had placed the will. The room included a sofa and a collection of classical LPs and cassette recordings arranged on a shelf next to a fireplace he never used. The music stand was pushed to one corner, as he no longer had the strength in his hands to hold the violin and bow. I flashed to a moment weeks before in that same living room, where the baby grand piano gleamed at the opposite end of the room, in front of the picture window. Victor had hovered his ailing hands above my husband Peter’s, as he worked out the chords in a Brahms concerto. My brother spread his unnaturally long fingers, made the shapes of the chords as Peter read the sheet music. When Peter’s fingers came down on the right keys, and their vibration seeped into the room, Victor smiled. His way of living remained simple. All the complexity was upstairs in his mind.
During that visit, Victor reminisced about making these cassette tapes when he worked for Litton Systems in Orlando during the Cold War Star Wars era, designing circuitry for missile guiding systems. Weekends included drives to the ocean, where he’d fish away all afternoon. On the way home, he’d tune the radio to a country station that played bluegrass. If he was loafing at home instead of fishing, he’d record the program in its entirety.
Victor popped a tape into the player. Peter and I had settled into the sofa, Victor at his miniature desk. A crackling recording began. “Touch me and hold me, and keep me from blowing away.” Easy, tired, and in no rush, the cowboy circled back to this refrain. I strained to remain nonchalant. My eyes stung. Victor’s eyes were on me. He asked me if I’d like to have the tape.
Through the receiver, I heard Vic’s breath catching in places. I held my voice steady.
“Could we bury your ashes with Mom and Dad?”
“If you must.”
Victor refused to consider a feeding tube to ease his transition when he would no longer be able to chew and swallow food. Sporadically, he behaved as if he could defy the disease or that some kind of magic would save him. His muscles were dying as he lost motor neurons in his spinal cord. He craved the exhilaration of riding “on two wheels” and continued to ride his bike, though I begged him not to.
One night, he crashed.
I picked him up from Toronto Western Hospital. The doctor walked him part way to the waiting area. Victor stopped in the corridor thirty feet away from me. His face was black and blue. His eyes met mine with anger and defiance. I clamped down on my beating heart and walked the rest of the way to meet him. On the drive home he told me that after setting out from his home in Etobicoke, he had gotten as far as Queen Street, miles away, before losing control of the bike and hitting the pavement. I pictured Vic’s daddy-long-legs spinning round and round, his preternaturally large feet weighing down the pedals.
Another night the phone rang and he said in his little boy voice, “I’ve been out at West Deane Park. I’ve been eating ancient apples from trees unlike any I’ve seen in my life.”
I waited in silence.
“Maybe there’s something in those apples that can slow down this disease.”
A spring full of silence and distances had developed between Victor and me. It no longer felt like we had a shared history. That we had driven 29 hours straight in the Plymouth Duster to the Florida Keys, or frequented the Schomberg Old Time Fiddle Championship, gathering with others in front of caravans where contestants rehearsed their step dances on portable dance floors which made a haphazard checkerboard of the expansive country lawn.
A few months before Victor died, Paul made a trip down to Toronto. By then my relationship with Victor had broken down completely, so Paul helped Victor take his last ride along a short stretch of pavement in front of his house, and then put the bike away in the garage.
When Paul visited, I always prepared a scratch meal. After cleaning his plate, he would launch a peroration, speechifying at length. Paul obsessed over liberties and rights. His blood boiled when for-profit interests squelched innovation. Long before, I had decided to take it as a sign that he was trying to make up for all the lost time between us, all of the conversations we had never had.
“You know, as soon as Reagan took office, he had the thermal solar panels Jimmy Carter placed on the White House roof removed. What more can I say?”
He glared at me from behind his thick lenses and absently scratched his bare ankle. He preferred not to wear socks — a choice he would later be asked by his Chief Pathologist not to exercise.
One July morning, I drove out to the countryside. The shadow of a gliding hawk filled the windshield and then became a speck in the sky. Avis Specio. In the vanishing moment I prayed for a good omen. That night, as I set foot in the door, the phone was ringing. Victor was dead.
Paul drove down from the Sault. We spent hours together walking the trails at Humber Bay, but bargained privately with our grief. As we wended our way past the row of condominiums toward the water treatment plant and deeper into the habitats of beavers and geese, Paul remarked, “Queen Anne’s lace is a delectable host plant for certain caterpillars.”
