by Jeanine Taylor
Papa walked in smelling like earth and fresh air. His voice penetrating the walls with strength, gentleness and love. He was my hero and if it were between loving him and drawing my next breath, it would be a tough contest. Could I really breathe without him? I stopped playing with my toy and ran in the direction on his voice. “Jada, come help me unload the vegetables from the truck. Let’s wash them as well to make it easier for your mother.” I put my shoes on as fast as I could and ran to the truck. Papa was a farmer. Highly respected in our little village in Zimbabwe. He gave more away than he kept to refugees and the poor. He was loved by everyone…except my mother.
That night we played a game of Morabaraba. Papa loved to teach me this game because it required tactical thinking. Whenever I would take a move that was too easy, he would say “Jada, there is honey, but no bees.” That was my cue to not take the free and easy way.
As the night crept upon us, I fidgeted from hunger. Papa assured me, “Hungry?” “Yes Papa”, I replied. “Well, it’s time for me to teach my son to make Papa’s relish. Ready to learn?” “Yes Papa, but where is Mama?”
“Don’t worry son. She will come.” I watched my father move through the kitchen with grace. Heating the pot. Cutting the vegetables. Adding the seasonings. He taught me every step and let me stir the pot with the large wooden spoon. The aroma of onions, tomatoes, beans, peas and young corn, smelled like home. Relish is what we call vegetable stew. It was late and my eyes were heavy as I sat over my bowl. Papa said the blessing and we ate. After dinner,Papa told me a funny tale and I went to sleep. Later, I woke on my pillow to the sound of a heart in distress. It was Papa. Crying for Mama. She did not return home that night.
Three weeks later, I was walking from school and heard a voice that sounded like my mother. It was so unfamiliar, because I was beginning to unlearn her sound. Her smell. The look about her. As discernment grew in me and I began to understand her disdain for me and my father, I was forgetting her. The mother I thought she was. As a baby, I truly thought she loved me. I was wrong.
Screams from my parents room. My mother yelling. Papa rarely raised his voice and this was no exception. He was a peacemaker. Even though my mother was not deserving of his love, that is all he wanted to do. Love her. Strange, strange woman my mother. No natural affection for her child, or her family. We were interruptions in her life. A life of fun that she was no longer a part of. And we were to blame.
I heard a rush out the door. Fast footsteps, my mother’s and my father’s. Weeping. The slam of a door. A car speeding away. Then nothing. Mama was gone.
I was 8 years old then. More and more I had witnessed this behavior from my mother over the past 3 years. My father patiently waiting for her to come to her senses. Her absences grew longer and longer. Until one day when I was 11 she came through the door. Something was different this time. My mother was a devastatingly beautiful woman. Lean arms the color of burnt copper. Almond eyes with long black lashes. A sweet face. But this time, her skin was drained of its vibrant color. Her eyes glazed and dim. Her face sickly. Papa came in to greet her. He was always happy to see her. “Son go outside for a while and let your mother rest in the house with some quiet.” I knew Papa was worried. He wanted to excuse me from hearing what was wrong with Mama, at least for now.
I stood over her resting place. I couldn’t cry. My love had stopped for her. Mama was dead. All I felt was relief. Maybe now Papa wouldn’t suffer. Maybe he could find a kinder wife who would love us back. But the next year was bad. Papa was heartsick. And stayed ill all the time. Even from the grave, my mother vexed him.
Later, I learned it was AIDS that killed my mother and father. We didn’t understand it back then. But later we knew. Love stopped for me. I was an orphan. My mother’s sister took me in. I was 5 years from finishing high school. It was the loneliest time of my life. To live with family, who I never knew I had. And learn the excruciating truth. They despised me as much, as my mother did. I was unwanted. I was a stranger. Every time I ate a meal, needed a uniform for school, or needed shoes, it caused them to lack. Over the years, I learned to smile and forget.
I watched beautiful girls, my classmates walk together laughing. Helping each other with their graduation hats and tassels. Families taking pictures. Smiling. The air was swollen with joy.
“Jada!” My friend grabbed me. “Thank you SO much for being so generous to give us your tickets. So sorry your family had to work today”, Walter said with sincerity in his voice. He walked me over to his family. Every last one of them hugged me like a son. I thought my soul would burst. I hadn’t been held since my father died.
Walking home, the evening sun caressed my shoulders. The purple blooms of the Jacaranda trees against the orange and red sunset sky, filled my eyes with wonder. On this day, the world was a soft and beautiful place. I inhaled and savored the sweet, fresh air produced by the field of wild flame lilies. I swayed and danced to the grasshopper’s song. Hope held my hand.
I could hear the crunch of the gravel beneath my feet as I walked up the road to my home. From the street, I could see a pile of things on the porch. Was auntie cleaning? The house looked eerily dark. I walked up the steps to find the things in the pile belonged to me. As I turned the doorknob, the door flung open. My auntie blocked my entry. “You graduated high school. You’re a man now. Take your things and go.” Even now, the sound of that door closing and locking echos in my mind.
There were many hardships ahead. I finally jumped the border to Capetown. Earned a scholarship to trade school. Got my licensed to be an electrician. Met a girl. Jamila. She was very young. Perhaps too young. But I fell in love with her. To my heart’s delight, we had a baby girl on the way. I wanted to marry Jamila, but she refused. She was in a 4-year college and wanted to get her degree before she married. I accepted her terms. As the baby grew bigger in her belly, I worked double hours, so the baby would have everything.
When the baby arrived, an open sky of blessings rained on me. I had a woman I loved and a baby. We were a family. I named her “Aaliyah” which means “to rise up”.
Three years later, when Jamila was about to graduate, I made plans to propose to her at her graduation. It played out like a movie in my mind, with us happily ever after.
One night, I felt Jamila’s phone vibrate on the sofa cushion next to me. A photo popped onto the screen. A text from a man and a naked selfie of them in a tub together. “We look good together. Can I see you again?” I held Aaliyah in one hand and the phone in the other. Aaliyah cooed and knocked the phone from my hand just as Jamila walked back into the room. The phone crashed to the floor. Jamila picked up the phone and couldn’t disguise her guilt as she read the text. I held the baby and watched her in silence to see what she would say. Collecting herself, Jamila said, “Shoot! I forgot I have a study group tonight! Jada I gotta run. See you later ok?” She bent down and kissed me on the cheek. I was frozen.
I looked at my daughters face. How could she possibly be more beautiful than the last time I saw her? Almond shaped eyes. Lashes long and black. Skin, a deep shade of copper. Sweetest face on earth. My daughter was the spitting image of Mama. I thanked God that I didn’t marry a woman who didn’t love me back, as Papa did. I looked into Aaliyah’s eyes and consumed a smile that came from her soul. This child loved me and I loved her. And that was enough.