Named one of Esquire's "Best Nonfiction Books of 2018"
"Sharp and searching...a potent look at the fraught, painful, and complicated relationship between parents and children, and the mysteries — revelatory, difficult — that can and cannot be solved."
— Boston Globe
Anya Yurchyshyn grew up in a narrow townhouse in Boston, every corner filled with the souvenirs of her parents’ adventurous international travels. On their trips to Egypt, Italy, and Saudi Arabia, her mother, Anita, and her father, George, lived an entirely separate life from the one they led as the parents of Anya and her sister – one that Anya never saw. The parents she knew were a brittle, manipulative alcoholic and a short-tempered disciplinarian: people she imagined had never been in love.
When she was sixteen, Anya’s father was killed in a car accident in Ukraine. At thirty-two, she became an orphan when her mother drank herself to death. As she was cleaning out her childhood home, she suddenly discovered a trove of old letters, photographs, and journals hidden in the debris of her mother’s life. These lost documents told a very different story than the one she’d believed to be true – of a forbidden romance; of a loving marriage, and the loss of a child. With these revelations in hand, Anya undertook an investigation, interviewing relatives and family friends, traveling to Wales and Ukraine, and delving deeply into her own difficult history in search of the truth, even uncovering the real circumstances of her father’s death – not an accident, perhaps, but something more sinister.
In this inspiring and unflinchingly honest debut memoir, Anya interrogates her memories of her family and examines what it means to be our parents’ children. What do we inherit, and what can we choose to leave behind? How do we escape the ghosts of someone else’s past? And can we learn to love our parents not as our parents, but simply as people? Universal and personal; heartbreaking and redemptive, My Dead Parents helps us to see why sometimes those who love us best hurt us most.
|Product dimensions:||5.70(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
ANYA YURCHYSHYN’s writing has appeared in Esquire, Granta, N+1 and NOON, and was included in The Best Small Fictions 2015. She received her MFA from Columbia University.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
My mother, Anita, died in her sleep in 2010, when she was sixty-four and I was thirty-two. The official cause of death was heart failure, but what she really died from was unabashed alcoholism, the kind where you drink whatever you can get your hands on and cause so much brain damage you lose the ability to walk unsupported. The cause of her death was herself, and her many problems.
The month after she died, I began cleaning out her house, my childhood home, in downtown Boston. As a kid, my house sometimes seemed enchanting, filled to the ceiling with items my parents had collected on their many trips around the globe. But when my father, George, was killed in a car accident in Ukraine in 1994, my mother lost interest in our home, and it started to die as well. By the time she died, treasured rugs were being eaten by moths and mice, the fire escape was dangling off the back, and some windows wouldn’t open, while others wouldn’t close. Everything that once seemed special was chipped or cracked and buried under sticky dust. I saw cleaning out the house as my final goodbye to her and my dad. I thought I would box up what I wanted, toss what I didn’t, and avoid being caught by what had become its most potent force—sadness.
My parents were brilliant and had exciting careers, but that wasn’t what mattered to me as their child. My father had been emotionally distant and occasionally abusive. My mother hadn’t protected me. She was resentful and selfish, and this was before her drinking brought out, or created, qualities that were much worse. My parents were married for twenty-seven years, but rarely seemed to even like each other. I believed that they’d never been in love.
I began my work in my mother’s large study. When I was young, it had been the part of the house that was specifically hers, an area where the air was still and sacred. It was where she wrote and practiced her speeches for the Sierra Club, kept her favorite books and special jewelry. But over last ten years, it became a haphazard storage room for everything from empty wine bottles to years of unopened mail. I spent days sorting the clothing piled on the room’s red couches and the incredible amount of panty hose she’d purchased from Filene’s Basement and never worn. I’d anticipated this task for years, and getting rid of things so banal and expected was both boring and surreal: There goes that stained cotton turtleneck, that longpink coat she made my father buy for her because she thought it madeher look regal.
The room slowly opened up. I split the wall of books between boxes that would be donated and boxes that I’d bring back to Brooklyn. I reached deep into her closet and, when I came across something that my sister and I might want to keep—silk kimonos, a leopard jacket—I brought it into mother’s room and placed it on her bed, which had been stripped by her aide the morning she’d been found dead in it.
