Africa · Brothers · Dad · Daughters · Memoires · Musings · Relationships · travel

My Brother, The Red-Indian

My father was larger than life.

I was a shrimp of a kid and he, a stately 6’2″. Everything about him was gargantuan: his body, his booming voice, his gigantic spirit… He made his presence known before he was seen. He inspired deep seated anxiety without saying a word. In his presence I averted my eyes automatically and my ears pounded at the thumping of my little heart.  Fear and respect meant the same thing with him – he wielded them as one.

He knew everyone and was known by all in our little town. I never met anyone he was afraid of.  I have memories of him frequently holding court in our living room. Disputing relatives or friends sought him out for mediation. He heard every side fairly and declared swift judgements, his was the final word.

I had an insatiable need to stare at  him. I would hide behind a piece of furniture or person and study him, wide-eyed with awe: his flaring nostrils, the wrinkles on his regal forehead, his perfectly lined ivory teeth, his grand hands that moved with calculated grace and regency. He had a fabulous sense of humor and a cannonade of a laugh. I would lean in when he laughed, and find myself smiling. He spoke his mind with confidence, wisdom, and fantastic wit. He was never afraid to offend.

Now that I’m an adult we have fostered a great friendship. We are separated by thousands of miles and decades now.  About ten years ago, he and mum came to visit me in the States. Before their arrival he repeatedly told me that he had a plan.

“I want to visit the Red Indian.” Not till the day I die will I  ever get used to crazy things he says.

“Dad,” I said. “You can’t say Red Indian. Say Native American or just Indian.”

“Okay,” He would say.

When they arrived after hours of air travel, we hugged and laughed and hugged again. We had an animated chat on the way to the car as he regaled us with accounts of their travels. “They were the skinniest bloody Pakistani man and woman I have ever seen,” he said, describing fellow travelers. “She talked non-stop like a machine and I had to keep getting her luggage. She didn’t eat any of the food in the airplane. Three meals! Can you imagine? She brought their food. And when the air-hostesses brought out our food, I had to get theirs from that dirty green bag in the overhead. There were 8 identical lunch boxes. No sooner would I sit down then she would say, “A thousand apologies, not this one, Bwana, other one!”” He mocked her namaste and bobbing head.

“Here I am folded in my tight seat like a pretzel,” he continued, “and I have to unfold myself, get back into the dirty green bag and find the right lunchbox. Can you imagine? And do you know she had the spiciest curry which she ate talking the whole time. She took a bite and her nose started running. Then she put her spoon in the dish, loaded it with curry and handed it to me to eat. Can you imagine? All I could think was, ‘that’s going to hurt going in and coming out.’ I didn’t touch it.”

“Then the next meal I had to do the same thing, I hand her a lunch box and she says,  “A thousand apologies, not this one Bwana, other one please.” But when she opened it, it was the  bloody same curry.” He threw his hands up in exasperation and we laughed our heads off. We stuffed his luggage in the trunk.

“Next time you must bring a big boot for my bags, Hannah.” He chided as he folded himself into the passenger seat.

“I love Oregon. Now Hannah, you remember I need to go and see the Red Indian.”

I leaned forward from the back seat and grabbed his shoulder. “Dad!” I said sternly, “I told you they are not called Red Indians.”

“Oh,” he said. “A thousand apologies…” namaste and all.

Every morning I awoke and made them breakfast, so grateful for the dream of having them in my home. The days were flying and I was already dreading their departure. Each day we would have some version of, “Is today the day we see the Red Indian?”

“Dad!” I would  glare at him, “First of all, you can’t say that. Second of all you don’t know any. It’s not like you just walk up someplace and find Red Indians waiting for you, sheesh!”

“Oh, sorry,” he would say with exaggerated humility. Everyday for 2 weeks

During their stay, he and mum discovered garage-sales and loved them. He was amazed that individuals just set out tables and their stuff and people came to buy it. He bought loads of stuff at each one and was always very pleased with himself. He would hold up a new-found treasure and say, “Can you believe?” His favorite find was a coon-skin hat that he proceeded to wear everywhere he went. Both he and mum became extremely astute at spotting garage-sale signs. “There, there, garage!” They would say excitedly at the siting of a roadside sign. I started to worry about all the stuff they were collecting and how they were going to get it home.