Sitting together on the big rock on the shore side of the trail, that sweet, decaying smell of Lake Ontario blowing in, we looked out to the islands. I dipped my fingers in the water and became lost to another time before Mom’s decline:
This fish smell in the lake air is my mother. The ferry coasts and chugs. She perches on the lacquered slat of the bench. Lids pressed closed as if vision would only blot this salt carried on freshwater breeze. Salty green-laden air alive with cries of gulls entrancing. Currents and clouds. She was.
I had tended to our mother in the last year of her life. Her decubitus ulcers required vigilant care. Her skin was so thin, her pain so intense she cried out at night. She shook the house awake. Her cries penetrated my dreams, reached me across town. My father was scared, helpless, and saddened. His wife, his keen opponent, was being rubbed away.
I sought refuge in the thought that after everything my parents had endured, they had been spared the grief of burying their beloved firstborn.
Paul attributed Victor’s violent death to “complications arising from ALS.” The phrase sounded so unpremeditated when he uttered it, and clinically accurate. Momentarily, it soothed the shame I felt for our family. But even as I played and rewound it — over and over in my mind — trying to make myself believe, it felt like a lie.
Paul interrupted my reverie.
“Some roses can grow on their own roots and Dad showed me how to do that. That’s what we have to do now.”
A few days before the service to commit Victor’s ashes in a private ceremony with family and friends, Paul dug and mulched a deep, rumpled garden bed, covering it with the manure. He attacked the earth with his shovel, recalling the botanical wisdom passed on by our father. Together, we kneeled in the dirt and planted flowers. We had nothing to make a border with.
The day I speak the eulogy, beside the gravesite, those who love Victor stand in two clusters, facing Paul and me.
Tears streak my nephew’s cheeks as I recount our grandfather’s violent end in 1938 at the height of Stalin’s purges, when he was driven away in the NKVD Black Raven, the secret police automobile. Never to be seen again. And the ways in which his son, our father, Oleksii, had loved Victor.
Toward the end of my eulogy, we pray:
“And so, in the name of love, and to heal the line and mend what has been broken, I invoke all of the male names, and their patronyms beginning with our grandfather Tymofii; our father Oleksii Timofiiovych; our late brother, Victor Oleksiiovych…”
The bright sun makes my head sick. Victor’s minister from the Lutheran church places his ashes in the earth. Our reverend swings his thurible. He begins the hymn that sounds like a cry, of Vichnaia Pamiat’. Our family friends — those who knew Victor in the beginning, in his infancy in post-war London, playing sonatas at age five in the flat on Pembridge Gardens; in Canada, building radio antennas with his father — step forward, encircle the grave.
I remembered that the night I telephoned Victor to tell him that our father had died of a sudden cardiac arrest, he choked back his tears. It was late. Already my whole body felt weary with missing Dad. I’d just returned home from the hospital where the police had asked me to meet with the coroner and identify Dad’s body. Dad had died in the midst of a shopping expedition. The night before we’d talked about our plan for a Thanksgiving celebration. I would bring Mom from the nursing home.
Usually, I drove, and we made the rounds to his favorite grocery stores because he had lost his license for drunk driving. That day I was at work, and he couldn’t wait to shop for the meal, even though Thanksgiving was two weeks away. He covered the two kilometers on foot, purchased a turkey, and then proceeded to the liquor store where he collapsed in the aisle. When the paramedics took him, they also stowed the frozen turkey, which the coroner felt obliged to give me.
I was afraid to share what the few hours since the police call had been like for me. I detected Victor’s muffled sobs. And waited.
“When I was a kid, Dad taught me that there are more than two measurements for temperature.” He paused. I waited. “There is also the Kelvin unit of measurement. That’s how much he loved me.” My heart contracted.
I count down the family members on my fingers. Our family story trembles.
One winter’s night in 1937, in the village of Mozhary, the NKVD burst through the door of Tymofii Mozharivskyi’s house, my father’s father’s house. In the next moment, the Black Raven vehicle carried him away.
Just as I could not return to the family home after my father’s death, I could not enter Victor’s house following his death. Paul claimed many photographs. He drove to my place immediately and pried open the tins to show me images of Vic that I’d never seen before. We spread them out on the living room floor. In the 70s Victor graduated with an engineering degree. He’d taught himself to speak Norwegian, got a job as a radio officer and boarded a Norwegian oil tanker, the SS Emerillis, in Veracruz. Before embarking, he wrote me a postcard.
