"You think this is progress?"
There were two things my grandfather used to find intolerable whenever he visited us in the
“You people think this is progress,” my sisters told me he hissed. “This is backwardness.”
Sounds about right.
The man wouldn’t know how to mince words if it came with a manual. I remember him excoriating my father for not taking us to the local Ethiopian church in our city. “You are trading the faith of your country for ‘Meet the Press’?” he deadpanned. But one thing my father inherited from his father was stubbornness, and no amount of sentimental heft was going to guilt trip him into taking us to church.
On the first night my grandfather came to visit us in the States soon after we settled here, he passed an edict: all of us kids would be going to church every Sunday. My mother was assigned chauffer duty. My father kept reading the paper.
So every Sunday, my siblings and I would wake up at , dress in Ethiopian clothes (we girls had to cover our heads) and look longingly at our father who would maliciously be cooking a grand breakfast. Since Ethiopians don’t eat breakfast before qurban (Holy Communion) we’d sit around the kitchen table watching our father’s purposeful whisking of big, brown eggs. He never came out and tempted us with breakfast, but he would shoot extremely affected looks of fleeting benignancy our way. The passive aggressiveness would break only when our grandfather would emerge, seemingly out of nowhere, to collect us kids and march us off to the garage. And almost always, under his breath, he’d murmur, “SliTanE meslotal abatachu.” (“Your father thinks that’s progress.”)
We grew to love going to church with our grandfather. At that time, parishioners of the Ethiopian church practiced their faith in a tiny room rented from a ridiculously WASPy Presbyterian church. There were probably 20 of us on a good day. Before we entered the tiny room, my grandfather would help us remove our shoes and adjust our neTela (shawls). He would bend down to kiss the hardwood floors of the tiny room. He gave the room the same deference he would the mightiest of cathedrals. He sometimes let us girls sit with him in the men’s section. Mesmerized, we would spend the entire length of the liturgy trying to mimic his moves.
On the ride back home, our grandfather taught us the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith, and it became our favorite part of going to church.
My grandfather died four years ago, a week before Ethiopian Easter. We were all hoping he’d hang on to see Easter, to celebrate the most revered Holy Day in the Ethiopian church. He died not breaking the fast even though he was in considerable pain.
On the second anniversary of his death, my sisters and I went to
We reached our grandfather’s grave and were surprised by how well kept it was. Someone had planted flowers by it, and the headstone sparkled in the mid morning sun. My sisters and I read and re-read the engraving on his headstone.
It is a small village, where my grandfather is buried. A kid passed by us. He ran away when we tried talking to him. Soon he came back, this time with his mother in tow.
Emmama Biftu. She was tall and imposing. Nothing about her expression was welcoming or accommodating. Her strides were decisive, as if each step towards us meant victory to the people. I remember thinking how I so didn’t need a meddlesome matron in my life at that particular moment.
By the time Emmama Biftu reached us we were dutifully intimidated. She wasn’t bashful about checking us out head to toe before she lobbed her first words.
Her lips reminded me of sandpaper. She wore a scarf on her head, but wisps of beautiful hair had managed to escape the stern grip of the scarf, and the faint breeze made them dance gracefully by her nape. Her face was thin, her nose severe and the dark circles around her eyes almost softened her face. She held her son’s hands with the fierce zeal of an Ethiopian mother. The little boy hid behind her, but occasionally he’d peer out and stare at us with his big, intense, grown up eyes.
I expected her voice to be shrill and acrid. Instead it was soft and guarded. She greeted us in Oromiffa. Our expression told her we only spoke Amharic. She said hello to us in Amharic, and I was certain I detected a trace of irritability. Emmama Biftu wanted to know who we were. The niceties were done with.
My younger sister and I looked toward our older sister in a mute appeal for reassurance and, silently, she agreed to take the lead on this. She administered a strained smile at Emmama Biftu without really looking at her, and told her we were just visiting our grandfather’s grave.
Emmama Biftu’s strict jaw line relaxed. It was the first and merest hint of welcome. She asked us where we lived. We told her. It disinterested her profoundly. She bent down and removed a stray twig from our grandfather’s grave. It’s high noon, she told us. We shouldn’t be at a graveside at high noon. We’ll come with her to her house for lunch.
We walked out of the church compound. Emmama Biftu pointed to a small building by the gate. “Your grandfather had that built.” She said it with the casualness of a weary tour guide pointing out his umpteenth monument. We stopped dead in our track. “For the children. So they can learn the alphabet.”
My sisters and I walked to the stone building. It had one window. The door was painted bright blue. There was one desk inside but no chairs. The blackboard was smudgy and worn. Someone had painstakingly painted the walls with murals of angels. My younger sister started crying.
Emmama Biftu waited for us by the door. We walked to her house in silence.
Her house was modest and neat. Large black and white pictures of young men flanked the wall in her tiny living room. The little boy scampered to the other room. We were motioned to sit down. Emmama Biftu went to the back. We slunk ourselves in the cushions of her well-preserved sofa.
By the time Emmama Biftu came out with a piping bowl of shrro and gomen, a stack of injera and a tray of drinks, other people had joined us. It was obvious they all knew or knew of our grandfather. Emamma Biftu kept producing more food, guests kept arriving. Soon, it was a party. An old woman took my younger sister’s hands and started kissing it. “You are your grandfather,” she told my sister. My sister tried not to cry.
All through lunch I was wondering how it was that I knew so little about my grandfather. He never told us about the school or asked us to help. He was perceptibly well loved, but I never took him to be a ‘pillar of the community’ type.
I needed to ask about him, but I didn’t want to miss a second of what was organically unfolding in Emmama Biftu’s living room. For the first time in my life I sat back and let moments unfold in their own time. It didn’t matter how Ato so-and-so knew my grandfather, or why the woman on my left kept wiping her tears whenever our eyes clashed. I was happy in the moment, something I had not felt in a while. As the afternoon progressed and Emmama Biftu flitted about trying to serve coffee, the conversation was no longer about my grandfather. People talked about everyday life. We talked about our children and husbands. They didn’t care that it had taken us a couple of years to make it to our grandfather’s grave.
At one point the little boy (he turned out to be Emmma Biftu’s grandson) was sitting on my lap and I was letting him play with my cell phone.
It was almost twilight when we left. Emmama Biftu walked us to the car. I summoned up the courage to ask her who was taking care of our grandfather’s grave. “All of us,” she said after a long pause. “All of us take care of him. It’s not just one person’s job to take care of the man."
Before we got in the car, I tried to slip a wad of cash in Emmama Biftu’s hand. She looked at me sadly and pushed my hand away. “No one will accept your money,” she said. She didn’t sound cruel or injured. Just matter of fact. And I could hear my grandfather’s voice in my heart. “You think that is progress?”
The longer we stay away from
The politics of
Yesterday we went to church early, and on the drive back I tried to remember the stories my grandfather told me. I tried to remember for my son.