The Accidental African (posted Dec. 27, 2017)
It was by accident that Sally found herself on the largest continent in the world, a land mass that could contain the USA and Russia as well as China and still have space wherein to keep sheep and goats and ducks.
It was her mother who precipitated her coming to a land she’d hardly given a thought to before she was forced to consider where in the world she’d want to go if given the freedom to choose. Otherwise, Africa was only the land where African-Americans had come from. It was a place that had been robbed blind of centuries. Of that she was sure since she’d grown up among Black people and with a benevolent mother who employed them regularly.
Frankly, Sally’s first nanny was Black. She recalled from the age of three, it would be Charlotte ironing the family’s laundry while she was meant to be napping. Then there was Jean the cleaning man who would arrive through the back door, come through the kitchen where her mother would invariably be standing at the sink washing something or other, and then Jean would disappear into the basement where he’d change into his work clothes and proceed to vacuum the three other stories of Sally’s big old red brick house.
But it was Leo that she knew best. Leo came after Jean and he had been the driver for many years of a local millionaire who used to take him on trips around the world, so fond was the rich man of Leo. Also, Leo clearly had become indispensable, just as he had to her mother. For Leo was not only smart and resourceful. He was also loquacious and loved chattering away for hours with her mom in the kitchen once he’d completed whatever tasks he’d been given that day. For Leo wasn’t just a cleaner. He was a handyman who could fix anything which was one other reason he became indispensable to whatever employer he had. But above all the other attributes that Leo had, he was honest. The only other quality he had that her mother loved most was his rare ability to listen to her, something few people did in the way that Leo was able to do.
Sally’s mother had stories, a multitude of stories, especially about her own upbringing, her family and even about the Black nanny that brought her up while her own mother was being the Grand Dame of Evanston. Sally used to hear many stories about Roxy. She was the one person in her mother’s early years who taught her the value of affection and emotional honesty. She also taught her mother superstitions which were remarkable for a woman of her background to believe and also to practice. Things like knocking on wood whenever she’d say something positive and knock to scare the demons away. We weren’t allowed to walk under ladders or walk on separate sides of street signs or poles. All sorts of beliefs did my mother pick up from Roxy, but by far, the most important was the compassion and empathy and appreciation of black people’s humanity. In my heart, sally know her mother was not a racist. But her class background meant that she was thrown into those inescapable master/mistress-slave relationships. But having been brought up by Roxy who became her surrogate mother, there was no way she could ever have held that black people were less human, less worthy or less intelligent than whites like herself.
The big problem Sally’s mother had faced was marrying the man her mother told her to despite her caring for a man I never met, Frank Cooper. Mother Helm as Sally’s grandmother was called (Mother for short) felt her daughter Marjorie’s future would be more secure if she were in the keeping of Dr. Shaw, the man who became Sally’s father.
That marriage somehow had a great deal to do with Sally’s becoming an accidental African. But let me not leap ahead of myself. The point was that Dr Shaw was quite a bit older than Marjorie, had come from a very different background and was very much married to his medical career. He was a brilliant MD who was dedicated to his patients, but that meant he left Marjorie alone for hours on end. What made that worse was when he was home, he never had time to take the family on vacations other than Sunday dinners and trips to Key Biscane when anyone got sick. Otherwise, Marjorie had her dreams of seeing the world but they remained dreams and press clippings that she would regularly cut out of the daily newspaper and would then carefully file alphabetically, just in case she ever had a chance to go to Fiji or Florence or take that Rhine River boat trip she had always longed to do.
Sally speculated that the reason her mother pushed the Rotary Foundation application papers in her face one day after she had graduated from university was so Sally wouldn’t have to get stuck and stay at home forever as she had done. Sally wondered if her mother wanted to live vicariously through her journeys, but was undoubtedly part of Marjorie’s motivation. But she also had wanted her daughter to experience the freedom that she had never had. The fact that that one gesture, giving Sally those papers and insisting she complete them right away, was going to seal both Sally’s and her mother’s fate. Sally would soon be ‘gone baby gone’, rarely to return. The accidental African was about to be born.