Sometimes I think I didn’t cry enough/I should have put my arms around you/covered myself in your draining life-blood/screamed for help/caused a ruckus/told the world you were/mine/you were hurt
I think I didn’t do/what a proper girlfriend/would have done/I should have held/your body one more time/cradled your head in my lap/like the last night we were together/blissfully chatting
I was stoic/without meaning to be/standing there transfixed/the shock and confusion/too much to comprehend/my physical body/rendered incapable/of much else
I set about arranging/your long lean legs/which kept the car door/from shutting/removing your satchel/a quick scan of it/I-pad gone; touch-phone gone; side pockets devoid of cash/an indictment on the onlookers
ER personnel stating/yours was a hopeless case/sick of their incompetence/the ineffectiveness of the system/my stoic voice/told them off/demanded they the attending physician/he confirmed my suspicion/you couldn’t be saved
Afraid to look at the face/I often held between my hands/I braced myself/a stolen glance/confirmed/it wasn’t a pleasant sight/to linger on/in case it left an imprint
Paparazzi gathered around/took cell phone pics/attending physician shooed them away/I wanted to punch someone/I stole another glance/to ascertain it was you/that glance left that imprint/I was worried about
I set about removing/that checkered scarf you never left home without/soaked red/the shoes you loved/clinging to your feet/but those argyle socks you wouldn’t go without/(even in 90 degree weather)/peeled right off
I took your things/ER personnel wanted me to dispose of your scarf/I squeezed it tight/they wheeled you away/still I didn’t scream/or throw myself on your body/still stood transfixed/wishing it was a bad dream
I made the first call to mom/she was hysterical/I gave calm instructions/how to reach your family/the reality of an unknown relationship/finally setting in/who to contact/what to say
Out of my hands/Third persons inform me/plans to move you/memorial planned/fundraising started/your body moved/me left with no lifeline/previous tenuous lines of communication/snipped cold/pain and confusion/anger and sadness/at lack of acknowledgment/thanks were due to a line of first responders/I make excuses for your family/I thank first responders on their behalf
I wake sometimes/calling to thank/the good Samaritans/who cradled you/drove you in search of an ER/who probably needed a new backseat/to remove the reminder/of your life-blood
I wake often/verbally thanking/my cousin/who accompanied me/prepared you in the morgue/because my third glance at your face/told me/I wouldn’t be much help
I wake these days/Wondering if grief/has a timeline/is different/when you’ve only known someone/for a short time/if grief runs on schedule/if you try to forget
Today two months later/this bad dream/is still real/the imprint finally fading/the reality that text messages have stopped/forever/some nights I lie/relishing the old ones/wondering where you were buried/if the live streaming was archived/if closure comes/how and when it comes/when society says to move on/what to do to move on/show I’ve moved on
I lie knowing you are real/now as then/always will be/mine/theirs/ours/now a guardian/of us allRead Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )
You ask me to sit awhile with you. Instead I open your windows; talk about the rustling plantain tree leaves; about doing your laundry; ask what you would like to eat for dinner. All the while, still standing.
I don’t know how to sit with you. I sat rubbing your legs that one evening when you had that severe gas bubble that wouldn’t let go. But before that and after that our skins have not greeted each other. I don’t know how to interact when you are not angry at me, gossiping about me to strangers and neighbors, or complaining bitterly about my ashawo lifestyle. Do I have amnesia or is it true that you didn’t care for me tenderly so I don’t know how to do so for you?
I’ve been given bear hugs by my American family and friends and wicked hugs and squeezes by my aunts that leave me playfully squirming and squealing for rescue. But from you…nothing!
You hold out both arms the minute I come near you. Not to embrace me, mind you. Even on that very first day when I arrive after living abroad. It could be 5 years since you saw me and you would still hold me at arm’s length, sideways, so any attempt at hugging would result in a shoulder pat at best. You didn’t teach me how to hug or embrace, to forgive mistakes, to encourage and cheer on, to celebrate and acknowledge success, to be tender. I’m my own biggest critic and stumbling block because you made me think it was the only way to exist.
A-s and B+s were met with a “Good-Keep-it-up!” or a “Good-Do-better-next-time!” Not squeezes and squealing that I had survived yet another rigorous semester. Not a “let’s-go-celebrate-right-now!” Perhaps the latter was due to the tight reigns you had to keep on the finances, but I’m sure if you wanted, you could have finagled something. New discoveries were not met with an equal sense of awe and delight when I shared them.
