a poem I wrote about my late auntie, who I remember always being in motion, rarely taking time to sit and be still for more than a few minutes. the greatest lesson I’ve learned from observing the way she lived her life is how important it is for women to take off their life and rest [to borrow from nayyirah waheed’s beautiful words]. it could mean the difference between survival and death.
premature women leave behind fancy tea sets
still in their box, stashed away for special days
they die with $800 in their bank accounts, combined
they look through old photo albums,
and pick the best ones to be displayed at their funeral
they leave no instructions for the care of their children
they abandon preteen daughters before showing them how to handle their first sight of blood
they leave their husbands without a map of the kitchen
they leave their sisters alone to decipher their own dreams
they become ghosts before they could live.
her most persistent feeling was fatigue
fatigue that seeped deep into her bones and seized her nerves
a daily, ever present fatigue
where even a deep sigh could make her head spin
because that was the longest oxygen stayed in her lungs.
so how could she tell at the end,
between fatigue and disease?
it had been lodged in her cells all along.
in the spirit of not being afraid of my voice [both literally and figuratively], I participated in a podcast conversation about my identity as a diaspora Ethiopian. I discussed what it was like to grow up in the Ethiopian/African/immigrant concentrated D.C. area and my current relationships to my country of origin + my current home [the U.S.]. my talk with the two lovely hosts from Black Women Be Like was framed by a piece I wrote in November, monday morning blues. enjoy below or on SoundCloud.
“When I lived with my parents, I used to take long walks by myself, even when I was very young and was forbidden from doing so. I couldn’t help it. I was restless. I always felt out of place. I didn’t know it was permanent, though. I thought eventually I would find a house or a street that seemed to have been made just for me. I think I have walked more miles than just about any man I know, and I have learned that if I were to walk every day for the rest of my life, I would never find such a place. That is nothing to be sad about. Many people have it worse. They dream of belonging to a place that will never have them. I made that mistake once.”
– p. 99-100 of Dinaw Mengestu’s latest book, All Our Names
there’s a level of dissonance that comes from sitting in a new york city office desk, glancing over at a framed photograph of the poor, unlucky women I come from. in the usually creepy way of pictures, the gaze of my mother, two aunties, grandmother and cousin are fixed upon me. they’re watching me, from their distant vantage point. in this particular moment, which envelopes the past and the present all in one, we occupy worlds that could be no more different. them, sitting in front their humble home in debre sina. or maybe it’s on the grounds of the local abiye high school. I wouldn’t know for sure, I haven’t set foot in my mother’s birthtown since I was five or so.
meanwhile, I sit in a swivel chair staring out at a cold and rainy city gripped by blinding fog and myself overcome by monday morning blues. they look anchored, welcoming the camera into their world for this rare occasion of sitting for a photograph. it was probably my uncle behind that lens. and if not him then a camera person or service he arranged for his family, the exemplary one who made it out but still looked back to tend to the needs of his mother and sisters. he’s not in the frame and my grandfather had probably died by then. or maybe this was the period where he and my grandmother were no longer husband and wife, though he came back to her later toward the end of his life as he transitioned into his deathbed. she and her daughters nurtured the husband and father that left them long ago, without grudge or resentment.
from where they’re sitting, close and huddled like that, they seem to be saying to me ‘we look to you, the girl who came from us and has gone farther than any one of us could ever imagine. we’re waiting for you to become. make us proud, although you’ve already surpassed all of our wildest visions for you. this is where we belong, we are destined to this land, this house, these circumstances.
but you. you’ve already gone far, so far away from this small place. it’s almost as if you exist on a different plane. so, we’re waiting for your big news. for the names and legacies you will create for yourself, and thus for us. we were born and raised unlucky. God hasn’t blessed us with long age, wealth, or even a large many of us to keep one another company. we are a small people, in size and magnitude.
but we place in you our desires, hopes, and dreams. we labored for you, cared for you. now we are waiting. our lot in this short, predictable life has already been settled. but you, my dear, your lot is only just beginning. we can’t wait to smile down on you from heaven, and make our pride known.’
From what I can remember, my mommy hasn’t worn a uniform to work in the past 10 or so years, not even in the winter months or when she’s running late and it’d require way less thought and coordination to throw on a predetermined outfit. She insists on putting on her ’employee’ hat, literally and figuratively, only when she steps inside the cafe + specialty food market that is her workplace.
This morning, she looked especially fabulous, clad in all black, not as a fashion statement but in memory of the younger sister she lost recently (hi auntie). She styled her hair in a shapely afro that complimented her face and wore a cute pair of earrings we found on sale at Macy’s yesterday. She topped off her black top and trousers with a longish silky scarf, a mid length pea coat beautifully accented with two different textures, and comfortable flats. She could pass for someone headed to work at any number of places other than the one she was headed to.
This might seem somewhat puzzling, why a woman would put so much effort into an ensemble that will only last for the commute to and from a job that calls for a standard uniform. The way I see it, this daily practice is an act of self affirmation, to remind herself and others that she is more than what an 8-4 job and its customers, managers, and employees demand, reduce, and challenge from her. That environment saps her energy, youth, patience, and dignity because it refuses to give her back what she puts in to it, in terms of the monetary value of her labor, as well as respect, peace, and power. Sometimes she comes home drained and discouraged; and all I can do is listen to the stories, hurt and helpless to change her circumstances.
Poverty does something so profound to one’s psyche. It robs one of the ability to dream, to take chances, to demand better. Taking a step in these directions requires a cushion, a safety net to catch one if she fails in her bold quest for a more fuller humanity. Poverty makes one feel alone and unable, unwilling to confront, to leave, to experiment. So if my mommy can’t change the realities of her not much better than minimum wage, 8-hour work day, she sure can control and manipulate how she adorns and presents herself immediately before and after clocking in and out.
And anyway, she has always had a thing for fashion. I love hearing old stories from family about her stylish days. People seem to vividly remember how much pride she took in looking like the beautiful woman she is. She dressed impeccably, with her shapely pencil skirts, colorful blouses, pretty dresses, and audible heels. In a word, she was fly.
So her daily insistence on wearing the clothes she picks out and compiles herself is an active resistance of the uniform that too insists on recognizing her only as a worker, one among many. Dressing as she chooses to, instead of the way prescribed for her by corporate policy, is a means to affirm her femininity and dignity.
I love recalling a quote by writer Edwidge Danticat in which she talks about her two young daughters and how she hopes that they will understand her once they too grow into womanhood. She said,
“I can’t wait for both my daughters to be old enough to read all my books. I loved it every time I saw my parents acting like more than just my parents. And I’m looking forward to that with my daughters too. I am looking forward to having them discover me as someone completely other than their mother.”
As a woman, I’m ready to dedicate the rest of my time to fully seeing and understanding my mommy as a complex woman with memories, desires, and multiple identities because all my life I’ve only known her as my mother; she is so much more than that role alone.
I see you, momma bear. You are fierce and glorious. And because of you, I am.