A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
The news arrived by e-mail — a scribble of a long, single sentence, broken up, like little chunks of wood, the way a year is broken up into months and weeks, days, hours. The new day of electronic messaging was upon us, suddenly. Just a couple years earlier, very few people had ever heard of anything like this. Now someone far across the world could send you a message, not by telegram or an airmail or a phone call as when I first immigrated, but by something called email. It was my cousin, Doe, hardly the email kind of guy, especially, in the late 1990s Liberia of war and short ceasefires. Doe, two years older than me, was my cousin from my mother’s side of the family. He and I were best friends as much as cousins, the neighborhood big boys during the day, chasing girls, sometimes, the same girl, during those late teen years until one of us wore the girl out, and the competition ended. Doe, the slick talker, always won those competitions. I was the shy one, always the loser. I quickly read through the email. If Doe had resorted to emailing, then something was really wrong.
“Uncle Kweah, is dead; your Uncle Kweah died in his sleep last night,” the note began.
Outside my window, the day was bright despite icicles hanging from the eaves of the roof. This was a long winter as always, in Southwest Michigan. The sparkling snow outside, all that whiteness against the sunlight, and a warm apartment should have been uplifting. On a good winter day in February, there was little more one could ask of life, but a warm apartment and a day off from work. The e-mail suddenly turned my day sour. “Come home, Uncle Kweah is dead. Your Pa wants you to come home right away. Your cousin, Doe.”
After staring at the computer for a long while, I rose from my desk slowly, like an aging man or dog, dragging my feet as one in deep sleep. Somehow, it felt as though something had taken me far away from myself. The space around me now seemed damp and cold, as if moisture had taken over my mind. My mind was cloudy, though, not because of the day, but because of memories coming back at me the way the laundry you toss from the upper floor comes shooting down to the laundry room. My apartment windows steamed blurry spots. These windows had survived decades of winter, I thought.
Pulling up my lose pants, I walked to the fridge, looking for something to drink, a bottle of wine or whisky or vodka, something that could drown my mind slowly. I wasn’t sure what I had anyway. I needed to die right there from just memories of my childhood, memories of my now dead uncle, me, dying without leaving a trace of dirt on my remains, without leaving a scar or any evidence when detectives arrived with their poking fingers and eyes. This was one of the many moments when I could not understand why we lived on despite having nothing to live for.
At the kitchen table, I drank, hard, slow, sip after sip, the liquor going down my throat in that slowness the drunk knows too well. My throat burned terribly, as though killing every nerve along the walls of my throat was my motive. I stood in my kitchen, alone, not yet fully overtaken by the liquor. When the drink began to take on a life of its own, I staggered on my feet, and fell very hard to the floor. I picked up myself and tried to descend the stairs into the family room in the basement, but I staggered again and fell down several flights of stairs on to the basement floor. The carpeted stairway saved me from bruises I could have sustained.
My little place was a townhouse, a home not suitable for my present situation. There are more stairs in a townhouse than rooms, I discovered when I first moved in years ago. Right then, I promised myself never to get drunk at night, never to walk up and down any of these stairs while under the influence of drink, sleep or whatever, never to try climbing these stairs under my present condition. I was not one for drinking heavily, so until now, I’d never been this helpless emotionally and physically. The phone began to ring upstairs just as soon as I was down below. Let it ring, I told my brain, let it ring.
I sat there for minutes and could not feel any sorrow or the need to be mournful. Instead, I felt only anger, bitterness, staring at the blank walls. In that solitary moment, I wondered whether being away too long from home finally kills the nerves and takes away feelings for family who die while one is away in exile. I wondered if one only loses feelings for certain family members after nearly two decades in voluntary exile.
I only became tearful when memories of Uncle Kweah suddenly flooded me, taking over my mind. I was angry and sad at the same time, not for Uncle Kweah’s dying, but for me and my siblings. I remembered him clearly now. In my mind, he was still in his fifties, the way he looked the last time I saw him, a tall light skinned man, creases around his jawline. As a twelve-year old, I did not understand those lines the first time I saw him. After all these years, how could I put the pieces of such a man together now? Couldn’t even recall how many children he had then. Tall, hard in the face, his forehead looking like a flat surface. He was a hard man.
