Ukraine sounded like a setting for a dark fairy tale that offered no magic or redemption, a place that had nothing to do with me.
It’s a strange sort of life for American born children with parents who come from other countries. The stories our parents share are nothing we can fully grasp, having never been at the mercy of losing our freedoms, yearning for a culture you had to leave behind, our only history in memories painted by our parents. It’s so much harder when you’ve never been taught your parent’s language, there are things that never translate (words, memories, nightmares). How are we to understand the spaces in the distance between us, the sorrows we can’t understand because said parent doesn’t have the words to express them, even if their English is flawless? Culture is a beautiful thing, but it can be limiting too. In part of the memoir, Anya mentions her cousins being more ‘Ukrainian’ than she and her sister were, having been exposed to the culture and taught the language. Her father compared them and felt she and her sister could never measure up, but how could she when he didn’t take the effort nor time to teach them. It’s funny how common that is, how often a parent can be proud of their heritage and yet give up teaching their American children about it, especially the language, then feeling slighted their offspring can’t say a word beyond hello and goodbye in their mother tongue, nor muster up the sufficient amount of pride and patriotism their parent feels.
We have a habit of dissecting behaviors based on our own experiences, never thinking how living in a country can mould you. Coldness can be a defense, mistrust and distance can be a byproduct of real events that took place when you had to fear your neighbors, even your own family turning you in for speaking against the regime. It means nothing to a child though, looking for love, acceptance, warmth. Anya has only her own experience to draw from, her own homeland, with needs any American child has that foreign parents resent or simply cannot comprehend. Their expectations are so much higher, understanding what obstacles they had to conquer to get where they are. Both are naturally gifted, highly intelligent, but it for Anya what is simple to her parents was a struggle for her. Anya’s parents were different people when they were alone together on their travels. As parents they were disappointed, short-tempered, demanding, drunk, distant, or outright absent. It was impossible to work up enthusiasm for his short visits, he was as much as a stranger. When her father was killed, she was numb because what did she really know about him? She could only recall being a disappointment to him. He was never really around, having lived overseas for his job, far more interested in his career. To Anya’s eyes there was a selfish cruelty there, how different her mother could have been had she had support, love instead of being a married woman living like a single mother. He got to use his education, give his dreams wings, experience all the exciting things the places he traveled and worked at had to offer while her once vibrant, gorgeous, intelligent mother was left behind to be the adult. It robbed she and her sister as much, leaving them with an unhappy mother that didn’t have the energy or wherewithal to nurture them. Her mother was consumed over his death, it had to have been murder! It was because of his work! Growing up, Anya’s mother drank herself into a stupor, she couldn’t be sure how much was delusional drunk ravings or truth. She falsely believed her parents were incapable of love, especially for each other.
It isn’t until she loses her mother that she uncovers the secret wounds both her mother and father carried, and finds herself traveling to Wales and the Ukraine, speaking to people who knew them to find out if there is truth to her father having been murdered. In the process, she discovers losses her mother suffered, that explains perfectly how she became unhinged. The heartbreak is in realizing she would have loved to know them, how much fun it would have been to be friends with her mother, to see the light in her father’s eyes when he was in his element, as strangers knew him. But it’s never to be. All she has is the remains of the past.
It’s a struggle, in loss people gasp when someone confesses that they didn’t feel the expected emotions to their parent’s passing. Maybe that’s because so many people have intimate relationships with their parents, or a gentler, safer upbringing. Others are left to struggle with conflicting emotions, particularly in abusive relationships. Taking care of a drunk parent is a form of abuse, distance is a form of abuse. Yet, through her search she knows there were reasons why her mother couldn’t keep things together, why her father chose to ‘run’ from her sorrow. There is still love but it’s a different sort. Anya, through excavating the ruins of her parent’s life and marriage, is able to forgive and maybe find some peace, solve some of the mystery of who they were as people. This is a deeply sad, moving memoir. Some answers still leave many questions. Was he murdered? Was his death just an unlucky accident? Some questions never have a solid answer, especially in countries where truth is a slippery beast.
Publication Date: March 27, 2018