Photograph

All contents © 2008 Philip Semanchuk.

Army photo of my father

In the dim light of Stockholm's oldest coffee shop I stare at a photograph of my father, dead now just over three years. In the photo he is not dead yet; he is just 25, younger than I am now, dressed for a war from which he would return and many others would not. In the photo he is more alive than ever, with a pocketful of choices and 55 years in front of him, although of course he could not know that. He is smiling for the camera. It is not what anyone else would call a smile, but I recognize it because I smile the same way. After 30 minutes of staring, his eyes flash, his smile breaks into a grin, and he runs his fingers through his hair in the same way I do, in a way I never saw him do. He flexes his shoulders, shakes off the stiffness of being trapped in a photo since 1943. This is the moment when he is supposed to speak, to offer some nugget of wisdom only a dead man can know. Instead he simply says, "How ya doin'?"

Indeed. I am 34, with a pocketful of choices and who knows how much time left on my clock. He and I share the same secret smile, the deep-set eyes, eyebrows so full they unite. I call it my unibrow. I never asked him where he got that slight curve in his nose, already present at 25. He never had a mustache or beard although I tried to talk him into growing one. His cheeks had bristle like a scouring pad. I remember my brother John saying goodbye, leaning over the coffin to feel that bristle once more before Dad's body was cremated. An ironic way to go, now that I think about it, for a man who fought against Hitler's allies, who might have had relatives go unwillingly to ovens(1) in Birkenau or Auschwitz or Treblinka. Cousins maybe, or who knows -- he lost touch with his father's relatives. After WWI they disappeared into Ukraine from their home in Poland, taking their unibrows and secret smiles with them.

Everyone who sees this photo thinks it is me, asks me if I was in the military, in jail. "Yes," I reply, "I was a 2nd Lieutenant in prison." But I don't have the same gray eyes, the shampoo-commercial hair; my own nose is straight, my face a little less long. I stare at this picture for a long time. I meet his gaze, hear his challenge. "How ya doin'?" This is what he means: meet your own gaze; stare into the mirror until it hurts. Answer the question, it matters.

Before I put the photo away I answer: "I'm doing better than ever Dad! I have a pocketful of choices thanks to you, thanks to Mom, thanks to your parents." My relatives have told me a vignette about my father's mother several times. When she left Poland for the United States, she saw her father for the last time through the train window. He was on the platform trying to calm his horses; they had been frightened by the noise of departure. I think the horses were the lucky ones. Once the train left, their fear ended. For father and daughter, it was just beginning.

Could she go back? If life in the United States was not working out, where could she go? What is it like to leave home knowing you cannot, will not return?

My grandparents, born in Europe, left their language, their families, their roots to catch a ride on a promise of a better life in the United States. They didn't do it like I did it when I moved here to Sweden. They spent weeks on a crowded ship crossing the Atlantic; I crossed the same ocean in ten hours with vegetarian meals and an inflight movie. Julia Roberts kept me company. They were farmers, coal miners and carpenters. They learned English. They brought with them recipies for pierogies, halupkies(2), borscht, challah bread, and schnapps. They learned to like American foods. They mixed the new life with the old, my father's mother's English never very good, my mother's father's English heavily accented with German. My other grandparents I never knew.

I don't know what I am. War and politics, incautious cartographers both, have rewritten my family's ethnic history several times because my grandparents came from small towns caught in the turf wars of the great European powers of the late 1800s. I have heard an African saying that when elephants fight, it is the grass that loses. My father's parents (Ukrainian and Polish) were born in Galicia, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After WWI their home towns became part of a newly-restored Poland. My mother's father was born in the German-speaking enclave of Königsau, also in Galicia. Königsau is now Rivne in Ukraine having passed through Poland, the Soviet Union and a few name changes on the way. My mother's mother bore the Germanic-sounding name of Hackimer but listed Polish as her original nationality on her U.S. citizenship certificate. Beyond that we know little about her.