My physical memory fails me at times so I have no proof that you didn’tD care tenderly for me. What I have is my body memory over the years which, like silt, has become like sediment; this is all I have to go by.
You give hugs, make room for bisous on the cheek, administer kisses on the back of white hands, give warm and enthusiastic ‘good mornings’ to the friends I have brought to visit Ghana. You ask fondly about high school friends you “approved” of. You tell those I bring home, “I love and Bless you!” To me, you say “ayeekoo” when it suits you. You don’t apologize for disliking some of my friends even as you embrace others. You don’t ask after my painful moments; you just assume life goes on so I should too, and fast.
The disdain for the me I have become/the me I am becoming, is palpable. You suck your teeth, roll your eyes and say, “tso! What would you go and do that for?” when I ask you gently to please stop referring to me as Melody Ann. You say in sadness, “Such a beautiful name…and the Ann, I added it so you would have a saint name…now why would you go and change that?” I leave the room unable to assert my choice to return to my Ghanaian name.
You demand I excise the locs that have “attached” themselves to my head. You protest, “ you’ve ruined your hair! They are unsightly. Only mentally insane people, those Rastafarian ruffians, and wee smokers keep dreadlocks.” They are a disgrace to you. The family. I cut them with the scissors you angrily hand to me. You watch satisfied that you can whip me into shape once again. I save the locs for years. I cry so hard I get hiccups.
I start locs again in defiance. I cut them again after visiting you. I cut them myself this time because I can’t love them into complete existence. Somehow at 3o I still seek your approval.
I wonder is this how you were raised. Was your mother anything like you? Are you just living up to her expectations of you? Is this the only way you know how to be in relation? I wonder why? What happened to you to make you turn out this way?
Are you able to be different? How can you be tender to a foreigner and not to your own blood?
I guess you practice tenderness with them because that’s only for a short time and me, well me…im forever yours. Kinky and nappy-haired, black in all the places that matter, defiant, and strong-headed. Me? Yes, Me…I am yours forever because sadly, we are blood.
Do you have it in you to do forever? This kinky-hair-loving, bright-colored-African-dress-wearing, bold-assertive-chocolate-skinned-woman is here to stay. Claim me or not, this new me is forever.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 10 so far )
Enuanom na adofo, mi gyena Ghana na miri kyerew0
I owe you one. I apologize for the silence since my angst filled post 2 months ago. Since most of you follow me on FB I assume that you mostly all know that I am in Ghana. It is day 6 of my 73-day experiment to try on my country of birth. So far so good. I’m happy to report that I’ve had waakye, my favorite street-vendor food, for breakfast and dinner on a couple of occasions. The jet-lag is challenging leaving me consistently sleep-filled and nodding off in the most inopportune of places like in the taxi cab or sitting upright on my bed working my way through one of my numerous “summer reading” texts. The journey was pleasant albeit rather long and arduous on the no-longer-limber body.
“Hi Sir!” I flashed all 32 molars as I attempted to get help from the guy in the seat across the aisle from me. “Would you mind terribly helping me with my carry-on?” I’ve been told I smile pretty. It helps that I have a pretty face to go with it.
“Why of course! Anything for that pretty smile.” Feminism out the door, Or perhaps it’s a different articulation of feminism (we can debate that at a later date). With ganglions on both wrists and two wrist surgeries behind me, hand luggage was always a hassle. Try as I did to minimize how much I took aboard flights, I never seemed to succeed. The extra pound or three off the 50-pounder checked luggage almost always inevitably ended up in my hand luggage. The past few months of traveling had actually found me perfecting a system: Wait until everyone was boarded so there was sure to be no overhead space for my luggage then feign surprise as they asked if I would mind terribly if they gate-checked it for free! I would pretend to think it over ever so momentarily pretending that I might need something from it during the flight. I would then acquiesce, and waving the bag away saunter onto the plane with a triumphant look. Well for this transatlantic trip, it didn’t work that way. They couldn’t gate-check the luggage. So the flight attendants’ brought me a Delta plastic bag and asked me to downsize the hand luggage a bit until we could zip it back down to its original un-expanded size. The funny thing is the sir I asked seemed to struggle with the luggage almost as much as I would have. I guess that should teach me to go by appearances. Anyway, I made it through to Amsterdam smiling at strange white men who surprisingly happened to be contractors from the South. Baton Rouge, South Carolina, and Texas. There’s a race commentary for later. In Amsterdam, all hand luggage were forcibly checked. I was relieved.
