by Kate Tagai
Here: South Pacific, July 2011
Anna seems to grow from the woven mat spread between her and the dusty ground. Her skirt’s elastic stretched and sagging around her waist from so much wear, like Anna’s own skin. She is eighty, or maybe closer to ninety years old. She doesn’t know, but measures her years in world events and the thirteen children she has raised.
As she pats the mat, Anna’s thin arms rattle within the armholes of her cotton tunic as if she were a child trying on her mother’s clothes. She smiles up at me. Her rheumy eyes still see to the bone and the heart of things. I think it is why she let me, a foreigner, marry her youngest, most precious son and steal him far away. She pats the mat again.
I struggle to arrange the folds of my skirt I as sink down beside her. Tucking the front and scooping the back between my crossed legs so that I’m not showing the neighborhood my underwear, more grey than white now from all the hand washing. I fold the sides of the skirt tight to my thighs so the creeping hem won’t touch Anna, a mark of respect towards my mother-in-law. I’m very conscious about holding the edges of my clothes so that they can’t accidentally brush hers. I usually remember to bend low when passing in front of her, though I do say her name, a serious breach of good manners she doesn’t hold against me.
I call her grandmother when I’m talking to her, Bubu. Instead of tawyig, she calls me grandchild, Boobu. Still in my early twenties, I’m not even her oldest boobu.
I shift on the mat and the hem comes untucked offering a brief glimpse of inner thigh. I’m as clumsy with the customs as I am with sitting on the ground in a skirt. I lack the lifetime of practice Anna has with both the customs and the skirts.
Yesterday’s fallen leaves scatter across the yard carrying a displaced scent of fall in New England. It is a scent memory that permeates my whole being. An associated scent I can use to bring a little of the life I know here to her.
“Bubu, ples blo mi, our place, in America, all the trees lose all their leaves all at once.” I offer an over simplified version of Fall in northern Vermont. Still, she is mystified. I’ve shown them photos of the fall colors and the colorless winter landscape. But photos are abstract unless you have smelled the decaying leaf litter of the forest in the fall or felt the biting cold of a January wind on your cheeks. Bitter cold is a strange and far away idea on a tropical island in the Pacific.
“Bubu, smelim ol leaf ia? Do you smell that? The leaves? That is what our yard smells like in October when all the leaves cover the ground, like this mat.”
Another tawyig taps the coconut broom on her hand to align the bristles and starts to sweep the leaves into a pile to burn later. There is a rhythm to sweeping the leaves. The shush of the bristles hitting each other and rubbing the dirt, scraping the dry leaves along reminds me of the shush of wire brushes on cymbals. But it is a metaphor drawn from two places, here and there, and so it feels like an incomplete symmetry. I can feel the sound of the work in my arm, as I remember how I swept my yard every morning when we lived here.
I shift to stand, to help; I’ve been sitting for a few minutes but already pins and needles fill my legs. I don’t occupy the ground as naturally as Anna does, having grown up in a world of chairs. The ubiquitousness of chairs in our American life is another thing that I struggle to convey.
Anna pats my arm and laughs in the throaty way she has developed from years of tending a wood cooking fire. She pats the mat beside her again.
“Yu stap lo ples ia nomo. Yumi storian” she says. I stop fidgeting and settle back down. She gives me permission to stay beside her to feed her images of our life, like telling folk tales. Once upon a time there was a thing called snow.
I am different, not special, just different from her other daughters-in-law. I won’t ever ask her for the custom rights to copy her facial tattoos. Wrinkles cascade over Anna’s cheekbones graphing the topo map of her life lived under the tropical sun. On her right cheek, the green-grey starburst blends into her brown skin and marks her as a woman of power, of rank and knowledge. On me the tattoo would shine like a misplaced beacon, stark and upsetting. There is still so much cultural information for me to know and so much assimilated knowledge gained through the osmosis of childhood that I have missed out on forever.
