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By the time my mother was 30, she’d left her native town of Swansea, Wales. She was working as a midwife in London when she decided to move to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. There, she worked as a midwife and even delivered the grandchildren of the then-emporer, Haile Selassie. She also met a young American who was there teaching English. They got married, traveled the world on their honeymoon. Since in those days, airplane rides were shorter, not to mention that the Ethiopian government was paying, they went everywhere—Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Britain (to meet her parents), America (to meet his), Hawaii, Japan, Thailand, India, and back to Ethiopia.
By the time they returned, she was already pregnant. They had 2 boys in rapid succession; the first born in hospital in Addis, the second born at home in the high green hills of the Gondor region, which are now part of Eritrea. They traversed the entire coast of Africa, went round the whole continent on a tramp steamer because it was cheaper, and spent much of the trip successfully preventing my brothers from falling through the railing into the water far below.
My mother’s health was suffering though, so the family decided to return to the West. They lived in England for 4 years before the traveling bug bit again, and they moved to Beirut, Lebanon. Again, my dad taught English, but this time my mother stayed home with the boys. In her mid-40s by this point, she found herself expecting again. I was born in
Beirut. It was the late 60s by this point, and war was looming. Before I was even 1, the family was evacuated.
For various reasons, they decided not to return. Initially we lived with my grandparents in Swansea, but my dad decided to further his education, so we ended up in Oregon by the time I was 3. We moved quite a few times, including up to Canada at one point, so that I have childhood memories of cycling home to avoid thunderstorms, prairie sunsets, summer camping in the Rockies near Banff.
Although she was of course older than most of my friends’ parents, she always seemed young for her age. People never guessed her age right. She said I kept her young, and there was truth in that—seeing me, they’d take 10 years off her age. I remember when I was 5 or so, I asked how old she was. Knowing I was certain to share with the world her answer (I was always rather vocal), she told me, “29.” I believed her—why would my own mother lie to me?!—and on her next birthday, I assumed she was 30.
She also messed with my budding theological knowledge. I begged and begged for a baby sister. “Why don’t you pray and ask Jesus?” she told me, declining to mention that she’d had a hysterectomy by that point. When as a young adult I confronted her with this, she giggled guiltily. And now, I do the same thing to my daughter, telling her if God wants her to have a sister he’ll give her one, not mentioning the birth control.
When I was eight, her mother had a stroke, and Mum and I went to Wales to nurse her. We were gone nearly 3 months. I went to the local school, suffered the humiliation of those curious underpants they called gym uniform, ate tasteless-but-hot school dinners, learned Welsh phrases in Welsh class. I still remember what the Welsh teacher looked like. They didn’t make me buy the uniform since I was only temporary, but secretly I longed to wear the grey-and-burgundy school tie. I thought it was cool.
My father died suddenly when I was 15, and my mother had to be both parents to me, the only child left at home. My brothers were both finished with college by that point. One of them moved back home (Seattle at that point) to help look after us. Over the next few years, we had more than our share of fights—she wanted to keep me home more; I was ready to move on. But she was always a huge presence in my life.
When my kids were born, she was living in Portland and helped out a lot. When Elliot was a baby, I had a job that required me to go into the office one day a week. It was great—I just dropped him off at Grandma’s, where he was thoroughly spoiled. When the twins came along, I quit my job and went freelance, and Mum came over every day to hold a baby, distract a toddler, fold laundry, and generally help. She was in her 70s at this point, but always seemed younger—full of energy, looking in her early 60s, etc.
In the fall of 2000, she visited her brother in Wales. He’s a doctor. He called my brother in Seattle to tell him that he suspected she had Parkinson’s. It wasn’t a huge shock—we’d already begun to notice some shakiness. My brothers and I debated back and forth over whether he should tell her then—advantages: in person, disadvantages: she could obsess about it during the whole long, lone plane ride—or wait till she was home. We finally told him to wait. He called her during Thanksgiving, when we were all with her. She talked to him, hung up the phone, and didn’t tell mention it to any of us.
She was diagnosed just before we left for Mauritania. By the time we came home for our first visit, my brothers had already moved her into assisted living. That was 2 years ago.
I saw her last week for the first time since we came home this time, and was shocked at how much ground she had lost in the last 2 years. She can’t get out of chairs on her own anymore; needs a cane for steadiness; tires easily. When we visit together, instead of both chatting non-stop, we just sit there, stare out of windows.
I help her take a shower, and remember that time when she nursed her own mother. I wonder if she’s thinking about it, if at that time she imagined this, and of course I think of my own daughter and wonder if, someday, she will need to help me like this. “I never thought I’d be so helpless,” my mother says to me, a little shakily. “You’re not helpless, you just need some help,” I tell her. I’m angry that she doesn’t fight the disease harder—I suspect she spends a lot of time just sitting in her room, watching TV. On the other hand, her family is far-flung now—one brother moved to Iowa, me in
Africa. I think she’s depressed, but I don’t know how to help in the long run.
We go back in September. I love her. Already, I miss her.
