These stories are dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman, with gratitude for his courage.
The college art museum that had hosted an exhibit of 19th century secular art from Russia was preparing the exhibit to be shipped to Moscow, and she was in the office that afternoon helping with the correspondence. The art director was on the phone in the same room, ending a conversation.
“This will be held in Milwaukee in November? Milwaukee -- could you spell that?”
Her ears perked up. Milwaukee was not a city that came up in many conversations.
“Katya, I’m glad you’re here. There is an academic group of American Slovaks that is planning a convention in conjunction with the opening of an exhibit of icons at a Roman Catholic college in Milwaukee. Have you ever heard of that place? It is somewhere in the Midwest of the U.S.”
By this time, Katya Newman had lived in Oxford, England for over ten years, and, with her Russian accent, most people didn’t know that she had been adopted and raised in the States. Her parents were Russian Scholars who taught in Milwaukee.
“They are borrowing our collection of icons and would like a representative to introduce it, preferably someone who could do so in Russian. Would you be willing to go?”
There were things to prepare, and the few months she had before the trip went by quickly. She had to prepare the talk, get her passport in order. She hadn’t traveled in eight years. She went back twice a year at first, but then she was sick – ovarian cancer – and the treatments made travel unadvisable, so much so that, when both her parents died within a month of each other, she, their only child, was unable to make the overseas flight to attend the funerals.
On a Thursday morning, Sergei, a young man who was her closest friend, and his adoptive parents drove her the bus station and waited with her until the bus left. He was somewhat agoraphobic and, until this time, she had never quite understood this aspect of his personality. But as the bus pulled out of the station and headed out of Oxford, a town she had rarely left in the past eight years, she had a better understanding.
The bus dropped her off at Gatwick where the ticket lines were looping around the counters and the security lines a jumbled mess of people and luggage and languages. She felt short and out of her element, and being the bearer of a British passport and having a Russian accent didn’t make the process any easier. The gate area for the U.S. carrier she was to fly on was grim, and the Americans waiting for the flight with her seemed big, loud, and sloppy.
But the flight went smoothly enough. She landed in Minneapolis, made it through the blessedly friendly, well-run immigration lines, and then boarded another airplane to fly to Milwaukee. The president of the American Slovak association sponsoring the event, a woman who looked barely thirty, met her at the airport to take her to the place she was staying. She chattered away in Russian about the events of the weekend. Katya listened and looked out the window at the sights of her youth.
The Roman Catholic college hosting the exhibit and the convention was on the South Side of Milwaukee on the shore of Lake Michigan and near the neighborhood Katya lived in with her parents. Most university professors lived closer to the University, north of the downtown, but this neighborhood had a small population of Russian immigrants, making it a good place for them to use their language skills in daily life and a way for Katya, who they adopted in their 50’s, to stay in touch with her culture.
She didn’t have any responsibilities for a day and a half. It was an unusually warm November, and she made plans to spend a day walking around her old neighborhood. Some things had changed. The main commercial street in the neighborhood had become livelier, artistic types discovering the cheap rents. A certain Russian grocer had gone out of business. Well, it had been ten years. There was an addition put on the library. A movie theater that had been empty ten years ago now boasted of top art house films.
On the corner of one street was the office of the endocrinologist. Her mother was a lifelong, brittle diabetic, and the endocrinologist was more familiar to her than her parents’ siblings. Katya accompanied her mother to these appointments, first as a young girl who wasn’t old enough to be left alone, and later as a teenager who was able to assist her mother manage her blood sugar, packing graham crackers, reminding her mother to eat a little something or to check her blood sugar. The endocrinologist’s office was the first place she saw people afraid of their own bodies. People would enter the waiting room, check in, sit down, get out bags of snacks, check their watches, maybe have a bite or two, check their watches again. She would watch them, and, though she wished she could comfort them, she knew that that was impossible. Once the body betrayed a person, one never feels completely safe. She remembered this when she traversed her own illness when she was in her early thirties.
She looked at her watch. It was already 4:15, and she hadn’t had lunch. She had forgotten how international travel upsets one’s digestive system. She stopped at a coffee shop and bought some peppermint tea and continued her walk around her old neighborhood. She passed a very small church on a corner. It was an Episcopal Church. Her parents were Unitarians, and they had attended a Unitarian church near the University. She had converted to Anglicanism when she married and stayed in the Church of England after her marriage ended.
The signboard by the church entrance said that there was Evening Prayer at 5:00. She sat on the steps waiting for the doors to open, drinking the last of the peppermint tea and enjoying the afternoon sun. The door to the church was unlatched.
“Are you here for Evening Prayer?” the woman asked Katya.
