Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Thursday, May 6, 2010

To Zayda from her Shangazi - peace in war

Child & Family
Letter to Zayda born April 30, 2010

If you offend, ask for pardon; if offended, forgive. (Ethiopia)

Dear Zayda,

Aunt Lyn

Aunt Lyn’s tongue could be as sharp as a ripe Scotch bonnet pepper, but she was the peacemaker in a family of warriors. War is sometimes necessary. We McCallas have a practice of standing up for what we believe in and if it means war then so be it. Aunt Lyn definitely stood up for what she believed in. But she was never part of the family infighting that took (takes?) place as the warriors make war on each other. An African proverb says, “Black ants bite, but they do not bite each other.” Aunt Lyn could bite, but she would never intentionally bite her family, her loved ones.

When my dad went to war with her, as he did too many times for too little reason, she always said to me, “This is my brother, my only brother. I loved him as a child, I love him now, and I will always love him no matter what. Even if he is not speaking to me, I will speak to him.” And she would do just that. She would call and take the insults till my dad got tired of fighting with his own demons. I don’t know how she did it, but she persisted. She believed in love. She believed even more in forgiveness.

Sometimes her bluntness irritated me. One day, after I had separated from my then husband, she called my house and a male voice answered.

“Which man is that?” she asked.
“None of your business,” I said. I may have been more diplomatic, but not much.

“This is your auntie trying to make sure her niece is all right.”

“Sure, but I am over forty now. I can take care of myself. But I know this is not what you called me about.” And then the topic changed.

No matter what, I could never stay annoyed at Aunt Lyn. She always found ways to remind me that I am her daughter. A few days after I was born, my mother Ettle contracted pneumonia. Since she was too ill to take care of me, she and my dad sent me to live with Aunt Lyn whose son was then four months old. So Aunt Lyn took me to her heart and her breast.

“I gave you my milk,” she said to me if ever I spoke to her in a sharp tone. “So cut out the foolishness. I love you.”

Just as she would speak her mind to me, I would also know I didn’t need to measure my words with her. Even if she thought I was out of place and even rude, I knew she would never go to war with me. She would tell me to my face whatever she needed to say, and I would never need to hear her complaints second-hand and twisted by family members in search of war drama.

Like her siblings, Aunt Lyn was bossy. Anything she wanted done needed to happen instantly. In fairness to her, she would also deliver on her promises quickly, as long as she was well. In her last years, she was often unwell, and she needed to have a hospital bed set up in her home. She was such an active person when she was well, that she must have felt imprisoned by needing to depend on others who seemed to have feet sunk in clay.

On this particular day, I had taken her some pork chops she needed to have as a matter of urgency (everything for her was urgent!). I wanted to express my feelings directly as I had always done, but she looked so ill and frail lying on those sheets with tubes on her night table. She had been in and out of hospital, mainly with the nose bleeds she inherited from her mother. Aunt Lyn would lose so much blood that she would have to be placed on a drip in hospital. She tried to get help from local and overseas doctors, but still she would hemorrhage when the blood vessels in her nose broke for any reason, even a sneeze.

The weight of what I wanted to tell her had lain heavy on me for a while, and I had started to avoid visiting her. Then I would feel guilty about abandoning Aunt Lyn, because she was my friend as well as aunt and mother. So I took a deep breath, asked the ancestors to guide my words, and spoke.

“Auntie,” I said, “I have a problem.”

“Talk to me,” she said.

I told her that I wanted to visit her with love, but resentment was taking over and I didn’t think either of us deserved that.

“Can we agree on something?” I asked.

“Tell me what you think I can do better. By the way, do you think the others in the family feel like you do? I notice some of them not coming to see me as much these days,” she said.

“Yes.” I said. “I know that time moves slowly for you when you are lying here all day. But the rest of us have lives to lead.”

“Tell me what you think I should do.”

We talked for a while, and agreed that she would call me every Friday to let me know what she needed at the shops, and I would visit her every Saturday and deliver her shopping then. If she had emergencies, she was free to call. Real emergencies. If I needed to miss a Saturday visit, I would give her as much notice as I had.

“And, Auntie,” I said, “One more thing. Sometimes you are so busy fussing about what I didn’t do for you, and about how little time you think I am spending with you, that you forget to say ‘thanks.’”

“Look at this now,” she said, “I taught you manners and now you are coming back to teach me!”

We hugged and kissed and she reminded me, as usual, that I was her daughter.

The gamble paid off. Aunt Lyn kept her side of the agreement and so did I. As a result, I could visit her without pressure, leave early without guilt, and be happy to stay long at her bedside even if I had other demands on my time.

So Zayda, Aunt Lyn taught me some important lessons. We can be warriors who choose peace. We can have conflict in our bloodline and yet choose forgiveness. We can listen to each other and respect each other no matter who happens to be the elder. We can be honest if our words come from a place of love.

Peace and forgiveness always,

Your shangazi

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When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

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One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

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