Mother Africa

In the warm heart of Africa, I crossed a concrete bridge linking tarmac to terminal as tropical sunshine blazed away an end of rainy season drizzle. Fronds of palm leaves and trumpets of yellow blooms curled in the warm breeze, and a tiny bird bedecked in scarlet plumes flitted through a patch of lush green.

yellow bloomsThis continent that birthed the human race so long ago is now home to my niece, Rachel, who works as a researcher for one of the many non-governmental organizations in Lilongwe, Malawi. When she arrived to pick me up at the airport, I greeted her in Chichewa: Moni. Muli Bwanji? I have practiced the simple Hello, how are you? many times on the plane, but these short phrases don’t stay in my travel-soaked brain for long.

Rachel’s long brown hair was twisted up into a ponytail bun, and she moved gracefully as a gazelle as she loaded my bags into a borrowed car. In her, I see my sister’s keen intelligence shine out from a darker version of my own mother’s eyes. But most obvious to me in my niece are her dignified beauty and her distinct laugh, a ha ha reminiscent of all her female relatives. In Africa, Rachel introduces me as her “little mother,” sister of her own mother. For twelve days, the topic of motherhood weaved through our conversations like a golden thread.

The day after I arrived, Rachel and I took a three-hour bus-ride across the border to the town of Chipata, in Zambia, where she worked for several months before going to Malawi. Rachel spoke four languages in one short taxi ride, chatting in Hebrew on her cell phone, speaking English to me, then switching from Malawian Chichewa to the Zambia borderclosely related Nyanja dialect. My polyglot niece doesn’t get to practice her French, Spanish, or Russian very often while living and working in Africa. I, however, thanked a Zambian immigration officer by saying Gracias, and I greeted Rachel in the morning as I do my sons at home, in my mother’s Icelandic: Godan daginn allan daginn. It means “good morning, all day,” but Rachel gave me a quizzical look in response.

We hired a shared car to drive us to our two-day safari in Zambia’s South Luangwa Park. Shared cars work like this: you agree to a price before departure to get to your destination. Then along the way, the driver picks up other passengers or cargo as he is able, and makes short detours for drop-offs. Driver profit and efficiency maximized, traveler hurry and seat belt expectations minimized.

Outside one village, a young teen girl and a toddler approached our car. The older girl held a small clacking chicken by its wings and tucked it into the trunk between my suitcase and a bag of rice.  After tucking the little one next to me, the older girl perched next to the window, face-forward and intent on the road. She wore a brightly patterned traditional wrap over a pink t-shirt. The toddler looked up at my foreign face in wide-eyed fright over and over, her dark eyes filling with tears. After a several miles, I stopped resisting my maternal instinct and briefly cupped her small head in my palm. She slowly let her head fall to the side in sleep. I wished the petite teen to be her sister, but I knew she was her very young mother, unlikely to be educated, and quite likely to suffer during Zambia’s “hunger season,” a hard time that lands almost every year here before the harvest. Little mother, indeed.

***

At the Marula Lodge, hippos pop their heads out of the Luangwa river, open their eyes to inhale, then flap their ears before plunking under again. I spend my writing time wishing I could slumber all day like they do under the cool river water, coming up for a hippo riverquick breath to peek at the world and then swim-doze the day away. Mesmerized by the adorable ear-flapping, I can’t look away. My laptop goes into sleep mode. At this point in the trip, I am the dependent one, following my niece around like a baby duck to mooch off of her WiFi hot spot and translation skills. Rachel makes me coffee and cooks me oatmeal before she opens her computer and starts running data sets for her project–actually working–as I gaze at the fast-flowing river.

Rachel and I join an evening safari drive. We bounce along a track in the lush game reserve, sighting grazing zebras and an enormous pond ornamented from end to end with snow-white water lilies. A small herd of elephants enjoying dinner become annoyed by the stink of our guide’s Land Rover. Matriarch and child use their ears as protest Elephantsflags, first the mother, then the imitating baby waving their ears in synchronized tempo before ambling away to snack a different set of shrubs. I surprise myself by wanting to cry. The elephants are so wild and intelligent, so distinctly and fiercely familial.

