My African Sister

An excerpt from 'It’s All Love: Black Writers on Soul Mates, Family, & Friends.'

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Each night Old Pappa, my Swedish grandfather, and I set candles in the windows or built snow lanterns in the yard for the tonttu, farm sprites, and I imagined that we were conductors on the Underground Railroad, lighting the way for runaway slaves. 

I spent my childhood searching for anyone who looked like me.  Wedging myself into the back of my grandparents’ closet among board games, paint-by-numbers kits and jigsaw puzzles, I sifted through shoeboxes of photographs: Monochrome snapshots of morose white relatives in black clothes.  Portraits hand-tinted with Mummi’s ice cream colors.  These were the extras that didn’t make the cut; I’d already looted the official family album, sliding out the only two photos of my father. 

I developed interest in Great-Uncle Vaino, a quiet fellow who always eyed the camera as if from a great distance, the forehead beneath his dark, slicked-back hair perpetually wrinkled from squinting.  His broad, swarthy face with cleft chin and hooked nose evoked the unknown origins of the Finns.  In his face lay the possibility of Turkey and Hungary.  He looked more Inuit than Scandinavian, and when he laughed, the dark slits of his eyes disappeared completely. 

Into the box beneath my bed he went.  He didn’t look like me, but at least he was different and dark.          

The sharp bite of Mummi’s limpa bread bloomed at the mouth of the hallway, reminding me that it was time for our baking, but at twelve I was pushing my way out of childhood, wondering what I would become.  My grandparents had thrown out my nineteen-year old mother, after all, for being with a Black man, and only took her back because I was so cute.  After the golden skin and dark eyes my mother rhapsodized over, these curls my grandmother twisted around her fingers, this round nose my grandfather tugged before hanging me upside down, then what?

IN TRUE AFRICAN FASHION, my father and I move slowly, circuitously, as if conversation were a tribal praise song or Highlife dance with instrumental flourishes and digressive harmonies.  Eventually my father calls, “Emekachukwu, Okechukwu, Adanna!  Come and greet your sister!” 

Before the words even leave his mouth, the three are quivering in the center of the parlor.  Grins split their faces.  The eldest, Emekachukwu, is already languid with teenage charisma.  Behind him stoops a lanky boy with yellow skin and glittering, feverish eyes—Okechukwu, the invalid.  Pressed close to him is me, fourteen years ago. 

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