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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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Ash

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“Where does the history go between two people when one of them dies?  All that landscape is lost.  And for a long time after the person you loved is gone you want to tell their story, so the story you’ve had together isn’t lost.  If it’s an ordinary story, one by one the people you try to tell it to stop listening.”  – Sharon White, Field Notes

In February 2010, a snowplow struck my mother in the head as she crossed a busy Manhattan intersection.  She laid unconscious at the Bellevue SICU after undergoing surgery to relieve the pressure in her hemorrhaging brain. On the morning before Valentine’s Day, I left my husband and children in Utah and flew to New York City to help my sister complete the inevitable tasks of impending death.

By Ash Wednesday, four days later, I felt desperate to leave.  I navigated the city streets – a mindless cipher, tapping an internal compass to reach my best friend. I got lost on the walk to Grand Central, though I’d walked there countless times before.  The churches propped open their doors. I kept passing people with telltale smudges on their foreheads.  A man tried to speak with me, took a single look at my face, and turned on his heels, hurrying away, plainly discomfited by what he saw.  I eventually made my way to Grand Central, and rode the train to Ossining with the opiate of angry buzzing in my ears.  What should have been a happy reunion with a dear friend was marred by intervals of despondency, numbness, disorientation, and tears.

There were long hours in the hospital: before the staff removed her ventilator, a process which required written and verbal consent, as well as consultation with a crisis counselor; when they dosed her with morphine to reduce her tremors; the wrenching anticipation of when it was going to happen – when her body would heed her brain and finally cease to function.  It took six days.  Then three more until my sister and I secured a funeral.  So much waiting for a body vacated by its soul.

My mother wore a St. Christopher pendant nearly every day for as long as I can remember, a simple golden disk with a picture of a man carrying a child on his back.  The pendant reads: Saint Christopher – Protect Us.  She wasn’t wearing the pendant the day she died.

I harbor this irrational fear that something will take me away as swiftly as my mother was taken from me.  My husband and I never told the kids what happened to mom; we just stopped mentioning her.  If something happened to me, what would become of my children? How would they remember me?  In Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams writes, “But the feeling I could not purge from my soul was that without a mother, one no longer has the luxury of being a child.”  Now that I have been both a daughter and a mother, I see the terrible incongruity of loss.  A parent ought never to experience the grief of burying one’s own child.  But to imagine leaving a void in the lives of your children is pretty awful too.

How I begrudged my mother for her secrets! Who does silence benefit?  Certainly not the person who carries her secrets like large pebbles sewn into the hem of her dress.  Not the people who, by dint of circumstance, were present when the event occurred and who must knowingly, through fear or complicity, share the burden of another’s silence.  Mom never understood that I write to free myself from the weight of too many stones.  The irony is that mom wrote to cast away her pebbles too: she made monthly journal entries after she arrived in the States, testing out her English and unburdening her soul.  She just never shared her writing with anyone.

From her journal: “I only want to ask: Dear God, where am I?  And where are you?”

After she died, I started walking away from things, shedding parts of me: a sliver of soul here, steady streams of tears there, raw whispers into the darkness.  I realized how much of myself I’d cloistered away, afraid to reveal who I really am for the sake of protecting mom.  What about protecting what I valued in myself?  What about remembering what I needed to keep living?

A friend sent me a copy of Field Notes after mom died.  The first half – the crushing recollection of a young writer’s grief upon losing her husband to cancer – I liked.  The latter half I interpreted as a quasi-happy ending, and, though I once considered myself a hopeless happy ending person, I no longer am.

When I was in high school, I elected to move in with my dad for the fall semester of sophomore year.  It was a rash decision based on my unrelenting desire to flee Coney Island.  I was tired of being taunted and afraid; I was tired of being leered at by the men who owned the local supermarket, Key Foods, and by random strangers on the subway. The counselor at my new school suggested that a school-sponsored trip to Escalante with a group of my peers might help ease the transition from New York to Utah.

Our group spent several days hiking through Escalante on a ‘survival’ trip.  I recall Jolly Rancher candies, nuts and seeds, and Tang, punctuated by the unspeakable beauty of rocks and the desert, and, for an unaccustomed city girl, grueling hikes.  I did not yet understand the school counselor’s goal: take a youth at risk (of what, I don’t know, but my life was not on an even keel), put her in one of Utah’s national treasures, and hope something important ignites.

The biggest challenge of the trip was the solo night.  Our guides deposited us along stretches of a riverbed, placing us a significant distance – and on opposite sides of the river – from one another.  We were to spend the night alone, using common sense and newly learned skills to set up camp, start a fire, and feed ourselves.  They placed me in a cave under an immense rock face.  I wasn’t prepared, couldn’t start a fire.  I felt terrified as night fell.  I remember sitting up in my sleeping bag, shaking.  And suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder.  There had been no footsteps, and I didn’t hear sloshing in the river either before the sensation or a few moments later when the sensation went away.  But the calmness that washed over me was unmistakable, as palpable as the river and the sand I sat upon.  Something ignited.

In the morning, we ate pancakes cooked on the ashes of a fire.  Ashcakes.  They were delicious.

I returned to my mother in New York in January the next year, bringing with me a newfound belief in angels – of a sort – or at least energies, both positive and negative.  After mom died, I kept waiting for a sign to point me back to that girl who believed in angels.  There were no signs, only ashes.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2010 – 2015

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