As the sun skimmed the horizon, our small group stood by the river bank in red-gold light as yet more hippos snorted laughter and growled yawns in picture-postcard poses. For two years, during one of her father’s diplomatic postings, Rachel and her family lived in Zimbabwe. On a camping trip in Africa, when she was four, the young adventurer resisted her parents’ rule not to explore outside their family’s tent, where hyenas roamed.

My parents visited Rachel’s family in Harare during the grace-filled years of my mother’s sobriety, when both of my parents were healthy and eager for adventure. Rachel tells me, I remember Amma playing the pumpkin pie game with me every night. I had pajamas with a pumpkin pattern printed on them, and Amma had those long sparkly fingernails. She would pretend to scoop out pumpkin from my pj’s, then mash it into a pie and bake it. Rachel was enthralled by this game. My mother tapped the “pie” into a pretend oven to bake, then they giggled together about their pumpkin pie feast. As a young version of my mother’s laugh echoed around us, I tasted the sweetness of their time together.

November

Note: Posting from Malawi last week with limited data was only semi-successful, so here–in a repeat for some of you–is “November”. And more to come soon about my trip to Mother Africa….  Thanks for reading, subscribing, and commenting!

Mamma stands in the November kitchen on slippered feet, her green robe loosely belted over a nightgown. Clutching her stomach, she leans over the counter between the stainless-steel sink and the humming refrigerator. She waits for the pain to stop, a grimace twisting her face like a storm captured in a photograph. My sister and I sit at the table waiting for her to straighten up and pour orange juice into our favorite glasses. But she keeps her back to us, doesn’t say a word. In another minute, she heaves a deep breath and walks gingerly down the hallway back to bed, one hand still holding her middle. She is sick, again. It is 1970.

In the tired light of not-summer, I bring Mamma milk in bed. She needs it to calm her stomach, and my five-year-old hands carry it carefully up the hallway. I want to make her better. She whispers to me, Just this much, and touches her finger a quarter of the way up a small glass.  Just this much. I won’t spill, and the milk will help, I know. I watch her sip one slow sip and set the cup on her bedside table. I tiptoe out of her dark bedroom, turning the door handle quietly as she sighs onto her pillow.

Another damp fall day, we put on our coats and get into Mamma’s brown Chevy. She drives us to the Group Health building, not far across the invisible line dividing our neighborhood in Maryland from the city of Washington, DC.  I decide to be a nurse when I grow up, even after I watch a nurse push a small tube up into my mother’s nose, sliding it down the back of her throat, then into her rebellious belly. They need to take some “stomach juice” out to see why she throws up so much, why she hurts all the time. My mother gags as the tube snakes low, then dabs her eyes and tries to smile at me. I feel the intrusion as if into my own throat, and I cringe at the scratches behind my nostrils. Soon, murky liquid lifts up through the miniature hose, coming out from a place where things should only go in. The reversal is disturbing, but I become alert. I am not bored. I will be a nurse someday. I will master this.

The spring that I am fourteen, my father takes early retirement from his job at the Weather Bureau. We are moving to Florida. Mamma decides to have the surgery her doctors have told her will end the acidic battle her digestion wages with itself. They tell her she will be well in two weeks.

A surgeon’s knife cuts out Mamma’s ulcers and most of her stomach. Soon, fevers push tiny drops of sweat onto her upper lip. She lies wordless in the hospital as her weakened body produces a parade of infections. One hundred nights she sleeps alone in that bed with metal rails. After a second stomach surgery, her left eye swells with bacteria. Another surgeon pierces that delicate orb with a needle to relieve the pressure behind my mother’s hazel iris.