Regarding the matter of the “Red Indian”, my husband and father-in-law decided that what we needed was a day trip to the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon to visit Kah-Nee-Tah, an Indian run resort. Dad had a long sleepless night. He was like a kid the night before Christmas.

We left early and had a great trip east towards Mt. Hood. We stopped at Timberline Lodge to show him the magnificent building and area. He didn’t pay much attention. After a few photos and a bathroom break, he was back in the car. “I don’t want to keep them waiting.” We all laughed at him that “they” were waiting for him. He marveled at and kept a running commentary on the change in terrain and climate as we descended on the east side. Dad got quieter when we pointed out the reservation sign and as we drove the last few miles. He stared at the beautiful cliffs and the desert scrub-brush. “Just like in the films,” he said quietly pulling a little plastic comb from his shirt pocket. He combed his hair and readjusted his coon-skin hat. Stroking its tail and studying every bush and rock, he muttered, “Just like in the films.”

When we finally arrived at the resort, he waved enthusiastically at the lady at the pay booth. He noted that she wasn’t very friendly. ‘No matter,’ he thought, ever hopeful. We were tired, cramped, and ready to stretch.

“This is nothing like I remember as a kid,” my husband remarked, worsted, when we got out of the car.

“No,” my father-in-law agreed. “It’s all concrete and metal now.” Even the row of tee-pees were of metal.

We were woebegone. We’d expected to find Indians everywhere,  living their life, but only a handful of regular looking, bored young-adult workers milled around on their cell-phones. We had a quiet disappointing lunch, moped around the dry, dusty property and piled back into the car an hour later, chapfallen.

“Why would they bloody make us come to a place like this?” Dad said, as he shut the car door with more force than was necessary. No one bothered to answer him.

We couldn’t believe we’d driven several hours just for this and would be returning home disappointed. No one said much, each one nursing their own grudge at this plight. All of a sudden, from the back seat, mum erupted, “There, there, garage!”

The car had learned to swerve into garage sales and it did not fail us this time. We turned a tight right onto a gravel road where the red paper plate with shoddy hand-writing directed. Their spirits rose significantly.

“More junk,” I thought to myself, disgusted. “Just great!”

We bumped along and presently came up to a small run-down house beyond a rusty barbed-wire fence on which sat a large blue-jay which scolded us then took wing. We pulled in slowly and gazed at a single plastic folding table with a few items on it. Dad was  out before the car came to a stop. I scrambled out after him to remind him not to the say the darned words.

There were little children everywhere, kicking a ball made of stuffed plastic bags. They came racing to the table at our arrival, yelling, “Customers, customers!”

A very large woman stood promptly behind the table and straightened her ample skirts and long silver hair at the arrival of customers. She reached forward nervously and rearranged items on the table without looking at them. She had large eyes that sparkled and a huge smile that lit up her wrinkled face.

“Hi,” She said and cleared her throat.

I finally caught up to dad and tapped him on the shoulder, he took off the coon-skin hat and held it in deference, bowing his regal head slowly. He was entranced.

“My name is Thuku,” he began, standing so close to the table that he bumped it slightly. The lady rearranged it absently.

He dropped his voice an octave and said, “I have come to see The Red Indian.” He leaned in further, raised his head, and reached out his hand to shake hers.

“Oooooh God,” I groaned. “I don’t want to die like this!”

The rest of our group was just getting to the table. The kids gathered around and circled us curiously, staring from one person to the other then chattering excitedly to each other.

The lady gasped and clutched her bosom, taken aback. Then, absent-mindedly rearranging the table again, she hollered, “Hawk!! Go get your father.” She whisked a fly off her sculpted face with a nervous hand.

How many times had I told him?? This was terrible and about to get worse. I tried to nudge him and make eye-contact but he wouldn’t look at me.

One of the kids darted off like an arrow, flying through the thin door, which slammed and rattled the whole house. It swung freely one way, then made a dull wham as it opened again. “I told you not to slam the…” She yelled but I didn’t hear any more.

The doorway was suddenly darkened by Goliath. He wore a sleeveless undershirt and held a beer can in his hand. He stooped at the doorway to avoid hitting his head and scratched his belly as he took a giant step over the threshold. I became very light-headed  and everything started to happen in slow-motion.