In a throwback to my first time in an arcade, I settled into the 17-hour plane ride with two stops and 3 hours of layover, scanning the over 100 entertainment options with panicking and frenzied calculations. If I chose wisely, didn’t doze off, or take breaks while at the watering hole, I could potentially see 4 movies on the first leg and 3 on the second. What if I couldn’t decide which 7 were worth it? In the end, I didn’t make the 7 cut but I did see the period classics that I had missed in the theatres: the 7th Harry Potter (somebody needs to kiss already!), Black Swan (OMG!), Life As We Know It with Katherine Heigl, and Going the Distance with Drew Barrymore. I saw bits of Barney’s Version, No Strings Attached, The Rite, and Big Momma 3, enough to know not to spend any more shrinking brain cells on them. I believe that such nocturnal busyness is responsible for my current super comatose level of jet-lag.
I arrived in Accra worn out but was rescued almost immediately by Papa Kwame, our Estate Manager. With him by my side, I could let some of my defenses down so I did. He walked me through the immigration paperwork and a one-hour wait for my luggage (I’ll never complain about SFO again!). Another hour later, we pull into our compound.
Thanks to my MFA writing, I was ready for my aloof Grandmother. This time I didn’t even attempt to chase her for a hug. She stood at the back door almost nervously as I approached the front door calling her name to ask how she was.
“Hi Ma! Otsi Den?”
She responded with a mumble. Something about how old age sucks. I nodded knowing I could neither agree nor disagree on this fact. Having written out quite a bit of scene around my interactions with Grandmother, I could almost predict the next sequence of dialogue. They came just as I imagined. They had to do with how much she hates my hair this way. The baby locs that I’ve been twisting.
“Do you like it?” I play clueless twirling one of them. “I did it myself,” I add proudly still ignoring her discomfort.
I abandoned the effort and asked what was for dinner. I then went to my room to re-arrange the luggage the house-help unloaded, shed my travel clothes, and spray my room with the mosquito spray readying myself for my first night back in Ghana.
This is how I begun and ended the main part of this epic journey.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )
I am in Ohio with my family. I’m sitting at the dining room table in an empty house (unless you count the dog) sipping on coffee which although my doctors have banned, I sneak when I’m home because it’s tradition.
Ohio was the first stop on the migration trail. My sisters and I would later move away to chase dreams of our own, but somehow we always found ourselves here whenever things went awry. Sometimes too it was to celebrate major events in our lives, but often it was to re-group, get pep talks, reminisce, and sneak copious amounts of coffee.
I am home this time because I was just stopping through on my way to yet another conference panel to publicize the Anthology. At least that’s what it was when I originally bought my ticket, which thanks to the conference funding at CIIS, I was able to afford. But as the months have flown by it has been something I have come to look forward to. And even more so in the last two weeks.
My aunt and uncle, who practically raised my sister and me when my mother was away, have both been diagnosed with late stages of stomach cancer. In my adult lifetime (25-now) I have lost close to 10 family members to Cancer. They have all been difficult losses, but I think these two are more so because they were parents to us. They kept us sane when our grandmother was being her rigid principal self at home and forbidding simple things like riding bikes. My cousin, an only child, was happy to have siblings. We roamed her neighborhood with no particular purpose, something that was absolutely forbidden when we were with Grandmother.
So this particular struggle with Cancer is more personal. I feel angry every day and yell and scream at a higher power I don’t know if I believe in any longer. It is even more devastating as it becomes apparent each day that I might have seen them for the last time when I was in Ghana in August. I am beginning to wonder if I was loving when I saw them last. What was their impression of me in August? Were they proud of my collection of degrees? Were they proud of my recent publications? Were they wishing I would grow up by marrying some guy? (Any man at this point, because now it was about having children before it was too late.) Were they wishing I’d move back home?
This brings me back to home and the need of the immigrant family to re-group. We pooled money and gave my mom a ticket to Ghana because as the professional Hospice nurse, it made more sense for her to go. But it was with great difficulty that we let her leave on Tuesday. She was going to get what we here are longing for each day—a chance to cry and laugh and reminisce about the good and bad ole’ days. I’m jealous even as I sit here writing, chasing my dreams.
