For all Habesha immigrant women, who fed me culture and pride.
This piece was originally submitted as an assignment for an MIT class, 21W.755: Reading and Writing Short Stories.
It was raining when Tsehai entered the cathedral on Washington Street. She thought, while rushing to sit in one of the rear pews, about how the rains were only just beginning at home, and the nephews would be nearly done with school, looking forward impatiently for the break.
She was late, but no one heard her shuffling anyway, as the choir’s hymn rose and fell to the beat of the drum. She covered her damp hair with her embroidered netela and gathered the Sunday scene before her. At the English mass, where she went when she had no time, she always felt the air was tighter somehow, like wearing business clothes or delicate shoes. One had to look apologetic for merely coughing, and babies were ushered out by mothers at the slightest hint of a whimper. But here, even as she sat thinking and mouthing the Penitential Rite, children cried and roamed, the priest merely adjusting his volume to account for the difference.
One small girl was particularly active, her hair parted evenly in four ways and tied into brown puffs. She knocked on the sides of pews, running between her mother and what looked to be her grandfather, stomping and skipping to look up at the others seated listening. She stopped and stared up at Tsehai too, who smiled and winked at her, which made the small girl laugh excitedly. When she became loud or ran too much, a boy, probably her brother, would rise from his seat by their mother and attempt to drag his sister back to at least the vicinity of their pew. Tsehai looked at the boy, only a few years older than his sister, seated dutifully by his mother, with tight curls. He looked as though he’d like to be running and stomping, too, but knew he was older now, and should do better. This would be one of those children prized by his family, for all the help he gave his parents.
Finally, the racket was enough to disturb the priest, who only paused briefly mid-sentence before continuing his homily, and the mother herself picked up the girl and wrangled her into a firm embrace. The mother’s arms were like wings beneath her netela, disappearing in the folds of white linen, the large scarf befitting her age. Tsehai’s own netela was shorter and did not cover her whole torso like the mother’s. The elderly grandmamas’ scarves were even larger, linen wraps that came all the way down to their ankles. The small girl looked swaddled securely in all that cloth, but she wriggled and wiggled until she was let free to run again, and then her toddler noises were again too much, a cycle that continued throughout the mass.
When Tsehai had first come to America, new and blinking with wide eyes, she had been greeted with icy rain and lived in what was practically a closet near Boston College. It was the Dutch priest in Addis that had first helped her get there; he knew one of the white-haired, bespectacled Jesuits that kindly introduced her to professors in the BC School of Nursing. She had entered her first course and observed curiously irreverent 20-year-olds that chatted and ate during lectures, while in the front left corner, she quietly listened. She had been introduced by the Jesuit fathers, then, to the surprisingly different traditions of American churches. Always kind, earnest priests, but eerily quiet parishioners and swiftly silenced babies and flavorless incense.
Here the incense was fragrant, with a heady, sleep-inducing perfume. As it dispersed and waned, Tsehai took a deep breath. She smelled the incense, and the linen of the covered women in front of her, and her own scarf, wet from the rain, musty and robust. When she had first attended mass here, simply the smell of it all had her nearly crying, and an older woman in a longer scarf had put her hand on Tsehai’s shoulder. “My sister,” she had said simply, and patted her arm with maternal affection.
The service was longer than the English mass, too, and gave Tsehai time to ponder and meditate. She closed her eyes after taking communion, letting the wafer dissolve slowly on her tongue. She thought of all the things she needed to pray for — her smallest niece, who had fallen ill. For good rains. That, at the same time, it wouldn’t rain on her hardworking nephews, when they trekked from the village to school in the town. And of course, for her favorite nephew and the oldest, that he would get a good score on his national exam.
She prayed for the safety of Tigist, who was coming today. Let Tigist come, she prayed, and help me welcome her, God, help me teach her to live. How to live without cattle and coffee plants, and with just one relative’s arms to cry in, instead of their vast network of family. But she would take her right away to the Amharic mass on Sundays, so she could feel less new and less afraid.
As the mass slowly began to end, the choir’s voice rose even louder, and men rolled folding tables toward a back room. An exodus of older women left the right wing of pews half-empty, as they also rushed to prepare for the post-service meal. Our mother never forgets us, Mariam is our mother, the choir sang. Tsehai saw now the linen-swaddled toddler, firmly grasped in her mother’s white linen wings and being carried to the back of the church. She followed them and helped the men unfold chairs, as the team of women uncovered aluminum trays, filled with chicken stew and injera bread. The priest came at last and prayed for the meal, and the grandmamas rose to eat.
As the meal ended, the grandmamas greeted Tsehai. One of them, Almaz, with gray cornrows peeking out from her netela, kissed each of her cheeks.
“When is your sister coming, dear?”
“Just now I will go to pick her,” Tsehai smiled, “let me bring you tea, my mother.”
“You are such a good child,” Almaz said, and chuckled to herself, “you must bring Tigiste next Sunday, so I may meet her.”
Tsehai took a steaming cup from one of the busy mothers, who cleared the food to make way for hot coffee and tea. She handed it to Almaz, as an earnest young man, Iyasu, came to ask her to join the choir again, and she laughed and said, “next time,” as she always did. She finished her bread and chicken; she kissed the priest’s hand. They all called her a good child, a good child, these parishioners that were much older than she was. When you looked around there were not many young people — just Tsehai and Iyasu were regulars, and a few others, mostly students, attended sporadically. The church was dichotomous, either middle-aged and above or small children, with a noticeable gap in-between. Most of the members were women, wrapped in variously-sized netelas, pillars of soft white cotton.
At the airport, Tsehai realized it had been almost four years since she herself had walked through the arrivals gate, as she craned her neck to catch a glimpse of Tigist. No one had waited for her the way she was waiting, and it had been a great fiasco of asking people at information desks, terrified she would be conned into a high taxi fare, or worse, not dropped at the right location. Finally, she saw the tight rows of braided hair, the gold earrings and worried eyebrows, and parted the crowd to reach Tigist. They shared a long hug, and Tsehai breathed in deeply, smelling the musky, robust scent of her sister’s linen, richer, with the red dust and spices of home. She smelled the sweetness of the Nivea cream, somehow always different from the ones she bought herself at CVS. She smelled sweat and nervousness.
On the car ride home, Tigist had many questions, and Tsehai answered them with her own questions, about the village and the nephews and the niece that fell ill. She saw in her sister the wide eyes she’d once had, and noted how even the way she smelled now, sanitized in the crispness of Boston, was different from her sister. She took in Tigist’s furrowed brow.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “you will be fine. You have me. And, I’ll take you to meet the others, too.”
It was now evening, and they passed the cathedral, where the last mass of Sunday had ended. Women streamed out, removing linen scarves from their heads.