May 31th 2012
The West African women are warm and welcoming. I am here to observe their conversational English group, which I will be helping to lead a few weeks from now in July and August, as a literacy volunteer tutor. Their group has been meeting at the library for six months. I am not the only newcomer today. A young woman from Togo has also come, accompanied by her husband. One of the instructors invites her husband to stay for as long as he likes, but maybe the prospect of being in a room with eight women is too much; he flees after a few minutes.
The first timer, Lucie, and I are both short, though at five feet she is shorter than me. Her hair is closely cropped; she says that in Togo she wore it long, very long, but cut it when she came here because she wanted to feel freer. A pang of envy or admiration shoots through me, for her bravery in starting a new life, her openness in front of strangers. Is the cutting of her hair symbolic of the rupture of her ties to her first country? She and I smile at each other because that is what newcomers do when they want to feel at home. A gift given, a gift received, it costs nothing and means so much.
Lucie tells the group her husband works in a nursery. It takes us a few minutes to understand he is not a landscaper nor a childcare worker but a nurse. I am happy to hear Lucie’s husband has a job; there has been a shortage of nurses in the U.S. for a long time and his prospects sound promising. Lucie says she prepares food for people. We realize she is talking about catering and want to know more about her business: did she do this in Togo? Who are her new clients? But this is her first day in the group and it feels rude to keep questioning her. She says she loves to cook and clearly she takes pride in her work. We go around the table introducing ourselves. There are two instructors, myself, and five students. All five are from French-speaking countries: three from Togo, one from Ivory Coast, one from Burkina Faso. Two of the women have brought baby girls with them; Justine has brought her daughter, Marie, and Bella has brought Grace, a 10-month-old she babysits. Justine nurses her daughter when she fusses and puts her back in the carriage she has parked behind her chair. Grace sits on Bella’s lap and when she gets restless, Bella places her in a colorful blanket and wraps it around her waist so that Grace rides on Bella’s back. The baby immediately falls asleep. Bella promises to show the women next week how the wrapping is done, and I am sorry I will not be there to learn.
The conversation turns to last weekend’s activities and then to food. The woman from Ivory Coast says she is planning to go home and make a dish with cornmeal. The other West African women know this dish and tell those who don’t that it’s something like polenta. One of the instructors says she plans to make soup this afternoon and asks me if I like to cook. “No,” I say. “I hate it.” Immediately I regret this. The women look at me as I’d just admitted to cheating on my taxes. I hope I have not insulted them. The challenge of feeding a family in a strange country is something they take seriously. I want to tell them my mother hated to cook and that I grew up on diner food and Stouffer’s tv dinners. But the talk has moved on to the pros and cons of shopping at large supermarkets versus neighborhood grocery stores. I make a mental note that when I return in a few weeks, I will ask the women more about what they like to cook and which ingredients are hard to find. Perhaps with the library’s permission we can have a potluck lunch and I’ll make macaroni and cheese from scratch.
Two hours have passed and the meeting is over. The women say their goodbyes in French, and an instructor calls out, “English, ladies. Please!” But it’s too late, the pull of the mother tongue is so strong. I turn to Lucie and ask if she plans to come back. “Of course she’s coming back!” the other instructor exclaims.
I’ve misspoken again. What I meant to say was, “I’ll be coming back, and when I do, I hope I see you.” But perhaps Lucie understands, because as she leaves she gives me one of her radiant smiles.
Nancy Gerber received her doctorate in English from Rutgers and taught Women’s Studies and English at Rutgers in Newark for eight years.
She is the author of Losing a Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Caregiving.