The Mulberry Tree

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The mulberry tree stood at the top of our garden, right next to the driveway. The leafy branches cascaded down to the ground on all sides, creating a lush dappled escape from the hot and bothered afternoons of netball practice and math homework. The mulberries were plump and sweet, dark purple fruit smeared like a bruise against the bright green leaves. We spent hours sheltered in the bosom of that tree. When we crept out the sun was about to descend in the vast African sky. Streaks of mulberry juice were visible on our blue school uniforms, and the tops of our fingers and even our bare toes were stained violet. Mulberry stains linger for a while.

We languished in a warm frothy bubble bath until our fingers and toes were wrinkled and only the slightest trace of violet remained. We sang silly songs and added more bubbles, and even though we had spent all afternoon devouring mulberries, suddenly we were starving. We sat at the big table in the dining room, our long hair dangerously close to the deliciously greasy lamb chops and homemade French fries. The sun streaked the African sky red and orange, and the mulberry tree was a dark, friendly silhouette at the top of the garden. By now the crickets were singing their loud nighttime song, and soon we would go to bed, happy and full of mulberries, lamb chops and the simple childhood joy of early summer.

Those were the best of times. For me.

And the worst of times. For others.

My childhood memories are bright and vivid, photographs saturated with color and smiles: family barbecues, dance parties, sports events on the big fields at school, afternoons in the pool or in the mulberry tree at the top of the garden. There are cousins and friends, Granny’s ginger cake, and our fluffy Maltese poodle. Magnum. It was the 80s and he was a handsome fellow.

It was South Africa, in the 80s. A complicated, uneasy time and place of separation and oppression, of deep and offensive division, of struggle and survival. A time and place where the same African sun rose and set on people of every size and every color, but with different degrees of warmth and comfort.

A time and place of apartheid. The only time and place I knew.

Our house was big and comfortable, with a pool in the front yard and a swing set in the back. Sometimes, during school vacations, our housekeeper’s daughter, Avril, would come stay with her mother in her rooms downstairs for a few days. The rooms were separate from our house, sparsely furnished, comfortable and reassuring. A brightly woven rug warmed the concrete floor and the bed was raised on bricks to keep away the evil tokoloshe sprite, a common practice in South African cultures.

Avril and I were the same age and we played on the swings in the backyard and ate mulberries together. Her home language was Sotho and she called me “Nee-gee” in heavily accented English. English was the only language we spoke to each other, and it didn’t occur to me that perhaps she wouldn’t know how to speak it. My Sotho never progressed beyond Dumela, o kae? Ke teng, wena o kae? (Hello, how are you? I’m fine, how are you?)

She would stay with her mother for just a few days, before going back to the township where she lived with her father or grandmother or aunt, or all three. How difficult to grow up anywhere, but especially in a time and place like that, without your mother in your daily life? My mother called me inside to get ready for ballet class, and I did not think about Avril until the next time she came to visit her mother.

Such was my life in apartheid South Africa.

I like to visit my childhood. I like to remember my grandmother’s cakes, and those hot, simple days in the mulberry tree. My heart aches with longing when I smell woodsmoke at twilight, such a distinctly African smell, and the sight and scent of fragrant jasmine in early spring always makes me homesick. For my childhood. In apartheid South Africa.

The memories are happy ones, of a young, growing girl with fingers stained purple, living a full and joyful life. As young, growing girls should do. But there is guilt and real pain in those memories, for all the girls, all the children, that didn’t grow up the way I did: in the leafy shade of a very special mulberry tree.

Inspired by the prompt “Hiraeth” from Linda Schreyer.

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, where writers and bloggers gather together to share their versions of a completed sentence. This week’s prompt was, “How I grew up to the be the one I am now…” Hosted by the wonderful Kristi of Finding Ninee and co-hosted by this week’s sentence-thinker-upper Upasna Sethi of Life Through My Bioscope.

My Childhood Home

Our smiles are as broad as the streets we amble down this sunny morning. They aren’t streets really. They are wide walkways, closed to traffic, and paved in perfectly uneven brick. Cobbled, except easier on the legs.

The spring sun warms our bare arms, and the tall palm trees that line every street in Los Angeles sway almost imperceptibly. It’s only when we stop moving that I feel a faint chill, so quiet under that happy yellow air I almost don’t notice it.