The sunset was amazing last night. The entire sky was filled with stripes of brilliant coral clouds, with rays of darker purple emanating from the setting sun. My soul rejoiced.
“Wow! Kids, look at that!” I said, wanting them to share this moment with me.
“Yeah, it’s just like when Anakin and Obi-Wan are fighting in the 3rd Star Wars…” came the dreamy response from the back seat.
We were eating s’mores, round a fire with another family. I’m right-handed, so I held the stick over the fire with my right hand and slid the marshmallow off between the graham crackers with my left. Then I started eating it. It felt strange to be eating with my left hand. It’s so very rude in Mauritania to do that. I glanced around, and noticed that no-one else was eating with their left hand!! Logically, I know that Americans don’t care which hand you eat with. Places that care have 2 characteristics: they eat with their hands and they don’t use toilet paper. But, I thought frantically, what if I’ve forgotten and it is a little rude? “Donn,” I muttered out of the corner of my mouth. “It’s ok to eat with my left hand, isn’t it?” He gave me the strangest look, and nodded, eyebrows raised. Sigh.
Elliot turned 11. “We’ll sing Happy Birthday, first in English, then in French,” I announced. Except no one else at this particular party needed to sing in French, or in Arabic, or the strange disco version (Happy Birthday to you—cha! cha! cha!) that shows up at every party in Mauritania, on tape. Sigh.
We needed to stop by the bank. It was about 12:30. “They’ll be closed for lunch; we might as well wait,” I said. Again, the strange looks. Apparently, businesses don’t close for lunch here, or on Sundays either for that matter. Sigh.
We are staying with friends who don’t have internet, so I haven’t been able to blog for a while, or read anyone else’s blogs. But we’re home; we’re in that part of the world where we physically feel the most at home, where the hills and the trees and the streets are recognizable. We drive past the bookstores and coffee shops, through the rain-drenched forests, along winding streams.
The day we drove up I-5 into Oregon, we could see the horizon-covering cloud for miles ahead. We crossed the state border, that arbitrarily-drawn line stretching across the Siskyous, and immediately the skies were grey. The temperature dropped 11 degrees. It was funny in both senses; weird and amusing at the same time. I loved it; Donn, native Californian, wasn’t quite so sure.
Today it’s rainy. Our friends say, “Oh what a bummer.” We say, “Look! It’s raining!” The kids dance in it, stick their tongues out, track mud into the house. It’s the rainy season in Mauritania too, but I don’t miss it. I just got an email from my friend there—it’s 118 degrees and sandstorms. July, August and September are humid in Nouakchott; sticky and heavy, oppressive.
It is not uncommon throughout the year to see rain clouds form, see the streaks that mean rain is falling, but the rain doesn’t arrive—it evaporates before it even hits the ground. In the desert, even the air is thirsty. When the rain does come, the first thing you see is a wall of red dust, drawn up from earth to heaven. Suddenly it all falls, choking, swirling, blinding, followed immediately afterwards by the rain bucketing down, pouring down, swirling, choking, blinding. Mauritanians rush for shelter, where they finger prayer beads and close their eyes. Everyone scampers to get any washing in; between the dust-filled wind and the rain, clothes left out will have to be re-washed. The children and I, Oregonians at heart, tend to rush out into it. We can’t help it; we are programmed to love rain. We are instantly soaked, mud-covered. Then, just as suddenly as it began, the rain is gone. It doesn’t drizzle on for hours, gently covering everything in a soft grey mist. In Mauritania, rain is dramatic, not comfortable.
The rain is messy. The ground, dry sand, cracked mud, forms terrible puddles, practically small lakes. Sewer systems overflow. Roofs leak. In the poorer parts of town, a good rainstorm is definitely a mixed blessing at best. Sometimes people lose their homes altogether; their pots and pans bob in the puddles, their flimsy roofs collapse. However, good rainstorms tend to be rare. In a typical year, it might rain 4-6 times and that’s it.
Last year was unusual. On several occasions, it rained for hours. We would sit outside on our porch, looking over our green yard, listening to the rain drip down. The air was steamy with moisture—like we were in a jungle. I’ve actually learned, in Mauritania, to dislike rain—after rain there, you’re miserable. The air is so wet you feel you could wring it out, and your skin is prickly in the heat. But rain is still a gift; it brings grass for the animals to eat, keeps people alive.
Back to today. It’s after lunch now, and the sky is a bit brighter. The drizzle has stopped. In our friend’s front garden, roses and daisies, lavender and lilies drip moisture. The air smells wonderful. It’s great to be home.
Today is not only America’s official birthday, but also my friend’s. I won’t tell you how old she is as she could easily get revenge on me on my birthday. And no, she says she didn’t think the fireworks were just for her when she was a kid. She just started a blog herself, at www.portlanderinla.blogspot.com if you want to tell her Happy Birthday.
We left the California desert yesterday. We hear Donn’s parents are having a hard time adjusting to the silence. Last night, we stopped by Oprah’s house to tell her about Oasis, see if she wants to contribute some magazines. I’ll let you know.
