Friday, March 14, 2014

Into the Shadows

When I recall all my memories of Lydia Melnitchenko, I can’t think of her without seeing the shadows in her life. Likewise, when I’ve searched online genealogical records to try and reconstruct the structure of her life’s story, the few wisps of documented personal history seem to quickly fade into that oblivion as well.

Despite the quick finds of the last few days, all that has been left to find of Lydia has been her Social Security death record—and even that was drawn up during the era in which month and year, but not the clarity of the day of passing, were the only details recorded. Try as I might, I could locate no obituary to catalog her life’s key points or beloved family. Nor could I find, online, any record of where she might have been buried in her final adopted homeland in New York.

The Social Security Death Index, however, did give a complete date for her birth: March 2, 1899. Wherever that event occurred—within the borders of what, at the time of any notation, might have been known as Russia or the U.S.S.R.—the record merely served to disguise the reality that her homeland was likely the Ukraine.

Wherever her hometown, it must have become witness, at the end of Lydia’s teen years, of much violence—or at best, civil unrest. With much of the Ukraine under the control of the Russian Empire during her childhood, it is no wonder she declared herself to be Russian on all subsequent travel documents. At the point of the Russian Revolution in 1917—followed quickly by the Ukrainian-Soviet war—her native land saw the turmoil conclude in Soviet takeover in 1919.

Where Lydia was, at that date, I can’t yet tell. Obviously, at some point, she met her husband-to-be, the seaman Michael Ivanivitch Melnitchenko, and they somehow escaped that war-torn region for a safer haven.

The couple settled in France by 1924—in Marseilles, where Michael could be close to the coast, from which he drew his livelihood—and welcomed their daughter Genia into their small family. Of course, by that date, France was not as peaceful a haven as they could have hoped, having also just recovered from the ravages of the Great War. And it wasn’t long until a Second World War brought them back to the brink again.

Somehow, in the late 1940s, the family was able to reassemble in a new homeland: the United States. While I suspect Michael, the international sailor, had already spent many shore leaves in and around New York City, the place may not have held the same sort of traveler’s fascination for Lydia. As a poor immigrant’s wife, she found herself keeping “house” in high-rise apartment buildings, not much better than tenement fare in some cases.

New York was the city in which sunlight couldn’t always filter to the ground floor. In the shadows of surrounding buildings, in the dark from insufficient indoor lighting, Lydia eventually became a woman whose entire life was in the shadows.

I remember visiting the Melnitchenkos as a child, taking the commuter train in to “The City” for a day spent in their apartment. The excitement of seeing the family of my fascinating godmother soon wore away for a child like me, raised in the suburbs, where grass actually grew in the schoolyard playground and one was free to run and climb trees—not dodge cars in a cement jungle. Hours of being cooped up in that dark apartment while the adults had their visit was hard for a young child.

Yet, one thing kept me on my toes: the mystery of the woman who never came out into the living room to sit and chat with the rest of us. She was back there—somewhere in a bedroom, I knew. My mother had told me she was there.

She also had told me not to expect to see her—and if I did, not to be surprised if she said or did anything unusual.

For whatever reason, Genia’s mother had been trapped in a painful reality all of her mind’s own making. Despite the rumbling of the traffic far below, hers now was a home in a safe haven, a land unlikely to experience the type of warfare she had known as a teen—and then later as a middle aged adult. Yet, for whatever reason, she was stuck in the paranoid behavior patterns more reasonable for someone always on guard for her own life.

She was said to be mentally ill, but for the most part, kept to herself and didn’t present a problem. Her husband, though, was always with her. Just in case. Once, she had emerged from her shadowy back room, and, standing near the kitchen, suddenly lunged to grab a butcher knife. Looking wild, and somewhat puzzled though she now had the knife within her grasp, she somehow deflated, and her husband gently urged her to put the knife back down.

I wasn’t there to witness traumatic moments like that, but remembering what life in the city was like back then, and realizing so much more about the intricacies of psychological anguish as I do now, brings back so many thoughts about what life must have been like for the family as they went through that challenge together.

I think, looking back on it all now, Lydia was suffering from a type of post-traumatic stress. I can only imagine what she must have been through during her younger years. In a way, that stress—or her response to it—sucked the life out of her, and left her lingering in the shadows for many of her seventy eight years.

Perhaps that’s why I can find no obituary. With Genia being an only child—and a very private person at that—with her father already gone, there was really no one else left to mourn Lydia’s passing. Her death became only a moment to slip away, unnoticed, further into the shadows which she had already, for so long, inhabited.


  1. Oh, the poor woman. just goes to show how fragile we are really.

    1. Dara, that is certainly a realistic reminder: that we are really fragile beings. And yet, for all she went through, Lydia was a strong woman.

      Just not strong enough...

  2. I was just studying the topics to be offered at the NGS Conference coming up in Richmond in May. One is about incorporating political and social history into the family story. Your post today is a perfect example of how that works, how a story can emerge when you feel like there is no story at all. Well done!

    Lydia's story is so very sad. We expect that people can just escape when conditions are horrible, but often they bring the horror with them in ways we don't always see. At least her hope for a better life assured Genia would fare better.

    1. How true, Wendy. I appreciate how you put it: "often they bring the horror with them." Yes, Lydia did pay a price, and Genia was the beneficiary of the payoff.

      Sometimes, knowing all Lydia did go through in her life, I just wish I had known her when she was younger. She had to have been a strong woman in many ways, because she endured so much. She also must have hoped so much--given her quest for a better life, starting off afresh in a new country, twice. I just wish I could have sensed the nature of her personality at that earlier stage.

  3. Lydia had a very full life - from moving from one country to another twice - and taking her young daughter on a "world tour" - she may have been worn out or simply world weary. I suspect she thought there would be little "new under the sun" for her to see and enjoy by this point in her life.

    1. By that later, "world weary" stage, she became in my mind just a blur. A shadow. That's really all I ever knew of her. But there was so much hidden behind that shadow.

      I wish someone had considered her significant enough to have left some sort of record of what she was like in those earlier years. All we can do now is guess--and draw clues from the facts that we are able to discover. That's why I'm so thankful for the online resources we now have for research. It is at least one way to put together all these disparate puzzle pieces.

  4. I am certain the city would drive me a bit crazy too..the poor lady:(

    1. If a person is not used to the 24/7 busy-ness of that place, it is quite a culture shock to visit--let alone live in!


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