The bright busy stores beckon on the right, and on the left the farmer’s market lures us closer, promising fresh, tasty, fragrant… I am distracted by an exquisite array of tiny succulents, and gaze with pleasure at the rows of miniature gardens, green and orange and pink perfectly contained in glass spheres of every size. Safe and happy.

“I don’t know where he is? Wasn’t he with you?”

The words come to me slowly, muted, muffled even at first. They take a long time to reach me as I stand in the sun, and even longer to register in my brain, and finally my heart.

“Where is he?” Raised voices. Something like panic. I am anxious, and confused. Who are they talking about?

“Nicki. Nicki! Where’s Jed?”

“Jed? What? Why?” He was right… there. No, no… there. I know I saw him, newly seven and so curious, just a minute ago. Before the succulents. Long before. Many, many minutes before. Shit.

The chill is no longer faint. It is absolutely unavoidable. The blood freezes in my veins, and even as I spin around in actual circles convinced I will spot him any second, I wonder what will happen to our family without him in it. Who will we be? How will we be? WHERE IS HE?

Lost. He is lost.

There. Behind the palm tree. Doing ninja moves, or following a bug.

“He’s there he’s there. Jed. Jed!”

“Mom, I’m hungry. Look what I found. Is this a spider? And look, look Mom. I can jump from all the way up here. Look.”

My frozen heart resumes beating. The fine hairs on my arms relax. I hold his little hand in mine and turn my face up to the sun. I see the palm trees sway a little. We walk, all of us close together, down the cobbled street. Safe and happy.

***

Coastal Seascape With Red And White Lighthouse

Umhlanga Rocks, South Africa. photo: http://www.decharmoy.co.za

The Indian Ocean has always been my favorite. The waves are big and the water is warm, and it’s where I first learned how to swim in an ocean. My dad taught me: if the wave has already broken, hold your breath and go under. But for the ultimate thrill, jump up to meet it, before it breaks, and ride the swell. I stayed in for hours. Often I miscalculated and was dumped in a froth of saltwater and sand. Once I lost my swimsuit. I love swimming in the ocean.

It’s been a long time since I’ve swum in that ocean.

So many summers were spent on the shores of the Indian Ocean. The long eight-hour drive from our landlocked town, usually through the night so that we wouldn’t waste our first day of vacation, was generously rewarded with the first dazzling glimpse of the sea as we drove down the hill, so blue it was hard to tell where the sky ended and the water started. And the lighthouse. White and red and ever-present on the jagged rocks.

My mom made sandwiches with cold cuts and soft white rolls, and my dad developed asthma from running in the humid coastal air. Our striped umbrella was mostly easy to find in the throng, and we knew to find a landmark or two so that we could head in the right direction when the rough waves eventually tired us out. We used the lighthouse to gauge how far we were from where we should be . Often we vacationed with friends from home, and my sister was with me always.

We were young, barely eight-years-old, and while my blissful childhood memories are of hours of unsupervised ocean swimming and play, my rational parent brain knows that can’t be true. Eighties life was safer and simpler, and even more so during the hot South African summer at the beach, but there must have been a vigilance cast toward us that we were happily unaware of as we frolicked in the waves and munched our sandwiches on towels laid carefully on the sand.

My friend taught me to jump over the little waves as they broke at the shoreline. We held hands and shrieked as the water nipped at our ankles and we teased the frothy water as it crept back and forth back and forth. She dropped my hand, and headed back to the striped umbrella. Maybe she yelled over her shoulder that she was tired and was going back.

Maybe not.

Suddenly I was alone with the whole of the wild Indian Ocean before me, and it was no longer fun to jump over the waves. I was scared. I walked toward the striped umbrella but it was gone. Or maybe it was somewhere else. The colorful, busy beach I loved turned cold and unfamiliar. I walked and walked and wondered if anyone knew what I knew: I was lost.

What if I never found them? Who would I be? How would I be?

The waves continued to nip at my ankles and I think I was lost for a very long time. But perhaps it was only a few minutes. Someone found me wandering on the beach, and I was reunited with my parents and my sister.

Safe again. And happy.

Inspired by the prompt “My Childhood Home” by Linda Schreyer.