I sit with her long days that summer, watching her slack face as she dozes. I open The Washington Post and entertain her with advice from Ann Landers.  Out of a hole next to my mother’s belly button, a tube drains her stomach wound—I have seen this brown-tinged liquid before. When her nurse comes to change the bandage, I go downstairs and spoon Dannon blueberry yogurt into my mouth from the hospital cafeteria vending machine. The days become mechanical and remote. In the afternoon, a doctor’s scowl lands on my mother’s impassive face. She looks away from him, indifferent, and I feel the end in her. I’ve had enough of nurses and hospitals. I just want my mother back.

But it’s her nurses who tell the story later, how Mamma shook her head in a silent No when they tried to tempt her appetite back with offers of hamburgers, of chocolate, of beer. Then, one Sunday morning in September, she wakes up asking for food, newly able to lift her head from the pillow. She wants her hair washed. The staff brings cake and balloons when she is discharged, everyone so relieved at her sudden desire to live.

Soon, my mother comes home to our new house on the Pinellas coast of Florida, a house my father bought that summer, one that she has never seen. A small kidney-shaped swimming pool glimmers in the yard, and armadillos roam in nearby Hammock Park. Without her, my sister and I have started high school in this foreign-feeling place where the sun stays high and warm, even in the fall. My mother comes home weighing ninety pounds and pale as blank paper, smiling as she leans on my father’s arm. She comes home and learns how to eat again with her fragment of post-surgery stomach. Sitting on the edge of my new bed, she brushes my hair off of my forehead and tells me not to worry about only getting A’s in my classes. In that small house with no downstairs, I slowly get used to hearing her voice again.

mom and dad c 82
Florida circa 1982

To the Lighthouse

Weeks of insomnia at the beginning of this year found me re-reading Virginia Woolf in the electric glow of an e-book, hands under the covers for warmth. Lily Briscoe painted and watched children play; Mrs. Ramsay loved and died; and, while time worked its way through an old house, I longed, too, for a radiant vision. In my notebook appeared the phrases: One mustn’t, and One wonders. Semi-colons swarmed like ants in every sentence I wrote.

Like Virginia Woolf, I make my way to the Lighthouse, but I go by foot or bicycle, my face turned not to the the rocky shore of the Hebrides, but to the sprawling space of Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop.  Housed in a Victorian mansion near the corner of Colfax and Race, this four-story warren of offices and classrooms is truly a beacon, a source of creative challenge and collegial connection.

Workshop classes are a cornerstone of teaching at the Lighthouse–your writing is critiqued by a group while you sit quietly, receiving feedback and possibly trying not to cry. In my first workshop, an essay I had worked on for months and revised at least ten times received a full round of honest feedback. My teacher, the talented writer John Cotter, asked the group: What happens in this essay? Is there a conflict? Do we have any idea of the setting?  The story I wrote didn’t answer any of these questions very well. My early bloom of overconfidence landed in a cold-water bath of humility. Refreshing, as my dad would say. Invigorating.

LH entry 1Last fall, I started making the short trek three days a week for a  “Getting it Done” pomodoro class in the Lighthouse attic. Pomodoro is Italian for tomato, and the moniker for a time management system originally developed on a tomato-shaped timer. Twenty-five-minute work segments alternate with short breaks and add up to four hours of productivity–it’s harder to distract oneself with nonsense in a room full of (seemingly) focused people. I committed to twelve hours per week of butt-in-chair writing time, and sure enough, things got done. At first, in the former ballroom turned writer’s aerie, I quailed with insecurity sharing space with “real” writers—cracker-jack memoirists, a superstar humor writer, and a sci-fi smarty-pants.

Just making my way to the the Lighthouse, teachers appeared out of nowhere. One October morning as I pedaled to pomodoro class, a woman stepped off the curb to cross Race Street. Pausing to let me pass, she tucked her hands into the pockets of her red jacket. My morning greeting received a smile and a warning: Watch out for those idiots today!  So much for taking myself too seriously. Refreshing!

