My 18-year-old daughter is college-bound this week. It's my turn to get caught in the glaring lights of late adolescence -- the ones that illuminate the unfinished business of the previous generations. My daughter is excited about moving out, having her own life. She's had her fill this summer of a job making burritos at a local taqueria. I have to face the fact that I haven't prevented her from feeling insecure, despite my best intentions. I've made all the mistakes I swore I wouldn't. Seams that were tight are loosening -- as they must.
The summer before I left for college, I handed out Darth Vader glasses at the drive-thru window at Burger King. It was 1980, the summer of The Empire Strikes Back, Olivia Newton-John and the Moscow Olympics. In late August, my mother took me shopping for stuff for my dorm room. In the housewares department, she pulled a plastic-wrapped set of designer sheets from a jumbled stack -- white pinstripes on a background of egg-yolk yellow. A sales clerk swooped between us and interjected that what my mother selected was high-quality, durable, and classic. "We only carry the best names here," she said.
Then, perhaps discerning the mismatch of energies between us, as my mother nodded in agreement with her while I looked away, the clerk added, "They think we were never their age with their wants and desires. I have two of my own, and would you believe, even with me in retail for thirty years, I'm telling you, it's not easy to shop with them. They have their own way of doing things."
"Of course," said my mother.
For as far back as I can remember, I've winced at the way my mother made best friends with salespeople and insisted on name brands she could roll off her tongue with the same pride as if she'd sewn the pieces herself ("Gucci, Pucci, Fiorucci"). She couldn't help herself. She came from a family of retailers -- my grandparents owned a chain of children's clothing stores and the very buzz and flicker of the fluorescent lights, the hymn-like quality of the escalator, row after row of bargain merchandise to sort through, had a way of elevating my mother's sense of purpose, identity and endorphin levels to the same extent that it overwhelmed my own.
My father's ancestors were rumored to have been tailors. He figured this was why he was drawn to being a surgeon. My father also developed an interest in needlepoint, like Joe Namath, the pantyhose-wearing 1970s football player, and later, after my father was diagnosed with cancer, Persian rug making. Though holidays were always occasions to gather with my father's side of the family (my mother's relatives lived too far away), there was little if any talk about previous generations. We were a fourth-generation American Jewish family. Stories about the places my great grandparents emigrated from, who they left behind, and who accompanied them on the journey, seemed less important than the new cars, good neighborhoods and schools, and novel vacations. We had become a small family tree in the suburbs with a share of our branches having broken away.
The clerk's final advice to my mother was this: "With young people these days, you never know what's in style. This year it's bold flowers, next year it's stripes. At least with this brand you can mix and match for a long time to come."
We left a few minutes later with a set of "mix and matchable" Marimekko sheets. My mother told me, "It's a good name for a good price, and so take care of them if I buy them for you."
Four years later, I graduated from college and traveled to Sierra Leone with the Peace Corps. The sheets came with me. They'd held up well in dormitory washing machines. My mother said, "Designer sheets in the jungle?"
The women in Tokpombu, the remote farming village where I lived, admired the bold colors and tight machine weave of my sheets. There were also many things about their way of life that I admired. The contrast between the ahistorical narrative of my family and Sierra Leoneans' regard for their dead was stark. Even more mind-boggling was their belief that the deceased were still present among the living. Theirs is a culture that weaves together generations as far back as living memory will thread them. Every ceremony was an opportunity to honor their dead, first by pouring libations and then, by reciting their names. For the ancestral names that had escaped memory, including those who were taken away as slaves, there was a beautiful word, "Nde-bla-sia" -- "the name for all those whose names we have forgotten, but whose lives we still hold in our hearts."
I returned to Sierra Leone in 2013 with my then-15-year-old daughter. The men and women in the village, who were children when I lived there, asked me, "Ow yu mama? Ow yu daddy? Dehm still day alive? " (How is your mother? How is your father? Are they still alive?) Some of them remembered meeting my parents when they visited in 1986. Even if they hadn't, it would still be customary to inquire with any friend about their aging parents. The question seemed to bind us all together.
I also had many questions to ask the people in the village. A few years after I left the country, rebel soldiers attacked the village, destroying their homes and forcing everyone to flee. Innocent people died. I knew these would be hard stories for the people to tell and, for me to hear. But I wanted to know.
The truth came spilling out, like rice husks from a mortar "Ohhh yahhhh. We bin suffah!" they said. Everyone also gave thanks to God that the war was over, and that they were still alive. "Fambul tik de bend but e no de broke," they said. (Family tree bends but it doesn't break.) This was a jarring sentiment, considering the heartache of a brutal eleven-year civil conflict that tore so many families apart and pitted children against their own parents. In this acknowledgment was yet another example of cultural values that bind and heal the next generation. In a small country of six million, this seems to be what holds an otherwise fragile peace, even today.
Americans more easily break links from the past, just as easily as we snap off the tags on our new purchases.
All these years later, my mother and I remain a mismatched pair.
When I think of my daughter at 18, on the threshold of everything, no matter what has or hasn't happened in her young life, I want more than a thin feeling between us of who we are and where we come from. I want to pull memory from a jumbled stack for her, yet I also want to allow her to mix and match those memories, to use her imagination to sew the family back together herself, choosing the threads she will weave to make her own life whole.
I don't know the names of most of our ancestors, what their lives were like, what they held in their hearts or rolled off their tongues. But if they hadn't existed, neither would we. They're stacked on our shoulders anyway.
When I left the village in Sierra Leone thirty years ago, the women presented me with a hand-woven cotton fabric called country cloth. To be given such a blanket is to be given the gift of warmth. And warmth, from those who care for us, is love.
Last week, my daughter asked me to please not take her shopping for college. I talk to the sales people too much and I overwhelm her. So I ordered her bed sheets online. She asked for solid colors.