portion of the artwork for Lori Cidylo's essay

Lori Cidylo’s Comments

I never imagined myself writing a memoir-type of essay. I don’t like to reveal much about myself, which is why journalism was an ideal career choice. It allowed me to write about other people and events while I remained inscrutable. For most of the 1990s, I covered political and economic issues in the former Soviet Union and occasionally sent dispatches from war zones there, all while avoiding mentioning myself in any way.

But after six years I wanted to try something new. So after I moved back to the United States, I enrolled in the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Columbia University. I studied the works of brilliant essayists, such as Joan Didion and Phillip Lopate, and I fell in love with the personal essay as a form. However, putting what I had learned into practice was extremely difficult.

When I started writing my book, All the Clean Ones Are Married: And Other Everyday Calamities in Moscow, I kept trying to find ways to remove myself from the story. After struggling for several years, I realized that readers would want to know something about the author. Although writing the pronoun “I,” especially at the beginning of a sentence, felt incredibly subversive, I eventually overcame my desire to hide behind the curtain, and the book shaped itself into a collection of personal essays. When the book came out in 2001, I felt very exposed. I thought that I had revealed a little too much. But the New York Times Book Review, which chose my book as one of the Best Travel Books of the Year in 2001, had this quibble: “The only disappointment here is the lack of personal revelation.” I was extremely surprised by this criticism, but after I reread some of the essays in my book, I realized that the reviewer was right and decided that I would do better next time.

“The Language of Loyalty” is the first personal essay that I’ve written since then, so I was very nervous about it. I slogged my way through 18 drafts before I submitted it. The biggest challenge was that I had too much material. The first draft was 60 pages. After many months of revision, I cut it down to 20. It was painful to cut so many pages, but I felt that the essay was veering off in too many different directions. I asked myself: Which parts of the story should I tell and which parts should I leave out?

I deleted many parts that I felt weakened the essay. For instance, my mother had two Polish suitors. She met both men circa 1960, when women everywhere were under tremendous pressure to marry. Although she was only 20, friends and neighbors questioned why she was “still” single, and she spoke of the shame she felt. As a Ukrainian in Poland, she was already a pariah; being single made her feel even more ostracized. Both men were handsome, charming, and hardworking. Should she give them a chance? But how could she marry a man from the aggressor country? She would have to speak Polish all the time, even at home. Her children would be Polish citizens. Worst of all, it would have meant living in Poland forever. Ultimately, I decided to cut this part of my mother’s story because I felt that it slowed down the narrative. I needed to get her and my father on a plane to America faster.

I also left out something about myself that I still find embarrassing. Columbia University required one semester of physical education, and I chose archery because it sounded like the best option for a non-athlete like me. I came to the first class in white jeans and a frilly pink blouse, complete with little sewn-on pearls. There were about 150 students. I was the only one who looked as if she was on her way to a church social. The instructor noticed me immediately. Why wasn’t I wearing a T-shirt? she demanded to know. Everyone stared at me as I explained that I didn’t own any T-shirts. “How un-American,” the instructor commented drily. “Well, you’ll need one for this class.” Pointing to my blouse, she added, “You can’t come in that.”

My parents had always insisted that I dress like a proper Ukrainian girl, which to them meant no T-shirts. When I was in middle and high school, terry cloth tops were in vogue. Since they were pretty as well as practical, my parents allowed me to wear them, and all my gym teachers had grudgingly acquiesced. But those tops had disappeared from stores by the time I entered Columbia. So, at the age of 19, I bought my first T-shirt in Columbia’s campus clothing store. I loved it. That T-shirt was my little piece of America. I longed to wear it outside of archery class, but I couldn’t let my mother see it. We were getting along so much better by then and I didn’t want to jeopardize that, so I kept the T-shirt in my backpack. I had to wash it in my friend Lynn’s dorm room and leave it hanging up over her bathtub to dry overnight.

After the humiliation of that first class, I asked myself: Why hadn’t I bought a T-shirt beforehand? I realized that I had become so accustomed to dressing in the ultra-feminine style that my parents had foisted on me that I had stopped questioning it. It had never even occurred to me to buy a T-shirt until the archery instructor chastised me in front of everyone.

Since this episode contradicted my portrayal of myself as the only “real American” in my family, I decided that it had to go. Of course, in real life, people are inconsistent, but I wanted to create a clear dichotomy between my mother and myself.

Focusing on the conflict between the two of us also allowed me to debunk the myth of the happy, well-adjusted immigrant who learns to speak English immediately and transitions into American society smoothly. I think this stereotype is pervasive. I remember my fourth-grade teacher telling the class that all immigrants in America were miraculously blended into one huge “melting pot.” Of course, many immigrants do eagerly embrace the English language as well as American values, but I think that just as many resist Americanization. Since I had been brought up to never contradict adults, I remained silent during those class discussions, but all I could think was: “You should meet my mother!” In my essay I wanted to show the life of a reluctant immigrant and how a schism can form even within the same family.