On a recent morning, snow fell in huge flakes, quieting the city and sparkling my neighborhood as I made my way to the Lighthouse, walking in a car rut to keep snow from snow ghost Steamboattumbling into my boots. Two bundled men chatted as they shoveled their next-door walkways. One leaned his forearm on his shovel and looked up into the swirling white. What a beautiful snow! he said.

His neighbor responded, It sure is. But, Buddy, I’ve already shoveled this once today!  Soon, a figure in a hooded parka walked toward me, treading the same tire-compressed snow-path. As we approached each other, I saw his coffee skin and arrestingly beautiful brown-gold eyes.  Good morning! I said as I adjusted the weight of my back pack on my shoulders. He bent his elbow and pointed at me. For a moment, I thought I would be scolded. Instead, his face sparked into a snow-day grin as he announced: If we meet again like this, it’s Destiny!

Can’t argue with that, I replied. Count me in! He continued north, and I kept smiling as I trudged the final block to the Lighthouse. The parking lot was empty except for six smooth inches of snow on the ground. Only one set of foot prints led to the unlocked front door. I stepped into the tiled foyer, where a wooden balustrade wound its way up a green-carpeted staircase, and elaborate crown molding adorned the ceiling.  I shook blobs of snow off my jacket and stomped slush off of my boots. Then I headed up to the attic and got to work.

 

“One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.”

M&M’s

Even when I’m not hungry, I walk my little girl body around the quiet house, sneaking candy. I grab the long handle of the fridge door and pull, pushing my feet hard onto the slippery tile floor. I yank until my fingertips hurt, until the magnetic strip creaks away from its mate and the door whooshes open. Disappointing containers of leftover cabbage and boiled potatoes are at my eye level, and above them sits a half empty jug of skim milk. But on my right, in the door shelf, gleams an open bag of M&M’s. Shapes I know to be letters adorn the outside of the black sack, while inside wait shiny blues and vivid greens and happy yellows. When I push my hand into the bag, the candies jangle like the notes of a song. I lift the bright circles up and push them into my mouth.

Cheeks bulging, I take another fistful, less careful to be quiet on this second foray into badness. My brain squeezes with fear. Can someone behind a closed door or down the long staircase hear the candy grinding between my teeth? I close the tall door of the fridge and step into the dining room, hiding in the folds of the curtain fabric. Shells of cold M&M’s break under my teeth and press sharp points onto my tongue. Soon, the colors melt into pure chocolate softness. As I chew, my empty hand un-clenches its sticky grip on itself. I stare at the colorful pattern of candy prints on my palm as my tongue absorbs the shock of sugar. A clock ticks. The back of my throat aches.

I step out of my hiding place and open the fridge again. My hand dives low for M&M’s, but the bag is almost empty.  I leave the last few candies as a suggestion that I didn’t eat so many, that maybe it wasn’t me. But the next morning, that bag is gone, never to appear in the fridge door again. A few days later, my mother snips open the corner of a new bag and puts it in the high cupboard, above the stove where she thinks I can’t climb. I learn to pull a heavy chair over and balance on the margins of the turquoise stove when the burners are cool. She moves the M&M bag again, but I find it, eventually, in her top dresser drawer, next to gauzy scarves and plastic orbs of L’eggs pantyhose. I plunder what she hides, my heart hammering in my chest.

I sneak. I risk for sweetness.

Before our parents go out to a party, after we’ve eaten the crusts of our chicken pot pies and drunk our glasses of milk, Mamma stands in her high heels and Mom and dad partycounts out M&M’s for me and my sister. We get fifteen each, in small metal cups meant to hold soft boiled eggs. I have polished Daddy’s black shoes until they shine. They sit on a section of newspaper by the kitchen door, waiting. Save your M&M’s, Mamma says, before our parents drive off into the evening. Make them last a long time!