“Dear Stinky,” it began. The fact that he had kept his promise to write mediated my fury with him for this nickname that he refused to stop using. He wrote that he would sail all the way to Beirut, and I felt proud to have a brother who was so worldly. I was in Grade 5. At the time, I felt that Victor would circumnavigate for me. Do things I would never do.
The brother who wrote that postcard was not the man in the photographs seated with the crew. The faces of those men appeared sullen and angry to us. For the first time, we wondered what had happened to our brother on the inside. There was a hard-living quality to their expressions that I had never detected in my brother. Paul kept these photographs. I claimed the photos of Victor’s early life. The photos of the beginning of our family.
Photographs of our parents with Victor at Brighton Beach show him as a bespectacled, bony lad, with aquiline features. Ten years my senior, his stories of childhood, delivered with a note of big brotherly hauteur, contained wild or eccentric fragments: “A Persian prince lived down the street from us on Hamilton Avenue in Leeds.” Or Dickensian residue: “There used to be a man who came through the streets crying, ‘Rags and bones, rags and bones.’ That’s how hard things were after the war.”
Cumulatively, the stories made his childhood life remote and alien to me, a narrative I couldn’t assimilate. I often wished that I had been born in England too. That I could be special like Victor.
In my twenties, our mother entered a state of psychosis. Her enemies began to come out from behind the walls — in the hospital where she worked in the Intensive Coronary Care Unit (ICCU) for fifteen years. Foreigners from the Soviet Union, all in lab coats, moved about the unit. She heard things. The heart monitors weren’t just oracles divining mortality; they spoke directly to Mom, warning her about the strangers in lab coats and what was really going on when Dr. Taylor dispensed the patient’s erythromycin. There were hidden cameras too. Recording all of this. Recording everything Mom heard and saw, but never talked about with her colleagues.
When she shared her intrusive sightings with me, it was impossible to assail them with reason.
“Really, Andrea. Trust me when I tell you. These doctors speak Russian. I almost couldn’t believe my ears. Our work is very important to them. They are learning from us.”
Her family doctor told her that she appeared healthy and robust, and when she tried to describe what was happening to her, withholding the details she imagined would get her institutionalized, he wouldn’t sign her disability application. She couldn’t exactly tell him what was wrong. After all, he wore one of those white coats.
Everyone had once reveled in Mom’s exuberance. There was a vastness to it. Her vital force swept the room and took in everything. I remembered her, a few years before: small, seated next to Margaret in her rambling Jeep, top off, which she drove from California when she took the job as head nurse in mom’s unit at Toronto Western Hospital. Mom and she became fast friends. At this stage of my mother’s life, her emancipation strikes me to be a sure thing. They are pulling into our driveway, after attending an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, sharing a laugh, and lost in their own world. I marveled at my mother’s power to bridge the gap with her new friend, who wasn’t foreign at all. Unlike us.
Within months, she resigned from her nursing position at which she excelled. Embarrassed. Diminished. Silenced.
Reading the goodbye card signed by the hospital staff, I recognized the names of doctors and nurses with whom she had worked, saved lives, lost lives, and I soon realized that no one at the hospital knew how to adjust to the changes in Mom, so their farewell inscriptions were meager. At the time, that made them seem cruel to me.
“All of the best in the future. We will miss you.”
“Goodbye, Nadia, and all the best.”
Reading these rote wishes for abundance and reward, I wanted to tear the card to pieces. She studied me. Her need for it to be good enough, to really say what she deserved to hear from her colleagues, brushed up against me so close that there was nowhere to turn. I pretended that some people had really tried to honor her contribution. That, buried in those words — somewhere — was a measure of the woman they had worked so closely with for so long.
One summer night, following her departure from the ICCU, Mom, my Godmother Natasha, and I stood beneath the sour cherry tree within the hedgerow.
“Nadia,” my Godmother said, “listen to Andrea. Nadia, see a doctor. If my children begged me to do this, I’d do it. I’d do it for them. Someone can help you. Don’t be afraid.”
I placed calls to doctors. Very near to getting a place in an outpatient group of survivors, I was stunned when Mom refused. Victor said that he would help her get better. “Mom doesn’t need a doctor,” he said. In lucid moments she told me, “I want to experience summer the way I used to.” Through memory she accessed those summers. Until memory, also, failed her. Then she falsified her memories. Eventually, her stories of hunger became stories of bounty. Of children being showered with candy. Of Stalin loving children.
