My friend Free, her daughter Saron, Vivi, and I are wandering around Seedy Saturday together. I’ve been volunteering at the seed swap but now I want to take a look at all the other vendors before the event closes. We stop at a table selling popcorn and soon the lady behind the table is giving Saron a piece of gum. Saron pops it in her mouth, her eyes sparkling, and then asks the vendor a question. The lady doesn’t hear her at first so she asks louder, “Can I please have a another piece for my sister?”
I am holding Vivi on my hip when she makes the request and smile because I know what is coming next. Saron doesn’t have any biological siblings and her relatives live half-a-world away in Addis Ababa, but the lady doesn’t know that.
“Of course!” the lady replies and gently shakes her Dentyne container so that a shiny little square falls into Saron’s open hand. Saron quickly wraps her fingers around it, ducks behind her mom and appears before Vivian and me with an outstretched arm. “Here’s your gum Vivi! You have to chew, chew, chew!” Saron says, half-shouting like she always does when she’s excited, which is just about all the time.
“Oh,” the lady starts, looking confused and surprised, “I thought maybe you were going to take it home to your sister.”
Free and I both laugh. “We are family,” I say, but don’t explain anything more. Perhaps she thinks we are a couple; one black mom, one white mom and their blended children. Neither of us offer more information and we walk away from the table, both girls chawing vigorously.
When Free first came to Canada a year ago she wouldn’t stop cleaning my house. Whenever I begged her to put away the broom she would tell me firmly. “No Tree-sha. Like sistah.” At that point I appreciated the sentiment and was touched by her open heart, but didn’t really consider our relationship to be sister-like. Then as the months passed something changed. It happened slowly. While she and Saron slept over many nights, while her daughter fell asleep in my arms, while she taught Belén how to braid Saron’s hair, while she became Vivi’s safest place outside of our home, while we tried roasting coffee the Ethiopian way on our back step (and failed), while eating injera and kolo together, while going to doctor’s appointments, while talking on the phone with her relatives in Ethiopia, while crying together, praying together and trying to read each other’s Bibles together, while applying for jobs, while cheering on Belén’s basketball team, and of course, while cleaning together.
When the school bus is cancelled due to a blizzard, Free and Saron wade a block-and-a-half through the snow to spend the day with us. After playing a few games, watching the kids perform dance routines, and drinking tea with honey, Free tells me, “Now it’s time to go downstairs and work.” I don’t even protest because I know it’s futile; she’s already heard me talk about my to-do list for the day. “What I’m gonna do?” she says as we survey the laundry piles, boxes of material, cheese-making supplies, bags of recycling, fermenting wine, and everything else in between. I tell her I have the same question, but soon she starts organizing all my canning paraphernalia. Somehow, in the darkest corner of my basement, she manages to bring order, throwing out buckets of dried herbs and medicinal flowers, and arranging jars and lids according to size. While we work we listen to Ethiopian music, talking a little, but mostly just comfortable not saying anything at all.
When we do talk we learn a lot from each other. I tell her about our most recent trip to DC and visiting Mount Vernon, (George Washington’s estate). When I get to the part about our kids meeting a costumed interpreter dressed as a slave, I ask her if she’s familiar with American history. She is not. I wince when I talk about slave ships, cotton plantations, and then abolition. In a later conversation climate change comes up. I explain the concept of the greenhouse effect and why we choose to walk and re-use dishes whenever we can.
She isn’t the only one learning. I am fascinated by her experiences and harrowing adventures. She tells me what it was like to work for one of the wealthiest families in Yemen. How she learned Arabic, how her madam shared her husband with three other wives, and how she never told anyone about her secret church. She tells me about how she has seen the hand of God work miracles and heard his voice. She reminds me that our way of life is crazy when she makes observations about her new country. “Why don’t you talk with your neighbours more?” she asks. And, “There’s food everywhere here; at the bank, at church, in the middle of the day, at night, at meetings, anytime! Everywhere you go people are eating, and they’re not even thanking God for it.”
Free and Saron live just down the street with our dear friend Rebecca and sometimes we joke that we are one family who happen to live in 2 houses. Our little intentional community has been such an unexpected and heartwarming blessing for me, but it isn’t always easy. I make mistakes, feel bad for things I’ve said or done, and blunder through our cultural differences. When Saron yells at her mom from the back-seat of the van, I slam on the breaks and react as if it’s my own child. When the noise reaches a dangerous decibel level (Stan’s measured it), Free asks what the orange, spongy things are sticking out of Stan’s ears. “Oh, those are just ear plugs,” I explain, adding that he’s used them regularly since the children were born to help keep him calm. Which is true.
Becoming family hasn’t been quiet, quick, or easy. It certainly wasn’t expected or anticipated. But now, being family for each other is as natural as asking for another piece of gum.