The struggle of the immigrant is sometimes way deeper than even the most succinct theories attest to. It’s not just about assimilating and chasing dreams with more gusto than we could in our own countries; it’s about giving up that which makes us who we are—the food, the distant relatives we couldn’t bring with us, the elaborate clothing that often looks out of place in the Western world. It’s about the struggle between the old world and new glitzy Western world. It’s about feeling schizophrenic (for me at least) all the time because I can’t be in both places at once. It’s about not being able to eat waakye (my favorite street food) whenever I have a yearning for it because I can’t just go to the corner of Hearst and Spruce and buy $2 worth of it. It’s about suddenly stalling on your native tongue, a language that used to roll off your tongue all day long, while speaking with a family member. All this on one side of the scale while chasing your dreams sometimes becomes weightless on the other side of the scale. Is chasing my dream worth the loss of all this? It all seems unbalanced when life is so short. Is this what I should be doing with my life? And what is IT that I am really doing with this life that is supposedly mine?
I have been chasing my dream of becoming a full-time writer for the last year since being accepted into CIIS. I have been workshopping 10-20 page pieces, reading craft books, mimicking my favorite authors, finding the lineage for my work, getting addicted to audio books, applying to artist residencies, speaking on panels, and just plain looking for money so I can sit home and write. I know it’s not impossible but it seems so most days. It’s not easy to juggle all this while trying to find time for that initial impetus for all these side effects: the writing itself. I may make it look glamorous or sound so irresistible, this life I’m leading, but underneath it all is the struggle to remain sane (less schizophrenic or bipolar), and true to my daily urge to write. Some days I think there’s no way I’ll find a job I like, a place to stay, and finish critiquing my fellow cohort members’ work, but on those days I remind myself what is most important at that particular point in my life. I’ve by no means perfected this, but I’m working on living a daily version of it.
My advice to other artists is this: don’t think for one minute that any other artist is doing more than you, or going places you will never go. If I’ve learned anything in the last year, it’s this—you must walk the path that is yours to walk. People will forever be around for you to compare yourself to, people will forever have ideas about how else you could be hustling, but in all of it you must remain true to yourself and where you are at any particular moment. You alone can determine if that imbalance in the scale is worth it, and even so, for how long it is.
I can tell you this: there are days like today when nothing I’m doing seems worth missing out on being back in Ghana with my family and eating waakye every morning. But then again, there are days when my writing is all that matters. I am learning to love myself through all of these days and to cherish the very gift of writing itself because it gets me through both of these extremes and for now, that is enough.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 3 so far )
That’s what we call the 26th of December in Ghana, and I’m sure in other British colonies. If we had presents, we gave them on Boxing Day. Usually, if I remember correctly, that’s when we made our rounds of various family and family friends’ homes. We took presents of fruit or cookies and stopped to drink Fanta or Coca Cola in each location. We sometimes ate jolloff or chicken at some of the homes. It had the feel of an American Thanksgiving Day. We would arrive home stuffed, and usually headed straight for bed.
It feels like eons ago. This is my 15th Christmas I have spent away from Ghana. It feels surreal to have had 18 consecutive ones and to now be bereft of them. My sister Sheela is in Ghana. I wish I had gone with her but there was no way I could have pulled off another ticket twice my rent. I think it makes me miss home the most when there is someone there “enjoying” it for me. Although yesterday, Sheela gave me one of the best presents ever–a Skype phone call with all my cousins. The ones with whom I grew up at least. I felt like the proud big sis to have all of them gathered around the computer talking in and out of turn catching me up and telling me I should be there. I smiled broadly on this end for moments after we hung up. I ought to have been there, but no use wishing that now. For months I had been kicking myself for going to Ghana in August instead. It would have been so much nicer at Christmas when everyone else was home as well, and definitely more enjoyable to go with Sheela. But I didn’t. I am here in the grey-slightly warming-up, sun-struggling-to-peek-through, Bay. Much as I love the Bay and California, this is the one year where I wished most for a White Christmas or a Christmas in Ghana. Perhaps it was mainly to do with the fact that Sheela was in Ghana or perhaps it had to do with the fact that I loved family and wanted to be surrounded by large quantities of good food, big laughs, and re-telling of stories.