Memory has a way of disguising reality. But I remembered the family people as was Grebo custom, coming and going through our home to greet him when he arrived. They mumbled in the living room about how he’d robbed the family of all the family inheritance back in our home village, and run to the city. He’d sold the family farm to diamond diggers and sugar cane farmers right under everyone’s gaze, they said. Before they all knew it, Chinese businessmen were moving in on the family land, carving up not only the land, but also the mahogany, the aged old forest, the rubber, and whatever the family had planted decades earlier.
In our tradition, the land belongs to the clan, to the family household, to the entire tribe, and no one has any rights to sell what is family land. Instead, Uncle, our father’s younger brother, bought himself a rusty truck with the money from the sale, and drove out of town with his wife and children, to Monrovia, where the lights are dim in dingy bars and noise continues into dawn, on sad streets, where girls roam in half skirts and partial blouses that reveal every piece of flesh between the pants and the blouse. The Grebo people, including our aunts and relatives, sat in the parlor, complaining those first few days and long after his arrival.
The day he arrived, my two sisters, my brother, and I had been so busy chasing one another between the overcrowding houses in a hide-and seek run, we did not notice the truck. My sisters were both eight-year-old twins, and my brother, almost ten. People in the neighborhood were arriving from work. Our father had just come home too from a long day of work at the electrical power plant where he worked, and found his brother’s rusty truck parked at the front yard and Uncle’s children seated on the few chairs in our home.
Mama, who was off from work that day, called us from the backyard so we could meet a man who was the very image of our father. “Children, come greet your Uncle Kweah,” Pa said under his breath. We shook hands with him and all of his children. Pa was speechless after that, staring ahead. Mama took control as the happy mother of the house, welcoming her brother in-law. But my father didn’t look happy about his brother’s arrival. Mama busied herself later, putting the kola nuts together for the traditional Grebo greetings. Twilight hung over the skies in Monrovia that evening, that yellow-red sky, imbedded in my memory of that day.
People said that Uncle Kweah was now in Monrovia to “roast in the hot sun like everyone else.” He had no education, unlike our father. “The city will take his life away,” I heard Pa say over and over that night and the days that followed. Because of his limited English, he did not understand all the murmuring when people came to our home to welcome him. They welcomed him in Grebo, and then turned to one another and whispered about the cruel old city that saps every newcomer’s blood. “The city will eat him up,” they said. It was a very long time before I understood what those words had meant.
I realized that the phone had been ringing all day only after the liquor wore off. It must have been four hours later, but the phone rang on all day and into the night. I’d probably staggered up the stairway while I was under the influence of the alcohol, and found myself sprawled on the living room carpet near the telephone when I came to. The phone was ringing every half an hour or so, on and off. Finally, I picked it up. “Hello,” I murmured into the phone.
“Your Uncle Kweah is dead, come home,” my father said softly. His voice was deep and sad, seemingly, full of guilt or something. Why did he sound so sad?
“Come home,” he ordered, as if for my late mother’s death. Imagine me going home to bury a seventy-year-old uncle whose children outnumbered the sons of Jacob, I thought to myself even while my father spoke. Imagine me arriving at Robert’s International Airport with my luggage and stuff to bury an uncle whose death I had longed for all these years. Me, wasting my hard-earned money to fly home to bury my uncle? Why did he need me when he had so many children of his own, I questioned myself after the phone call.
In Battle Creek, my now new town where I had buried myself after leaving Liberia, no one would fly across the ocean to bury their seventy-year-old uncle they hadn’t spoken to in fifteen years. What was he thinking, my father, still thinking of me as the helpless boy he could push around with his usual excuse that “this is tradition,” I thought.