Curled like commas, my sister and I face each other on Mamma and Daddy’s big bed, watching TV. We sort our candy into colors and compete over who can save hers longest. Negotiating a trade, we argue about the brown ones, so plentiful, and whether they taste as good as the rare green ones do. The night gets longer and later. I let the candies rest on my tongue, one at a time, until their hard cases melt away.

We have worked our way through Saturday night TV all the way to Perry Mason, whose serious face surprises me every time that he confronts a conniving murderer on the witness stand, thus freeing his unjustly accused client. Perry MasonAfter the local news, Rod Sterling’s voice describes the time I dread: The Twilight Zone. I am sleepy, but I won’t go into our room alone, so I put a pillow over my head and drift off. I don’t wake up when my father carries me to my bed.

Thirty years later–as a grown woman with children of my own– I visit my parents in Florida and quietly search my mother’s house for sugar. I plunder the M&M’s again, finding the magical black bag in the drawer of the sideboard in her dining room. I eat M&M’s until nausea and self-hatred volley a tennis ball in my adult body, back and forth, back and forth. All I can do is sit still long enough for self-hatred to win. Then I go back for more candy.

How Dare You?!

snail bag

Before I had the nerve to call myself a writer, I spent two years coloring big paper bags, hour after hour, bag after bag. These brightly festooned delivery bags belonged to Project Angel Heart, and were later filled with a week’s worth of lunches for folks living with life challenging illness. They served a different purpose for me–coloring those bags both highlighted and neutralized the repetitive self-accusation: “You’re not an artist! How dare you think you are!”  That self-hating voice—timeless, shrill, malignant—halted my creative self-expression for years. But as I colored, its harsh alarms about the self-indulgent absurdity of making art became more recognizable and less impactful day by day. “How dare you?!”  became a signal that I was onto something, an invitation to enjoy making things.

After I left my full-time job, my empty calendar was an intoxicant, and my future work life was a big question mark. Waiting for direction or inspiration, I would pull a blank bag out from under the couch, grab my container of rainbow sharpees with their alluring chemical scent, and shape a heart onto brown paper, then mark a swirl through it, coloring in the curved sections with alternating blues and greens. Stars, snowflakes and layered dot patterns emerged. I’d spend five minutes or several hours per bag, then stash them again under the couch.

Peace bag

Twice a month, I pulled out all the bags I’d colored and stack my favorites on top. Over time, circles became rounder and flowers lovelier as my hand became surer. Progress wasn’t measured by number of bags completed or by quality of design, but by something new—the inherent perfection in the colors themselves. I spent peaceful hours coloring while I waited for my high schooler to come home, or as I listened to the snores of my decrepit poodle. Letting things get done while holding still.

But putting color on those bags, over and over, day after day, also calmed my creativity demons. Angel Heart clients could assume that my scribbled over “mistake” was the work of a gifted three-year-old. There was no obvious practical value to the bags being decorated, none besides brightness and color themselves. Beauty for beauty’s sake.

After a year or two of coloring, I started wanting words. I had stopped writing almost completely for a decade, but gradually, infrequent bursts of words landed onto the pages of a dusty old notebook. More and more, I wanted to give voice to some of my mother’s stories and possibly rediscover my own. This creative urge, though, needed help facing up to the inner accusation that I was self-indulgent and arrogant to think of myself as a writer. How dare you?!

So I put my fright in my pocket and took it with me to a class at Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a thriving community of “literary types” that is housed in a beautiful Victorian just off Colfax Avenue. The class was called “Gotta Start Somewhere.” I would not have registered for the class had the teacher’s name been anything but Joy. Joy has the empathetic heart of a poet who is also a therapist. For many months, she coached me as I cried over tangled paragraphs, and she gently alerted me when a piece of writing was glaringly self-enamored. There’s Joy my wonderful teacher, and there is also the energy of joy itself, the celebration inherent in creative expression. Writing is difficult, but these days I often look forward to it like the scent of the first spring daffodil.

