Category Archives: literature

An Open Door

A couple weeks ago, my husband stopped me in the hallway at the school where we teach to tell me that he wasn’t receiving an employment contract for the upcoming academic year. By extension that meant I wouldn’t receive a contract either; we came to the school as a package deal and will leave as one, too. As a part-time Humanities faculty member, I was already keenly aware of my expendability. My husband’s news, however, came as a surprise. I felt like throwing up, but I did what an adult does: I pasted a smile on my face, returned to my class, and finished out the day’s work. Then I drank the weekend away.

Unemployment is a stress in itself, but, at a boarding school, it carries an additional wallop: eviction. We live in a faculty house and must vacate it, and our positions, by June 15. My family has four months to figure out many things: where we will work, where our children will attend school, where we are going to live, and what steps will cause the least damage to us as individuals and to our family unit.

My husband and I waited a week before telling the kids. Though it would have been easier to bear the heartache and spare them, we didn’t want to risk them hearing the news from one of the other faculty members or their children. (In this small community, news travels fast.) My son was four when we started working at the school, and my daughter stood as tall as my knees. This is the only home the kids have known. They cried, we cried, and we all went to bed with nine years of memories to either mourn or savor. When we woke up the following morning, we watched the sun rise into a crisp blue sky.

I will not miss this job. It has demanded my creativity and sapped my patience. It has killed my love for young adult literature. I may miss the unique relationships I’ve built with young learners, but I won’t miss the grading, the superfluous, unproductive faculty “workshops,” or the hours of planning. This job has always been a job, not a calling, and I accept its end for the possibilities and potential it unleashes.

I feel buoyant, despite the chaos. This experience is an open door. I intend to walk through it with my head held high.

© 2017 Julia Moris-Hartley

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Curses and Choices

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Now that both my parents have passed on, I find myself drawn to the histories they left behind. I am learning that what I thought was my story represents a small part of a much bigger family narrative, which I am compelled to document in order to understand. I recently heard that I may have the opportunity to visit my place of birth for the first time this spring via a service trip through the school where I work. If there are connections to make, I must uncover them now and share my parents’ stories so that they do not die with me.

* * * * *

My mother defected from her native Ukraine to Uganda in 1971. She was 31. She and my sister, then almost four, moved in with my sister’s father, N. Together, the small common law family relocated to an outlying town near Arusha, Tanzania, in December of that year. While N (whom my mother refers to strictly by last name in her journals) began to carouse and spend increasingly more time away from home, my mother befriended the neighbors and sought solace from her loneliness among their company.

The friendship initially bolstered my mother’s spirits. She writes in her journal of joyful early encounters with her neighbors, a married couple also new to the area. But soon, there are hints of unwelcome advances that she cannot bring herself to elaborate upon even in her own writing. It was the wife, not the husband, who tried to seduce my mother: first with words (“You like your body, don’t you? I like mine too”); then with “no good pictures” and movies (margin notes, scribbled over and crossed through, say “porno”); finally, physically locking herself and my mother in the neighbors’ bedroom at night. To my mother, the daughter of an Eastern Orthodox upbringing, the insinuation of sexual impropriety, especially with someone of her own sex, must have scandalized her. “I must confess I never even thought about love [emphasis hers] with another woman. For me she was just a very good friend and I was very devoted to her and her husband as well.”

When my mother resisted the woman’s sexual overtures, the woman, whom I’ll call W, threatened her with dark magic (such as mind control and the ability to “spiritually perform abortion”). My mother notes a strange abdominal pain, cured by the recommended insertion of an egg-shaped sac filled with something like “decaying grass.” She confronts W, at the time her best friend, standing outside a bathroom doorway, manually rewinding a cassette tape backwards, as if, according to Mom, conducting some sort of psychological manipulation. My mother began to behave strangely in W’s company. “I did not give a thought that time, that it was actually somebody’s wish to make me a fool and crazy like in people’s eyes,” she writes. “I did not suspect that somebody was watching me and actually I was already possessed by that time.” Mom’s journals document mental ‘conversations’ with W, and dissociative lapses where she felt that someone was using her body and speaking through her. “I was not in my mind, was obeying them in everything like a small child, whatever they wanted me to eat or to drink.”

Mom later speculates that W drugged or hypnotized her, but, regardless, my mother fell into a cycle of self-fulfilling despair over life’s disappointments that would plague her until her death. “When she said, ‘If you don’t love me, you will be in trouble… and it might be for the rest of your life,’ she knew what she was talking about. And her promise became true.”

My mother left Africa convinced that she’d been cursed by her best friend and next door neighbor.

