Thursday, March 11, 2010


lines from alfabet by Inger Christensen, translated by Susanna Nied

In the email queue this morning, from my friend:

I look to nature for clues as to what we really are, primates prefer peace over violence and they express compassion. Even mice express compassion. I hold with the idea that peace is the desire of every heart, it is just our limited understanding of what it takes to get there that gets in the way.
In the comments to an earlier post, from my other friend:
Kind people are everywhere.

So I will tell you about Genet with whom I sat as my grandmother was dying.

Genet ran a group home for severe cases of Alzheimer's near where my aunt Jan and uncle Jack live in Seattle. My sister had spent the summer with Jan and Jack, coming over each morning to take care of Grandma, spending the days talking with Genet as they dressed and fed and sat with the women there in the home.

During that summer, Genet taught my sister also how to cook African style. When I came one weekend just before my sister headed back to school, Genet showed us both how to mix up berbere spice, kneading it together, "Only with your plastic gloves on and you never touch it so that it stays wholesome." She fills two large jars - one to keep there at the house, one for my sister to take with her when she goes.

Genet has the face of an artistocrat and dancer's hands, a quick laugh and a gravitas.  Intelligence gleams from her and stubbornness.

Then the summer was over, the college semester had begun, Grandma was failing and I had come for a short week. I asked Genet if it would be okay if I spread my sleeping bag out in the corner of Grandma's room? She approved.

Genet more than approved, "Of all the people I take care of only Norma has her family come. It is not like this with my country. Norma, we love you!" cupping my grandmother's face. My grandmother smiled up at her.

One afternoon we bathed my grandmother. It had been a hot day but the wind had begun to move. Genet opened the window above my grandmother's bed. I helped her pull back the light blanket, the sheets. I watched Genet's great gentleness and my grandmother's face lit with pleasure as the breeze blew over her old body there at the end of the day.

We changed the sheets. And we sat holding my grandmother's hands, talking over her body as she slipped into a light sleep.

Genet was born the year that I was born. When we were both 14, when I was getting braces and contact lenses, she was married. She was born in Eritrea, a small coastal country bordering land-locked Ethiopia.

Genet talks about coming to this country. About the advice they pass on to the new ones. And things that had had to be left behind. Not all of her family was able to come. She misses them.

"Our names mean more than they do here.  Genet?  Heaven.  My last name, too - the first part" which she says quickly - beginning with a hard G... -  "It means—what is English for this?  Like when Jesus dies and then come back to life. The people who have not seen they just wait. They know—" she clasps hands and looks upward.  "It is this they have."

“Faith?” I suggest.

"No," she brushes this away, an insufficient word.


"NO, no, no," worse and worse. "Stronger,” she says.“There is no English for it.”

“Faith is probably the best we have.”

"Hmm," which is either disapproving or pitying. But she continues, "Second part of my last name—" something like Mehun but continuing longer, "—means when the people first came and the land if they were hungry they could just pick fruit from the tree. No one went hungry because there were not too many people at that time.

“So, like Eden?”

She shrugs and nods. Close enough.

She tells about a man she knows.  His name is - Garineme . . . ? (a long, multi-syllabic name). "Before he comes I am telling Jan and Uncle Jack his name over and over. So they will know it.  He comes, he say . . ." she puts out her hand to shake, “Hi, I’m Gary.”

She rolls her eyes.

"I didn’t say anything. I just give him a look. Later I say, what do you say that your name is Gary? And he tell me when he first comes to America he is filling the papers. The woman says, 'What is your name.' He says, 'Garineme . . .' She says, 'What is your name?' He says, 'Garineme . . .' She says, 'Do you speak English?'" Genet raises her head up proudly, a royal woman dealing with idiots, " 'Do you speak English?' she say like she think he is saying something else when she ask him his name?"

One evening Genet invites us to come back that night and eat dinner with her. "Andrea liked this very much," Genet tells me that afternoon while getting things ready. Andrea is my sister. Genet wants to know what Andrea is doing lately, what she has been studying.  I am sitting beside my grandmother, rubbing her hands with lotion. Grandma smiles at me and I feel she knows me. When Genet walks past, Grandma looks up eagerly, her eyes lighting. "We love you, Norma!" says Genet. I feel my grandmother knows Genet.