I sat up, and the living room suddenly seemed smaller than it really was. I had been in this country for fifteen years, no children, no wife, no immediate relatives. Nothing. The few family I knew existed only over the phone, in some far away states I’d never visited. The factory where I pushed car parts under a machine was my home, and the folks I worked for had become family. I had adopted many Americans as my new family, and was now used to my new life. I came home nights to a refrigerator, sometimes, a phone call from the girl I would have married had I not come to America, had I not been the fool that I was, had I kept my promise of returning home to marry her. She’d been faithful for fifteen years, waiting for me, begging me to bring her over. All these years, and I was still “bringing her over to America.”
I’d go home only to marry a girl like that, I told myself.
The phone began to ring again. People were calling me all through the next day. I was the oldest male child of the family, of the entire Hneh family line among the brothers’ children, they told me as though I’d forgotten that. My long-lost extended family called from New York, from Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, London. It seemed everyone all over the globe was calling on me to be the man they thought I was or was supposed to be. They were old acquaintances or relations of my parents, people from my country, lost people wanting that connection to something solid and homely. Death was their way of connecting to a lost past.
The phone had a good job to do today, I thought. My callers were sobbing, wailing, hollering. They wanted to grieve with me. People like us were constantly looking for something other than what we had or what we’d lost of our cultural traditions. One elderly relative wanted to know if I would “Put Down the Grebo Mat,” because after all, I was the Grebo son upon whose shoulder tradition would live. It was like that recurring nightmare where the only door to the world you’ve lost is latched, and you cannot get out. The problem was that I’d been away so long, I’d forgotten the way to the door. I’d forgotten that there was even a door.
But they did not understand.
I wanted to call my uncle’s children scattered around the earth and sympathize with them. But I could not call. Because of the civil war that was already in its tenth year, many of my cousins had also sought refuge in other countries. I did not know what to say to them if by any chance, they picked up the phone. When one of his daughters, Kimah, called from somewhere in the world, maybe London or Madrid, or wherever, I picked up.
“Hello,” I said.
“Jacob, Jacob,” she was screaming.
“Yes, I’m sorry.”
“Jake, darling, are you going home?” She asked.
“No, Kimah, no.” I said flatly.
“But why not, Cousin, why not? He was your favorite uncle.”
She was lying, I thought. I can’t remember him being anything but my uncle. We hung up before I realized I had not asked when she would be traveling home to bury her father.
When he moved in with us that year, they gave my room to his four daughters. He did not only sell family property, he had also abandoned his place in the family line in our village, a place that had been prepared for him before his birth. He was the town’s Bodior, the high priest, the one way to God. Instead, he had decided that the Monrovia life was a much better life than being a High Priest with a metal bangle around his ankle. He had abandoned God for the city.How could he do that! People exclaimed wide-eyed, but I did not understand what they meant by, “he abandoned God for the city,” so I simply lived in the murmurs.
I slept in the parlor for a long time. Uncle stayed with us for two or three months. They lived with us until the day I returned home from school to Mama crying and screaming at him to move out and find his own dwelling. She could not be controlled by two men, I heard her say, and two sisters-in-law didn’t make the best company, she said. I did not understand. A week after Uncle and his family moved out, I returned home from school, and Mama was packing too.
“What’s going on, Mama?”
“Jake, Mama must move out,” she said.
“But why?” Tears welled my cheeks, and I couldn’t stop the choking in my throat. My sisters and brother were wailing.
“You see, Jacob, when you grow up, you will know,” she said, kneeling before me. “You will know what’s happening to me, my son.”
Now I recalled memories of the weeks leading to my uncle’s move. There were arguments in the house, lots of noise, family palaver between our father and our uncle, often about Mama not being the right woman for my father, someone from another tribe, unlike Uncle and Pa. I was too young to take these quarrels seriously. All the family feuds seemed like nightmares that had come true that day as Mama packed her belongings while her brothers waited to escort her in a pickup truck to their family compound. Her brothers would assume responsibility for her until she could get back on her own feet again, they said.
She walked away from the life she’d built for herself and her children, the only life she’d known. Mama, the educated woman who had married her college sweetheart, and for many years, had worked to establish a good life for us all alongside our father, had arrived at a place she’d never imagined. That day, with only the clothes on her and her personal belongings in a suitcase, Mama moved out. She never got back on her feet like they’d said. Like many other Liberian women in our country, she lost custody of her children and that alone meant she would never get back on her feet, whatever that meant.
