“Aida”

  • Aida, an Ethiopian immigrant, navigates her new life in America.
midnight & indigo literary journal for black writers
8 min read

The Solomon family car is small and green and was bought from a used lot seventeen years ago. It is not equipped for long drives. So the Solomons walked, or biked, or drove the car short distances at ten miles under the speed limit. There was, however, one exception to this rule, and this was when the family drove exactly thirty-four miles to pick up Mama Aida for church on Easter Sunday.

Lena had long wondered about her exact relation to Mama Aida, but it had been years since she had asked, as no one seemed to know for sure. Aida, she had gathered, was not grandmother, aunt, nor cousin. She was childless, but mother to all. A wanderer, she never stayed one place long; a weekend with one child, a year with another. On like this forever, resting her head wherever she could find room.

***

As Mama Aida walked toward the car that day, she brought with her three things: a small, wooden cross, a worn leather suitcase, and the familiar scent of freshly baked bread. Lydia quickly moved to help with her belongings but found the trunk filled to its brim with soccer cleats, old jerseys, and discarded bits of trash. So instead, the bag was placed in Lena’s lap. “Take good care of it for me,” instructed Aida, so Lena held the bag as tightly as she could, protected it from Matthew and Daniel (twins, age 7) as they laughed and squirmed about beside her in the backseat.

First stop, church. Second stop, home. The path to church was short and walkable for most but Aida was approaching ninety and could no longer weather the late April heat. So the Solomons took the three-minute drive to Kidus Michael, traveling in silence, pretending the air conditioner worked.

At the door to the church, Lydia stopped her daughter, lowering her voice to half whisper, half scream. “It’s your time of the month, is it not?”

Lena’s cheeks burned. “Yes, Mama.”

Lydia straightened up, pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders and hair. “Then you know the rule. Wait here.”

“But—”

“Lena,” her mother warned. “We do not bring filth into the house of the Lord.”

So Lena sat on the church steps to wait. Watched her brothers run past her, blind to the trail of mud that followed them, laughing in that way only young boys could.

A few moments later, Aida emerged. Immediately the masses were upon her. Arms reached far and wide, hands flat or cupped, to touch, to beg, to steal. They swarmed around her like bees, heads bowed, eyes wide in hope and terror. The thieves found nothing and the beggars quickly left when Aida would not meet their eyes. Lena watched as Aida walked for a while longer and then suddenly stopped. As if in slow motion, she reached deep into her shawl and pulled out two ripe plums, placing them in the trembling hands of a young girl still trailing close behind her. She made the sign of the cross on the child’s forehead and, without a word, beckoned for Lena to join her at the car.

***

If Mama Aida’s life story had to fit onto the back cover of a book, it would read like this:

If Mama Aida’s life story had to fit onto the back cover of a book, it would read like this:

Aida Woodeneh. Born 1954 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Oldest girl of eleven children. Born to Solomon and Gelila Woodeneh, a rich and politically prominent family. For years Aida enjoyed a rather effortless life; from an early age, her mother explained that her only duties were to maintain her good looks, perform above average in her classes, and get engaged before she graduated secondary school. Aida managed to complete all of these tasks, and in fact, snagged a husband at the mere age of fifteen.

It was quite a story, actually. It went something like this:

One spring Saturday, Aida accompanied her nanny and younger siblings to the market to purchase presents for relatives visiting from outside the city. Little did Aida know, a young man was also there, back from a fancy English college and ready to start an even fancier government job. When he saw Aida he knew he had to have her. So he followed her home that day and asked her father for his blessing. Of course, he said yes.

The bachelor: Abraham Shifferaw. Twenty-three. Eldest son of Matthew Shifferaw, a wealthy politician, business owner, and entrepreneur.

In other words: Aida scored big.

So she dropped out of school and the happy couple took a two-year honeymoon to travel the world together. Cairo, London, Rio, Madrid – Aida saw it all.

But there were bad times too. It was lonely post-honeymoon when Abraham began his political career. And then there were the miscarriages. Three in the span of four years. But by August 1974, it appeared things had turned around. The rainy season had drawn to a close. Abraham began to take more time off from work. Aida was pregnant once more.

Then, on September 12, 1974, disaster struck.

That night, armed officers arrived at their home to arrest Abraham. Aida lived terrified and alone in the house for two weeks until the radio delivered news:

The politicians who were arrested were executed tonight at 11:30 PM. Let us please remember…

Followed by the list of names. Well, one in particular.

The next day, Aida took matters into her own hands. She sold her jewels, silk dresses, and satin shoes. Made an arrangement with a man who helped her through the desert. She went first through the Sahara, then to Djibouti, and then the United States.

And now, forty years later, she is Aida the nomad: always searching for a home she knows has been destroyed.

***

Aida brought one gift to every home she visited, the same thing every time: a freshly baked loaf of bread.

As soon as she entered the Solomon house, she pulled the ingredients from deep in her bag, found bowls and spoons in their familiar hiding places, and began to stir. Hours later she called Lena into the kitchen. She tore off a corner of the loaf, rolled it tight into a ball, and placed it in the child’s mouth. Her fingers lingered softly on Lena’s lips as she chewed slowly, then swallowed.

But there are lots of things Aida never learned to do, like how to drive, how to pay her cell phone bill, or how to sleep alone.

Every night she buttoned her nightgown up past her collarbone and cocooned herself into the far left corner of the mattress. She stretched her arms as far as they’d reach, her hands resting in gentle half moons; as if in this way she could pull apart the curtains of the dead and bring her Abraham back to rest beside her. She’d smile lightly, without teeth, and only close her eyes after succumbing to the pull of the night.

****

Two months after she first bled, Aida’s mother presented her with a shawl – simple, long, a deep, ocean blue.

“It’s beautiful,” said Aida.

Her mother pursed her lips intently. “You’re a woman now, Aida. You wear this every day.” She picked it up delicately and wrapped it around her daughter in a pattern she spoke aloud, meaning for Aida to memorize.

After, Aida looked in the mirror and could not see her curls, or her neck, or her shoulders.

“But Mama—”

“Do not argue with me, Aida,” her mother warned. “I don’t ever want to see you without this scarf, do you understand?”

Aida did not, but she promised her mother anyway. She eventually grew out of that shawl, but never the habit, and spent a lifetime wrapping up her limbs until she was hidden beyond recognition.

***

There was an unspoken rule that Lydia must clean the house from top to bottom before anyone could enter the Solomon home.

Years ago the practice so repulsed her that it was rare to have strangers in the house, save holidays. Now, after years of playing hostess, Lydia had the routine down to a soothing, methodical practice. Long strokes along the banister, slow circles on the bathroom floor, pat the carpeting just so. Soon Lena was recruited to help, and the two would bend over wood and leather until the house sparkled in approval.

One May afternoon, perhaps a few days after church, Lena came home from school to see Aida straining over the dishwasher. She rushed to the older woman and quickly took the dish out of her hand.

“No, Mama,” she said,“that’s not your job.”

Aida made a sound that was part scoff, part laugh. “Why is that?” she asked.

“Because you are my guest!” said Lena, in all her nine-year-old wisdom.

“You know what they say in our country,” Aida paused briefly, hand on back, to stand and lock eyes with the girl. Wiped sweat from her cheeks and carefully rearranged her shawl.

“A woman is never a guest,” she declared before throwing her arms into the machine once more.

************

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