The lady pointed awkwardly at dad, not sure what to say. Before I knew it, dad stood before him, clutching the coon-skin hat to his chest in deference. “My name is Thuku. I came aaaaaaall the way from A-fri-ca to meet my brother – The Red Indian.” He dropped his head in a dramatic reverent bow and reached out his hand. He had said “Africa” as though it had a hundred syllables and was accompanied by  a thousand thundering drums from the motherland.

The man paused and stroked on his long silver braid then got a strange look on his face. He put the beer in his left hand and reached out his massive paw to shake dad’s hand, which was stroking his coon-hat tail.  They shook hands for a long time, eyes locked, then  grabbed each other in an embrace.

“My name is Fire-Maker Wings. I welcome you, my brother.”

I was dumbfounded AND stupefied. Can you believe?

Dad was ushered into the house and the rest of us were invited in. Our eyes took a minute to adjust to the dark room after the bright sun. Fire-Maker turned off a football game he was watching on a wall-sized television and sat next to dad. The rest of us looked around at each other rather dazed and shrugged our shoulders. He turned to introduce his wife Ayita who stood at the doorway, wringing her hands. “It means first to dance,” he added beaming.

He spoke to her in a language I didn’t understand and she hurried out of the room followed by the troop of children. In no time, they returned with glasses, sodas, and a couple of beers; and proceeded to serve us.

The children sat among us and Ayita sat by mum. I looked around as though watching a movie. ‘This is crazy,’ was all I could think. My eyes came to rest on dad. Presently, he and Fire-Maker were leaning forward in their seats talking to each other in hushed tones. They looked intently into each others’ eyes, listening, then speaking, all the while nodding their heads, then listening again. I caught snippets of their conversation and was transported many miles and decades, to being a child, secretly watching dad from behind a piece of furniture, entranced by his large presence, his big spirit. It was a sacred interchange. Their large hands gestured as in a solemn dance. They discussed politics, history, and culture. They talked about reservations and colonialism. They talked about the past and the future.

Time was flying and soon it was time for us to leave.  Fire-Maker sent Hawk to the next room. Hawk returned with a wooden chest from which our host unpacked items wrapped in tissue paper. Indian dolls, miniature totems, pieces of decorated leather, and beads. He showed them to dad then to the rest of us. Then he walked us to a shed outside the house where he opened another chest. He slowly unpacked his porcupine roach head-dress, placed it on dad’s head, and showed him how to dance in it. He unfolded a gorgeous red shawl with an eagle emblem and draped it on mum’s shoulder. It was simply magical!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dad beamed from ear to ear all the way home.

Who knew?

Africa · Anxiety · Childhood · Cows · culture · Faith · Family · Farming · Fear · Goodbye · Grief · Memoires · Military · Parenting · Prayer · Relationships · Separation · Spiritual · travel

Together Forever – Thwarted

goodbyeI.

Today the Rancher separated the 3 calves from the mothers to wean them. They are across a fence from each other. The mothers moo forlornly for their young who are frolicking carefree in the next field. Even while they chew, the heart-sick mother’s moo. It’ll be a long week hearing their pathetic bellowing.

Curly

II.

Precious family friends bid farewell to their dear son today. He joined the US Army. They dropped him off at the recruitment center, were able to stay only a few minutes, and that was goodbye. He was instantly distracted with protocol and procedures, his eager heart racing as information and orders were flung at him in rapid fire. His life will never be the same. Thank you for serving our country Dustin.

usarmy

They must be reeling. Was it a silent ride home. Unspoken fears. Is anyone even able to  complete a sentence? What a long ride, everyone engrossed in their thoughts… Their world now plays in slow motion, pauses and rewinds erratically. They are transported to a new existence without him.

Parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles are all breathing deeply and sensing an undefinable loneliness. Their faith and love hold them strong. They know he will be strong. They know he will be used to be a source of encouragement and strength to many. They know he will hurt, and grow, and serve, and grow. They pray they will see him again. The tears flow freely.

 

It will never be the same.

III.

lufthansa

It’s midnight and I sit in my airplane seat athwart the aisle from an excitable lady who speaks loudly to anyone who will listen. She sits and stands several times, each time taking down her massive luggage from the overhead bin, retrieving an item or other, then asking the next person walking up or down the aisle to return it for her. Each time she held her hands in Namaste at them and bobbles her head in gratitude. She would settle in and get comfortable but in no time, she was up again. This was going to be  a long trip!