Within a year, debilitating rheumatoid arthritis set in. Mother imagined that Dad was trying to destroy her mind by sending signals through Victor’s radio antenna. Paul, a medical student, remained silent.
I feared that my mother’s madness would make me mad. I fantasized about an existence in a parallel world where my parents’ troubles could not reach me, and one in which I was miraculously self-sufficient. But at 25, I was not so self-sufficient. It took a kind of strength I didn’t have to run.
Over the next fifteen years, we lost Mother suddenly. Lost Mother incrementally.
I began a manuscript.
I visited Ukraine with my father three times.
In 1997, on our first trip to Ukraine, I met Dad’s surviving siblings and learned that they still needed him to be certain things that he couldn’t be. They couldn’t let go of their idea that his democratic freedoms would have transformed his suffering into grace. Surely he was better off than they were.
Uncomprehending and unnerved, they turned on him. “If you could have seen him then. Look at him now. He’s not even half the man he once was.”
Oleksander, his brother, was still a child when Dad walked into the danger eating away at the edges of the village. By the end of The Great Patriotic War, he would be taken for dead. My uncle remembered the night he and aunt Lena said goodbye to their brother, the proud young man trying to set things right by doing good. My father hid everything so well then. He marched away from them without looking back. Listening to Uncle, I see the restless shadows of the village dead stir within the willows, branches in motion, like a woman’s arms raised in ecstasy.
One day, after a trip to the market in Malyn, Uncle Oleksander’s hometown, he told us about their father’s NKVD record. At the onset of Glasnost, his friend arranged for him to see it.
The file contained the order for execution.
“I saw it with my own eyes. I drove to Mozhary to tell sister Lena: ‘Iak hlianuv na tu bumahu to niby hlianuv na mertvoho bat’ka. When I read the execution order, it was as if I was seeing our father, dead.’”
Dad remained silent.
I said, “I want to see the file.”
Uncle did not respond.
The way my father told it:
It was dark. The house slept. The windows were ablaze — on fire, Grandmother Ksenia believed. Fire. Fire. She woke up with a start. Then the fires separated into two headlights. Bang. Bang. Bang. Hammering on the window. Tymofii was already in the corridor. Awkward with fright, he fumbled to unlock the door. No need. The NKVD burst in. Without explanation, he was taken for interrogation.
He returned to his family. Shadows beneath his eyes.
We drove from Malyn to Mozhary, my father’s and uncle’s village of birth, its name is our family name. As we slid into our seats in the Lada, Dad in the front, Uncle said, “Buck LAH” — his rendering of “Buckle Up” which he learned from my father, visiting us in Canada eight years before. We left behind Malyn’s railroad and the river Irsha. The planted fields spread out in every direction from the motorway we traveled. My father named the crops and pointed: Kukurudza, Zhyto, Pshenitsia. Corn, Rye, Wheat. Uncle said the wheat would be harvested in two weeks. Mounds of cut grass dotted the fields.
All at once, the brothers joined voices.
A lion tsvite, synio synio / A maty zhde dodomu syna.
The flax blooms blue / A mother longs for a son’s return.
We fell silent. None of us spoke the thing each of us knew. That she waits for a son who will not return. Not in her lifetime.
In Mozhary, walking the dirt roads, I met an old woman returning from the fields.
Across her breastbone, she had slung the leather strap of a sack bursting with carrots and cabbages. Her grandchildren, a boy and a girl, clung to her skirts. She talked about farming in the third zone of Chornobyl, pointing out to me the thin layer of tar on the road. After the reactor’s rupture, the roads became muck.
Deactivatsia: The tar keeps the harmful radiation inside the ground. Deactivation.
“My own children live in the city. They don’t want this village life. But it’s easier for everyone if my grandchildren stay with me.”
A few minutes after we had parted ways, I spotted the trio standing on the side of the road next to a field. Even from that distance, I could see she was crying, as she leaned her full weight into a fence.
Her grandchildren’s faces were turned upward toward her.
Word got around that my father and I were visiting his sister. A villager stepped off of the road into Auntie’s yard. I was sitting on a bench pushed against the side of the house, making notes.
He introduced himself and said, “Ne tak lehko pozbutysia Ukraintsia. Vin iak toi Koliorads’kii zhuk. It’s not so easy to get rid of a Ukrainian. He’s like the Colorado beetle.”