Writing My Way Up

RoarSessionsNixIt was an unremarkable October morning. Nothing to distinguish it from countless other October mornings, except I don’t think the sun was shining as it usually does in October. Gray, dreary. Unusual for October, but I didn’t much notice or care given that I was in a gray, dreary state myself.

I dragged myself out of bed that miserable morning, shuffled down the stairs, my flip flops barely leaving the ground (I do hate the sound of shuffling flip flops). I dejectedly made breakfasts and school lunches, and sent them out the door and down the street, with an audible sigh of relief. Dragged myself and my flip flops back upstairs.

I found myself, a few hours later, hunched over my phone hurriedly typing a Facebook message to a woman I’d never met and didn’t know. Still in my car with the seatbelt on, I frantically typed these words to this stranger: “…really enjoy your writing… wonder if you’d take a look… not sure… don’t know…”

Feeling very loser-ish and almost despairing, I hit send and unwrapped myself from the cocoon of the car. The fog was starting to lift. Just a teeny bit.

The day could not have been less wonderful. Less great. Less brilliant. It wasn’t even an ordinary, unremarkable day. It was a shitty day. They’d been going on for weeks, those shitty shitty days.

I longed to be somewhere and someone else. Somewhere I didn’t wake up in the morning and have to toast waffles and make cream cheese sandwiches and curse myself for unknowingly using the last square of toilet paper.

Somewhere I didn’t hate the sound of my own voice, pitched high with annoyance as I told them to “hurry up” and “brush your teeth” and “you’re going to be late.” Somewhere I didn’t hate the sound of their voices, as they nonchalantly chatted to each other, ignoring my constant, frantic reminders. Oh how I wished they would leave already!

I longed to be someone other than a mom, a wife, a nag, a caring friend, a woman trapped in this deceptively unfeminist time. Yes, you can have it all, if all is cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping and exercising and Target runs and teacher conferences and doctor appointments and endless carpools and mommying and losing yourself in the mind-numbing minutiae of every single day. A never-ending downward spiral of purposelessness and loss of self. All for you.

It usually takes a painful jolt when you hit the bottom to realize how impossible it is to live this way. And there’s nowhere to go but up once you’re at that dark, stinky bottom.

She wrote back, this woman I didn’t (and still don’t) know. She is a writer I admire and follow online, one who writes with honesty and truth about things I understand: parenting, living away from family, death, love, friendship. She is a writer and editor for a site I enjoy and wildly imagined writing for myself.

It was an unremarkable morning in October, except the sun was not shining as it usually does. And I had hit the very hard bottom.

Nowhere to go but up.

She was mildly encouraging, the anonymous editor, but very rushed and not at all bothered with my personal angst and insecurities, with my trepidations and desperations. She didn’t care that I was struggling to find my way. She didn’t care that I was a stay-at-home mom or that sometimes I didn’t eat for days at a time and always enjoyed one cocktail too many. She didn’t care at all.

And for once, neither did I. I didn’t care that she wasn’t attentive or full of praise and validation. I didn’t care that she didn’t respond to my email, or follow up or check in. The password she sent so that I could log into the site and publish my work was all I needed to breathlessly climb out of that wallowing pool of self-pity, to leap off that ledge of doubt, to write my own soaring way through this new somewhere I found myself.

And just like that, I was no longer a mom, a wife, a friend, a carpool driver, a grocery shopper, an unhappy woman trying to find her way in a dark and twisty labyrinth that has no beginning and definitely no end.

What I became in that moment was who I am today: a writer.

Originally published on The Roar Sessions, a weekly series featuring original guest posts by women of diverse backgrounds and voices, inspired and curated by the phenomenal she-power Jena Schwartz. Thank you, Jena, for giving me the space to Roar!

I See You

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Many minutes passed before I noticed her. She sat, still and quiet, on the edge of the bench. Oblivious to the post-class bustle around her. The toilet flushed. Someone sprayed deodorant. Doors slammed, a water bottle dropped on the concrete floor, and I continued my call at full volume. Everyone in the locker room that Wednesday morning knew that I would be having a massage, a deep tissue massage, at 11am. With a male therapist. Which was not my preference, but it was very last-minute and I would take whatever I could get.