*

Misfortune followed when Mom met my father in 1975. They dated and moved in together after a brief courtship, and I was born soon after. Dad “became completely another man” before my arrival. “It was like a devil changed him completely.” In this part of Mom’s journal, W transforms into a witch, bent on keeping my mother miserable. “I had to lose not only Jon [my father], but my own motherland, my family and friends, and everything I’ve achieved in my life, just because of revenge of one crazy woman-witch… for her own skin and security she put me into this butchery… to lose everything, as she told me that I will.”

Mom walked out of the maternity home, a single woman with a howling, red-faced infant swaddled in wool and a sullen ten-year-old daughter whose father had forsaken her for a new family of his own.

*

Letters exchanged between my father and his parents reveal they were very unhappy with the choice, however temporary, he’d made in Mom. They looked at her and saw – not incorrectly – a deeply troubled woman. My grandmother especially disliked Mom. (She likened her to a parasite.) And yet my grandparents rallied to sponsor us all – my mother, my sister, and me – until we became American citizens, paying hefty application fees to international welfare organizations in the process of relocating us to the States. My father was, according to various letters and journal entries, hands-off in my early childhood; it was his parents who invested in our future, despite their disgrace over their son’s unwedded pursuits. They also cared for me while Mom worked and became my beloved surrogate parents.

Moving across the Atlantic to Boise, Idaho, mitigated Mom’s compulsion somewhat, though my mother continued to hear W’s voice in her head. At my mother’s first job in the States: “When I got my first salary, here [W] started to demand from me to buy gifts for her, it was like she was inside me, looking by my own eyes, watching me, knowing everything what I was doing, talking with me…” Mom held (and was soon fired from) a number of bank jobs in the Boise area, where we lived in my grandparents’ fourplex. (My mother bitterly notes that she had to pay rent to Dad’s family for this ‘privilege’.)

Several factors informed my mother’s experience as a single parent and immigrant. She did not drive, which, in 1980s Boise, was social suicide. (Mom writes how it embarrassed her to be seen walking everywhere.) She had a limited grasp of spoken English, despite a written aptitude. One can imagine there was not a huge community of Ukrainian immigrants to befriend. Nearing her 40s, she had never used a computer and often notes her frustration with learning new technologies. She also felt demeaned by her co-workers and struggled to conceal her emotions. Despite a laundry list of hurdles, she continued to attribute her experiences to W’s ‘control’. “My head was always spinning around like in… a magic hellish circle; I felt it every minute, something was holding me alone by myself, somebody did not want me to get friendly with people around… Sometimes I was even saying some things that I never wanted to say… it was like somebody talking by my mouth.”

*

My paternal grandparents lived and worked in East Africa for most of their adult lives, serving in various capacities for the Lutheran Mission. My grandfather, a practicing physician, documented in his memoirs his continued exasperation with the patients he encountered who believed, despite all appearances otherwise, that they’d been cursed. My dad and grandfather both address the prevalence of bewitching and magic – uchawi – they observed around them at the time. My grandparents did not believe in curses. They believed in God. So, naturally, when confronted with my mother’s conviction that a curse had ruined her life, they questioned the stability of Mom’s mental state.

They tried to help her anyway. They brought her to church services, where she received counsel and prayed for God’s mercy. In a letter from my grandfather: “She decided to go to communion on her own… in so doing she made a public confession of her faith and there was no lack of evidence that she received joy in this fellowship. It meant something special to her and it will bring continued release from her past burdens as she continues on.” By 1980, even my grandmother had softened a bit: “When one has been wounded many times by many different people the healing takes time, and patience, and she is one of these… After these months with us we have healed many smaller wounds, but the mind is still without peace… it needs to come soon, or her mind will crack.” I hope that eventually Mom saw my grandparents as benefactors, rather than participants in her affliction.

At times, my sister and I perpetuated the curse. “Last night was awful, my eyes never hurt more. I woke up at 1:30 a.m. and couldn’t sleep till almost 5 a.m. I slept for a couple hours and at 7 Julia woke me up asking for breakfast.” (I was five.) Mom developed insomnia in Boise. It would allow her three to four hours of sleep per night for the remaining 32 years of her life, less still as my sister and I became adolescents and tested our own boundaries. Growing up, I remember thinking that adult-onset insomnia was Mom’s real curse, the actual reason she never felt right, though I never dared tell her that.

I cannot confirm or deny my mother’s beliefs beyond her written legacy. The perceived curse was simply part of who Mom was – the foundation of our story, a dark, lurid fixture in the imagination – as was the woman who issued it. It’s impossible to approximate the extent that this belief affected the choices Mom made or the interpretation of the consequences that followed them. The human mind is powerful. I know she believed the curse was real, and used it as a lens through which she construed all things. It is clear from my mother’s journals that she believed the curse would end with her; that she alone was chosen to suffer the sustained abuse of an aging woman halfway across the world. Whatever it was – curse, choice, or something complicated in-between – I hope that Mom is finally free from her torment.

