I sat there, mesmerized. There we were, three generations of Ethiopian women, sitting on the floor of a small New York City apartment, in a lull from laughing hysterically at a joke. It would have remained an unremarkable event. Except, on that humid New York summer afternoon, without the benefit and fanfare of esoteric rituals, I was initiated into an ancient sorority of Ethiopian womanhood to which my foremothers belong.
In the ennui of a long summer day, my grandmother, my mother and myself had congregated in my aunt's living room, reminiscing about Ethiopia and rehashing old family stories. And in between sips of coffee, my grandmother started telling jokes.
I am unable to recall the specifics of one joke that made my grandmother and my mother throw back their heads in laughter. But it happened then, and rather startlingly, because when I finally looked straight into my grandmother's eyes, it was as if the sands of time stood choked at the neck of the hourglass.
Eight decades could not rob her eyes of their youth. They danced mischievously through a mist of tears, their brown-ness still traceable over a curious tint of green that coated them. They were complex, those eyes: juxtaposing her fierce spiritedness with her resplendent tranquility.
I hadn't seen my grandmother for ten years, but I remembered she and I as having an affectionate yet cordial relationship. My three brothers, my sister and I didn't know much about her, except that she was ardently loyal to the family, she loved her animals and you never, ever crossed her. Until that day, she was the matriarch of the family, and as such commanded absolute respect and awe.
Now, sitting cross-legged in front of her as she breathlessly tried re-telling her joke, I saw a gentleness in her eyes which had always been there. Tears were streaming down her elaborate cheekbones and disappearing into the delicate folds of skin at the corner of her thin, severe lips. Her hands, which only on close observation betrayed the scars of a woman who has had to fight for dignity, had aged elegantly, and were now fumbling with her netela to find a suitable corner on it to wipe her eyes.
At that particular moment, she was not just the person who comforted me when I fell from the heap of rocks in her back yard; and she was more than the person who explained to me why she had 'nekesat' on her neck. At that moment, my grandmother was a woman. And a conduit to connecting me to the past.
I was in my early twenties, and like most immigrants, on a cusp of an identity crisis. In college, I had taken endless Women's Studies and Political Science classes which inculcated into many young women that no, we were not going to be like our mothers and our grandmothers.
We were, after all, schooled in feminism.
On that fateful day, laughing alongside the two stongest women I know, I felt a burden being lifted from me: I finally found a sense of belonging , and the innate peace that comes with it. Despite living thousands of miles away from the home of all my foremothers, I knew I still belonged to them. I realized what at the core of me made me an Ethiopian woman, and that neither distance, women's studies classes nor certain predilections to Janice Joplin and Pearl Jam could change what coursed through my veins.
That day, I also discovered that my grandmother was the first true feminist I knew. She had achieved her emancipation, not in the protected sanctums of university life or textbooks, but through a series of battles fought and won nobly. She was a widow, a mother of six, who at times fought fiercely and at times negotiated deftly the adversities of living in a time and place which was neither forgiving nor charitable towards independent women. She never learnt to read or write, but her visceral erudition filled volumes. This was my grandmother, and I etched the picture of a giggling woman into my heart and soul.
On a lazy New York afternoon, through an innocuous joke-telling session, my grandmother passed onto me her legacy of strength, and the incalculably profound gift of dignity in not flinching when looking people in the eye. And speaking. And being heard.
My grandmother stopped laughing for just a moment. She cleared her throat, adjusted her netela and dropped her eyes to the ground, slightly embarrassed by her outburst. She sighed and wistfully murmured "Ere gud eko new" the way she often did.
It didn't take long for her to succumb to another fit of laughter. My mother and I were waiting for her prompt.