Social Distancing/ a memoir essay by Christina Turczyn

Prologue

            A handful arrived in the U.S. Others did not make it. I finally got bits and pieces from my mother who was always too distraught to talk about her past. In some ways, the dementia has freed it. My mother was from Dolyna and my father was from Berezhany. He suffered a much worse fate, picked up as an ethnic minority, whatever that meant. I miss him greatly. 

           My grandmother was involved in an early resistance movement in Prague. She was not allowed to study there but stayed with her brother. 

            The first time my mother heard a fire alarm at work, in her teens, they had to take her to the hospital. She thought it was an air raid.

            My mother and grandmother escaped Ukraine when my mother was five. They took the last truck leaving their city with who they thought were deserters from the German army. They were then put on the train. I believe the so-called deserters reported them. They were lost and did not know the terrain.

            It is difficult to know what happened. The train stopped at Katowice, which is horrifying, and my mother and grandmother were asked to get out in what my mother believes was a refugee camp. I do not think it was. She cannot recount this stop but said it was hell on earth.

            Miraculously, they were taken to Germany, where my grandmother worked as a domestic for a farmer. My mother could not attend school. There were terrible bombings, and the farmer protected my family in his basement. He seemed to have taken them on as his own family, risking his life for them.

My mother just entered a nursing home, and we had some time to talk about this. My grandmother had to leave her stepdaughters in Czechoslovakia, and each day in the DP camp, she went to the train station believing that they would be on the train. They were not. They remained behind and survived, and my grandmother could not live with this for the rest of her life, though they sent word from Prague to me and my mother.

            My mother would run into the center of town looking at a doll in the window. She said her sisters gave her one real doll. 

            Imagine that childhood. On the run. The bombings.

Social Distancing

i.

I make a decision to wear a mask when leaving my home, because I am at risk, and my mother is dying. She has dementia and does not yet know this. How easy it is to create the Other:

All storms are necessary. Without them, we would not recognize our stories.

I had to tell her this six months ago, but she forgot. It is better this way. It is better to live a daily erasure than to have time etched onto your skin. Here, a cloud gets snagged on a thorn: “Do you remember the day,” she asks.

iii.

“You have six months to live,” the hospital staff told her, and I do not know how one can stand that finality—the feigned precision, the grief. As a child, she sustained a blitzkrieg in a farmer’s basement. The town was called the town of the crown. How ironic. Yet at 87, she returns to the city of the swan, talks about how she could not attend school there, but ran along a riverbank while American soldiers threw their lassoes to the wind.

How easy to be caught. How difficult to let go.

iv.

Once, before an air raid, my mother stood in the window of a toy store, just wishing to reach for that doll. On another day, she played with children in a field, just before the shadows of planes overtook them and strafed hills to the right and left, as they lay, face-down, on earth.

Are stones necessary? Is silence a form of propaganda, of stone—hurled at the unfamiliar lake because it is unfathomable?

v.

I think about silence. How easy it is to create an Other—not even the amount of time it takes to pull on a mask. Just last Sunday, I wore mine to the Giant Farmers’ Market. A stranger saw me, pulled up his scarf and averted his face, as though I were the illness and the cause. It does not take much. Put a stone in a child’s hand and tell him who the enemy is… Put silence in a child’s vocabulary and see if he ever asks for anything again. 

vi.

Who lives? Who dies? Who decides? 

Asking is being alive. Hunger lives at the center of that lake—the innermost heart where the stone is lost—What would we dive in for, after all, if not for that one submerged life: Was it there that the three men drowned? They were on vacation, partying, and did not know how unforgiving that lake might be. Was it the golden fern I looked for in those woods? The fern that flowered only for those who saw?

vii.

And where was the good, after my mother boarded that train with my grandmother, as the soldier walked past them, threw their suitcase out? Could one believe in anything– after that? Yet my grandmother smoked and read, helped others escape. The school. The wounds. Anna painted a railroad tie that stretched across her hand. 

Give a child an ideology, and it might masquerade as rainbow for a time, until she confronts its texture—stained, smiling glass. Then—how to walk to the other side of the world, without breaking?

viii.

The man who turns away in the aisle—it is the look that startles. How quickly I am made foreign. Did I ever talk to those three men before they drowned? Did I pass them unknowingly, during a summer’s walk? Who found the books in the church cupola where my father hid them, fifty years after his village burned? Did a stranger write a dedication for someone he fell in love with—someone who died in resistance?

ix.

Once, I received a prayer mat in the mail, and used it.

How I loved you—those days in the Hudson Valley. How you thought of the universe as a swing, and how we found it one day, water flowing upward on Peace Road.

x.

These days, I take walks and photograph a bright green lawn. I believe the branches on the ground are my feelings, but I do not want to bend. Deer cross the road, one by one.

We are not in the present. We are not in the past. My grandmother’s suitcase is trapped in mid-air, but the train moves on… After years, I visit a museum; the work is there—an image of her hand, the rails, the wood. It is wood we carry within. 

xi.

My father never saw his father again. Today, they meet in a field where there are no bombs, and his father says, “Go now, I have other children to protect.” In my dream, my father’s youthful lover was deported, but returns.

I rowed in that same, weathered boat. Somewhere, the sky breathes.

Three children escape. Later, three daughters die—of silence. My grandmother smokes. Circles waft on air.


xii.

Passaic gets its first ice-skating rink. No one owns skates, yet donations arrive. 

No one drowns.

///////////

 

Christina Lilian Turczyn, a former Fulbright Scholar, received her B. A. in English from Cornell, and her Ph.D. in English/Creative Writing from Binghamton University. She has taught critical and creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson, William Paterson University, and SUNY–New Paltz, among other institutions. She is a member of the Harvard Club of New York, where she was an active member of the U.N. group. Currently a freelance writer and visual artist, Christina has, in the past five years, contributed watercolors to twenty exhibits. Those include the Cornell Club of New York’s “Cornell Has Talent,” as well as diverse exhibits sponsored by the Ridgewood Art Institute. In 2011, Christina attended the College Art Association’s National Professional Development Workshop for Artists in Trenton, N.J.

Photo by Johannes Rapprich on Pexels.com

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