A small cloud of hot sand followed my swift steps as I walked home from teaching preschool. As I reached my gate I saw sema yaay (my mother in Wolof) regally dressed in a vibrant pink and blue boubou sitting below our lemon tree in her plastic lawn chair. As I approached her, my shoulders were back and a small smile was on my lips. I was proud that I had gone to preschool early on my day off. I extended my hand to greet sema yaay, expecting her to say, “Naka ecole?”, but instead her finger started waggling, her body started shaking, and then she started yelling. The sudden loud noise forcing me to step back. I caught bits of sentences... “inconsistent….whishy washy…..not good….” My eyebrows raised in shock and then my stomach turned on itself. Her yelling showed me that she was angry because I had disappointed her and I didn’t understand why. I swallowed the lump in my throat when she finished talking and said limply, “I’m so sorry. I don’t fully understand.” She pursed her lips and waved me away.
I walked into my room, forcing myself to breathe deeply. I looked on my wall and when I saw a photo of my dad going out of his way to bring my mom her shoes at the beach, the tears came. They were the desperate tears of “I’m trying!! Why doesn’t that matter?!” and the weak tears of homesickness.
I’m from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My family is small, quiet, and gentle. My Dad loves projects, so as I was growing up we would spend days making pumpkin pie and performing basic chemistry experiments. On long road trips to fiddlers conventions, my Dad and I would huddle together in the backseat drawing molecules as my mom drove 10 miles below the speed limit. My mom loves music and throughout our neighborhood she is known by the penny whistle she plays on her walks. Instead of driving to the art museum, my mom and I would patiently take the whole day and use the public bus. During the winter, my mom makes tea, pulls all our sleeping bags and blankets outside, and lies in the sun with me. In my family, we rarely raise our voices.
Memories of home continued to flash across my mind as I stared cracks on my ceiling in Sandiara, absentmindedly batting at my mosquito net dangling above me like a cat, when I heard sema yaay yell, “Mane! Kai fi!” (Mane- my Senegalese name. Come here!)
I washed my face, forced my cheeks into a smile, and went back to the lemon tree to speak with her. When she looked up from the bowl of rice she was sifting though and saw my red eyes her eyebrows shot up. “You’re crying?! That’s not good. Not good at all,” she said in French. I started to say “N’inquiete pas ma famille me manques” (Don’t worry, I miss my family) but the words caught in my throat and I couldn’t stop my tears as they sprung to my eyes again. I heard myself loudly say in English, “I’m not crying, I’m not crying”, as if to convince myself that I was okay. Sema Yaay’s demeanor changed. She stared sadly into the bowl of rice and fear vaguely flickered across her eyes.
Later, with my team leader Hassana translating (who by lucky coincidence was already coming for my coaching session that day ,) I asked her what I had done to make her so angry and I vehemently apologized for disappointing her. She let out a breath and giggled, saying “I’m not angry! My yelling doesn’t mean that! I was vaguely confused about your schedule.” To her, yelling isn’t a big deal. I understood her words. I really did. But as she yelled about yelling, her finger still waggling along with her body, the knots in my back got tighter and I felt the lump in my throat again.
Then sad fear flickered across her eyes and she asked if I hated Senegal and wanted to leave. “What?!” I replied. “You were crying! Do you want to change families?” she asked. I let out a breath and giggled, saying “No! I love you! My tears don’t mean that! I cried because I was overwhelmed.” To me, crying isn’t a big deal. As I explained, she carefully nodded, but her face was blank. I knew she understood my words, but her whole life, tears have only occurred when someone has died.
I want her to let me cry and to pat my hand while reminding me that she wants me here. I want her to lower her voice and speak slower and more clearly when she is confused and annoyed. I want grace. I know the grace I want to receive. But the thing is, I have no control over the grace she extends. I only have control over the grace I give. So, since I want her to let me cry, she probably wants me to let her yell. She probably wants me to match her waggling finger and loudly exclaim about how much I love her and my Senegalese family. So I will. I will extend the grace I wish to receive and trust that she will do the same.
Later that night she reached her hands out to me, pulled me close, and said “Kai fi sama dom,” (Come here my daughter). She gestured towards sema rakk (my little brother) who had his head resting on his mother’s lap indicating for me to do the same. I felt her soft wax shirt, the underlying perfume, and her confident hand holding my head and stroking the knots in my back. She held me harder, tighter, and somehow louder than I’ve ever been held in my life. I took a deep breath, and instead of craving the gentleness from home, I leaned into her strength and felt loved, surrounded and wanted.
“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are waiting to see us act with beauty and courage. Perhaps all that frightens us is in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” -Rainer Maria Rilke