She's not exactly what you'd call "conservative," not in that Ethiopian way. She works-out with us at the gym, she loves to shop, she has a repertoire of teretswhich she loves to tell and re-tell, and a select number of bawdy jokes with which she keeps us all in stitches. Biologically, she's my grandmother, but in my heart she's my mother, my sister, my best friend - my one unconditional love.
She rises with us each week day and prepares our breakfasts, made-to-order. "Ikelit, anchi mindinew yemitfeligiw - balkek n'w inQulal?" "Antes, mindinew yemitfeligew – buna bicha new weyis dabo be mermelata larghilih?"
She keeps the time – "ere, refede!" - as we rush about preparing for the day ahead. We're not what you'd call morning people, or punctual, come to think of it, but she works with us, makes allowances. Her QuTa is tinged with indulgence, with humor, as we bumble about and she makes sure we don't forget the lunch she has prepared for us, again, made-to-order ("Nege min larghilish lemisa? "). We leave, tesimen, tesasimen, and from the window of the house, she watches us drive off, waving, waving, until we are out of sight. Sometimes, she makes the sign of the cross – "bedehna melisilign" - as we blow her kisses from the car. Anyone watching would assume we were going on an extended trip rather than to work only :45 rush-hours away.
Then, in the lull immediately following the morning mengodagod, she does her tselot and slips back into bed to sleep until noon. Partly, she sleeps now because she'd stayed up late with my mother the previous night, making quality time, but really, she sleeps because sleep is her escape from the silent hours when all her children are away doing whatever it is that takes them away from her.
She rises again at noon, prepares her solitary meal and watches the daytime shows on ABC. She can tell you who's cheating on whom on All My Children, or who's mother- in-law is plotting against whom on Days of Our Lives, or whose child it really is on General Hospital, but these are all preludes to The Oprah Show (ay, sew maletis isuwa nech!), her favorite show. She watches avidly while the inzirt spins in fluid rotation in her capable hand. Later that evening, she will talk about the guests on Oprah that day - tell me how she cried over some guest's misfortune, her shock over another guest's indiscretion – and I will sit there amused and amazed because she doesn't speak English. (But Imamiyè is clever like that. All it takes is one look into her bright, brilliant, inde kokeb yamiyabera eyes to know that she may not have benefited from a formal education, may frequently refer to herself as mehayim in the face of our stubborn assertions, but she has a natural intelligence that shines through in her conversations, in her frequent mikirs, in her risqué Qeld.)
Sometimes, she will talk about the loneliness of those hours between noon and seven, how she has to stare down the yawning silence with the noise of memories of the long since closed chapters of her life in Ethiopia.
And in this admission of a loneliness she would never have felt in Ethiopia, out will come her stories, these priceless bits of insight into a period of time I will never know, not through books, not through documentaries. Her mother, she recalls with tears standing in her eyes, died when she was still a small child ("nefs kemaweQé befit"). Her father was a wealthy man, a sharp-shooting Feetawrari who hunted elephants for their tusks, an educated merchant who was tri-lingual ("Amarigna, Oromigna ina Ferensai") who traveled to Europe to do business, and who, when his daughter was only nine, gave her away in marriage to a man much older than himself (This man will die of natural causes before the year is out and she will marry yet again, against her wishes, at the age of 11. She will run away from this second husband - for reasons she's never disclosed - and will finally marry my grandfather at 15).
My guts get tied up in knots when she talks about her early years, but she recounts her tale in a matter of fact way, sometimes even with humor. It's not that she doesn't see the injustice meted out to women of her generation with careless frequency; it's just that she has dealt with it all through acceptance. Yes, I can see something like anger in her eyes sometimes, but during my irate and (I admit it) disrespectful vitriol against my great- grandfather, she will make allowances for him, make me see, however reluctantly, that he was as much a victim of the mores and standards of his time as she was. I can't help but think how far she would have come in life had she been given the same opportunities as the males of her time.