The distant boom of waves on the reef provide timpani to the falsetto cries of the children sent to the beach to scrub the fire blackened cook pots to a steely shine. As children do when unsupervised, they scrub the pots as fast as they can.
“Good enough,” they cry to each other as they turn summersaults into the lagoon.
I absorb these essential sounds to call on again after we return to the jobs and lives we’ve carved out in America. Though when we are there, this yard, the beach, and mountain, the bamboo huts seem like a dream world. As I sit on a mat next to Anna, the focus sharpens and our other life takes on the shifting and fuzzy quality of dreams.
Anna coughs, a phlegmy rattle that reverberates in her chest for minutes. Her coughing subsides. She continues to ask me questions to get to the root of her son’s new life that she can only dream about.
A tawyig crosses the yard with a basket balanced on her back. Bubu calls to her, gestures her over with the tip of her kitchen knife and says something in a language I don’t understand. The tawyig nods, placing the fresh green palm frond basket at Bubu’s feet. Bubu inspects the contents and nods, pulling the basket closer to her so she can reach the bulbous yams and thin cassava roots inside.
“Yu stap lukatem boi blong mi?” she asks.
I evade. Am I looking after him by taking him from everything he knows and making him a child again? He is a child in my culture, as I am a child in his, each of us returning to the basic roots of life as we relearn how to talk and move in the world.
“I’ve taught him how to use a washing machine, and the stove. He’s learning to drive and balance our checkbook. He’s even going back to school.” My world comes with a dizzying array of paperwork. His requires sinew, muscle, and stamina.
“Hemi stap storian se hemi stap mekem ol kakai blong yutufala? Yu no spoilem hem.”
“He does do most of our cooking. He is using what you taught him and learning so much more. Oh, Bubu, his cooking is a dance, graceful and economical in his movements between pot and stove, cutting board and refrigerator. It is beautiful.” The stove, refrigerator, even the cutting board are part of the folk tale.
She uses the edge of the knife to scrape red clay from the yams and cassava so her daughters can boil them for dinner. She raises the knife and lops a yam in half. For longer than I’ve been alive she has prepared yams this way, learning from repetition and experience how to stop the knife as it cleaves the skin of the yam but before reaching the skin of her palm a breath further on.
In America, we can’t find porous white yams like this at all, and the cassava at the grocery store is scrubbed clean and dipped in wax to make it last longer. It sits in the novelty food section with the dragon fruits and ginger roots.
Bubu’s gnarled fingers hold the blade to give her precision control as she splits the cassava skin exposing bone white flesh. The produce we buy from the store comes already scrubbed free of field dirt and misted with grocery store rain to keep it fresh.
“Ah tink hemi likem tumas ples blo yu. Be mifala I misim hem.“
“I work hard to support him. I take the time to listen to him. I love him.” It is all I can give her, reassurance and love. I can’t show her our day-to-day life; I stumble explaining even the basic shape of our days because the rhythms are so different.
“Yu stap lukaotem hem, from se hemi no ples blo hem long wei.” She pauses, her knife against the half peeled yam, red dirt smeared over the uncovered flesh.
She is right, he is more vulnerable there. It is too far from what he knows. I could tell her tales of three-headed octopus, and sirens whose song will strike a man down, and they would be no less believable than my descriptions of snow and fall, no less foreign than the idea we pay for water and have to fill out paperwork for a license to go fishing. When I’m talking about our life, I stick to representable ideas. The smell of the leaves in the yard makes the image of Fall more accessible. Her son living in the capital with running water, electricity, and rent gives her context for the broad shape of our responsibilities.
“Mifala I save lukaotem yu. Yu kam stap lo ples ia” she says.
This is the crux of our dilemma, we are never fully here nor there but always somewhere in between. Our family here urges us to stay longer, or to stay forever. My family at home pulls us back. There is never enough time to visit or to do all the things we want to do in either place.
