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

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.

Coffee with Mamma

Every time I make coffee on a cold afternoon, my mother stands next to me. We watch the first splash of boiling water dampen the paper cone and soften the grains of coffee. Our shared breath breathes in the winter aroma. We wait patiently to pour more water, tempering our eagerness.

And I see my mother, gone so long now, standing in my childhood’s turquoise kitchen. She is letting me “help” serve dessert at a dinner party. In the middle of the kitchen table, a round platter holds a ginger brown cake that has been dusted with a flurry of soft, white sugar. Mamma heats the silver coffee pot with scalding water then empties it again. Soon, the surge of hot coffee fills the gleaming container like the will to life. In the dining room, she pours its black heat into delicate cups, and tiny wisps of vapor rise over the winter tablecloth. Candle wax has overflowed into puddles on the fabric. I want to dip my fingers into its warmth and feel the wax form stiffly to my fingertips. But I don’t. Being Mamma’s helper means being allowed to watch her—close enough to touch her, but not moving at all.

A kettle sings fresh steam into our kitchens. The skin of my face tingles with my mother’s tension about how to make everything, always, just right.

And I miss her. The sadness drips, drips, drips.  But I’m with her all the time. Every time I smell coffee, every time I doubt myself, and every time I cook a meal. I miss her food–fish cooked into so many different forms and flavors that it expands its skins, dives past its limits. I crave the long, white scar on her left elbow, marking where she fell onto an Icelandic country road from the over-sized frame of her brother’s bicycle. I seek out her mingled scents of cigarette smoke and Chanel perfume. I perceive in myself her outward gaze and her habitual remove.

I want her back, but she’s right here.

I see her everywhere when I go to Europe, in the dignified elegance of the dark-haired women who withstand the unflinching north wind, who wear wide silk scarves and line their lips in red. I see her small feet in every shoe store, and I watch her firmly set mouth as she considers something, then decides. I see my mother in the shape of every island. All fishing villages are hers. All forbidden romances are hers, and every mental illness.

A year ago, on the tram sliding into Edinburgh, my mind buzzed with excitement about a new city, about solitude, about seeing my son.  And it washed over me like warm light, a zephyr, how much my mother loved me! I saw her sparkle of joy every time I showed up at her house with or without my little boys. I saw how happy it made her to see me and how far she came to be with me. I sat on that train and remembered the long dazzling years of her health and sobriety. I gave thanks for the hours of travel I’d taken on to savor a seafood extravaganza for my middle boy’s 24th birthday, just to have time together. And the tram floats along the track. Soon, Mom gets on and sits down next to me. She takes my hand and presses it to her heart. We sit quietly as roads and fields turn to old stone walls and a castle comes into view on the hillside.

edinburgh coffee