Still she sat.

“Ohmygd. Jess* are you okay?” The scheduler had put me on hold for a minute. Booking a massage was more involved than I anticipated.

Her dark eyes looked deep into mine, as if there she would find the answer I wanted to hear.

“I’m having a really hard two days.” Simple. Honest. My heart ached.

I thought fleetingly about how she had looked when she walked into class earlier: disheveled, her top on the wrong way, still rubbing sleep from her eyes. I had helped her get her arms through the right openings before taking my spot in front of the mirror.

She waited for my response.

“What was that, sorry? Fifty or 80 minutes?” I repeated into the phone. “Hmmm, I don’t know…” I looked around the almost-empty locker room for someone to weigh in. The few women still there kept their eyes down. Nobody was interested in my dilemma.

“Eighty minutes definitely!” My eyes swung back to Jess. Her mouth was smiling (for me I thought) but her earlier confession hung between us, heavy and hard, like the aching lump in your throat that won’t go away no matter how many times you swallow. I know it wasn’t easy for her to admit to her difficult time… I’ve been there too, mired in the muck and messiness of snot and tears and sadness.

I felt like an asshole. Scheduling my massage, loud and bright for all to hear, voicing my preference for a female therapist, explaining my schedule… and now asking Jess, who had just bravely admitted to me her pain, whether it should be 50 or 80 minutes. Why would she care? But she did.

I don’t really know Jess. I mean, I know she likes to work out, I know her schedule is similar to mine (we often find ourselves in the same class), I know she likes to push herself through the hardest part of class (I glimpse her in the mirror, eyes closed, exhaling through lips pursed in determination… I know the girl in that mirror), I know that I like her. We say “hey how’s it going?” and “gees that was a hard class.” She wears tights and tops in matching shades of purple and green, and her monochromatic aesthetic appeals to my desire, my longing even, for order and decorum.

Thank G-d my phone call with the high maintenance massage scheduler was over. I wanted to give Jess my full attention, but it was 10.45am and I was almost due at my massage: 50 minutes (80 felt too indulgent and also I knew I couldn’t endure someone’s hands on my body for that long), deep tissue, male therapist (I had to get over this part – it would be fine). I was the high maintenance one.

“Jess.” I put my hand on her sweaty shoulder. She was still sitting on the edge of the bench and it took me a while to realize she was waiting for the shower and not simply staying right there for the rest of the day. Sometimes it takes all the energy you can gather just to show up.

Those dark eyes again peering into mine.

“I’m so sorry you’re having a tough time. If you want to talk, any time, I’m here. Really. I mean it.” I hope she knew I did mean it. I was still wearing my workout tights, the high-waisted ones that keep everything in and up, but sometimes I put my top on inside out. Or upside down. Sadness can be lonely, especially if it’s unexpected.

She squeezed my hand, told me she appreciated it. The shower was now free and I had five minutes to get to my massage.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Jess. I thought about her during the massage. I thought about her while I was driving, at the ATM, at the grocery store. I thought about her while making dinner, the barking dog and chattering kids vying for my attention. I was worried about her, wandered what had happened to make the last couple days “really hard,” and I wanted to help her. But I hardly knew her.

A few days later, I saw her again in the locker room.

“Jess! How are you?” There was so much more I wanted to say.

“Better,” she said. Her smile was gentle. Sincere.

Tell me what happened. Why were you sad? Do you often feel that way? Why then? Why do you feel better now? “I’m so glad. I’ve been worried about you.”

“Nicki.” Those eyes. Damn. “You helped me so much. Thank you.”

I had done nothing. Nothing. I had helped her untwist her top, and put my hand on her shoulder.

But those dark eyes had gazed with so much pain and sadness into my distracted green ones, and I saw her.

And she saw that I saw.

Inspired by a prompt from Linda Schreyer and this line from Rumi: “Look at yourself and remember me.” And by the song “The Less I Know The Better” by Tame Impala. 

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, where writers and bloggers gather together to share their versions of a completed sentence. This week’s prompt was, “I wish I’d known…” Hosted by Kristi of Finding Ninee and co-hosted by Kenya.

*Not her real name. 

