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Having the Dream

I recently visited Tanzania with a group of outspoken high school students and three travel-seasoned peers. I wanted to find my place; to follow the steps of my grandparents and parents to Tanzania, the central character of my family’s history. I took these notes at night, when only the Maasai guards who protected the camp would witness my mzungu headlamp-illuminated jet lag and delirium.

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We spend our first week camping at Meserani Snake Park, about 15 miles west of Arusha. Meserani is alive with sound. Late summer thunderstorms modulate the volume and intensity. Motorists honk on the nearby highway; herds of goats, cows, and camels chatter and bleat; birds coo in the trees, underscored by the grating call of guinea fowl families that wander the campsite; insects titter and chirp. Only the staccato of sudden rain drowns the sounds outside. Cool, damp air filters through the rain flaps as raindrops bounce off the tent onto wet blades of grass. Bass thumps from a bar outside the park’s gates; the party there is still going strong at 4 a.m. At dawn, a muezzin calls worshippers to pray.

Meserani is, for someone like me, a trial by fire. I’m not accustomed to sleeping in tents for extended periods of time; I don’t find living out of a backpack glamorous, rustic, hip, or especially fun. But, despite frequent nightly thunderstorms, my tent remains dry. I have access to clean water and food that far exceeds what I anticipated. We tour schools and Maasai villages: enclaves, or kraals, of circular houses with thatched roofs and walls made of mud, ash, and dung. Our Maasai guides recycle tires for sandals – an ingenious all-terrain solution against the elements, especially the blistering heat, which sears the skin even in early morning hours. By day three at Meserani, I learn a root lesson: Acceptance is a friend.

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I also learn to look up, literally and metaphorically. When I feel alone, I shift my gaze and change my mood for the better. I become enchanted by the lovebirds at Meserani, who build their homes in the safety of wooden huts. I spend a disproportionate amount of time photographing them, and I am happy to do it. I discover hornbills and hanging nests. I don’t consider myself a textbook bird enthusiast, but it is not lost on me that the universe is sharing so many beautiful things that take flight.

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Our second week urges us out of the park. We pack our already-economical clothing and sundries into even more conservative daypacks, readying for three days of safari. We drive further inland to Mto Wa Mbu, an entry point to the Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park. After a night’s rest at Twiga camp, we drive along the crater’s rim, overlooking what the Maasai termed the “big hole.”

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Lush rounded hills surround the crater – we could be driving through Idaho or Scotland, if not for the wandering tribes of giraffe, who feast from treetops off the sides of the road. I am not sure whether it is the giraffes or the elevation, but I feel buoyant.

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We descend the crater’s base into a valley floor that exposes miles of uninterrupted horizon. I did not expect the entrance to Serengeti National Park to be so vast: tall, yellowing grass rustles in every direction as far as the eye can see.

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We raise the top on the safari truck, giving us shade from the relentless sun and access to a welcome breeze. We drive towards our campsite at Seronera, roughly midway into the park. Zebras and wildebeests flank the road. Most of the noise vanishes; the only chatter here comes from the adolescent creatures inside the vehicle. Standing in sock feet on the truck’s upholstered seats, our bodies pliant and bouncing with the ruts in the road, we watch the late afternoon sun cast rosy golden hues in an all-too-short “magic hour” before setting into a long Equatorial night.

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What soggy tents? What annoying guinea fowl? The Serengeti frees the mind of complaint. We wake up to elephant families, wandering languidly through the dewy landscape, and lionesses fending off hyenas from a recent kill. A herd of purple-grey hippos capitalize on a recently rain-filled pond. Storks line treetops. In the green passageways of the Serengeti, I consider pleading with our guide to let me out of the truck. This is my stop.

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We return to the crater’s rim for the last night of safari. The amethyst sky explodes in milky, bright constellations. Several of us stop in our tracks on the dirt path to and from the restrooms, captive to the stars; our headlamps narrowly prevent our silhouettes from crashing in the dark. Baboons we cannot see scurry through the grass. Hyenas whoop and bark to one another. Lightning flashes in the distance. In the morning, fingers of fog mute the sunrise.

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From the rim’s edge, thousands of animals below appear as slow-moving dots. I hear my father’s voice. He viewed the crater as a “special place, part of [his] secret, psychic African heritage.” This trip connects me to my family’s history through shared images and remembered narratives. I follow paths they traveled long ago: to the Lion Men of Singida; to the water buffalo that nearly gored my grandfather and his friend, a hunting trip gone awry; to the dusty, wide open spaces that Dad likened to his later home on the Wasatch front. I revel in the exhilarating morning air, and send my thanks out with each new breath: asante, asante sana. As Hemingway wrote: “I could not believe we had suddenly come to any such wonderful country. It was a country to wake from, happy to have had the dream.”

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© 2016 Julia Moris-Hartley

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The Cost

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A long time ago in a land far away…

In a few weeks, I’ll be accompanying a school group on a community service trip to Tanzania, seeing my place of birth for the first time since my family left in 1978. Plans began months ago, but despite payments made, vaccinations received, and logistics discussed, I struggle to believe that this trip is really happening. I’d resigned myself long ago to never fully knowing where my story started.