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© 2015 Julia Moris-Hartley

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Angels Among Us

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My students and I recently finished reading Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli. The book’s narrator, Misha, is a young boy of indeterminate age – probably 8 or younger, we decided – who has been living on the streets and thieving for so long that he has no recollection of his past otherwise. His innocence provides moments of humor but also confounds us. How could a child lack memories? How could a young boy exist without knowledge of birthday cakes, baths, and medicines?

Intrigued, I asked the students about their earliest memories. I was surprised that many of them cited memories from age two and three in some detail, while others, like me, were older when their first memories formalized. They recalled sensory details: the fur of a brother’s Halloween costume; hiding in the back of a closet, skin brushed by low-hanging clothes, dark shadows around them. I made my best case for memory’s lack of specificity; they returned with the observation that one person’s memory rarely matches another’s, so an individual’s memory is specific to him- or herself. I suggested that sometimes the stories families tell create a mental image that then supports a family-centered reality. Some agreed; some didn’t. The discussion made me wonder if and how the acquisition of knowledge nudges certain memories to the periphery while other memories remain static and dependable.

*

My first memory dates back to age five. Like my students, the details dwell in the senses. I lay in my bed at the house on King Street, tucked under a Holly Hobbie blanket. It was night, and a small column of hallway light fell across my bed. My grandmother, who at the time was undergoing treatment for a cancer she didn’t conquer, sat at the edge of the bed, stroking my forehead. Her sapphire eyes shone in the dark. She wore a velvet robe and turban to match her eyes. Before I fell asleep, I imagined that all angels must look like my grandmother.

*

Misha gives significant thought to the presence of angels. He polls others: do they believe in angels? Some do; others scoff at him. A kind doctor convinces Misha that angels exist, and Misha eventually comes to think that we each have an angel who lives within us.

In the book, Misha is something of an angel himself. He begins life with no one to guide him, yet he intuitively senses right from wrong. He pilfers food wherever he can, but he shares it with those he cares for. He doesn’t have to share any of it – the book is set in the Warsaw ghetto, and everyone is sick with starvation – but he does anyway. I have read Milkweed several times, for pleasure and in preparation for discussion, and Misha is one of the unforgettables: the characters we adopt as real, for whom we root, worry, cry, and laugh as if they were one of our own. Misha made me reconsider the nature of angels.

*

Misha has no recollection of his life before orphanhood. When the book’s big brother-figure, Uri, bestows him with an elaborate personal “history,” Misha’s response is nothing short of jubilation. He loves his story and recounts it to anyone who will listen. His memories evolve over time, altered by oral embellishments.

I identify with Misha in this regard. I never knew my mother’s parents or the details surrounding so much of what made up her story. I have only her journals as a window to her past. Instead, I embraced my grandparents’ rich history growing up. My grandfather completed his autobiography shortly before he passed away. I love to share his stories: finding thieves searching his bedroom in pre-WWII China; coming face to face with water buffalo on a hunting expedition in Tanzania; developing a hospital built on education for those afflicted with leprosy. My pride in their legacy of accomplishments is an integral part of who I am. Like Misha, too, I’ll tell my story to anyone who will listen.

*

A couple weeks ago, my father gave me a collection of china that belonged to my grandmother, noting that it was one of her three “most prized possessions.” She carried it everywhere she lived during her missionary career. The set contains twelve of everything – plates, salad plates, teacups, saucers, bowls, soup bowls, and a pitcher, serving bowl, and cream and sugar set – a simple bamboo design in immaculate condition, despite many years of traveling abroad.

I had no idea this collection existed, much less that my grandmother treasured it. Dad supplied these details. I have few recollections of my grandmother; she died right around the time of my first clear memory. Sometimes I speculate whether she might have been an actual angel.

I know from what my grandfather has written that she was instrumental in sponsoring my mother’s passage into the States. If not for her, I might be one of thousands of Julias scrapping for money and success in the Ukraine. My grandmother’s drive made my life as it exists today possible. I held back tears when my father, eyes sparkling and mustache twitching, said, “She would have been delighted for you to have them.”

Dad left as suddenly as he came, and I attended to the collection, hand washing every piece, holding very tightly, and then towel drying each one. In an hour and a half, I had built neat stacks, each dish separated by a paper towel buffer. My palms tingled, as they do whenever I feel excited. This was a treasure I never anticipated, but will cherish. It represents something much larger – a tangible connection to the lives my grandparents led in service to the Lutheran Church, and to a woman I remember, if only a little, adoring. If Misha were with me, I would have told him that often angels live within us, but sometimes they like to travel.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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