My husband falls easily into old grooves worn by years of practice as if he has never been away. I am proud of the callus on my shoulder earned from carrying my garden basket and the callus on my palm from using the machete. There are many things a good Ni-Vanuatu wife is expected to do. I can carry water, hand-wash clothes, walk to the garden, and cook over an open fire now, all things I’ve had to learn. But there are so many tasks that escape me. Here, where my husband is of the line of the chiefs, where he is a leader of people, I don’t belong. But where I belong, he is reduced to the color of his skin and the impenetrability of his accent.
“Bubu, how do we find a place to fit both of us?” She can’t answer that question. No one can.
“Mifala I famili blo yu. I no gat ples lo wol, yutufala I mas mekem.”
As she says, there isn’t a place that exists in this world to fit us both. We have to make one. It is about food and family. It is about being content and useful. It is about being here and there always. I sit with this wisdom, holding it, but still need to explain why I can’t make this island our forever home.
There: New England, August 2012
When we return to the states I try to explain the morning ritual of cleaning the yard, bending at the waist and taping a fist into an open palm to mimic the movements of aligning the bristles of the broom as you work. My mother nods, yes I get it. But I can tell she doesn’t, really, not without the dry, brittle rhythm of the bristles or feeling the rising dust tickling your nose. There are no easy metaphors to reclaim the experience. The broom and mat, fire and machete are all folk tales in America.
Anna sitting on her mat as she was the last time I saw her, springs to my mind, as my husband starts to sob into the phone in the adjoining room. In my mind she sits just as she always did in the afternoon after lunch, smiling and stroking a gnarled hand across the intricately woven braids of a grandchild’s dozing head.
I’m not confident I remember the detail of her cheekbones, or her brow line, or the sound of her voice. Now I know that I will never hear it again, I’m not sure I remember it at all. Her face has the indistinct blur Vanuatu always has when we aren’t there.
She has always been far away, the transition between her small island and my home takes so long as to shake us out of time and place. But now, Anna is not here or there or anywhere. I’ve been told that tribes in Africa believe that a person is never truly dead until the last person who remembers them has also died. Though not an explicit belief, this is also true for Vanuatu where the oral tradition lives on in memory only and nothing is written down. I wonder what knowledge has left this world in Anna’s head, what questions we should have asked but didn’t.
Separated from the customs of grief, we can only make a paltry effort to replicate them. I can give all my love to my husband, as I told his mother I would, but at moments like this, I wonder if all my care and attention is enough. There is a distance between us.
That night, fueled by fear and grief I dream of her. In the culture of the island, dreams and reality mingle.
“Yu stap crae lo mi?” she asks in my dream.
I answer, “Yes, Bubu. We are crying for you. “
“Yu save luk mi?”
“Yes, Bubu. Every time we see the coconut trees, planted by your hands, we see you. When we look into the faces of your children, grandchildren, great-grand children we see you. Bubu, each time we break a leaf from our lemon tree struggling to survive in a pot on the windowsill, we smell the tea you steeped every morning from leaves taken off the lemon tree towering behind your kitchen. Every time we open the coconut oil, we smell your cooking. When we smell the flowers in our garden, we remember you.”
“Yu stap misim mi?” I imagine she asks.
“Always, Bubu, even though you are in the coconut trees, the ocean, the lemons, the leaves. You are in the ground and the air. Your spirit is finally here in our home where I can show you Fall, show you how the morning leaves smelled like home to me and you are home on your island, too. We’ve always missed you. We still miss you. We miss your voice on the phone, your hugs when we visit. Our arms ache from the space you have left. We miss you differently.”
“Be yu stap tink from mi.”
“We keep telling your stories that start with ‘remember the time…’ and we remember.
She appears to my husband in a dream two years later, walking in through the bedroom window of our new apartment. The act is significant because it is the first time he has seen her here, in America rather than dreaming of her on the island. Finally, she has transcended distance. The here and there no longer matter. Finally, I tell my husband, we can show her snow.
Kate Tagai lives and works on the coast of Maine. She is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has had essays published in Cactus Heart and McSweeny’s Internet Tendency, and can regularly be found writing and drawing at her blog Adventures of a Grieving Mother.