Take a look at items and artifacts kicking around your house. Most of them are probably related to the life you’re living now: the dishes in your kitchen, the clothes in your closet, the books on your night table… Some might be things you rarely use, but you don’t get rid of them because you never know, you might still need them one day. They’re still part of your present. They’re still part of who you are now.
But the present is always imperceptibly becoming the past. “Now” is constantly slipping away into “then.” It’s hard to know exactly where the threshold is. Most of us, I think, have at least a few possessions we acquired when we were a different person. If we still have them, though, does it not mean that some part of us is still that person?
I’m thinking about a shirt I have in my closet. My mother made it for me, back in the ’70s, when I was still wearing clothes like that. Even then, it was an endearingly odd garment, because my mother was an endearingly creative seamstress. I never wear that shirt these days, I’ll never wear it again. I’d look silly and besides, it no longer fits. But I keep it because, well, you know–my mother made it, and even though she’s long gone, I’m still her son, .
What do you still have that you acquired when you were a different you? I posed this question to people in one of my writing workshops, and here’s what three of them wrote.
Cliff Block: Top Student Award
Each evening, after my father had wearily trudged home, I’d watch him scrub his hands, scrub them hard, scrub them long, trying to scour away all the grime from nine long hours at his machine. He was building warplanes in the factory just outside town, P-47 “Thunderbolts”–designed to blast the Nazi’s out of Europe.
The scouring never fully succeeded. His factory work was too embedded in his life.
But sometimes, on a Saturday night, I’d see those same hands sweep a bow across his violin’s strings and make it sing. And as a waltz filled our little living room, my mother (my always working, always worrying mother) would, for a few moments, sway with the grace of a young girl–as when, long ago, they’d met, waltzed to the Blue Danube, and fallen in love.
Now, those hands also held a bottle–all too often. And now, periodically, though he was a small man, those hands would curl into a punch, if he’d felt disrespected by a boss. More than one job had ended prematurely.
For me, however, they held nothing but gentleness.
I remember one summer evening, as we were walking together, I reached up for his hand as he told me how very proud he was of me. I’d just been named “Top Student, Grade 2, St. Killian’s Elementary School, Farmingdale, N.Y.”
I still have that award–and the two silver dollars that came with it. .
But the real treasure is still the memory of that night, walking and talking with my father, holding that calloused, grime-embedded–and always loving –hand of his.
Cliff Block grew up on Long Island, Indiana, and in Buffalo, New York. A social psychologist, he created a U.S. foreign aid program designing new ways to provide education and health throughout the developing world. Since coming to Berkeley with his wife, Prof. Gladys Block, he’s advised developing nations, designed online health programs–and discovered the pleasures of writing.
Lette Berhe: My Gabbi
Every two to three years I go through my house and get rid of “stuff”. Two items have survived 48 years of this shedding ritual. One is a “Desk Diary 1971 Agenda” with airline tickets, boarding passes, telegrams, and train tickets neatly organized, bearing witness to journey I took that year. The other is a Gabi.
The Gabi does not look anything like its former self. Back then, it was a 9 by 5 foot two layer sheet of beautiful white cloth made from hand-spun cotton thread. Today, it is a neatly folded, shredded piece of cloth stored in a small zip-lock bag.
For Eritreans and Ethiopians, the Gabi is a very important piece of cloth. At birth, it is the cloth babies are received with. At weddings, it is the cloth that a mother-in-law gives her son-in-law to keep him and his bride wrapped in warmth and love. At home or abroad, it is the cloth we wrap ourselves in to keep warm. In death, it is the cloth that people are wrapped in for their home going.
Every time I see that Gabi of mine, I ask myself, “Why am I keeping this old thing”? But then I remember my mother giving it to me, and the blessing she conferred upon me then: “May the warmth of home be with you”? And I think about the love and labor of the people who made it, the women in my family who sat in a circle with hand spindles and with a basket full of raw cotton and turned that cotton magically into fine white thread. And I think about the weaver, Alamay, who turned the thread into a beautiful hand-woven white Gabi, aware that he was making it for me, Lette, who was leaving home for a far away place.
On July 24, 1971, with my Gabi on my shoulder, my Agenda in my handbag and my airlines ticket and boarding pass on hand, I bid farewell to my family and friends and walked towards the gate for Ethiopian Airlines flight 728. When I looked back, I saw my family and friends with tears in their eyes and hands stretched to the heavens in prayers to the Gods for my safe journey to America and wishes for my safe and happy return home—mengedi selam yegebereleki! behagose beteenan temelesena. It was hard to leave them all and board the plane but board I did with the hope that I would return home eight years later with a doctoral degree. Now, it is 2019 and I am still here. Love being here; miss not being back home. Love being educated, wife, mother, career women; miss not sharing it all in the proximity of my family.
I have had many Gabies over the years. Every time someone asks, “What do you want from home?” I say, “A Gabi, Berebere, and Shiro”. And over the years, I have gifted Gabies to my non-Eritrean and non-Ethiopia friends at births, graduations and weddings with the same blessing my mother gave me, “May the warmth of home be with you”.
Lette Berhe was born in Asmara, Eritrea in 1949. She went to school in Asmara and later attended several schools in Ethiopia. She traveled to the United States in 1971 to attend , and after graduation worked in Financial Internal Auditing and IT Systems Development for over 30 years.She retired in 2010 and is now working on a memoir.
Nancy Koenig: My Mother’s Bluebirds
Three bluebirds sit atop the lingerie chest in my room. They’re made of glass, a rich translucent blue. Two of them are small and the third is even smaller.
They belonged to my mother and they’re among the few mementos I have of her. When I moved to Berkeley a year and a half ago, I had a van full of the things I thought I needed to start my new life; but the night I arrived the van was stolen. I recovered a few of the items, but most of my most treasured mementos were gone forever. That is why I cherish—perhaps too deeply—the few items that survived the move, such as my mother’s bluebirds.
She loved these three small glass pieces. She called them her “Bluebirds of Happiness.” They embodied her dreams, her hopes for a better future: the easier, more rewarding life that she never stopped believing lay just ahead for her, just around the corner. Her real life was plagued with disappointments — her father’s drinking problem; her parents’ divorce at a time when divorce was a scandal; her husband’s drinking and his extramarital affair; one of her daughters’ mental illness and ultimate suicide; and her only son’s conviction on charges of fraud. But she soldiered on. Her Georgia upbringing always told her: “Tomorrow is another day.”
other three daughter did achieve stable and productive lives, and we took care
of her. We couldn’t give her the idyllic life she yearned for, but we gave her
something. Her life was more than just
the tragedies she endured. Three loving
daughters. Three bluebirds of happiness.
As I gaze upon those glass figurines atop my lingerie chest, I am moved
to realize that my sisters and I are those bluebirds.
Nancy Koenig moved to Berkeley a year and a half ago after living and working in Texas her entire life before. She retired in 2016 following a career as a federal magistrate judge for 18 years. She has three adult children, two of whom reside in the Bay Area and one in Washington, D.C. Her husband of 42 years passed away in 2017.
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