Several weeks after Mama moved out, another woman was formally introduced to us. I lived in complete darkness about the workings of our family from then on. Everyone said we were only little children who should be spared these burdens even though the family confusion was openly displayed for us to see. I overheard my father’s relatives talking low about how children shouldn’t be around when these things were discussed. Uncle and the family got together and formally presented Pa a new bride, a beautiful woman, much younger than Pa. She was the same woman who moved in soon after Mama’s departure, so I didn’t understand why they needed a formal family gathering for her to be where she already lived- in Mama’s house.
She was well in control of our father the way Mama had never been. She made all of us children tremble when she was angry. There was a wedding after that, a big wedding and flowers and girls in long colorful dresses and the men in black coats. Everyone was happy and laughing loud, and many people got up and made speeches through the night. Uncle Kweah made the big family speech, and spoke proudly of having found a beautiful Grebo woman for his eldest brother, a woman who knew how to take care of “the family,” and one that would bring them many more children. He spoke in his choppy English mixed with Grebo.
My siblings and I sat in our beautiful wedding dress-up and listened to one speechmaker after the other. Pa glowed in his black coat suit and tie, and the wedding party danced into the night. Someone came to us late that night, and offered to take us children home.
We quickly became the stepchildren among the new bride’s children who arrived with the urgency of a younger woman trying to prove something. Her first child was born soon after the wedding, a proof that her husband could still make babies. I could not recall how many children she had before I left home. I stopped counting long before I finished high school.
I came to the United States the first chance I got, straight out of high school, a teenager. One attempt at the US embassy for an immigrant visa, and I got it, without even lying to the embassy officials. Those were the days when leaving Liberia to come to the US was like leaving your home for work. My sisters were in boarding school. My brother was beginning his senior year, and wept when I informed him that I was leaving Liberia. I was getting away from family, from friends, everything, I thought, as I stared outside my window now. Mama died early, just three years after Uncle and the family kicked her out of her beautiful home. Someone said she’d died of heartbreak. She died before my father’s new wife gave birth to her third child. Mama was still a young woman with many more years to enjoy herself when we buried her.
Two days after that initial e-mail from Doe, Pa called again, and wanted to know if I would be coming home to bury my Uncle. They were holding the body for me. They would keep the weeks of official Grebo Mat ongoing until I arrived. The people on The Mat needed to be entertained and fed with good food and drinks for as long as they could hold the body for my arrival. They wanted to bury Uncle in a nice bronze casket, in a dark suit, something well-tailored, and since I was the eldest boy child in the family, I needed to arrive with the suit. His daughters would take care of the grave and other things, but the suit and the casket were my share of the cost of his burial. After all, Pa did not hesitate to add that I had been in America for many years, making lots of money. I also needed to remember that a very important man like Uncle was presently unclothed in a cold funeral home while I wasted time deciding whether I was coming home or not. That indeed. was disrespect towards a dead person.
And in case I had forgotten my place after all these years of being in a strange country, I needed to understand, Pa said, that I was the eldest son, the pride of the family, the one upon whose shoulders everything would exist tomorrow. It was about time that I came home to relearn the traditions that I had so far, forgotten, he stressed in a long-windy conversation over the phone. I could not argue with him, and even though I did not understand why he was so angry with me, I listened, and let him talk for as long as he wanted. I was not the one paying for such a long overseas call anyway. The tradition of not talking back to your father or cutting him off seemed to work for that moment, and I was very proud of myself.
“Everyone will want to know why you cannot come home to bury your uncle, Jacob, if you don’t come home,” he stressed, “everyone will be shocked, very shocked!”
I wanted to tell Pa to drop the damn phone and go away. I wanted him to see what they had done to me, how he had robbed us of our mother with the help of his brother. I wanted to scream and tell the whole world to go away. After that call, the phone rang once more, after three weeks of silence. My sister, Kweahde was on the phone. Kweahde, one of my little twin sisters, was now a woman with children and a husband. Her voice now sounded like Mama’s musical voice. My departure from home had also robbed me of knowing my nieces and nephews.
