Seeking my grandmother’s courage

Lately, I have been looking for my Emmama’s spirit every place I can think of. Sometimes, I think I can smell her on my daughter’s face, the earthly combination of Afer and water that was the undertone to my grandmother’s scent, overlaid with the Ariti that gently came off her worn clothes. She was of the earth, my grandmother. Her cows wandered into her living room at will and she delivered at least a couple of her calves by hand, with help from a strong dose of Tebel. Before she gave birth to my mother, her only-ever child, she carried her dog Mechal on her back, in a Netela. As a teenager, if I laid on her sunken old couch to kiss her, I could well expect a couple of kittens to pop her from her side, I often wondered how there were so many kittens that did not seem to grow into cats. There were always animals and children in her simple, mud-floored home by the river, a place I loved beyond all reason.

My grandmother was a nurturer for sure, but if your mind is conjuring up a sweet little old lady, I have got you fooled. My grandmother was a warrior. The strongest woman I know.
She could not stand weakness, physical or otherwise and once slaughtered her own sheep as the local Araj was not quick enough for her. She was beautiful and she knew it, she enjoyed being courted and reveled in the attention of men but she only loved one man in her lifetime. She left a comfortable living in Addis, with a well-off, educated husband who did not treat her as well as she thought she deserved, and traveled with her four-year-old daughter hundreds of Kilometers to Wollega to work in a hospital. With little formal education, she taught herself Afan Oromo and transformed herself into a single working mother. She turned away every suitor who came her way and she was known to take her daughter’s teachers to task. When my mother completed elementary school, the same formidable willpower ensured that she was accepted into the prestigious Etege Menen school in Addis Ababa.

Because of all she had survived, my grandmother was pragmatic. In my early 20s, when the ‘when are you getting married?’ Questions were just starting to cause me discomfort, it was my Emmama who asked, ‘why the rush?’ Actually, the way she put it is, ‘Lemekatel min aschekolesh?!’

Emmama obviously did not mince words. By the time I was old enough to interact with her beyond our Ekaka games, she was in her fifties and felt no need to be unnecessarily polite. She told it as she saw it, and not everyone appreciated this trait, but I loved her for it. To this day, and 15 years since I kissed her goodbye, I am drawn to strong women who are honest in their communication. They represent to me the ultimate form of authenticity.

I haven’t found the same character in myself. For sure, I have been called ‘blunt’ and people think I say just what I think but that’s only half the story. I’m also often afraid, of causing offense, of running the risk of not being liked or criticized that I in fact have not been living as authentically as I should be. My grandmother would have been proud of the woman I have become, I am sure, but she would have been perplexed at how her only granddaughter did not inherit her wondrous courage.

I’m currently at a crossroad in my life where I have to make difficult decisions. I hesitate the way my grandmother never would have. I weigh the risks and go back and forth a hundred times in a manner she would have found exasperating. If she had the words, I imagine her telling me to Woman Up! She would remind me how much she accomplished with a fraction of my assets. She would tell me to be bold and throw in for good measure, her favorite expression adapted from the French, ‘Je Mon Fou!’ approximated to mean, ‘I don’t care!’

Well, I care an awful lot. I care so much about so many people that my courage disappears in all that caring.

If I consider leaving a friendship that has outrun its course or leaving a job that is stunting my growth, I will make myself sick with worry about the ramifications. I think it’s good to be kind and to not rush into decisions but I also know that there is a time to be bold, if my legacy is to be anything more than patience and tolerance.

I know I deeply need my grandmother’s courage at this point in my life so I have taken to look for it consciously. To start driving through new neighborhoods that may be a shortcut to my destination because I imagine my grandmother telling me that the worst that can happen is that I get lost. To go ahead and approach people who intimidate me because I’m positive that there is no human being that my Emmama could not have befriended. To sever the final ropes that have bound me to unhappiness because as my grandmother’s life has shown me, sometimes when you think you are being buried alive, you have actually been planted. If I search hard enough, I may just find that woman’s courage.