Erzulie’s Last and Firstborn

The following post is a lot more sentimental than I usually am in my writing. I can’t remember when or how I learned that sentimentality was undesirable and ineffective in writing, but I’d say ” in my MFA” would be a good guess. I’m especially sentimental when writing to and about my mother(s). I’m especially sentimental right this moment, because I’m reading Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, with all its attendant complicated feelings about motherhood, (literary) lineage and what we do with our Black women geniuses when they are no longer living (and in life). I’m also surprised to say I’m more homesick than I’ve been in the seven years since I first left, and it probably has something to do with the recent visit of my mum and aunt for my graduation.

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Lilian, Mana, and Essie (Grandma, Great-Grandma, and Mother to me)

Erzulie’s Last and Firstborn

“Everything bore the weight of everything else.”

-from Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Before we began to sink, we were a house full of women, in a town surrounded by yellow sand like sawdust. In that house, we gave birth to each other’s children– niece’s hands at the end of daughter’s arms; aunty’s eyes inside great-grandmother’s well-worn face; the gravel in mother’s voice coming out of sister’s mouth.

Before we began to sink, we were slim-footed and polishing the speckled floor tiles with our pacing. We were a favorite dress checkered yellow and white, ironed stiff in anticipation of fathers we didn’t need, fathers who were always arriving but never quite making it.

Before we began to sink, we were more vast and plenty than any father’s absence; we were frustrated and clench-teethed that those gaps in his presence wrote their way into our songs at all. We were enough and all at once; we were carrying around our curses and calmness in each other’s pockets.

Before we began to sink, we were the Big, Wide, Solemn Blue and the hands holding us sturdy by the shoulders so we could not dive beyond the waving surface. We were deep laughter over fingers picking through grilled fish, their bones curved and threatening like hooks. We were heavy thighs atop too-thin legs shone over with lotion. We were free and easy joy without the threat of stifle.

Until a certain day, when that Big Wide Blue– vengeful and mourning– rolled over itself and onto the land, over our shingled roof and our crooked windows, and over our selves. We were fractured sorrow, and we were willful letting go. We were guilt.

Before we began to sink, we were a whole cosmos always beyond our own reach.

We are, still.

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(Very blurry) me, great-grandma, and grandma. I wish my mum was in this too.

erzulie veve

A note about Erzulie: She is one of the Haitian lwas that I have been fixated on since I started my research in graduate school. A lot of my characters resemble her so closely in a way that still surprises me, considering the fact that I wrote them before I ever even heard her name or read anything about her. In writing the post above, I was thinking of Lasyrenn (or La Sirène) who is one of the aspects of Erzulie, and dwells in the sea. The symbol pictured above is Erzulie’s veve, used in ceremonies as a sort of gateway to summon and welcome loas to earth. Each loa has a unique veve, usually drawn on the ground out of flour or similar materials.

The Tougher than a Mother…

Her back has ached for years, carrying the bags she never unpacked filled with regrets and out of touch friends; artsy and interesting British friends she could have still had if she had followed one fork in the crossroads and not the other. But she carries her burden with style and grace, and an exquisite, hard-earned handbag held tightly against her body in the crook of her elbow. The high-flying echelons of society, the supposed crème de la crème of Accra never really accepted her; her neighborhood was not on the approved list of addresses where ladies who lunch recline on stiff brocade covered sofas and complain about their house-helps. They hated to admit it, but the aura of independence and self-assuredness that preceded her into a room, tinged their self-conscious laughter with envy. She did not live under the cloud of the constant possibility of one bad business deal crushing an entire empire and snatching away the first-class flights and gold-fringed kaftans.

She brushed of any underhanded attacks on her dignity and her unexpected achievements. When she helped her daughter shed the standard Ghanaian “tea and bread” school uniform for the green and white stripes that were synonymous with wealth and a stamp of the word “privilege” on the forehead, she laughed and agreed when someone said snidely, “This is what you have always wanted”.

Neither did the single mum’s club welcome her with open arms, her laugh was too raspy and raucous, more like a cackle really, she seemed to at ease and content, free from the hard-edged bitterness entrenched by all the pointing fingers “Her husband left her and now no-one is looking for her.” But that suited her fine, she did not wear single motherhood like a blood-stained medal of war on her right breast; she just got on with the business of living, devoured good books and drank good wine, and discussed the joys of singlehood with the few who were just as irreverent as she was in the face of materialistic, vapid women with lukewarm sense of humor.

She sat cloaked in pride and joy through award ceremonies and piano recitals and dance shows and open days every last day of the term, until her smile froze painfully on her face at the thought that her daughter did not share her last name. She had to endure the constant corrections to enthusiastic teachers, “No I’m not Mrs. So-and-so, but she is my daughter”. Maybe you should have given her your name after all, but how would you have faced the accusatory inquiries into your strange situation “Srowo de? Where is your husband? She has brought a baby from Amereecah with no fathah.”

She soothed her back pains with the ointment of success, of a dream fulfilled, for her entire life’s purpose had transformed into making sure she raised a shy little girl into an accomplished young woman. She cooled her forehead with prayer and praise, baring her soul to the Heavenly Father every night like clockwork. She did not even mind when people paid her unintended backhanded compliments: “Ah in fact, you must be a man, no woman can do this by herself.”  Yet the dull ache in her back remains, with the neatly packed cases of everyone else’s burdens (she seems so capable in that steely-eyed, pointy-nosed way, so of course one extra bag won’t kill her). Her back has ached for years, but hopefully this time she will learn that she really does deserve to pack light.