“Yes.” Katya looked at this woman who was probably in her late forties. She was trim and smartly groomed. She had a friendly smile and sad eyes.
“Are you new in the neighborhood?”
“No, I’m visiting. There’s a conference at the Roman Catholic college a few blocks from here that I’m a part of.”
“Is that in connection with the icon exhibit?”
“Yes. I was asked by a group of American Slovaks to give the opening talk tomorrow.”
“Are you from Russia? I notice an accent.”
“I was born there, but I actually grew up in this neighborhood. I live in England now.”
“Let me introduce myself. My name is Anna Ebner.”
“Katya Newman.” They shook hands and went into the sanctuary.
“What a beautiful harpsichord! It looks old – too old for America.”
“It was the harpsichord of the mother of a dear friend of mine who was Austrian. He gave it to me when he died, almost two years ago now.”
Anna smiled in reply and pointed to the choir stalls.
“We can say Evening Prayer here. Since it is Friday, it may only be the two of us.”
When they were finished, Anna invited Katya to their Sunday Eucharist.
She fell asleep quickly that night and had vivid dreams of things she had not thought about in a long time. She dreamt of the orphanage in Siberia, the train trip with her new parents back to Moscow. She dreamt of seeing Milwaukee for the first time. She dreamt of making love to her husband and also of receiving the phone call that her mother had died. This is the order that things happened in real time, but in her dreams they were jumbled up – she was a child in Oxford and an adult in Siberia, her mother was with her at a church in England, her husband was in their small house near Lake Michigan.
She woke sweaty and with a very bad cramp in her abdomen. She shifted around in bed and was able to fall asleep again, once again dreaming in this mixed up fashion: her husband was in her Unitarian Sunday School Class; her father was with her while waiting for radiation treatments; she was giving talks at an art museum as a little girl. She felt lonely and confused and cried out for her friend, Sergei. Her voice calling for him out loud woke her up.
The clock said 6:30 a.m. She got up and prepared for a day of talks and socializing. There were talks early in the day that she was obligated to attend and then a lunch. Her presentation was right after lunch at the opening of the icon exhibit.
She was used to this sort of thing having grown up with parents who were academics, having been married for a time to an academic, and being called on herself to give talks in Oxford. She enjoyed speaking in front of people, hearing her practiced words and thoughts cut into the air, making eye contact, modifying her inflection to better communicate with the people in front of her.
Though the opening talk was in Russian, it was clear that not all of the audience understood Russian, and that they were there for the opening of the exhibit. As she talked and moved her gaze around the room, she saw the woman from the church, Anna Ebner, sitting in the back of the room. After the talk, Anna came up to greet her.
“I was planning to attend this exhibit, anyway, and meeting you yesterday made me decide to come today. I don’t understand a bit of Russian, but I so enjoyed your presentation. Please don’t let me keep you.”
“Actually, I wouldn’t mind some company. At home, in Oxford, a friend always accompanies me to these events. He acts as a sort of body guard, protecting me from anyone tempted to monopolize my ear.”
“I have attended plenty such events myself, so I understand. Will you walk with me through the exhibit?”
When they were done walking through, Anna invited Katya to see her house that was only a few blocks away from the college. Katya told Anna about the years she spent as a young girl in the neighborhood. Anna had moved into the area about two years after Katya had left for school, so she was able to fill her in on the changes since.
“It isn’t really meal time, but maybe you’d like some tea and a snack?”
“Some tea would be nice, but I’m not hungry. The flight and the time change have upset my stomach.”
“Oh, yes, I know. I was doing a fair amount of international travel for a while when Stefan was alive.”
“He was the person who gave me the harpsichord that you saw at the church. I can’t say we were a couple, really, because we never lived on the same continent, but we were involved and tried to see each other when we could.”
Anna’s house was not too far from her church. It was small, quite clean, with some nice art on the walls.
“My husband was the director of the art museum and had a personal collection.”
“He died of cancer about ten years ago. Here, let me show you his picture. I have a picture of Stefan, too, with his son, Fritz.” She showed Katya the pictures. “Fritz, like his father, is a violinist, and we are planning a performance together in New York next spring.” Katya noticed that she smiled as she said this, much as she did when she explained the origins of the harpsichord at the church.
They shared some tea and conversation, and Katya answered questions about her own marriage and illness and relocation to England. They made plans to see each other at church the next morning.
Katya ate some crackers and yogurt for dinner, took a bath, and went to bed early. The pain in her intestines wasn’t subsiding, and it tired her. All she wanted to do was sleep.