In the meantime, we are staying with friends in Santa Barbara. I love how this part of California smells—of juniper, cypress, wild sage in the hills, a tang of salt in the air. Today the kids and I went on a hike through the forest. We plunged into a mountain pool, where the water tumbled over boulders and fallen logs. I pondered how amazing this would be for our Mauritanian friends. In his memoir Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupery has a great description of taking some desert people to France, and showing them a spring. They were dumbfounded, and later made some comment about how the God of the French was amazingly generous, giving his people more water than they could use. I can’t remember the exact comment, and don’t have the book with me to look it up. Sorry.
It’s been a great day so far—we’re off to enjoy fireworks over the pier at the beach.
The kids are having fun with pavement. I mentioned that everything in Southern California is covered in asphalt, but in many ways, that is true of this country as a whole. In Nouakchott, only a few streets are paved. I don’t know anyone who lives on a paved road. The unmarked sandy routes twist and wind their way past houses and shops, embassies and businesses. More and more streets are being paved, but even now the headquarters of the European Union are on an extremely bumpy unpaved road, where taxis daily bog down in the soft sand.
Sand is fine as far as it goes, but it’s not so great for toys like scooters, skateboards and bikes. (It’s also not so great for electronic equipment, but that’s another subject) We have a short paved walkway in front of our house, so they ride up and down there, but it’s not great practice. Friday evening we visited friends and the kids had a blast, riding up and down the cul-de-sac on bikes and scooters.
Saturday, we took them to see Superman Returns. They were very excited, as this was their first American theater experience. Nouakchott has 2 sort-of theaters. One is at the French Cultural Center and is sort of like a big school auditorium, used to show movies, but also for concerts, for ballet recitals, etc. The other, the Galaxy, is the closest thing to a real movie theater. It shows second-run (or third run) French films, and one English film a week. The movies are, well, unusual. We saw Two Towers there and it was obviously a pirated version; every time Legolas came on-screen, FOR CONSIDERATION would flash at the bottom. We theorized that it was a version for a member of the board that chooses the Academy Awards, as it was a couple of months after that. The Galaxy also showed the Passion of the Christ (a lot of Muslims we know were interested in anything touted as anti-Semetic). Evidently, someone had gone to a theater in
France with a camcorder and filmed the screen, as every so often a head would appear!
So we were very excited to go to a multi-plex. Abel couldn’t believe how many showings there were per day, and that you could go in the afternoon. He’s a huge Superman fan, and in fact is planning it as a career option. We hurried the kids past the concession stand ($5 for a small drink??? In our part of the world, that’s a day’s wage!) and settled into our seats to enjoy the 30 minutes of commercials (What??? Since when?) and previews. Then, the movie started. The kids quivered in anticipation. Suddenly, the screen went blank, the lights came up. The electricity had gone out!! I had been whispering to my friend how unlike Mauritania this was, and I had to back-track quickly. This was exactly like Mauritania!
Fortunately, the generator kicked on, and we were able to finish the movie. It was LOUD, exciting and larger-than-life. We all enjoyed it immensely.
It’s been 2 weeks since we left Nouakchott, and we are adjusting to Southern California. There’s a lot here that’s nice. Southern California does two things—asphalt and palm trees—but they do them very well. Everywhere you go, you will find asphalt and palm trees. Parking lots stretch for miles, row upon row of parked cars, but above it all the palm fronds wave in the breeze.
I am rather fond of palm trees. I remember the first time I saw them. They amused me so much, these long skinny trunks with floppy tops—like Dr. Seuss trees. It took me a few years to realize that probably they inspired Dr. Seuss, rather than it just being a happy coincidence. 🙂 Here in this small desert town east of LA, there are 6 planted right next to each other in the space of a single storefront. Their slender trunks sway as the trucks roar past; far above the street, their shaggy tops quiver in sympathy. Donn, a photographer, has been inspired by the varied textures of species of palm tree trunks, and through the years has assembled quite a collection of photographs of bark; he’s always said that creation provides the source of abstract art.
I am enjoying the sun, my inlaw’s pool (the twins and I are all bleaching out into the California blonde look, complete with sunburned shoulders; Donn and Elliot, blessed with a slightly darker skin tone, have great tans), air-conditioning as a break from the heat. The kids are thrilled to taste again the joys of root beer and Cheetos (Elliot said, “This is the life.”). The adults are more excited about Ben & Jerry’s, good coffee, and other things that don’t involve quite so many chemical additives. We’re enjoying our time with Donn’s parents, and other local friends. Everything is still too big, too bright, too fast, but we also appreciate the variety available, and the low, low prices compared to overseas.
But this week, Donn and I had to go to Colorado for 3 days—organizational debriefing with our NGO, necessary but exhausting—and I found myself responding to the variety of trees. Pines, maples, poplars, birches, all green leaves, luscious grass, blue mountains in the distance. It reminded me of where my heart is this summer—in the NW. I can’t wait to get there. We leave Monday.