This is a simple story about a Sunday that started like any other: coffee brewing, children sleeping, needing an extra layer until the day warmed up. Richard had left to fill another necessary day, building another necessary wall. As I was pulling flour, milk, butter, baking soda from the refrigerator to make pancakes, I dropped an egg. It shattered on the floor quickly, the yoke landing mostly on my foot, the sticky whites pooling around the base of the refrigerator. I leaned against the counter, already feeling defeated, and counted the broken pieces of mottled brown shell. There were seven.
Several weeks ago, The Breakfast Club, the seven children that lived behind us in Barbakar's house--Jamie and Sunny's compass point in a foreign world-- were abruptly separated. Four of the girls, Aysa, Sorna, Nabu and Jhimbal, all sisters, had moved back to their father's house in the next village over. When we met them, they had been temporarily living with Barbakar and his children. Their father had been out of work, and having only girls, there was no son, no prodigy, to supplement their income. He had felt enormous shame at not being able to feed them, which led to arguments and the ultimate resolution that his wife and children should live with Barbakar (a cousin) until he could once again put food on the table. Barbarkar had resented their presence. Their mother was depressed, sleeping like a child, curled on her side most of the day. Displaced and lacking supervision, they had gravitated to our family and our house. I like to think they sensed the structure they would find, that the closeness they witnessed pulled them towards us, rather than the shear proximity of our houses. When we learned that the father was a mason by trade, Richard employed him to work on the earth house, a solution that helped Richard, provided money for this family that we loved and allowed the girls to return home. It was the right thing to do, and yet there were tears when I drove them to their house, their belongings filling two plastic laundry baskets. When they left, Barbakar felt relief, both financially and emotionally. We felt the void, the negative space, the absence of noise. Barbakar's children stopped coming to our house as well, sensing the bond had been broken, that worlds had shifted. Once a complaint of mine, I missed the mess, the maze of children that I picked my way through during the day, setting out crayons and paper, stooping to pick up wrappers, tripping on toys, the incessant washing of plates and cups. As a mother, I felt my nest had been picked apart, that I had guarded people who weren't my own and their sudden absence felt like too much room. Jamie and Sunny suffered too, but like all children, their resilience moved them forward and they found their way without their friends. We all did.
The egg got cleaned up and I was finishing my first cup of coffee when there was a knock on the door. Too early. I thought how strange it was that someone would be here on a Sunday before the sun was fully up and considered not answering it, but the knock was persistent. When I opened it, the four girls were standing there with huge smiles on their faces. They were leaving with Barbakar and his children that afternoon for a three day religious pilgrimage and had decided to spend the day with us. No notice, no warning, just there on our doorstep. Hearing their voices, Jamie and Sunny woke up and ran to them, disbelief in their groggy eyes. There were screams, hugs, lots of jumping up and down, hand-holding until the initial surprise wore off. Bou and Alisahn came over from Barbakar's house. Hunger ensued, and one batch of pancakes turned into three. They had never seen or tasted a pancake and at first were tentative. But who can resist homemade pancakes with lots of butter and raspberry jam, plates full of them, sticky fingers and red-stained faces. There was a walk on the beach and the building of a sand-castle, the children easily finding their familiar rhythms again. Richard and Zorro came home for lunch, which Aysa and Sorna had offered to prepare, and we all sat around the table, passing spiced shredded chicken and rice, green salad and bright orange clementines. Richard invented a rap song in Wolof, to which everyone added their own phrase and the laughter felt like deja vu, so familiar were the components of it.
Next came the laundry, three tubs full of warm suds and dirty clothes, bubbles blown around, which became less about cleaning clothes than about hit and run splashing. They all helped me put the clothes on the line to dry in the afternoon sun, a gesture so familiar and precise that it took less than five minutes. Many hands make light work. Many children make life light.
We said goodbye to them in the afternoon as they headed off to Magal, a destination not unlike Mecca, for which they had dressed in their finest, most beautiful clothes. I hugged them goodbye and wished them a safe trip. They will be back in three days, but I have no idea when they will knock on my door again. I tasted tears on my lips-- a taste of something I am not ready to swallow. Soon the time will come when we take a plane. We've hinted at lasting commitment, offering to send them all to school next year, promising that we will return, that our relationships will resume, that we will not forget them. We have told them, showed them, that we are invested. They have made no such promises. They know from experience that it's not wise, that their world is the axis, and that we will come and go despite their stasis. They are impenetrable this way, and I suppose for their sake, it's best if they let us go with as little sentiment as possible. I am all too aware that the time we are spending with them can never be repeated in exactly this same way, despite our assurances. So I will savor this Sunday and this photograph. Every once in a while, we are given the gift of a day that unfolds unexpectedly, nothing extraordinary, just a day that feels different from the others, a day that, as it is revealing itself, engraves it's essence onto our consciousness as part of a collection. Pay attention to these days, they are memories taking shape.
Note: For background information on The Breakfast Club, read my earlier post of the same title.