She dreamt that night that she was in the hospital having surgery. She was already bald from the chemotherapy and burned from the radiation. There was no anesthetic, but the doctor kept cutting while she screamed. Instead of excising a tumor, however, he began pulling babies out of her abdomen and holding them up to her. Each baby, bloody and red, could already talk, and they spoke in English and Russian, with the voices of her parents and her husband and people she vaguely remembered from Siberia. She was told she could only choose one, and she couldn’t. They all seemed wonderful, and they all seemed hateful. She woke up crying, sweaty, and in pain. She had some tea and a small bowl of oatmeal and walked to the church.
The congregation was small. Anna was readying herself at the harpsichord when Katya came. She gave a little wave and began playing the prelude.
The familiar rhythm of the Mass soothed Katya and provided her with a frame for all that had been stirred up in her since her arrival in Milwaukee, and it was the most familiar words which gave her traction. While others received communion, snippets floated into her mind, attaching themselves to thoughts and feelings, grounding them, giving them a rightful place in the picture of her life. Jesus kept saying, “Do this in remembrance…” She recalled a newspaper article about traumatized veterans. A psychologist interviewed said, “they remember and forget, remember and forget, but until they remember and integrate…” Jesus said, “Remember…” But she wasn’t the victim of the horrible acts of war. The Eucharistic prayer goes on, “He stretched out his arms along the wood of the cross…” In one of the Gospels, he said to the disciples, “Unless you take up your cross…” She had always noted that he did not say “the cross” but “your cross”. There was a cross for each person. Then, right before the Memorial Acclamation, the priest says, “recalling his death, resurrection, and ascension…” In other words recalling the good and the bad.
She couldn’t wait for the service to be over. When it was, she greeted Anna and asked if she could call on her once more but later in the afternoon.
She walked to the main street through her old neighborhood, buying from a corner grocery an apple and a sandwich and some vegetable juice, all of which she consumed hungrily while she walked. Her feet had no trouble retracing the steps. First she passed the endocrinologist’s office, then turned east, towards Lake Michigan, down a quiet residential street until she came to a corner from which one could easily see the lake. There it was – the house she lived in for eight years of her life, where she learned English, where she learned how to be a daughter, where she became a young woman, where she introduced to her parents the man who would be, for a few years anyway, her husband. She crossed the street into the park that went along the lake, walking down the paths she and her parents so often walked along on pleasant Sunday afternoons.
She sat down on a bench and made herself remember the journey away from this place, first to the University and into the arms of her future husband, then across the ocean to yet another culture. She crossed her arms around herself as she remembered the tortured love making sessions, the sinking feeling each month she menstruated which meant she had not conceived which meant she was not pleasing her husband which meant that she may once again find herself abandoned – like she had once been a long time ago by parents she never knew in Siberia.
She hugged herself as she sat on the bench overlooking the large, beautiful body of water, autumn sun making it like a large gemstone. The days of illness coming forth in her mind and the abandonment by her husband that came at the end. She remembered learning of the death of her parents so far away and being unable to say goodbye or even attend their funerals.
She thought of the way Anna smiled genuinely and yet also with sadness in her eyes when she mentioned the deaths of two men who she loved. There was something to learn when she saw that, and she felt herself beginning to learn it
She brought to mind, too, her life now – immersing herself in the teaching and sharing of a language, immersing herself also in a church she had adopted, trusting completely that, though the human beings involved may potentially abandon her, the truths she found there could never abandon her. Truth was not capable of that. She thought of the lushness of her new hometown of Oxford. She thought of her sweet friend, Sergei, who shared with her a fragile ability to connect.
The pain in her abdomen was gone. It had frightened her so badly, reminding her of the pain that lead to the cancer diagnosis. She thought about that illnes. She had thought at the time and for a long time after that her body had betrayed her, and in the mirror her face looked like the faces of those in the endocrinologist’s waiting room. But had it betrayed her? If it had not had happened, she might still be married, by now a mother, living the life of a wife of a professor in Oxford. Was that really who she was? Would she have been able to sustain that existence?
The dreams of the past two nights came to mind – the languages, the mixed up geography and chronology, but now she saw all those disparate parts as a whole, living inside her live body that sat in the afternoon sun. She was at home and that home was her body.
At 3:30, she rang Anna’s doorbell. The house smelled like fresh bread.
“Every Sunday afternoon I bake Sonnenblumenbackerel – Sunflower Rolls. The few times I visited Stefan in Austria; we bought these. Would you like some? They are good with tea.”
“Yes. My appetite has returned.“
“Just in time for the flight home.”
They talked for a while, exchanged addresses and phone numbers, and then Katya walked back to her room at the college.
The next day, she began the journey home to Oxford. Her bus arrived in Oxford about 4:00 on Tuesday afternoon, and Sergei and his parents were waiting at the bus station for her.
Katya and Sergei sat in the back seat of the car for the short ride to her place.
He took her hand, “I’m glad you’re home.”