Back in Malyn, my father and I meandered through the market stalls one morning. Out of nowhere, Dad said, “Iak chasnyk u nochi iisy, anhely ne budut’ tsiluvaty. If you eat garlic before slumber, you’ll drive your angels and their kisses away.”
“My mother used to say that,” he said.
This was the first time my father used the voice and words of my grandmother to share something from his life. The only spoken words of his childhood that I have.
The way Grandmother saw it all before it happened:
In 1937, before her husband’s arrest, grandmother was sick with typhus and convalescing in the hospital in Ovruch. She dreamed a dream in which she cast a broadcloth she had woven in front of her husband, in the way of a threshold. Returning home, my grandmother told her husband, “I threw down the broadcloth, and you stepped over it, and stretching before you was darkness, a black, black roadway.”
After returning from that first trip, I read about a man called Joe Scardigno in Toronto Life magazine. Homeless and schizophrenic, he would use duct tape and rope to keep his belongings together; they included pictures of his children. He also saved stale breadcrumbs and a sixty-dollar ticket for loitering. One day, he grabbed a little girl on the Danforth, thinking that she was his daughter Maria, whom he’d been estranged from for many years.
The little girl broke free of him and ran into a nearby store for help. When police arrived several minutes later, Joe was walking a few blocks away, seemingly with no memory of the incident.
Maria, now grown, learned of her father’s arrest on the news. Working with a journalist, she pieced together the story of Joe’s delusion and, to exonerate him as a pedophile, imagined the perspective of this wounded man, trying to get back his family.
His brother, Emilio, who had believed that Joe was too young to be affected by the German invasion of their village in Italy, observed, “War goes on forever.”
The second time the police burst in was no dress rehearsal. He left without a word to his children and wife. What silent love passed among them?
Did my father have that one last kiss?
As the Black Raven car lurched away, something was tossed from its window.
The next morning, someone found a shoe lying on the road. Struck by the oddity, he stooped to pick it up. He noticed that someone had written on the sole, in a hasty, distinct script, “Vezut’ mene na Zhytomyr. They are taking me to Zhytomyr.” My grandfather was one of the several literate men in the village.
My father went looking for his father in Zhytomyr. He walked and hitched rides. He brought with him his father’s clothes. If the prison officials took them, it would be a sign that his father lived.
I imagined my father, a boy of 16, still on that road, on that long walk to Zhytomyr prison, carrying his father’s clothes, hoping that when he arrives there, the officials would take the clothes.
That he would be the one to find his father.
During our second trip the following year, my cousin Serhii arranged for us to visit the Zhytomyr archives to read our grandfather’s NKVD file. He used one of his contacts. Traded a bottle of quality vodka for the favor. I pictured us entering a fortress immuring state secrets, but the archives were housed in an unremarkable building. The reading room into which we were ushered was lined with shelves. The archivist, a middle-aged, soft-spoken woman, described the file’s contents, made up of various papers, each numbered, some as small as a cashier’s receipt.
It included a record of his first arrest after which he returned safely to the family. She folded over a number of pages, neatly tucking them into the binding. I was struck by the maternal vigilance in her hands.
“These, you don’t have to read.”
The last document in the series was the record of posthumous “rehabilitation” during the Khruschev Thaw. It was the final page of my grandfather’s record.
When she pointed to it, Dad sardonically replied, “To vin zhyve? So he’s alive then?”
The archivist stared at the floor. “No, sir, unfortunately, he is not alive.”
She slipped out, leaving us alone.
I sat at an oval table in the center of the room.
As I studied the NKVD file of my grandfather’s arrest, interrogation, execution, I handwrote a copy of every word in the file.
Periodically, I looked at Dad to read his face. He sat in the corner of the room, to my left, silent. The strong, dark features of his profile were inert. Waiting.
I unfolded the papers we’d been asked to ignore. Surely the archivist suspected I would do so. These pages included the false “eyewitness” accounts incriminating my grandfather.
Villagers he had lived with and helped.
People did everything to spare themselves and their families.
These men were later arrested and executed.
As my grandfather refuted each accusation, they recorded his words: “I did not lead counter-revolutionary agitation and never spoke of such a thing at any time, to anyone. In reference to the accusation that I spoke in the presence of collective workers inciting them not to go to work, I do not know of any such occurrence. I would like to add that I personally organized the collective in the village.”
The order for execution included the following declaration: “He was of an anti-Soviet disposition. He did not confess.”