Love And Cinnamon

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The margarine sizzles in the pan. My eyes, not quite awake, watch as the pale yellow blobs melt without complaint. The kitchen is quiet save for the sizzle. The whole house is quiet. It’s not quite 7am and my world is still softly dark. It was a struggle to leave the warm heaviness of dreams and bed in the dark.

Soon the sun will start to streak its blue-gray fingers across the sky. Soon they will all be awake and their breakfast will be ready. Homemade.

His brown eyes sparkle when I suggest French toast and his older brother mumbles an amenable “sure” when I offer fried eggs. I sprinkle a little salt on them while they’re frying and try my hardest not to break the yolk. “Sure” is a lot for a teenager with earphones – my heart squeezes when I hear it.

In the silent halogen-lit kitchen I beat the eggs with milk and slice the cinnamon challah. The spicy sweet aroma sticks to my fingers. It’s the only bread he’ll eat as French toast. We are averaging 4 loaves a week. The fork clangs quietly against the bowl. Sizzle sizzle clang. A gentle early-morning symphony of sound and smell.

I’m happy to be here, in the kitchen, making French toast and frying eggs before the sun and my family rises. I find myself here a lot lately: pulling chocolate chip cookies out the oven, a sweet treat just because; peeling bright sweet oranges to eat after football practice; marinating chicken for dinner or counting how many cans of beans I need for the chili. We always seem to be running low on something.

I soak the cinnamon challah in the egg mixture (not too long or it gets soggy and falls apart), and place it gently in the hot pan. The loud sizzle is oddly comforting and the coziness of my bed is forgotten. I’m warm here in the kitchen, cooking, thinking, drinking tea.

It wasn’t so long ago that the constant, endless need for bread, milk and eggs deadened my soul and squelched every spark of selfish desire that dared to flicker through my veins. Not at all long ago that my kids were always hungry, always wanting – demanding food, school supplies, attention. Or so it seemed. Their relentless torrent of needs depleted and exhausted me, until “Have a banana” was my answer to everything. Except we quickly ran out of bananas. The supermarket, the car, the grocery bags and especially the kitchen brought tears of frustration and despair as I struggled to find myself somewhere in the cereal aisle or while driving carpool.

Somehow, during my decade plus as a parent, I had confused my kids’ needs with my own. The mommy-and-me music and baby gym classes that once filled my day with joy and social interaction when my oldest was a toddler became frustrating and boring the third and fourth time around. No longer did I have the patience or the time to wait at the bottom of the slide at the park or play in the sandpit, and often I forgot the snack bags of carrots and goldfish that kept whining siblings occupied while we waited for karate class to end.

And I felt bad, guilty about it all. What kind of mother was I, who hated taking her kids to the park and repeatedly forgot the snacks? Out of touch with the things that mattered to me, as a whole person and not only as a mother, I ignored my frustration, my resentment, my boredom and kept going until the best I could do was snarl “Have a banana” through my clenched teeth every time one of them said they were hungry.

To find myself now happily awake before the dawn, preparing a breakfast that requires much more than a bowl and a spoon, is a miracle of time, love and motherhood.

I place the eggy bread gently in the pan. The heat from the burner warms my fingers. I make myself wait one minute more before flipping it over. Just the right amount of toasty brown. These three staples – egg, milk and eggs – are all we need for a morning of bright eyes and coherent conversation. I save the bananas for the smoothies they all drink. The kitchen smells like love and cinnamon. Even though I’m the only one in it.

Cinnamon French Toast Recipe

Ingredients

2 eggs
1/3 to 1/2 cup milk
4 slices cinnamon challah (if using regular challah, add a few sprinkles of cinnamon to the egg mixture)
Butter or margarine for the pan
Powdered sugar
Maple syrup

Directions

Melt the butter in a pan over medium heat.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs with the milk.
If adding cinnamon, do so now.
Quickly soak each slice of challah in the egg mixture – not too long or it gets soggy and falls apart.
Gently place in the hot pan.
Fry until golden brown, 1-2 minutes on each side.
Dust generously with powdered sugar.
Serve with a swirl of maple syrup.

This post first appeared on Mamalode.

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, where writers and bloggers gather together to share their versions of a completed sentence. This week’s prompt was, “I thought that by this time in life, I’d…” Hosted by the wonderful Kristi of Finding Ninee.