At the Door
It was a cold Sunday when Amsale heard the knock at her door.
She was cooking misir wot and other vegetables, in preparation for her husband’s return from working the night shift at the airport. She heated a pot and sauteed onions in tomato paste and berbere, filling the house with an intense fragrance that stuck to clothes and followed you out of the door.
The knock came once, and then again shortly after, as Amsale turned down the heat to see who had come, her hair tied in a scarf and wearing house slippers. Whoever was at the door had little patience.
She opened the door to find a young woman on her doorstep, breath visible in the cold, wearing a black coat. Amsale wondered if it might be those people who asked you about Jesus and didn’t go away when you said you already knew Him, trying to tell you their particular Jesus was different from yours, or maybe this girl was trying to sell something, but she didn’t look like either of these.
The woman was well dressed for one, like many of the students you could see walking up and down Massachusetts Avenue, and she looked white but not quite, there was something vaguely different about her, that made Amsale think maybe of Arabs or Mexicans, but not quite. Her hair was a very curly dark brown, and her face was angular and featured in a way that Americans never were.
Amsale wondered all this, in a few seconds, looking up and down at the young woman, before her visitor spoke.
“Hi,” she said, shivering and bouncing on her toes, “I’m sorry to bother you it’s just — I smelled your cooking; it smelled really good.”
“Oh, um…” Amsale was still confused, “thank you?”
“Are you making wot?” The girl asked, with no accent like “wat” or “what”, her teeth bouncing easily off the “t” sound the proper way. Where was she from really, Amsale thought.
“Yes,” Amsale smiled, “yes I am making misir. Do you know this food?”
“Yeah, my mother is Habesha too,” the girl said, “but my dad is American.”
“Oh really? Interesting, you speak Amarenya?”
“Not really…my Amharic is pretty bad, but I try.”
They laughed and there was a moment of silence.
“Do you want to come in?”
“Oh, are you sure?” she asked, although she had been the one to knock at the door.
“Yes, please,” Amsale smiled, “we are both Habesha, after all.”
At this the young woman smiled and looked a little sad.
Amsale worked silently on her misir as the woman sat with a glass of water, until finally all that was left was to wait for the lentils to cook through. Her name was Hana, she said, a name her mother gave her, but which wouldn’t be difficult for Americans. She was a PhD student in economics at Harvard. Her mother was from the northern region, which is why she was so light, even for a mixed child.
Hana talked about being in the middle of working on her thesis, and being homesick, and that was why she knocked on the door when the smell had led her there, from the sidewalk. She didn’t know how to cook Ethiopian food, she said, and could Amsale teach her, and was there a church somewhere here, for Ethiopians?
“My husband will be home soon,” Amsale said, “we can have lunch together. He knows a lot about our community here, you can ask him more things.”
“Thank you so much!” Hana said with a smile, and it seemed she got a little happier with every sentence. She had looked so forlorn when she first knocked on the door, in a way that made her seem older than she was.
Amsale had two daughters, she said to Hana, but they were both in Addis with their grandmother. First, she and Mulugeta would get green cards, and possibly better jobs, then finally bring them here, since Boston was so expensive. Were there other Habeshas at Harvard, she wondered? And what a good school, she said, Hana will be very successful when she finishes. There were some others, Hana explained, but she never made many friends among them.
Amsale’s husband, Mulugeta, arrived from his night shift and looked, surprised, at Hana, seated at their kitchen table.
Amsale explained everything to him and he laughed, “your nose is good, eh? You could smell the wot from our house? Maybe my wife, she makes it too strong?”
“It’s perfect,” Hana said, smiling.
They sat down to eat, around a single, round plate, lined with injera and piles of misir and vegetables.
“I’m sorry there is no meat,” Amsale said, “we are fasting.”
“No, no, please — I’ve already intruded on your home”
“No no!” said Mulugeta, “We are glad to make a friend at Harvard today, no?”
They began to eat and talk more until suddenly Hana became very quiet. The round plate was streaked red with the berbere, and the injera lining was mostly eaten. As Amsale stood up to get more from the kitchen counter, she heard a small whimper, and then a sob.
Amsale turned to see Hana crying. Crying, seriously crying, with tears streaming down her face and, her hands unwashed, unable to wipe them away. She pulled at her sleeve and grabbed a napkin to blow her nose.
“My God,” said Mulugeta, “what is wrong?”
But she couldn’t speak at first, she just sobbed and sobbed. Amsale and Mulugeta looked at one another, unsure what to do, how to handle this American girl at their kitchen table, crying and crying.
Amsale brought a box of tissues and Hana calmed down enough to speak.
“I’m so sorry — you’re both very kind,” she sniffed, “it’s just, my mother, she — she’s not alive, anymore.”
They were all silent.
“When did she pass away?” Amsale asked.
Amsale gasped and crossed herself.
“It’s just, that’s — that’s why I came. I know it’s weird, but I just — I don’t know what to do now. There are so many things I wanted to learn from her, and so many things I don’t know. I never learned much about her culture or had friends here from that side…I can never make the food she made for me…I can’t really speak to our other family because…there are just so many things — ”
At this the crying started again, and Amsale sat next to her and patted her shoulders, this extraordinary stranger, this poor girl that walked into her home, somehow both impressive and learned as well as hollow and pitiful.
Hana gathered herself together and declared that she should go, to the protests of both Amsale and Mulugeta. But finally, they made her a plate to take with her, and Mulugeta wrote down his phone number, telling her to call any time or to come again next time for dinner.
Hana left, plastic bag with food in hand, leaving a rather bewildered couple watching from their doorstep.