Whenever I describe how I grew up, people are always shocked. “What do you mean you weren’t allowed to speak English at home? Why?” Based on those reactions, I knew that I had a very different story to tell that people might find interesting. But I wanted to show that the children of immigrants are caught not just between two languages, but between two cultures as well. My parents and I clashed over culture constantly. I decided to focus on the disagreements we had about sleepovers, trick-or-treating, and Easter egg hunts because these traditions are so quintessentially American. To illustrate just how different my family was from an “average” American family, I also included the grim details of our ascetic Easter rituals.

Writing a memoir-type essay makes you see your own life in a new way. As I was revising, I was struck by the inherent paradox in my life as a bilingual child, and I tried to convey that dissonance. My upbringing was certainly authoritarian. My parents expected children to be obedient and were rarely open to any kind of discussion about the rules. On the other hand, I was sometimes expected to usurp the parental role.

Since my mother couldn’t read food labels, the few trips she made to the grocery store were a disaster. On one occasion she bought dog biscuits instead of cookies, and salt instead of sugar (she discovered her mistake when she drank her morning coffee). So when I turned 9, she sent me to the store instead. I walked there by myself and bought whatever we needed (usually). Once I pretended that the store had run out of beets because I detested beets. I bought broccoli, which was my favorite vegetable, instead. To me, going grocery shopping by myself at that age was normal, but the American adults in the store often asked me where my mother was. One concerned cashier shook her head and opined, “You’re way too young to be here by yourself.” (I was small for my age and she thought I was only 8.) Since I decided that the disagreements my mother and I had over language and culture would be the main focus of my essay, I mentioned my solo shopping expeditions only parenthetically. Remember, I started with a whopping 60 pages, so I had to cut a lot.

Once I had whittled the essay down to a reasonable length, I discovered a major flaw. There was no explanation of how my parents had ended up becoming Polish citizens. I knew that readers would wonder: Where did this family’s Ukrainian identity come from? Why were they living in Poland?

I had only one conversation about our family history with my father, but he didn’t tell me much and now he was gone. The only way to get answers would be to ask my mother, but she had always been secretive about the past. Her response was always the same. “It doesn’t matter,” she would say. “We live here now. Stop asking.”

I had reached an impasse: The essay felt incomplete. I couldn’t send it out as it was, and there was no way to get the information I needed. Discouraged and depressed, I put the essay aside for about a year.

Then something prompted me to ask my mother again. I don’t know what changed, but she was more open with me than she had ever been. My mother isn’t a talkative person, and these were very traumatic events, so it took several conversations for the whole story to come out. Each time we spoke, she became emotional and sometimes she shut down completely.

After she had told me everything, I was in absolute shock. Many years ago, she had mentioned that she “moved” from one part of Poland to another as a child, but she had always insisted that there had been nothing remarkable about that part of her life. In my childish imagination, I had envisioned her parents cheerfully loading boxes into a U-Haul truck while my mother played in the backyard. I had no idea that she had been deported by soldiers with guns.

I wrote everything in a notebook. Then I did some research and found out that 140,000 Lemko Ukrainians were forced from their homeland in the Carpathian Mountains in 1947 as part of a secret military operation ordered by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Since Operation Wisla was covered up by both Poland and the Soviet Union, it is not widely known. None of my history teachers in middle or high school had ever mentioned it.

Hearing my mother’s story altered my perspective about my upbringing. As a child, I resented being forced to speak Ukrainian. But after I found out about my mother’s brutal deportation, I realized that she wanted to give me the gift of her language because it was all that she had left. At the end of the essay, I tried to show how we each gradually came to understand the other’s point of view. I was deeply moved when she told me that she had been reading my dispatches from Russia, which were all in English, because I knew how incredibly difficult it must have been for her. Her willingness to spend hours looking up words in a dictionary made me realize that she had softened her once implacable views. I saw how hard she was trying to connect with me after all those years of conflict and that made me want to speak with her in Ukrainian, as I do at the end of the essay. Ironically, I still prefer to speak to my mother in Ukrainian, although she enjoys speaking in English now.

After I added the part about my parents’ deportation, I thought I might have a viable essay. But even after I finished the final draft, I still had so many doubts that I almost didn’t send it out. The questions that I had explored about language and cultural identity meant so much to me, but I wasn’t sure if any of it would matter to anyone else. What if no one was interested in what I had to say?

Then I remembered that I had the same fears when I was writing my book. I worried that my readership would be limited to Russophiles, but I ended up receiving enthusiastic emails from people around the world, many of whom had no particular interest in Russia. I reread some of those emails and that gave me the confidence to keep going with this essay and the courage to finally send it out.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 59 | Spring/Summer 2022