Sunday Morning ~ Liwonde
June 17, 2018
Mwana wa mfulu sagona ndi njala ~ A child of a generous man does not go to sleep with an empty stomach.
I was four years old when we moved into the house on Pomciticut Ave. One of my first memories there was my mother spelling out the name of the street to people, “P-O-M” then a pause, “C-I” pause “T-I” pause, “C-U-T”. I guess the pauses were to allow people to write it down, but at the time it sounded like a little song to me. My mother was three weeks away from giving birth to my youngest brother when we moved into that house. I remember my father painting the ceilings. I remember using the toilet for the first time and having to ask him to zip up my shorts because the zipper was in the back. Very chic for a four year old, but it was 1960. Elastic waistbands were futuristic back then. They were red shorts, I remember that. The one bathroom was upstairs and the stairs (thirteen of them, I counted) were steep. I have little snapshots of memories from the first years in that house. I remember my father’s mother visiting. She was ancient to me and didn’t speak English. She always wore a black print dress that buttoned up the front with a narrow belt at the waist. When we visited her in Pittsfield I hated going into her house. It smelled funny and was dark and cluttered. She always seemed angry and yelled at us in Italian. Maybe she wasn’t yelling but it seemed so to me. She didn’t like us to touch anything. I remember the five of us standing outside fighting about who was going to go in first. I remember my brother saying, “I went in first last time!” and my father yelling from inside, “Get in here and say hello to your grandmother!” But that was at her house.
At my house, on Pomiciticut Ave, I remember her there exactly once. Maybe it was for the christening of my baby brother the week after he was born. (My poor mother. How did she do that?) I remember there was no carpet on the stairs and my sister, age one and a half, slipped and tumbled down the entire flight of uncarpeted, steep, thirteen stairs. I remember watching her from the top, her limbs flailing and her head of curly black hair flopping like a rag doll as she bumped it on each step. She was an adorable baby. Everyone loved her curly hair and big brown eyes. No one ever commented on my stringy brown hair but it seemed everyone reached out to her head and said, “Oh! That hair!” She looked like a doll and acted like one too, even falling down the stairs. I remember watching her fall thinking, “Wow, she looks just like a doll.” I also remember my grandmother standing helpless at the bottom of the stairs, with her hands over her mouth as you would when you are watching something terrible that you can’t stop. She was old. I don’t even think she could get up the stairs herself. This was from my four-year-old mind. She was probably younger than I am now but that black dress with the little white print made her look old. That, and the hair net. But I also remember thinking that she looked concerned. Like she would have done something to help if she were physically capable. I remember thinking, “Hmm, maybe she is nice.” or some four year-old version of that concept. My father came running from the kitchen and picked up my sister, and I thought, “Hmm, maybe he is nice.” She wasn’t hurt and I’m sure a few minutes later we were again unsupervised and doing something dangerous, but, like I said, it was 1960. I don’t even think safety gates were invented yet.
Another early memory I have of that house is going to bed in the room at the top of the stairs while my father was painting the ceiling in the hallway. The light was harsh––the lighting of a newly inhabited home, un-nested. No lampshade kind of light. He was on a wooden step ladder with the little ledge for the paint can. It might have been before the stair incident, I’m not sure. I just remember having to go to bed without saying goodnight to my mother. She was down in the kitchen. I remember getting into bed and my father closing the door so he could paint the ceiling in peace. I remember lying in that bed crying because I didn’t say goodnight to my mother and wasn’t sure where she was. I was unhinged. I was safe, in a comfortable bed, with sheets and blankets, in a new house with my family. I think my sister was in a crib in that room, too, sleeping nicely, like a doll. But I couldn’t settle down. I couldn’t stop crying, but being afraid of my father’s reaction, wouldn’t go back into that hallway. I just laid there and cried. At one point, I have no idea how long later, my father barged into the room and yelled, “WHAT IS THE MATTER?” I cowered and said, “I” sob “didn’t” sob “say” gasp “goodnight” sob “to” sob “mum” sob “meeee.” taking so long to choke out my message that he was getting impatient. Then my mother dashed into the room (and this is what makes me think it was after my brother was born, she couldn’t have dashed like that being so pregnant) and it was like Mother Mary herself walked in. All my troubles were over. She said, “What’s the matter?!” but said it very nicely, like she really cared that I was upset, and my father, said disgustedly (and I can understand now, as an adult, having a dripping paintbrush and a job to finish, this might be annoying, but he shouldn’t have cut corners on the bedtime routine in the first place) “Ah, she wants you.” and went back up his ladder with contempt for the sentimentality of it all. My mother said a lovely, sympathetic goodnight as she hugged me and all my anxiety and stress disappeared. I laid down and fell asleep. I remember that vividly. Instant relief. All was well. I’d gotten my bedtime hug.
I’ve been reliving that scenario this week. I can’t get it out of my mind. I am so deeply disturbed by what is happening in my country. Children are being ripped apart from their parents. In a strange land. Fleeing hardship and violence. I can’t fathom how this can be happening in my lifetime. How my country can be doing this and getting away with it? As a mother, I start to imagine my child being taken from me and the thought is so horrifying I can’t even go there. So I go to this childhood memory of basic human need for love and security.
I’m camping this weekend at Liwonde National Park. George is in the states for his Fulbright orientation. Our friends Chris and Sarah arrived from UK to work on a project in Kasungu for two weeks and I met them here for the weekend. As I was setting up my tent yesterday, I thought of how much I love camping. I owe that to my father. Picking the spot, laying out the tent, opening up the sleeping bag, it’s all comforting to me. Even though our camping trips as kids were difficult and fraught with, what would now be considered downright abuse, I learned a lot. (It was the ’60’s) I got the bug for adventure and skill for resourcefulness. I’m incredibly grateful for that.
I’m sitting up in one of the outlooks as the sun comes up. Birds are singing all over the place but George isn’t here to identify their songs. So I just listen. It doesn’t matter to me that I don’t know the composer of music I like. I hear stirrings in the camp. People are getting ready to go on a game drive but I’ll pass today. I’ll finish this and grade mid-term exams until my friends return. I’ve only got a short time left here.
So, good news this week:
Malawi banned plastic bags this week.
Our midwifery ward is approved.
I may get to come back for three months next year.
Our South Africa visit was written up in the East London newspaper and it lent huge credibility to our project.
I met someone who wants to work on promoting a women’s cooperative and she’s happy to take the Tiyamike group to the next level.
A couple will move into our house in September and keep our guards so they won’t lose their jobs when we leave.
There are good things happening in this world. I’m trying to focus on that.
I’ve got one more week of work at the nursing school and then one in Lilongwe finishing up administrative stuff. In twelve days we’ll be off on our camping trip through Namibia.
Love to all,