It was my first time in an airplane and here I was flying clear across the world. I looked out of the narrow window at the twinkling lights way, way below. The engines whirred in the background and my ears hurt from the pressure. I saw my face in the reflection and I remembered my dear family at the airport, noses and hands plastered to the other side of the cold glass when they’d taken me as far as security allowed. I’d touched my nose and hands to each one, and we mouthed our farewells. So close, yet so far. My mind swirled with mixed emotions as I clutched my blue carry on-luggage with BOAC written on it in large bold letters. My dad had owned that bag for close to twenty years and took it on all his oversees travels.

I couldn’t believe I was leaving. Where was I going? Weren’t there colleges back home? How does one even navigate an airport. I would be navigating 4 international ones in twenty four hours. How would I know if I was flying the wrong way? What was I doing? Who’s great idea was this? I had turned back to see them for the last time. Some were crying, some where covering their mouths in shock, some staring in disbelief. I pulled down the white plastic window cover and tried, in vain, to get comfortable in the small seat. I fiddled with the the seat belt and watched the safety videos studiously.

Dustin leaving today make me think of what that drive home, twenty four years ago, must have been like for my family. A couple of quick decades and a child is ready to take off on their own into the big wide world? What on Earth!

Did they say much in the crowded car? Did dad try to break the silence with bad jokes that fell flat and they returned to the strained silence? I remembered my parents’ words: Find God’s people and you’ll be okay; you are strong; the Lord is with you. I knew they were praying and that was like their collective arms around me, blessing me, sending me out into what was unknowable to them but part of a beautiful plan of an all-knowing God for my life. And He could be trusted.

What was it like to pull into the gates at home? I know how it’s been when I pull into the property for the funeral of a family member. Even the air feels different. It’s just not right. A huge piece of the whole is missing. What was it like for them to walk into my mostly empty room? I’d given most of my stuff away and packed my essentials into a green and black plaid suitcase dad gave me. Did their hearts feel like my sparse room? It’s like an empty shell after a critter molts and leaves it.

In the words of Ritu Ghatourey, “Goodbyes make you think. They make you realize what you’ve had, what you’ve lost, and what you’ve taken for granted.”
And life is never the same…
Africa · Childhood · Drunks · Kenya · Kiambu · Memoires · Short story · We've All Done It

A letter to Miki

Happy birthday Miki,

I remember when I turned 8, a long time ago.

I didn’t say much to adults.  I learned not to attract attention and to try and stay out of their way. Children weren’t supposed to say much. I was a wee little thing, the smallest in my class. I loved my friends and school and laughed a lot. They called me fun-size!

At the Four Corners that marked the halfway point of my long walk home after school was an open air market. Women spread out their  lesos on the red dirt and laid their wares on them, mostly succulent tropical fruit.

I carried a huge orange backpack that my brother Mick had given me and wore braces on my teeth. People stared at me and shameless women would say, “Look at that minikin with a massive bag and wires in her teeth.” One loud woman said it every day! She was enormous and wore a dirty wrinkled headscarf to contain and hide her lumpy unkempt hair, which stuck out the edges as though it was trying to run away from her.  Who could blame it? She chewed on sugar cane and loudly slurped its sweet juice. She stared at me unabashedly and unintelligently, the way a black cow stares vacantly at passers by beyond a fence as she chews the cud.

I would never buy sugar cane from her. Not this minikin! Her space was dirty and unkempt like her hair. She spit her dry sugar cane fibers right on the ground and the ants had a party. With the shilling that mum had given me that morning, I would buy a mango from the lady two lesos down . If Jane Munio walked home with me, we would stop at Mrs. Kimana’s grocery shop and buy a strawberry sweet to suck on the rest of the way home. We would lick our dry lips with the delicious syrup and slurp our sweet at the annoying lady.

“Greet you mother for me,” Mrs. Kimana would say with a warm smile when I stepped up to the worn concrete step, gawking and salivating at the row of pretty sweets in large glass jars. I stood on tippy-toe and streeeetched to hand her my shilling when I made my choice.  She always gave me an extra sweet. A cheap one with no wrapping on it. I would eat that one first. Sometimes she’d say, “That’s a very big rucksack for a small girl.” I’d smile and cover my mouth in a futile attempt to hide my braces, that were as discreet as I had the orange backpack in my mouth. She never said I had wires in my teeth. I seldom remembered to greet  mum and Mrs. Kimana would chide me gently when she came to visit mum and learned I didn’t deliver her greetings.