Then there's a ill-defined ethnic group called the Ruthenians that live in the Carpathian mountains where my grandparents are from. Am I Ruthenian? Well, Ruthenians identified themselves in their own language as "Po Nasomu", or "people like us who speak our language". I can't think of a better definition of a group, but at two generations' distance can't tell if my ancestors fit into it. I am Polish and Ukrainian by nationality, Austro-Hungarian by technicality, Germanic by language and Ruthenian by pure speculation. I remember a proud Polish neighbor in Springfield, Pennsylvania where I grew up telling me, "You're a Slav, never forget that!" How could I? What else could I replace it with?

My father, born in Philadelphia, spoke Polish until he was five. He and his sisters integrated themselves, became American. They acquired that rich Philadelphia (Fullufya) accent, played halfball, ate cheesesteaks and Tastycakes and went to baseball games. I spent many evenings with my father in the kitchen listening to Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn broadcast Phillies games on KYW 1060, American at night, Polish in the morning eating eggs and kielbasa with pepper and horseradish.

So after being here in Sweden for a month and a half, I decided I couldn't go back to North Carolina. Well, couldn't is a strong word. People like me, people rich with options, often confuse the difference between "need" and "desire". Right now I don't want to go back, but I can, to a house -- my house -- to friends, family, baseball, a familiar bed, the foods I love and can't find here: sharp Asian mustard greens, burritoes, roma tomatoes and basil from my garden. My mother told me that on her grandfather's farm she could tell when the cows had been eating wild onions in the pasture because it flavored their milk with scallions like the invention of a mad dairyman. I can choose between .1%, .5%, 1% and 3% fat, acidophilus, low lactose, buttermilk, organically produced milk and four grades of cream for coffee. I never expect it to taste like onions, and it never does.

I have so much luxury in my life that my biggest complaint today is that I've had too much coffee here in Café Fix. As a result my writing is jittery and my thumb is bruised from holding the pen too tight. If I was saying this aloud to someone I'd make my standard joke that people in Third World countries just don't realize how hard we have it, drinking coffee until our thumbs hurt. But this joke embarrasses me on paper, humbled as I am by my father's gaze, my pocketful of choices, my embarrassment of riches. What am I doing with them? What am I doing that is so important that four people gave up their borscht, their horses, their home in the Carpathian mountains to come to a busy Ellis Island, to have their names changed from something spelled in Ukrainian Cyrillic to Polish Semanczyk to Semanchuk, from Kremer to Kramer? To drink onion-y milk? This is what I see in my gaze in the mirror, in my father's eyes, in his question. In my pocket I have too many choices to fit in one life and a watch ticking in one direction only. It is hard to forget that clock when you're staring into the eyes of a dead man that everyone thinks is you.

If you are me, believe that you are wealthy, because you are. Believe that you can go anywhere and do anything, because you can. You can feel a lemur's fur, learn Swedish, brush your teeth with a Brillo pad, climb a volcano, go dogsledding, study the topography of demons, invent a song on the guitar, and see the millenium roll in from the vantage point of a kayak floating off the coast of Florida. You can teach a man to read after he has suffered 50 years of illiteracy. (Hi Fred, I hope you're reading this!) You can teach yourself what it means to leave home and make a new one elsewhere. You can fall in love, and if you play your cards right you can make some children with one vigorous eyebrow, secret smiles, and great-great-grandparents lost in Ukraine, found in the ground in Poland. You can define yourself by what you have to give. Think of all you can give to your children -- the source of your secret smile, an embarrassment of riches, an old photograph of a young man with a son who knows what he is.

This is the source of my smile -- I have something wonderful inside, unlocked by time, made possible by luck and sacrifice. It comes with me wherever I go, by boat, by plane, or my own two feet, to find my Po Nasomu. What more luggage could I need?

 

Footnotes

1. About 11,000,000 people were murdered during the holocaust, but many people don't realize that almost half were non-Jews. The Nazis' prejudices were, and are, quite catholic (in the non-capital letter sense of the word). [back]

2. Halupkies and more! [back]