Now, even with the terrible advantage of having read the record of Grandfather’s execution, as the months rolled by, doubt gathered force inside of me: Who was I to try to tell this story? Gradually, I convinced myself it would take a lifetime to research and digest all of the larger events within which my parents’ stories fit. Worse still, an entire generation’s memories were fiercely repressed. My own narrative flickered.
Then I remembered Aida.
I flipped through a family album in search of a photo. Pulled back the sticky cellophane and gingerly peel a photo away from the adhesive page. Two women, in motion. Eyes squeezed tight by laughter. Floating in one another’s arms. Untamed. Bound, and held fleetingly, within the aperture of the camera. Clad in their house-coats. In the hand wrapped around the shoulder, a dishtowel, disappearing outside the frame.
My mother is luminous. Aida, entranced. I turned it over. Scrawled on the back, my father had written, “Xmas, 1951 London.”
Years before, on a solo trip through the U.K., I had overnighted with Aida before returning to Canada via Gatwick.
I could still see her in her white Sussex cottage, her almost-black hair pulled back in a severe bun. Eyes dancing a tango of sadness and joy. The skin around her eyes, like the rings of a tree. Fingers moving back and forth, playing nervously across her forearms as she spoke. I heard her words. She held both of my hands in hers and whispered, “You have to hear the stories from people where there is only love, no malice.”
Like my parents, she was a refugee who escaped repatriation. Before she married, she and her mother shared a flat on Pembridge Gardens with my recently married parents. The photo I cherished had been taken during that time.
I gathered the courage to write to Aida. To ask if she would share her stories of life in England after the war and her recollections of my parents and brothers. Inside the envelope, in spite of my misgivings, I included a composition about my grandfather’s arrest in Soviet Ukraine.
It was the middle of winter when I next flew to Gatwick and cabbed to her country estate. We ate a proper English breakfast, as she called it, then settled onto the sofa. Aida was prepared.
Stacks of photo albums sat on the coffee table. She was determined to keep me awake. Going to bed after a transatlantic flight was for sissies and only interfered with the body’s wisdom for adaptation.
“London 1949 wasn’t heaven. But the fact was there wasn’t anything for us to look back on and long for.”
The hours slipped by as we talked about dance halls and Argentinian sailors with whom Mom and Aida could fall in love, just for the night.
“Beautiful things still happened.”
Her memory zigzagged.
She continued, “Let me tell you about the dream I had during the war, after the polio. I had that dream over and over again. I dreamt that my weak left leg was chasing me, chasing me, and I was trying to get away, and I couldn’t. To someone, that dream may not seem so terrible. To someone who hasn’t seen what we have seen, it might even be funny. To this day, that dream terrifies me. It is so cruel. There is no God in that dream. What did we do with all those horrors we witnessed and reinvented? Who could we tell them to? Nowadays people go to a therapist. But everyone had something ghostly to hide. Who could we tell? Who would want to listen?”
Zigzag. Her eyelids fluttered.
She recalled her first trip home to Dnipropetrovsk after Glasnost began. Her eyes closed.
“I was burning inside; I wanted to drown. Where did my street go? The roadway was gutted. The numbering of the letters reversed. And the people who lived there — where had they gone? I didn’t want to know what happened.”
While it pained her to relate her accounts of life during and after the war, her stories were protests. Elegies.
“There were bombs falling all around. For everyone. Who would you tell? After the war, who would you tell?”
In the collection of photographs I’d brought with me, Dad was usually missing because he was the photographer. But he appears in a few. In one, I imagine he had set the camera on a timer and placed it on a hummock in Hyde Park. The Serpentine makes a dark ribbon above their heads. My parents, Nadia and Oleksii, recline in canvas chairs at the top of the slope. Hands clasped.
Growing up, I searched in vain for the love I believed my parents must be concealing from one another.
“Your parents loved one another. I saw it. I know it. They loved one another, liuba. Why are you crying?”
She studied the photograph I’d brought with me, of her and my mother on Christmas morning.
“Your mother lived in bitterness, but if I were to come to Canada now and embrace your mother you would see that moment, you would see that moment again.”
Following that second trip to Ukraine, my cousin Serhii’s wife, Olia, wrote to tell me that a site of mass burial, believed to hold our grandfather’s remains, had been publicly consecrated.
She’d used the date of the execution to inquire of the whereabouts of the men’s bodies. My father had a hard time believing that his father’s body lay buried where Olia claimed it was. Yet when I first read him the lines from her letter, he wept.
