I looked out the window of the mini-bus and saw her running up the alleyway. Her scarf slipped from her head and trailed in the dust behind her. Her feet, small and bare, carried her over the rough road towards her children.
The traditional Ethiopian cry of rejoicing, lament, and exuberance rose from her lips. This high-pitched trilling sound, repeated over and over again, took the place of mere words. Words seemed inadequate to contain the overwhelming emotion of the moment.
She reached her arms out before her, gathered her children to herself, and held them close to her heart for the first time in four years.
I watched it all with a mixture of feelings I barely understood.
Joy. So much joy.
Gratitude to a God who made this moment possible.
Happiness for my children’s sake. They were in their mother’s arms again.
Trepidation. What memories and emotions might this visit unlock?
Fear of the unknown.
Insecurity. Where was my place in this tangled knot of arms and hearts and histories?
And then she turned and looked at me. Our eyes met. With tears running down her face she reached out her hands to pull me close. She pressed her cheek against mine. I knew in that moment my place was beside her.
We walked hand in hand down the dirt path. Her arm first around the shoulder of one child, then around the waist of another. She matched her steps to theirs as she kissed their cheeks.
The neighbors stood outside their gates, watching us as we moved in unison. Brothers and sisters. Aunts and uncles. Cousins. Mothers. Children.
We ducked into her courtyard and I knew instantly she had prepared for this homecoming. The dirt had been swept into submission. Mats were spread on the ground under the shade of a large tree. She proudly pulled the curtain covering her doorway aside and showed us the neatly folded blankets in the corner of her single-room dwelling. It was cool inside, the thick mud walls acting as insulation against the harsh African sun.
We sat outside under the shade-tree. The breeze rustled the leaves over our heads and blew through the cornstalks growing in the corner of the compound. She gave us the place of honor, putting her only pillow in the center of the crowd and insisting we rest upon it. She ducked inside and came back bearing a beautiful loaf of bread. Round and thick and fragrant, she placed it on the ground in front of us and handed over the knife. Please, have the honor of beginning our celebration. My husband cut into the offering and we broke bread together.
The sound of laughter filled the air as people streamed in. Friends. Relatives. Neighbors. All were welcome to join.
We passed out trinkets to the children: lollipops, silly string, bubbles. We opened our crate and handed out the carefully chosen gifts: shoes, a new sweater, a photo album filled with four years of memories.
We looked through the pictures and told stories. Here is where your daughter won an award. Here is when your son graduated Kindergarten. This is your child’s life. It is happy. It is good. Can you see the love in these pages?
We told our interpreter to share our words exactly. We wanted her to hear our hearts. We asked if she had any questions for us. Was there anything she needed to know about our family? Her children? Our lives?
I don’t have any questions. I look at my children and I can see they are healthy and they are happy. I look at your family and I can see they are loved. I know in my heart it is good. I don’t have any questions because I can see the way you have raised them.
Soon we could smell the sweet scent of roasting coffee. She sat on her heels and carefully tended the small flame. When the beans had darkened to the perfect color, the same shade of ebony as the palm of her hand, she poured them into a bowl and began pounding. Over and over and over again, she ground the beans into dust. And we waited while the coffee brewed over the open fire.
Out came the gold-rimmed cups. Matching saucers. Little spoons. A tiny bowl of sugar.
The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is rich with tradition. She shared this with us. Her coffee, her culture, her tradition, her children.
Our children played in the dirt. They swung their newly-found little sister high in the air. They passed her back and forth like candy, sharing in her sweetness.
Sticky fingers and laughing eyes, she held on to her new siblings and did not want to let go. She cried when we said our goodbyes, chasing after us as we climbed the hill back towards the mini-bus.
The family trailed along slowly. They smiled. They knew we would come back again tomorrow. We had four days to spend together. Four days to take the place of four years.
We hugged goodbye. We stood together, arm in arm, hugging our children. This time I did not wonder at my place in the circle.
My place is beside her.