That evening, after my grandmother has been settled into her bed for the night, we sit down around Genet's table: my aunt and uncle and their daughter-in-law Andi who is Hungarian, and as she told us once, when asked to tell something about her that most people don't know, actually a countess . . . not that that means anything these days after the political upheavals of the last century. Hungary, like Eritrea, has long been a small, proud nation geographically vulnerable to invasion. Andi works now as a translator. Her husband, my cousin, has to work that night selling cars, though really he is a poet.  Times being what they are, they live in my aunt and uncle's basement.

The food is incredibly delicious.  Very hot and spicy with pieces of sour bubbly injera flatbread to scoop everything up.

Of course we talk about food. "That is my favorite—" says Genet, "the part that holds the food and . . . " her hands make grinding motions, " . . . the food."

"The gizzard?” says Andi.

"Yes. It is my favorite. Always my favorite. My father he always shared it around because he is very successful man. Much groceries and land where they grow food. I was married fourteen years old. And my husband was the big man. He make all his invitation. One day big company coming. Chicken has to be cut in twelve pieces. Woman not supposed to eat alone, right? Wait for husband to come home. Old neighbor - we call her Mami - I say, 'Mami Mahen . . . ?'"

Again I cannot catch the name. Genet continues, now in a young girl's voice, "'I am so hungry!'" now in an old woman's, "'Is the chicken done?' 'Yes?'" and then she cackles, “'Let’s eat!” So I ate it."

"When Big Company come, I say 'What part do you want?'" She shakes her head and my aunt and uncle and Andi and I laugh.  It is so obvious which part the Big Company will want.

"I know it is gone, but I am going through the dish like I had lost it. Then I say, 'The cat ate it. Oh, I have such a terrible cat!' Later I tell my husband, 'I am going to tell you the truth. It wasn’t the cat. I ate it.' Then he tells everyone all through the place. It is a very famous joke. 'Better say the cat ate it,' they say. I was a very young girl. I was 14 year old. Very young wife. So when a woman wants to eat something they say, “Better say the cat ate it like Genet’s.”

The next morning we are sitting again at the table as I feed my grandmother her breakfast.  Genet is telling me about the Eritrean Church.

"Our church is very old. Very early.  The apostles - the saints?  - they come there to make it. Older than Rome," she waves a hand dismissively pff! Her grandfather - great-grandfather? - had been Italian.  Part of that army.

She does not see her family much now, her father, her mother, though some of them are here in America.  Her husband, she makes a dismissive gesture. Her church now is her strongest support. She is planning a big party for her son's high school graduation, "If you are membership you pay not a nickel to rent hall of  the committee." She tells me it is the same church as the Ethiopian church.  Though Ethiopia and Eritrea have been at war forever.

"They wanted to take us over. We are shown films. How they would lay us down in the street to run over us with their tanks. They would cut off the breasts of women. They would show these films so we would not forget. Now here I am and these other," she means two of the aides in the home, "they are Ethiopian. We live together. Here we live together. It's no big thing."

And when my grandmother dies later in the month, Genet takes a leave of absence and flies to the funeral.  At the family dinner the evening after, Genet stands and her voice begins to ululate.  She stops.  She explains, "This is what we do in my country. I cannot stop it. We love you, Norma."

Kindess is everywhere. But so is violence. But so is kindness. Can you make sense of this?

Can anyone?

All I know is that when recently I read the book, Little Bee, it was in Genet's voice that I heard it.

images from Wikipedia Commons


Mrs. Organic said...

Beautiful, thought-provoking work. Thank you.

suzanne said...

Mmm. Yummy. And bitter.

Emma J said...

Thanks, Mrs. O. Thanks, suzanne. It is re-assuring to know that someone at least reads the anxiety chatter. I feel more at peace with the world since Fritz' biopsy is over.

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