Early on, after Joy read an exercise that I wrote for her about self-criticism, she told me:  Jenny-Lynn, this voice is not just self-criticism. It’s self-contempt. That self-contempt hasn’t gone away–my inner approval ratings often hover in the single digits. Yet here I sit with ten blog posts published and several imperfect essays out to magazine editors, all while calling myself a writer. I take classes, keep writing hours, and have inspiring, generous  writer friends. And those bags? I stopped coloring them six months ago. But I admire their bright cheer when I deliver meals. And I thank the angels every day that I get to make things, to form words on the page, to dare to create.

Bag on laptop
Notice the laptop underneath this one!

Reach Joy here: https://www.joyrouliersawyer.com/

And the Lighthouse here: https://www.lighthousewriters.org/

 

 

So Are the Days

It’s a cool spring morning, and I’m lying on a sunbathing chair in the back yard, being very still. What brought me here? Small, I live in the expanding whorl of new day into longer day; moving slowly into night, then–miraculously!–to day again. In this open yard, time holds without exhorting.

A robin lands on the metal swoop of chain link fence. The bird’s eye is hard and clear, circled by white feathers, and shining black at me. In its velvet vest, the robin hops down to the grass, watching me be as still as a statue of a little girl alone can be. We hold each other’s gaze, and I feel myself become a bird. This fellow being has come to show me what I am, to remind me that I can fly. The robin has a family, too, and I am part of it.

Inside, Mamma and I are alone together. I want to go to school like my sisters do, but I’m not big enough. I learn waiting. Mamma gets ready to shop, snugs her skirt over her hips, and carefully hides her slip above her hemline. She examines her face in the bathroom mirror and doesn’t like something. She squints, tweezes. She adds eyebrow pencil, mascara, and red-brown lipstick to her face, making her beauty more alert. She blots lipstick onto a white kleenex, then glides another round of color onto her mouth, pressing her lips to paper once more. The metal lipstick tube clicks closed. Haphazard tissue kisses rest in the trashcan day after day.

I sit on her bed as she pulls up the long zipper of her high heeled boots. She turns in front of the full-length mirror and pulls her shoulders back, then smiles at me in her reflection. You look so pretty, I say. At the grocery store, she is deep in thought, turned toward cans of green vegetables and hunks of beef tongue. We walk past piles of potatoes and packages of chicken gizzards to the fish counter. Looking at a flounder, stranded on its icy bed, its lopsided eyes cloudy and vague, she says, That doesn’t look very fresh, does it?

Home again, I see the “I’m not here” look on my mother’s face as I watch her watch TV. I practice being quiet so I won’t have to go to my own room and nap. Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives, the man says, at 2 pm on channel 7. We have hurried home from the grocery store to watch. Mamma is smoking, breathing in, breathing out.

Now she has left the room, disappeared to laundry or tidying or a telephone respite with a friend. The click of the linen closet door, then the crispness of her voice lilting into the kitchen phone threaten to float me to sleep, but I fight to stay above the surface. Her forgotten cigarette sends a line of smoke up through the white lampshade to the ceiling. The still room is bisected by a horizontal cloud, and I lie underneath it. I reach over and push the butt into the ashtray, saving it from falling onto the table. With my movement, whorls of grey mix with clear air above my head.

When I am finally big enough for school, I will jump out of bed and stand in front of my closet, stifling a yawn. I will wear a green skirt to kindergarten, my hair combed back and tied with a ribbon. I will stare in amazement as a classmate cries, missing his mommy. When I am nineteen, and half a continent away from my mother, I will harness all of my depressed will and apply to the local university. After classes, I will change into fancy clothes, adjust my slip, and hostess at an elegant restaurant. Twenty years later, at 39, I will earn my second master’s degree and become a therapist at the same university’s counseling center. I will wear patterned skirts and stylish heels. I will mascara my eyes and tint my lips before I go to see clients. Listening, waiting, I will sit with them in that open space, as the mystery of time re-weaves all our lives.

 

back yard chair