“Jake, I’m so proud of you,” she said in her usual soft voice.
“Why, Kweahde, I didn’t live up to their expectations of ‘the eldest son,’ my sister.”
“Yes, that’s why I’m so proud of you, Brother. You did not come home. You would not come home. For the first time, you didn’t listen to them.”
‘You mean, you’re not upset with me?”
“Upset with you, Brother? I’m so happy for you,” she laughed. “They sat around telling themselves at the family meetings that Jake was coming home to bury his uncle and to do this and to do that, my brother.” I could feel the joy in her voice.
“Really?” I laughed out loud. Now that I knew my siblings that I had abandoned by running away weren’t upset with me, I was even more relieved. I was the silent, shy one who kept everything in, running when life became unbearable. And they had forgiven me.
“Oh yes, Jake, and our father was so proud that you were coming home on his orders, so I’m glad you didn’t come home.”
“Now you need to set yourself free of yourself,” she said, her voice sounding older and wiser than the little girl I used to lead around our rugged neighborhood, teaching new tricks, she and Kwede, the one Mama named “Kwede,” as if she were the only last born, as if a mother could decide which one of her twins was younger by the minutes between their births. Because Kwede came out first, as Liberian belief goes, she was the younger. The younger is the one that comes ahead to check out their parents, our people believed. But science didn’t think so. How Mama reasoned that one twin girl was Kweahde, after her husband’s mother, and the other twin, Kwede, the last born used to baffle people. The snow was falling as we spoke. Small snowdrops falling in pellets, then later, chunks of snowballs began falling. I stared out the window, listening. The hilly slope in the backyard of our complex lay covered by the time my sister was done talking to me.
“You have to set yourself free, Jake,” she said, “free of a dead past, of a dead cruel uncle, of the people who stole our mother from us.”
“Thanks, Kweahde, for your support, oh, my God, you don’t know what this means to me.”
“Jake, life is so short, my brother.”
“But I didn’t do anything spectacular, Kweahde.”
“Yes, you did.”
“No, Kweahde, I only kept silent, as always. I am the same old silent fighter. I didn’t argue or say ‘no’ the way I should have.”
“That was still fighting, Jake,” her voice, trembling now, “you shut the door, Jake. You shut the door to the past of the hurts that drove you so far away from us; finally, you have let out the hurt, and closed the door to the past, to the pain, Jake,” she was crying now. “I did that years ago. Kwede, and I did that together. Our brother is still hurting. Your girl, Sabah, is still hurting hurting bad. They need you, Jake.”
“I’ll come home someday, Kweahde, someday soon. Maybe.”
“I know you will, I know,” she said, as if to herself. “When you come home, Jake,” she said in that poetic, traditional tone typical of our mother, like Mama was now speaking to me from her grave, Kweahde went on, “Let the sun be bright and hot, and the ocean waves, angry. Let it be March, just before the rains, when the ocean begins to feel the currents of the coming storms. Let it be for you, Jacob Hneh,” she said between sobs, “let it be your way of coming home. Not for dead people and dead pasts.”
I read the letter that came right after the burial. My father painted a good picture for me. At seventy-six, Pa knew how to paint a dead man’s picture so well, the son who refused to carry out his family duty could never find freedom from guilt they needed to carry around. “Your uncle looked happy in his casket. He had on a white suit instead of the black one you were supposed to bring, and he looked like he was still living, Jake,” Pa said, “But he was disappointed in his casket, upset that you refused to bury him,” Pa wrote.
I walked to the fridge after reading the letter, took all the liquor from my fridge and poured it slowly into the kitchen sink. Then I searched the cupboards for all the wines in the house and poured every drop also down the drain. It was snowing again. At home, in Monrovia, it must have been hot, the Harmattan winds cooling the night. When I made the call home to Pa, I placed my feet on the coffee table in my living room, sipping a glass of water. “Hello, Pa,” I said, my voice low and confident.
“Son, I’m so sorry you could not come home. You won’t believe what a great funeral,”
“Hold on, Pa, hold on,” I said.