In any case, I am here, trying to be content, to love being with me, and eek out some writing. I am going to finish up a piece on analyzing Christmas music which strangely enough disappears when it hits 11:59 pm on Christmas Day (have you noticed this?) Shouldn’t we be rejoicing now that the season is finally here? The child has been born? Yesterday afternoon, I was in CVS for an item (yes they were open) and they were already setting up the Christmas sale aisles for all the items that have come to define Christmas. I guess if the carols were gone, there was no need to keep the tinsel or miniature Nutcracker or reindeer. Ironically, I also noticed that close to 90% of all those working to dismantle Christmas were of Asian descent. Earlier on in the IHop in a pre-dominantly Black neighborhood, our server and several of her colleagues were also Asian. It was fascinating to me that I observed this stark difference. Were there always several Asian workers and servers, or did I just notice them more because it seemed they were the only ones working? Were they the only ones working? Why? As a woman of color sitting in a restaurant with a very diverse pool of customers, why did it bother me to see all Asian servers? Did Christmas bring all these people together? If so, why wasn’t the server pool just as diverse?Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
She cussed silently as she felt a splash of water hit the footies that she wore. She had washed her regular house slippers and forgot to dry them so she decided these padded footies would have to do. The splash of water came from the pot of meat that she was prepping to slow-cook.
She had literally been on her feet for sixteen hours, except for an hour in therapy and a few minutes here and there as she commuted from one place to the other. She had done massive amounts of laundry and had stood through that as well. So tonight, the feet made it known that they were tired. “A few more minutes guys, I promise,” she whispered. I really ought to invest in one of those kitchen mats that absorb the shock. She knew her back would ache when she finally lay down to rest tonight. She was certain of it.
Grammie lived close to where her college was, in a subsidized housing community that mostly housed senior citizens and their families. It was off Broadway Street almost close to downtown Columbus, and was right on the bus line so it was real easy to get to since she didn’t have her license yet. Sometimes, she would bring a friend with her and enjoy watching Grammie entertain someone else while she cooked.
“Hi Grammie!” she called to her grandmother from the back door. She had dropped by after classes to have a cooking session with Grammie, or more like to fix her one of the many Ghanaian dishes she loved; they had about five in rotation now.
She would call and ask what to bring and Grammie would say:
“Oh honey, don’t worry yourself, everything you need is right here.”
Sure enough when she arrived Grammie had laid out all the ingredients for the recipe of the day. Grammie had also baked her, her very own spice cake. Of course, she knew she had to share once she arrived at back on campus but she didn’t mind. They brewed up a cup of coffee and sat down to prepare the ingredients. They would catch up on which of Grammie’s neighbors’ children had gotten into trouble that week. Or talk about how Mz. Thelma and Mz. Fanny’s smoking habits seemed to be getting even more out of hand.
“Sometimes, I can just smell it!” she declared, referring to her upstairs neighbor Mz. Fanny.
“Remember when you used to come by the apartment so we would cook?” I miss those days,” Grammie said. Grammie had been confined to wearing an oxygen mask for a year now.
She smiled reminiscing right alongside with her.
“Yeah, I remember.” There were patches in her memory that made her worry; she was glad she could recall this memory on demand.
Encouraged by this recall, she continued:
“Remember me going up to Ms. Fanny’s apartment to say hello and bring her a piece of cake or a bowl of whatever we had cooked that day?”
“Yeah. Fanny would always tell me I had a good grandchild,” Grammie added smiling.
“Mz. Fanny would put hot sauce on everything I took to her.” she said.
“Yeah, that’s Fanny alright!”
Picturing the old apartment that Grammie had brought tears to her eyes. SO much had changed since then. Those were the carefree days of learning to live life in America. She had acquired independence by choosing to live on campus even though home was a mere 30-minute bus ride away. Having lived under her Grandmother’s totalitarian house rules for nineteen years, she was finally unfurling her wings and realizing what freedom truly meant.
Tonight, cooking in her own kitchen had brought these memories rushing back right alongside her flood of tears that seemed to rise out of a deep pain she wasn’t even aware she was holding. Grammie was on a breathing machine, with tubes in her lungs to help her breathe. Tonight when she checked in with her sister, she had said Grammie was getting more and more confused. She had been lately, before the EMS came for her. Her brain wasn’t getting enough oxygen, the doctor said. Tomorrow was a crucial day, they were going to try and switch her to breathing on her own.
“Do you think she will?” She asked her sister, already knowing that answer was ambiguous.
These thoughts overwhelmed her as she cleaned her brand new crock pot. As much as she loved cooking, there were days when she could just stand to throw it all in a pot and not have to mind it half as much. Tonight was such a night.