She recalls in stunning detail how she, with her agile mind and her entrepreneurial spirit, sold Tej and injera during her sidet in Sudan while her husband (my grandfather) languished in a British prison camp. She will speak dry-eyed of the still-born son, the miscarriages and the baby daughter ("Nini, yenatish tanash") who died of tikitik at the age of two. She remembers with a mother's clarity the length of her baby girl's sooty black eyelashes, the hue of her rose-petal soft skin, the size of her eyes, the soft, fat curls of her hair… . And it is through these recollections I finally learn to understand her unspoken sorrows and her unspeakable losses.
During the noon-to-seven weekday silences, it is the sad, the unbearable, the frustrating memories that she relives with helpless regularity. She admits that she sometimes cries at these memories and I try to see her as she must have been, a young, dynamic woman who survived a war, a sidet, the casual cruelty of others, and the death of a child. Then I see the Imama that I recall, the one who was our primary care giver in Ethiopia, who suffered the sudden removal of her grandchildren ("lijochè ") to "safer ground" during the revolution and who, five years later, boards an airplane for only the second time in all her life, to come and see "her children" in America.
If we push her, she will recount her adventures in Sudan, bringing to life a history to which we would otherwise have no access. She is our only connection to a fast- disappearing past and we realize that so we eat up her stories greedily and beg for more. She is our connection to Ethiopia in a way that no other substitute would do. She puts a human face to something that would otherwise be a flat image oft painted green-gold-red.
I watch her bake her breads (le serg, le Bete Kiristian, le leQso, le lidetachin, le ba'il Qen) and try to comprehend where all that energy comes from, because here I am at less than a third of her age, and it is all I can do sometimes to put sliced bread in the toaster.
After work and at the weekends, we try to be with her. We take her where she wants to go. She's big on shirishir, but I avoid restaurants because she's quite the picky eater. Nothing, and I mean nothing is ever up to her standard. If, and that's a big IF, she actually likes something served at a restaurant, she will finish it, which is the only way you get to know that she actually liked it because she sure ain't gonna tell ya.
I have the honor of taking her shopping for anything and everything because I have been deemed the patient one. I can be as impatient as the rest of my siblings during the 4-5 hour shopping sprees, but I'm not and the secret to my high level of patience is practice, practice, practice. I went through a year or two of, "yayeshiwun hulu menkat alebish? " then I began to allow myself to indulge her. Now, when I grow too impatient after the 15th pair of shoes, tried and discarded for reason No. 89 on her long list of "Why shoes not made in Italy should never grace my feet," I make myself remember that all of last week, she did not opt to stay in bed and catch some more Z's muttering something like, "irasachu sirut! "
Instead, she was up with us, brewing the coffee, beating the egg, mixing the batter…. If she decides that the watch we bought her last week (after canvassing 3 stores and 20 watches) was really not to her taste, I would agree to take it back and let myself anticipate the moment with a smile because she would (at my insistence or hers) come with me, ride shot gun, protest against the confining seatbelt, tell me how to drive, then laughingly agree when I offer her the steering wheel. We would friendly-fight over which CD to play because she really, really digs music and when she hears a particularly good song (she likes certain ones by Whitney Houston and George Michael, but then who doesn't?) she will ask me to buy it for her ("ayzosh, yikefelishal " : "ere gidyelem! ") or dub it for her if I have it. And on our way to the store where we bought the watch, something will catch her eye and she will, giggling in this infectious way, drag me over to the window and make me look. Right now, she's into cell phones (because she's crazy about small electronics). I indulge her because in that indulgence I experience love at its purest, taken and given, between a mother and a granddaughter. I tell her now that I hope God gives me a daughter who would turn out to be just like her. Now, wouldn't that be the ultimate blessing!
When friends or relatives come to visit, she makes sure that they are fed well before they leave. Our visitors, after observing her, would always tell us, "inante iko, idilegna nachu." I used to smile, thank them, then think no more of it. . Over the years, I have grown to appreciate her more, understand now that it is her, Imamiyé, aCHirwa Hodè , who's our foundation and the glue of our little family in the Diaspora. So now, when people tell me how lucky I am to have my grandmother with me, I still smile and I nod…then close my eyes and feel the blessing to my bones.