I am terrified. I am ecstatic.

In addition to the suggested clothing and equipment, I’ll carry with me a host of different voices and stories: my mother’s, my father’s, and the grandparents who pledged the assurances and paid the fees necessary to relocate us to (and in) the United States. I’ve been studying the family documents in preparation. The more I learn, the more I see that circumstance and opportunity made my life possible, but not without cost.
*
Sometime between my birth and the spring of 1978, my mother and father separated – though I’d argue they were never truly together – and Mom sought political asylum in Austria. Her visa had expired, but she refused to return to her native Ukraine. In January 1978, my paternal grandparents, living out retirement in Boise, Idaho, signed an affidavit of support for Mom, my half-sister, and me through the U.S. Department of Justice, expressing their wish for us to have “a permanent home and [be] properly cared for.”

Shortly thereafter, my grandmother, Edith, wrote a beseeching letter to my mother, who faced a critical juncture. “It will not be easy tomorrow for any of us,” she wrote. “But we [Edith and Stan, my grandparents] dare to offer you what we can share because we know we both want to help you and are able to. And we are quite willing to work harder as long as we live to make this possible, and you will also know that we will work together to make a good life possible for all of us.” Though Mom rued her decision in subsequent years and journal entries, she accepted my grandparents’ offer and came to the States.
*
In all of the arrangements for this upcoming trip, I’m astounded by the credence of tangible things. It is one thing to think I might be going to Africa, and another to hold an actual, ticketed receipt; to have heard family legends versus piecing together, detail by detail, the histories written in my parents’ personal effects. I have liquidated my Vegas fund, my rainy day fund, and a good deal of non-earmarked savings to pay for the journey – tangible currency for tangible experience. Still, the prospect that I will stand on African soil, dwelling for two weeks in the landscape that so inspired my father and so changed the trajectory of my mother’s life, is almost too much to fathom.
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In April 1978, Dad hand-wrote, and had notarized, his own terms for my financial providence: $150 per month in child support payments “until such time as Julia Moris attains the age of 18 years, or marries, or is adopted, or dies, or otherwise emancipates herself, whichever event shall occur first.” He stipulated ten points, all of which illustrate his determination to separate us from his ordinary life and everyday affairs. (I am glad that I read the document as an adult who enjoyed an excellent relationship with her father; it would have crushed me as a child.)

Money undermined my parents’ relationship, even after it “unraveled.” I represented a ledger to Mom and Dad. While on paper Mom’s figures appeared in black, she worked a string of low-paying part-time jobs to make ends meet. (Mom pridefully turned away assistance from the Moris family in instances that did not directly impact me – for better or for worse.) Dad’s column bled searing red: our connection a documented, illegitimate liability. Neither of my parents profited – at least financially – from my presence in their life.
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I’ve always been aware of the economics of my worth: sublimating guilt over my mother receiving child support, though it never alleviated her daily worries; knowing implicitly to order off the budget menu, though the Moris family is, by disposition, generous to a fault. My mother fastidiously saved her small earnings and modeled frugality. Save. Invest. Take good care of your things. Don’t squander. Be humble. I read these lessons in years of furrowed brows and diverted glances. There were few lectures, but I learned.
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My much-beloved grandmother distrusted Mom from the outset. “I would like to see Tina have security also, and feel warm and safe,” she wrote to Dad. “But I doubt very much that providing it for her will be of the best help. It can make a parasite out of her… To help her get to Dar – yes – and perhaps the first month of support there, but beyond that if she really tries she will be able to manage.” She warned Dad that sustained financial ties to Mom would “become an Albatross around [his] neck.” She was not wrong to express her concerns (although, again, these words are brutal on the page). Though she obviously experienced a change of heart after I was born, she realized, rightly, that my mother and I would by default be Dad’s albatross for the next 18 years, fiscal atonement for a doomed romantic misstep in Tanzania.

Mom’s six-year stint in Idaho incurred a bill for almost $5000 in foreign student tuition at Boise State University. To my father, Edith wrote: “We paid non-resident fees for her – but it was not too bad – $795 in fees, and we had her buy her own second hand books at $60 as she received $300 from World Church service to start life here, and altho [sic] it was to be shared with us, we told her she could have all for school.” My grandparents cared for me while Mom went to school and work. They invested their time and their hearts – an even greater debt to repay – in addition to the unanticipated costs of “adopting” their son’s unplanned second family. Money remained a frequent theme in the letters Edith wrote to my parents until her death in 1982.
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There were many more bills and debts in intervening years, expenses that outlasted my 18th birthday: my airfare for every summer vacation spent with Dad’s side of the family; my first car, handed down from Grandpa when I started college; a considerable portion of my undergrad and graduate studies. I doubt my grandparents foresaw the extent or duration of their investment in my future, but they gave of themselves without falter, proving time and again their willingness to work for a good life for us, as Edith promised to Mom a lifetime ago. When it came to my wellbeing, my grandparents did not once remind me of the price of their love.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2016

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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.

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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.

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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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