Copper Penny Tea

My mother’s curse predates my life. Perhaps by now, so many decades later, her curse is not even worth mentioning: she’d lost all she was going to lose. The psychiatrists and psychics have thrown their words at the curse, rationalizing and explaining it away, attributing her problems to too many drugs [which I seriously doubt she ever took, knowing my mom], too many mysterious copper pennies placed in the cups of my mother’s tea. I suspect that my mother continued to write letters well into her retirement, imploring the witch to recall the curse, to return all that she has lost, though my mother insisted that she stopped doing that years ago. My mother tried to convince herself that what little she earned in life was the best, but she remained inexplicably sad. She begged me to keep this secret. “Yulichka,” she whispered. “Please don’t tell.”

As a child nursed on Russian folklore, it did not occur to me until I was much older that people did not regularly drown themselves in lakes or walk through snowy, crystalline fields at night in only their nightgowns. And that often those who did deserved some psychiatric consultation. One of my most treasured books came from my mother’s homeland and was given to me by her childhood best friend, my namesake. The book had witches and swans, princes and peasants like the more traditional fairy tales I was accustomed to, but I returned to it even after I outgrew my Brothers Grimm. After repeated translations from my mother, I could reconstruct the tragedy I found on each page. The witches in my mother’s fairy tales called to me, entrapping me in their stone cottages, and turning me, invariably, into a black swan so my princes wouldn’t recognize me. By the time they realized that they’d been duped, the tangerine dawn of realization looming over their heads, the witch had already roasted my ‘foul’ form on a fired spit. How I yearned for the tragedy and magic of those pages!

“Your mother was a magician,” said my father one summer. “She was always doing disappearing acts. I had no idea she intended to leave Africa until three months after she left, taking you guys with her.”

She met her first husband, the father of my eldest sister, at a Ukrainian polytechnical college,where she studied for many years. She studied economics and he studied international affairs. When his visa expired, he returned to Tanzania, and several months and a great many administrative hurtles later, my mother joined him with their honey-skinned daughter, my sister Angela. The reunion didn’t last long. Sometimes in the 1970s, mom separated from him, taking Angela with her.

Shortly thereafter, mom met dad and they settled together, but again not for very long. In 1978, my mother’s Tanzanian visa expired, not to be renewed. My mother made plans to flee to Austria as refugees; my mother, sister, and I subsequently ‘disappeared’ to Vienna. We stayed with mom’s friend for half a year. Eventually, my grandfather managed to coax mom to America by offering her refugee sponsorship. She rented the house next door to my grandfather’s in then-underdeveloped Boise, Idaho. A few years later, my mother thought it prudent to leave Boise, which was as stifling to her metamorphic nature as frost to an exotic flower. She moved my sister and me to Little Rock, Arkansas, then to Brooklyn, New York. Finally, we settled in Manhattan, where my mother, a born runner, decided to stay put. “Don’t tell, Yulichka,” she said. “Nobody needs to know about us.”

Perhaps indescribable, the only word that adequately described my mother is ‘unlikely.’ She never fit anywhere – a self-proclaimed unlikely wife; an admitted unlikely mother; an unlikely American, Ukrainian, or African; unlikely in the city or in the mountains or on a farm, and absolutely unlikely in a suburb, which requires inhabitants to drive, which my mother did not. An unlikely modern woman, my little, white-haired mother walked to and from her part-time job at an educational non-profit in gilded, low heels. She read her books with bug-eyed glasses that made her eyes look too large, then returned to her velvet- and gold-plated apartment for the evening. It is unlikely that she had a boyfriend, a retired Ukrainian maintenance man named Stephan, and that she only referred to him as a ‘friend.’ He routinely proposed marriage, and she routinely declined: “Niet, Niet. Ya ne hochish.” No, no, I don’t want to.

When I think of my mother, I think of the dates and times of her life. Born during the Ukraine’s battle with Russia, she was fiercely nationalistic towards the Ukraine, but preferred to speak Russian. A child during World War II, she grew up too early for the social activism that moved the 1960s and too late to be Old World. Still a proud socialist, she often complained of America’s problems: the lack of universal healthcare, the contradictions of democracy and bureaucracy, the disparity between the rich and the poor. Her beloved home was no longer founded in socialism; sociopolicial strife and terrible poverty tainted the safety she once found there. When I dream of her, she is running, running, always running, but has no place to go.

When my mother lived in Africa, she experienced many strange things, which she continually forbade me to share with even my closest friends. She lived next door to a couple, who befriended her and offered to take care of Angela. My mother spent a good deal of time in their company, drinking and laughing. Very soon, though, strange things ensued. She found copper coins in the bottom of the cups of tea she drank at their house; she saw shadowy men following her, who were visible one minute, gone the next. For several days straight, while pregnant with me, she refused to get off the bed without being lifted, convinced that if she set her tiny feet on the wooden floor, the snakes under her bed would lash out and bite her ankles. (There were no snakes, but I’m sure she believed there were.) Finally, one day, my mother emerged from the couple’s bathroom and found her friend, the woman, standing just outside the door with a cassette tape in her hands. The woman placed her finger in one of the holes and twisted the brown, waxy tape reel backwards, as if she were rewinding it. She whispered a prophecy to my mother, there in the dim hallway of the house, something that my mother repeated so often that I could recite the phrase in my sleep. “If you do not love me,” said the woman, “I will follow you all your days and make you lose everything.”

My mother never spoke to her again, but in later years, she wrote long beseeching letters to the woman, pleading with her to call off the ‘curse,’ to return the things she had lost. The woman never replied. 

“Yula,” my mother would coo. “Please do not tell these stories.”

As a child, I looked into my mother’s eyes and saw the magic of existence. Her brown-green eyes gave me glimpses of the Ukraine – the heavy green trees, crimson berries, thick underbrush, sparks of golden sunsets and icicles. In 1995, she lost the one job that paid well and that she really liked, after so many years of being underestimated as an immigrant. That evening, she sobbed in my arms and taught me about fear, pain, and pride, which I have discovered often travel in the same circles. Her eyes turned dark olive green, flecked with copper streaks, and never appeared the same since. How often I gazed into her eyes hoping to find hints of her exuberance returned to her, but instead found the dull gaze of a tired woman.

My mother had insomnia since she left Africa, all those thirty two years ago. She slept for a few hours a night, if she was lucky, waking at two in the morning to the sounds of muted traffic and arguing neighbors. She also dreamt prophetically, so that her few hours of rest were fraught with foresight and anxiety. Since insomnia tends to run down matrilineal lines, I too have started experiencing fits of insomnia, so I know that when well-meaning people suggested “making the best of the situation” and finding something to do at two or whenever it is my mother woke, it was hard for her not to get a little cranky and resentful.

I knew that she laid on her back awake at night with an arm drawn over her eyes, sighing; I had seen that posture many times before. She replayed her dreams and decoded them; she tried to trick herself into sleep by playing the relaxation game, in which she started at her feet and worked upwards, progressively trying to relax and bed down each muscle of her body. She ran over the spectrum of pleasing colors in her mind’s eye; she counted the possible combinations of letters and sounds lost to the American vocabulary; she thought about work and how to find a way to see an arthitis doctor and pay the rent on minimum wage, part-time. She remembered the curse and the laughing face of the woman who was once her friend.

My mother knew that she would never sleep well again, the long hours of night stretching out before her like a bleak, blackened tunnel, marked only by the gleam of new copper blinking in the distance.

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