Pus is the herald of our body’s healing processes; where you find pus, you discover a struggle for repair and regeneration. Yellow and putrid, it accumulates deep within a former soldier’s limb to extrude the remnants of an old injury; forming a pocket of purulence around shrapnel left behind after an ancient skirmish, it struggles to deliver it to the surface and will triumphantly discharge a sliver of contamination, streaked with blood, decades after a war was won, or lost.
Harold Melville Stinson was a ten-year-old schoolboy in rural Manitoba when gunshots rang out in Sarajevo on that infamous summer day in 1914. He knew many of the young men who left his hometown to fight and fall in the ensuing Great War, and others, born after the Treaty of Versailles, who would serve and perish a generation later. When the Second World War erupted, Harold was a married man and a father, a respected school principal in the village of Roblin, too old for active duty. He had taught many of the boys who now departed for the battle overseas. Unruly youngsters whose carefree laughter had only recently sounded in his schoolyard had turned into straight-backed grown-ups overnight; they sported crew cuts and filled out new uniforms with pride and duty, eager to abandon toy pistols and Red Ryder BB guns for real weapons. Harold Stinson’s own sense of duty impelled him to become a volunteer instructor with the Royal Canadian Air Force, and for the duration of World War II he tutored and guided and mentored, and each time the squadrons left, he said goodbye and wished his young men well. Ultimately, the Allies were victorious, but many of Harold’s charges did not return, their short lives reaped and forfeited in the war they had helped win.
Harold M. Stinson was one year away from retirement when I was his student in 12th grade history class at River East Collegiate in Winnipeg’s East Kildonan. He would often veer from the textbook to reminisce about the war years, to recount the exploits and ordeals of what he called “our” Allied soldiers. Once, in the middle of a lesson on the Central Powers and the Triple Entente, Mr. Stinson plunged into a narrative about the invention of poison gas and its introduction to the trenches of World War I. We listened in disbelief to his graphic description of German gas warfare: how the noxious vapors, heavier than air, remained in the trenches and dugouts for days; that gas masks–he called them “smoke helmets”–were in short supply; how the fighting men, instructed by senior officers to keep their bladders full at all times, relieved themselves on their handkerchiefs during a gas attack and how, utilizing a primitive method to neutralize the fumes, pressed urine drenched cotton squares to their panicked faces. The classroom erupted in shrieks and guffaws. I put both hands on my ears and shut my eyes in prissy revulsion; when I opened them again, Mr. Stinson had turned to face the blackboard. He stood unmoving, the back of his neck red and blotchy, tweed-clad shoulders hunched, partially obscuring a column of dates he had written earlier in his old-fashioned, spidery script. I heard one more titter, and then there was silence.
Not until later that day, in Mr. Peniuk’s chemistry class, did someone think to ask about chlorine and mustard gas. Chemical warfare? Most of us hardly knew what a cotton handkerchief was. We wiped our tears and blew our noses and dabbed at cuts and scrapes with two-ply, disposable paper tissues pulled out of plastic-wrapped bundles or plucked from cardboard boxes that our mothers brought home in quantity from the local Safeway or Loblaws supermarket: The Kleenex Generation.
War. In our home, war was an omnipresent, restless phantom, a nebulous yet insistent presence; it drifted from room to room and loomed over the dinner table at mealtimes, ravenous for attention. My parents talked about the war and never stopped. They talked and reiterated, doubled back, recapitulated, and unvaryingly repeated the narratives that had long ago turned into a perpetual dance around the war.
Words curved and swayed as they circled and embraced memories, then swiveled and slid past a pothole or jumped over an unnamed chasm; voices surging and waning like the melody of a Viennese waltz from a popular operetta of their youth, my parents’ personal history was a 3/4 time Freudian talking cure without couch or therapist, distinguished by a complete absence of scrutiny or analysis. Their stories rotated through hardships that had befallen them and sidestepped the violence and horror they must have witnessed. Year after year the chronicles looped and twisted from their separate birthplaces in Western Ukraine, along parallel paths through the ruins of Eastern Europe, the romantic encounter at the refugee camp in Austria, their civil marriage ceremony in Innsbruck, the common boat journey across the Atlantic, arrival in Canada and then, with a dip and a swoop, rushed back to the Old Country, where the whirl began anew.