There was a pause, followed by a deep, heavy sigh as though I ‘d stabbed him.
My aging father who had never heard anyone say, ‘hold on,’ to him his entire life, was now hearing his son violate Grebo norm. That must have done him in finally. But today was going to be my day. “The reason for my call, Pa, is to let you know that I’m glad I didn’t come home to bury my uncle,” I went on, and there was silence. “I also wanted to let you know that I’ll be coming home this year, in a few months.”
“Why are you coming now?” He shouted.
“To see if Sabah will marry me, Pa,” I said with just a bit of confidence that Sabah would forgive me. Even as I told him, I was struggling inside to convince myself about my prospects of getting the girl I had failed these many years, to marry me and come to America.
“What did you say?” My father’s voice sounded angry, shocked.
“Yes, I’m coming for a big wedding and then I’ll bring Sabah back to America with me. Be at the airport when I arrive, please,” I said boldly, “to welcome your eldest child home. I’m coming home for another kind of celebration too, to celebrate my uncle’s death.”
He attempted to cut me off, but I didn’t let him. As I went on, his shock came through in sighs and groans, but I ignored him.
“You mean to say you are coming to celebrate while the family is in mourning?” He screamed.
“Yes,” I said flatly.
“I can’t believe this, oh God, I am going to die today, oh!”
I could feel the anger in his voice, but I did not worry. “Be there to help me and my mother’s children celebrate my wedding and the end of a very sad time in our lives,” I said.
There was silence from the other end of the ocean as my father struggled with the news. He’d finally got the message. My mind was racing with excitement despite my fear of Sabah turning me down. I was even afraid that she would turn me down. Somehow, I told myself that if she did, I would fight and plea with her, since of course, she wasn’t dating anyone. We were both still very young, I consoled myself. She would want more time to put things together, but after all these years of waiting, she’d take me in the simplest possible way.
The more I thought of our lives together, the more excited I became. I could still see her smile the way she looked so long ago, how she’d take it when I asked her from across the ocean to marry me and come back to the US with me. After fifteen years, Sabah was now thirty-two. There was so much planning to do for my departure. Pa was still on the phone. Despite my newfound freedom, I couldn’t find the courage to be the first to hang up, so I waited.
And then the click, when he hung up.
When I dialed Sabah’s office phone, I was trembling. There was a long pause and then a secretary answered before forwarding the phone to Sabah’s desk phone. Her voice was soft and as always, she was excited to hear from me.
“Sabah,” I said in my new trembling voice.
“Yeah, Jake!” She screamed, surprised that I was calling her at this odd time of the day. For a moment, I could not recall why I had called. I twisted the phone from one ear to the other, scared. By now, all my hands were shaking. “Jake, what’s wrong, honey?”
“I’m coming home to see if you will marry me, girl, I’m finally coming.”
“Oh, yes, oh yes,” Sabah screamed at the top of her voice.
I could imagine her jumping up and down with excitement, listening to her feet, pounding the floor. Now I was afraid that she would cut me off before giving me her word.
“I’m coming home, Sabah. Did you say yes? Will you please marry me?”
“Oh, Jake, oh Jake, of course,” was all she said between the stomping. I could hear her dancing now, not stomping her feet, but dancing, sobbing in hiccups.
“Don’t cry, baby, I’m coming home at last, girl, in a few months.”
“Jake, Jake, yes. Can we talk tonight?”
“Of course, I’ll call you tonight, yeah, I’m coming home,” I screamed at the top of my voice.
Outside, the snow was falling again. The streets lay covered in beauty when I finally laid the phone in its place. I opened the curtains to see the pine in the distance, holding on to pockets of snow that had not fallen to the ground, and I thought, how beautiful. The phone was ringing again. This time, it was my cousin, Doe, calling, when I shut the door for a walk in the Michigan snowstorm.
Patricia Jabbeh Wesley is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Penn State University. She is a Liberian Civil War survivor who immigrated to the United States with her family in 1991, and the author of six books of poetry, including Praise Song for my Children: New and Selected Poems (Autumn House, 2020).
Copyright 2021 Patricia Jabbeh Wesley