She felt Grammie’s presence in the room. She burst into tears again smiling as she saw her tears drop into the bubbling liquid. “Cook your heart out honey. That’s my girl! Oh honey, don’t cry, I’m ok, I can cook now.” Grammie seemed to say.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )
Cooking was a major affair in our household. Sometimes the cause of disagreement among family members and house helps, the coal pot, aka the kitchen stove, was essential to this process. Because it required charcoal it was always lit in the courtyard to prevent the first puffs of smoke from choking everyone in the house. We would ball up old newspapers in the lower part of the stove and light these with a match, then fan the flames to allow the kerosene-soaked coals on the upper bowl to ignite. Once the coals caught fire and the smoke evened out, the stove was returned to the kitchen. Under heavy cooking, new charcoal had to be added often because the original chunks would turn to ashes. It didn’t bode well for whoever was on kitchen duty when this occurred. Once, Aunty Mercy took coals from one coal pot to begin a new fire and ended up losing the starter. Grandmother was furious.
Aunty Mercy was the oldest of all the house-helps we ever had; she came to us after she had spent her life savings bailing out her only child who had been jailed for murder. She walked with a hobble because she had been the victim of a number of bicycle accidents. During a particularly bad Hamattan season, she was struck by lightening, adding a twitch to that hobble, yet she was full of life and had many stories to tell. She was warm and cuddly and my sister and I loved her. She was the antithesis of all Grandmother was.
“’Familiarity breeds contempt!’” Grandmother would exclaim dramatically whenever we would interact too closely with Aunty Mercy. More contact with the house-helps outside of duties blurred the boundaries she worked so hard to keep. Grandmother’s main prejudice centered on sharing food, eating Aunty Mercy’s food, was forbidden. Aunty Mercy would occasionally cook her own tribal delicacies. We joined her once and almost got caught.
The kitchen was warm and slightly cramped. Aunty Mercy squatted in her usual lopsided position in the middle of the kitchen floor tending to her meal. I scooted around, trying not to knock her over. The freshly prepared nkontombire froyi with koobi and ampesi made my mouth water even though I just had dinner. Something about the green leafy spinach leaves bubbling in the reddish liquid makes it more appealing. Salted tilapia was soaking in a bowl next to plantains from our backyard garden.
“We’ll join you, but Grandmother will be mad if she catches us.” I replied enthusiastically.
Sheela rolled her eyes and translated my response. “You know she doesn’t speak any English.” Aunty Mercy beckoned us closer to the stove. I saw the coal pot with coals almost turned to ashes. The fire was almost out.
“Looks like she forgot to add new coal,” Sheela commented.
Aunty Mercy pulled up two kitchen stools for Sheela and me, pausing to wipe both with a kitchen towel lest we ruin our clothes.
I stared into the pot. It smells great.
“What’s in it?”
“kontombire ahataw, anyiew ne tometo ne galic.”
Ok. But what’s that other smell? “What makes the sauce so red?”
“Oye ngo na.”
“This tastes different.” Sheela said. I turned expecting a frown on her face, surprised by a smile.
“Let me taste!” I squeezed my way in between them.
“sssh ma anti aba kyi hon!” Aunty Mercy cautioned.
I grin. Grandmother would be furious if she knew what we were doing.
“Why don’t you use this in our meals?” I asked.
Floorboards from the third bedroom creaked slightly. We heard Grandmother’s footsteps.
“Grandmother says Sheela is allergic to palm oil.” I looked over in panic at Sheela who seemed to be enjoying her pieces of plantain and nkomtombire. Was she really allergic or was Grandmother lying?
More erratic footsteps interrupted my panic. Aunty Mercy motioned for us to be silent. She quickly grabbed our half empty bowls and explained:
“Nso nnyi egroya ntsi wa ba egyadze ha befee bi.”
“Huh? There was no water in the bathroom?” Surely Grandmother wouldn’t buy that one!
Her voice preceded her.
“Sheela! Kuukua! Where are you two? You better not be in the kitchen! Go brush your teeth and get ready for bed!”
A bend in the hallway separated us.
“We are getting water!”
We dart across the hall, pick up our toothbrushes, and begin to brush our teeth. Close call! Who would have thought that Aunty Mercy had learned to count with Grandmother’s footsteps?
THE OAKLAND WORD PUBLICATION.
IT IS CURRENTLY UNDER REVISION.