Each detail remained exactly the same: a precious slab of bacon with the same number of lean streaks was bartered by my father from the same peasant on the same frosty morning for the same quantity of cigarettes and nourished him for the same number of days in each retelling. The Art Nouveau silver teaspoons–the ones with the cherry motif, kept in a battered silk-lined box in our sideboard and used only on special occasions–were removed by my mother from the same hastily packed, overstuffed suitcase minutes before it was stolen by the same anonymous thief, who jumped off the same crowded train at the exact moment it pulled out of the very same grimy station; each element a constant, as was the number of times (three) that my mother made the sign of the cross–then and every time she told the story–in gratitude and relief that her throat had not been slit as well.
As time passed, these scenes and others like them etched themselves as deeply into my childish memory as the exotic depictions in the book of Ukrainian fairy tales whose brightly colored plates I pored over, sitting on my mother’s lap when she read out loud: rosy-cheeked Ivasyk-Telesyk, his arms wrapped around the neck of a flying goose, blond locks incongruously sleek and unruffled while the sleeves of his red-embroidered shirt ballooned wildly, saved in the nick of time from a hungry green dragon who glowered in the lake below; handsome Prince Ivan Tsarevich, regal in a sumptuous sapphire and golden robe, grasping at the ruby tail feathers of the elusive Firebird as it flapped its wings in takeoff; Baba Yaga, gnarled and ugly, who scowled at me from a crooked window in her crooked witch’s hut perched atop two monstrous chicken legs, her sunken eyes as black as coal. Stylized images, heightened and fanciful, all hinted at universal truths beneath their surface.
My parents abandoned family, friends, lovers, homes and careers when they fled Ukraine after the Second World War. They built new lives in North America and brought with them–besides a scattering of silverware and some paltry pieces of jewelry–invisible scars and emotional wounds, shrouded secrets that colored conversations that I overheard. False notes in response to my questions oscillated imperceptibly in our home and tilted the floors and walls of my youth; the infinitesimal shifts and shivers challenged my perceptions and my trust.
Did you hear? Vasyl bought land.
He’s a Jew.
“What are you talking about?”
“Nothing. A movie.”
Whose photograph is that? It’s a friend’s child. How did Darchia’s mother die? From influenza. Who is that pretty girl? A school friend. Why do you always wear that ring? I was engaged to a man who fell in the war.
“What happened to the Jews in the war?”
As a child, I developed a woeful habit of throwing up in moving vehicles, an inconvenience that occurred so often on public transportation or in other people’s cars–before we had our own–that my mother was compelled to devise strategies to transfer me from point A to point B without a wretched incident. She observed me closely and, no matter how short the journey, admonished me to gaze straight ahead and keep my eyes fixed on the horizon. I absolved countless bus rides planted upright in the aisle, both hands gripping my mother’s arm or the back of a seat, afraid to risk a sideways glance at the passing view. Whenever I appeared queasy, she administered hard candy for me to suck on: round white peppermints or brightly colored Lifesavers, rolls of which she kept in her purse at all times. If we were in transit on a bus and my nausea persisted, we’d get off and wait until the sensation passed, sit on a bench or walk to the next stop. Travelling in a taxi, my mother would ask the driver to pull over, roll down the car window, and I would lean out and stick my nose into the fresh air like a miserable puppy. Once, I had been allowed to thrust my head through the window of Mr. and Mrs. Mamczyn’s automobile while it sped down the highway toward Grand Beach; before anyone could react I had retched, and my vomit was flung along the entire right flank of Roman Mamczyn’s black 1950 Chevrolet. Roman and Natalia Mamczyn were kind enough to never mention the episode, but my father rolled it out from time to time and recapitulated the details with enormous gusto, even when I was a teenager, in front of my friends, insensitive as always to my mortification.