Sometimes it would rain hard and Mrs. Kimana would let us shelter under the canopy at her shop. The monsoon rain only dumped for a few minutes at a time. Like a sudden plague of frogs, people would scamper in all directions, jumping over puddles that formed in the potholes in the street. Stylish women strutting down the road one minute, set aside all dignity at the first raindrop and scurried as if for their lives to find cover so their hair didn’t get wet. Some even took off their tight high heels, grabbed their skirts, and ran to join the crowd under a tree or Mrs. Kimana’s cover. I weasled my way to the back of the crowd to make room, though I didn’t occupy much, and to avoid statements like, “If that little girl didn’t have such a big bag we could fit two more people here.”

Jane and I would looked at each with glee as we relished our sweets. Sometimes we took them out of our mouths and held them in our hands in joyful disbelief at their intense goodness. Such goodness as had to be tasted AND seen. We showed them to each other in wonder and studied each others. Sometimes we looked at each other knowingly, wide-eyed, and without words, traded the sticky mess in our dirty palms. More wide-eyed our jaws dropped at the intoxicating blend of flavors. We finished off the sacred ritual by licking the remaining syrup on our hands. That. was. amazing!

When the rain abated, we would thank Mrs. Kimana and attempt, unsuccessfully, to walk  lightly on the red mud and not get it all over our light blue and white checkered school uniform. Little rivulets would flow and we hopped over those and the puddles, giggling delightedly. I still remember the fresh smell of the charged air. Sometimes thunder would roll in the distance and Jane and I would scream and bolt when the loud lightning cracked.

We held sticky hands and crossed the busy road then unconsciously slowed our pace and stopped. We leered curiously at Mr. Washington’s property. At the front was a small butchery. The butcher hacked away expertly at the carcass that hung from the hook in the rafters, his long sharp machete  glistening like the lightning, and flashing back and forth as fast. His torn white coat was covered in black and red blood stains and he didn’t bother to shoo the flies feasting on the goat meat in the afternoon heat. The sticky tape on the ceiling was dotted with mostly dead flies, like raisins. Some were still buzzing, determined to get away from the trap if they had to leave their six legs on it.  He held a thin home-made cigarette in his mouth and sang loudly through the side of his mouth, like Popeye, accompanying music from a static-y bright green radio behind the counter.

Beyond the butchery was our real object of interest. Loud rhythmic music was coming from a bar. It was a large, dimly lit room from which the odious stench of stale beer emanated. It was a smell we knew was putrid but couldn’t help raising our noses to get a small whiff of. It was horrid, just like the day before. It was helped only by the waft of roasting goat meat.

We leaned in and saw people in various stages of drunkenness and ogled at what they were doing. We stretched our necks wondering who we might recognize. We were especially entranced with drunk women. Patrons staggered about, their eyes at half mast. We thought it was so funny to watch their bobble-heads lolling sluggishly over their limp bodies, their eyes tracking four seconds behind as they ordered yet another Tusker. Their speech slurred and incomprehensible like they had rocks in their mouth.

We lived to see a drunk person staggering out of the building and maybe falling. Or to hear one attempt to give a speech, their wagging forefinger pontificating in slow motion. This was to punctuate a very important point which they surprisingly forgot partway through their discourse. They stood in a stupor, leaning too far to one side and swaying dangerously,  hoping the important point would come back to them. It never did. “Anyway,” they would say, their heavy head suddenly jolting forward, opening their eyes very wide and staring at their hand that was still in the air, as though wondering what it was doing up there.

“What are you looking at?” the butcher would shatter our shenanigans, scaring us out of our skins. We screamed like little school girls and ran, scared silly, as though all the drunks were chasing us, and I would think, “I really need a smaller bag.”

I wonder what kind of mischief you’ll get into on your short walk home, Miki. Eight is a wonderful age. Cherish your friends.

I love you dearly,

Aunty Hannah.

In memory of my precious bosom buddy Jane Muniu who died too young. I thank God for your sweet short life.

Tusker

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/wrinkle/