The Coal Pot
The kitchen stove, which we call the coal pot, was of the utmost importance in my house. We used it at least twice a day. It was often the center of the day’s activities and sometimes the cause of disagreement among family members and house helps. It only used coal and had to be lit in the courtyard to prevent the first puffs of smoke from choking everyone in the house. We would have to ball up old newspapers in the lower part of the stove and light these with a match, then fan the flames from the lower part to allow the coals on the upper bowl to ignite. Once the coals caught fire and the smoke evened out, we would return the stove to the main kitchen. This chore was almost always handled by the resident cook. When we children handled the stove, it was under careful watch of whichever house-help we had at the time. Every meal I had as a child was prepared or heated on this stove. Most of my classmates’ families had long switched to electric or gas stove imported from abroad, but Grandmother refused to cave in to modernity. Besides, the coal pot needed to be monitored more closely than an electric or gas stove because it did not have an internal regulator. This was perfect for her because it meant we didn’t ever leave the kitchen (or her sight) for too long. It was not until well into my teens when she finally consented and got first, a kerosene stove, and then an electric two-burner hot plate.
Cooking was a major affair in our household. We usually cooked massive amounts of food to store for several days. Although we didn’t have a large household, my Grandmother was quite busy as school principle during the week days, and church leader on the weekends, and preferred not to spend a lot of time supervising the cooking each day. The stove needed to be replenished every so often because the original chunks of coal would eventually turn to ashes under such heavy cooking. New coal had to be added before the entire spread of coal turned to ash otherwise we would have to begin the whole process of lighting the stove anew. As I recall, this happened a couple times. It didn’t bode well for whoever was on kitchen duty when this occurred. I recall an occasion when one particular house-help was working. Aunty Mercy. She took coals out to begin a new fire for another coal pot and ended up losing the original one on which the main family meal was being prepared. Grandmother had a few choice words for her, but Aunty Mercy quite immune to Grandmother’s harsh words, just nodded and begun the whole process over.
Aunty Mercy was the oldest of all the house-helps we ever had. She came to stay for a few years, earlier on in my life, and then left for a while because of a disagreement with the matriarch of the family, Grandmother. She returned when I was much older and stayed for a long while again. Aunty Mercy was from Asinmansu and had had her share of life’s challenges. Her son had been jailed for theft and she had spent her life savings bailing him out only to have him flee the country. She had been hit by a bicycle a few times so she hobbled along almost precariously as if at any moment she would topple over. She had been hit by lightening and this had given her a twitch in addition to the hobble. Despite all these, she was full of life and had many stories to share. She was also warm and cuddly; she was quite the character and my sister and I loved her. She was the antithesis of all Grandmother was. As I came to later learn, Grandmother, who was of Scottish and English heritage, could not bring herself to break the tradition of the “stoic” English women who had gone before her. We interacted with her peripherally while doing homework, taking tea, or when being chastised or punished. I recall spending a great deal of my time with Aunty Mercy or whoever the house-help at the time was; we changed them so often, I have quite a few in my memory.
Grandmother, as a three quarter mulatto, was extremely prejudiced that it took a thick-skinned person to live with her and take the constant barrage of derogatory comments. My first experience of extreme prejudice came when she punished my sister and me for eating Aunty Mercy’s food, which was not to be mistaken for food prepared by Aunty Mercy. This was ironic because she prepared all our meals. Since Grandmother set our menu each week, Aunty Mercy would occasionally cook her own tribal delicacies. My sister and I being the curious kids we were were always ready to try something different. On this one occasion, Aunty Mercy served us dinner and then left to clean up, and eat her own dinner because she ate her meals apart from the family. Sheela and I went looking for her later and found her cleaning up the main coal pot, and tending to her saucepan of freshly prepared koobi stew and ampesi, a local delicacy of salted tilapia stew with boiled green plantains and yams. She invited us but warned us about the wrath of my grandmother; she agreed to be on the lookout for her. Unfortunately, that night, luck was not on our side and Grandmother did find us eating Aunty Mercy’s food. Grandmother stood guard over the point where her race discriminations met our childish curiosity and being the adult, she always won. We were sent to brush our teeth and given a good talking to about the results of mingling with servants, and what Grandmother termed “familiarity breeds contempt.” For her, the more interaction we had with the house-helps outside of duties, the more they felt closer to us, blurring the boundaries she worked so had to keep. Although Aunty Mercy did not care for being in trouble with Grandmother, she also felt it her calling to prepare us for the real world where we did not have this bubble of protection that Grandmother’s skin privilege afforded us.