“It went all the way down the side of the car! You should have seen it–a huge mess!”
Motion sickness was not the only aggravator of my impromptu vomiting; the ever-evolving rhinovirus supplied another. After every routine bout of the common cold, long after my snotty nose had dried up, I would be left with an obstinate cough that, despite abundant doses of cloyingly sweet suppressant syrup doled out by my mother, would increase from a mere tickle in my throat to full-scale whooping, and a particularly violent coughing fit would cause me to spew the contents of my stomach, suddenly and without warning. Ignorant of the existence and function of bronchial secretions, I was never encouraged to expectorate, and my tenacious mucus never saw the light of day. Squelching my body’s natural urge to rid itself of bacteria laden phlegm, I adapted to swallowing my sputum instead.
Headaches and stomachaches, my other childhood maladies, were routinely palliated by doses of orange-flavored Children’s Aspirin and chalky Tums tablets, or by the scalding heat of a liver-colored hot water bottle. Far worse afflictions were not physical: they were fiendish ghosts who arrived after nightfall and stayed just out of sight of the bathroom mirror when I brushed my teeth, then hid behind my back to follow me down the hallway into my room at bedtime. Immune to the prayers I recited with my mother before she kissed me goodnight, they lurked beneath the bed where I lay with the covers pulled over my head, behind a bulwark of stuffed animals. I was unable—afraid—to fall asleep, and when I finally did nod off, the demonic hag of all my bad dreams crept in and chased me outside into a moonlit garden, where I frantically sought out hedges to hide under, the foliage thinning the moment I cowered beneath; or she followed me onto an unlit street and down a deserted sidewalk and while my feet rotated in place, my terror would surge to a climax, until I woke up and called out for my mother, night after night, the evil witch disturbing her sleep as well as mine.
A skinny child with twig-like limbs, knobby knees and wrists, ribs showing front and back, I wasn’t a fussy eater and certainly not malnourished. I dug into each meal with great enthusiasm, even though my pint-sized stomach could accommodate only a few mouthfuls. After several small bites of my mother’s crispy breaded veal schnitzel or one or two of her delicious potato varenyky, I would be unable to continue, and my notoriety for throwing up was ample protection against being forced to finish what was left on my plate.
Since even a minimal ingestion of the main course rarely left room for dessert, my sweet tooth was often left unsatisfied. At birthday parties, while other children wolfed down two or three or, in the case of my cousin Darchia, four entire condiment-slathered hotdogs, I could barely manage a scant forkful of my own birthday cake after a nibble or two on a wiener removed from its bun.
This perceived lack of appetite was of greater concern to my parents than the permanent bouts of travel sickness and the vomiting, the headaches and stomachaches, or my night terrors–which remained unmentioned and untreated–and they finally consulted our family physician. I was still playing with my bowl of oatmeal porridge when Dr. Chubaty arrived at our home one morning, wearing a black double-breasted wool coat and a large black fedora, and carrying a well-worn brown leather doctor’s kit. While he removed his hat and laid his coat over a chair, I was stripped of the top half of my flannel pajamas and lifted to sit on the kitchen table. Dr. Chubaty proceeded to carry out a short examination with a cold stethoscope, during which he asked me to cough, tapped my back and chest with his fingers and took my pulse. In the end, I was pronounced healthy but “delicate” and prescribed a regimen of vitamins and cod liver oil, the latter forthwith administered by my mother in a daily torment that entailed her pinching my nostrils as she poured a large spoonful of the greasy liquid down my throat while I, eyes bulging, struggled not to gag or retch.
All my physical symptoms diminished dramatically when I discovered a dubitable release through my very first temper tantrum. My mother had left me alone at home while she stepped out to the corner grocery store; by the time she had picked up two quarts of milk and a package of Nestlé Quik and returned, I had embellished my nails (and some of the dressing table and parts of the floor) with her tangerine colored nail polish.