“Did they do a mass for him?”
Within a week he refused to believe that there was any truth or possibility to Olia’s discovery.
The way Auntie Lena told it:
She remembers what her brother has forgotten. Their father hadn’t tossed the shoe from the car when he was still in the village. He tossed it out of the car or jail in Slovechno, where he was taken for interrogation and sentencing. The files I had read bore out this fact: “#17 Region of Slovechno: The employee of the cooperative is to be arrested on the 29th of November.”
Auntie’s memory suggested an even greater mystery. A man named Hryshko found the shoe in Slovechno, some five kilometers away from their village, recognized the hand, and carried the message to our grandmother.
For the third and last time, my father and I returned to Ukraine. Someone had given him the idea that his family was throwing him an 80th birthday celebration. I went along with the notion.
It was a difficult trip. We traveled ten days after 9/11. The long waits and unanticipated reroutings took their toll on him. We arrived in Frankfurt to discover that our seats had been reassigned to other passengers. We waited another three hours for a plane to take us to Lviv and then on to Kyiv, instead of flying directly to Kyiv as had been arranged. By the time we were on our way to Borispol airport, Dad was smashed. He wobbled in the narrow aisle of the small commuter plane, leering.
Each time I asked Dad if he planned to visit the memorial, he didn’t respond. On the day we made the trip to Zhytomyr, he did not accompany us.
We took two trams. Bought plastic flowers. Serhii pulled out his lighter and singed their petals. “This way, no one will steal them, and profit by selling them to other mourners. They’ll remain where we leave them.” I registered Serhii’s style of logic and efficiency.
A large, roughly hewn cross cast its shadow. I kneeled. Olia and Serhii hung back.
An apology was written from the city to the innocent victims of Yezhov’s terror: “Pravda nevynnykh voskresaie. Vichna pamiat’ zemliakam-zhertvam politychnykh represii rostrilianykh v 1930-1938. Vid Zhytomyrian. Truth resurrects the innocent. To our fellow countrymen, victims of firing squads during the purges of 1930-1938, your memory endures. The citizens of Zhytomyr.”
I wrote a love scene for my parents, overheard by the daughter character, from the other side of the wall. I wrote it for them. No, I wrote it for me.
Then in 2001, Mother got sick, Father died, Mother died nine months later, Victor was diagnosed with ALS, and I became very sick. After a prolonged respiratory illness, I had difficulty breathing. I couldn’t keep the food down. I lost thirty pounds. Compared with what my family members had endured, my symptoms were insignificant and undiagnosable. A mystery illness.
I abandoned the manuscript. Lost belief in my own goodness.
I succumbed to the place of love-no-love.
The night of the day we buried Victor, I dreamed of my father.
“This darkness,” he said, “I lived with it all my life.” He pointed to the darkness inside me — the place of love-no-love.
Aida said: “Iim ne treba bulo prychyny. They didn’t need a reason.
A choho moho bat’ka? Choho tvoho dida? Why my father? Why your grandfather?
Vony khotily znyzhschyty intelihentsiiu. They wanted to destroy the intelligentsia.”
One year after Victor’s death, crows as big as ravens began to visit me. They sat on the wrought iron fences of the patio. I was terrified.
As their beaks gleamed in the sunlight, I sensed only the creatures’ darkness, and was blind to the possibility that through them, Grandfather might have reached me. Helped me.
Crows crowded the fence and peered into the kitchen, the bedroom. I pulled the drapes. But, without knowing, I had already let the raven in.
As a way of severing the past, as a way of beating it back, as a way of saving myself from the raven, I kept thinking: Should I burn the manuscript?
Then I dreamed that I stood wrapped in a scroll, like a mummy. I could see the indelible words against the pale papyrus, which sheathed me. In my ears rang the words, “The burning is in the telling.”
I began to look at the manuscript, which had been sitting in a cardboard box for several years. I culled the journals I’d kept since Victor’s diagnosis, retraced the lives and deaths of my family members. Yet I still refused to write myself into the manuscript.
My grandfather did not confess. The last words he breathed, that were taken down for the official record, would not be lies. He knew a confession would not save him.
And I know that his goodness didn’t save him either.
Seventy years later, through that shoe, through his words, I breathe in his fear. The raven carries him away. I take the raven in. I pick up my pen.
Everything is ashes and I feel burned.
Image: photograph taken by the author’s father, Oleksii.