I tried to summon a memory of getting rid of my father’s belongings after he died, but couldn’t. Then I remembered that my mother’s best friend Sylvia had traveled from Chicago to help with the job, sparing me from having to fold his suits and throw away his underwear, and from seeing my mother doing it. Although the house had been my parents’ and they’d acquired the majority of its contents together, I’d gotten used to thinking of it as my mother’s. What I was going through those first few days was the soggy life she’d lived after my father died.
Once I’d pried loose this first layer, I began to move more slowly. I had to pay attention to what was passing through my fingers—my mother’s work files, broken necklaces with beads my sister might want to repurpose, our grade-school report cards. At the bottom of a small wooden chest, I found a collection of letters bound by a cracked rubber band. After I’d managed to remove it, I unfolded the letter on top of the pile. It was typed on thin, crinkly paper, dated 1966, and addressed to my mom, who would have been twenty-one.
I miss you, I miss you, I miss you, I miss you, I miss you, I miss you, I (sorry I ran off the end of the line, I meant to say: I miss you). It’s so hard to convince myself that you are so terrible far away. I have such a desire to just call you up, run over to the dorms and pick you up so that we could run along the beach, roll on the Midway, sail out boat, fly a kite, goose each other down the street . . .
I laughed. Who’d write such goofy things to her? I scanned the pages that followed, but it was only the signature, handwritten in blue ink, that revealed the author’s identity: George. “What?” I whispered. My father would have never written such silly things or have been so free with his affection.
I made my way through the rest. In 1971, my father wrote, “Whenever I leave you I feel a powerful and wonderfully terrible series of emotions . . . there is an emptiness inside me, a true aching of the heart. It is a longing and a dull sorrow for leaving behind that which I love.”
In 1973, my mother told him that she’d “never be fully able to write what loving you has meant. Our love is wondrous; it has a life almost of its own which encompasses us whether we are together or apart.”
My mind went into revolt. What I was reading contradicted what I’d long ago decided: that my parents had never been really happy with each other, never had hope. I read their letters again and again, and argued with what I’d found. My father couldn’t have been the person whom I knew and someone who was so articulate, generous, and vulnerable. I was defending the story I’d arrived with against mounting counterevidence, and losing.
There were more letters in other boxes, as well as postcards, faxes, and trunks full of pictures and slides. Each offered a window into my parents’ lives and revealed a part of them I’d never seen. Almost every year of their relationship was accounted for in their own words. It was intimate and foreign territory, unfathomably vast. The space I’d created in my mother’s study was filled up again; the whole house could not contain everything I didn’t know. If they weren’t who I thought they were, and hadn’t had the relationship I assumed they did, then the stories I’d told myself about them, and about myself, were wrong.
I sat in the filth of mother’s study for days, trying to take in my parents’ lives and relationship, to see them for who they really were, feeling ashamed and uneasy. When my sister called to ask how the work was going, I lied and said “Great,” though it had come to a sharp stop. I didn’t know how to talk about what I’d found, and I wasn’t ready to share it.
I had so many questions, and I couldn’t ask my parents any of them. I wanted to wave their letters in their faces and say, “Hey, what the hell is this? And what the hell happened to you?”
I searched and gathered and read and reread, until I slowly began accepting what was so obviously true: I didn’t know my parents at all. I didn’t understand them, either. And instead of pushing them away as I’d planned, I brought them closer, hoping I could learn who they were and what had happened to their love.
Excerpted from "My Dead Parents"
Copyright © 2018 Anya Yurchyshyn.
Excerpted by permission of Crown/Archetype.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Unhooked 9
Chapter 2 Ghosts 31
Chapter 3 Ukrainian Death 69
Chapter 4 My Mother's "Waltz 121
Chapter 5 Secret Garden 155
Chapter 6 Kiss of Fire 173
Chapter 7 Mountains 199
Chapter 8 Shamefully Happy 215
Chapter 9 Unternehmungslustig 241
Chapter 10 The Painter's Honeymoon 267
Chapter 11 The Giant's Seat 287
Chapter 12 Ukrainian Death: Part Two 295