“What have you done? Lacquered nails are only for grownup women!” she chastised, working on my fingers with acetone and cotton wool, the paint on my nails apparently less acceptable than the smears on our furniture. “It’s wicked behavior! Vulgar!”
I yanked my hands away and exploded in frustration, as much at the forced removal of my nail color and the injustice of my mother’s scolding, as at her flawed logic. I screamed and stamped my feet, I jumped up and down, I hugged myself tightly and spun around and around in a circle, frenzied and sobbing, almost falling over, bumping into furniture, just managing to stay upright; until I caught sight of my first grade books and artwork lying on a small table, stacked neatly in piles since the start of the summer. I attacked without mercy. With manic yelps of triumph, I ferociously demolished the entire output of my first year of primary school. I wrenched bindings from textbooks and tore out pages, ripped and shredded drawings and exercise books, crushed sheets of paper in my fists and, screaming and yowling, flung crumpled missiles at the unjust walls.
Shortly after this first outburst–upon which many more would follow–a hideous witch appeared in my dreams, grimmer and more evil than the murderous ghosts she eventually displaced in the task of disrupting my sleep. Each night, in the dark, she waited: waited for me to awaken, waited for me to call out for my mother. The door would slowly swing open, and as a faint, silvery light cut into the pitch-black bedroom, my mother, lit from behind, would approach. Night after night I sat up, reached out to receive her embrace; night after night it was not my mother, but the gruesome hag who put her bony arms around my body, who sank her long, sharp fingernails into my spine and lifted me up, higher and higher, as I arched my back and kicked and struggled, until I finally awakened, this time in reality, to cry out for my mother, again.
At school, I was quiet and shy, and dutiful: the teacher’s pet. But not at home–I raged whenever I was crossed. My parents weathered each storm, and when calm returned, they called me the devil’s brood and extracted an apology.
In an outmoded ritual of contrition, a relic from my parents’ own childhood, in an act meant to validate remorse but which offered no real absolution and only served to formalize my wrongdoing, I was required to kiss my mother’s hand and beg for forgiveness–an ironclad rule, impossible to bend or break. Her hand kissed, then withdrawn, my mother would pointedly ignore me for an hour or two, read a book, do housework, cook and wordlessly serve lunch; then she would finally break silence and wish everyone at the table, including me, a good meal: “Smachnoho”–bon appétit. My transgressions would never be spoken of again.
Memories of these misdeeds accumulated like moldy dust in unattended corners of my childhood and left me harboring an unnamed, oppressive burden. Each unmentionable episode added to the shame of the previous one. I was not just a naughty little girl: it seemed I was nothing less than a monster.
My parents did not consider counseling or psychological help until my last year of high school when, citing their concern about my slipping grades, they suggested I talk to a psychiatrist. It’s likely they were more worried about the possibility that I had engaged in sexual activity and that they naively hoped for some kind of preventive treatment (perhaps against puberty?), but it’s not what they got.
When I tried to run away from home in a badly planned escape that was aborted at the airport, it was, of course, never mentioned again. It’s entirely possible that my parents thought that constant distress and turmoil were a normal part of life, not worth commenting upon, or something that would disappear if disregarded.
Night after night, I called out, shook with fear, shrieked and wailed, but all my mother did, was stroke my forehead and whisper, “It was just a dream, sleep now.” While I tossed and turned and resisted, she sat patiently on the edge of my bed, softly hushing and soothing, waiting for my agitation to subside. When I finally curled up against her, my head growing heavy in her lap, she lulled me back to sleep; then eased away gently, lingering at the door in case I moved or murmured and, when all was still, went back to her own bed, to her own worries. My father, sequestered in another room, never woke, and I’m certain he never knew what went on while he slept.
They too lay in separate beds in separate chambers, burdened by their own bad dreams, fighting their own private villains. Rejected memories demanded recognition; censored tragedies, half-decayed secrets, hidden anguish, salved and muted, that struggled to erupt: throbbing shrapnel beneath scarred over wounds, ancient fragments of grief and shame.
. . . . .