“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You're on your own.
And you know what you know. You are the guy who'll decide where to go.”~ Dr. Seuss
About fifty yards from our house in Senegal is a small boutique-- a shanty really--with a bright blue door. It is no bigger than my closet, but much better organized and filled with an astounding array of sundries ranging from matches and batteries to spices, detergent, clothes pins and onions. It has a small refrigerator filled with butter, milk and cold drinks, a dirt floor and a narrow counter behind which stands Boubakar, the young Senegalese man who serves us with a big gap-toothed smile. Flies buzz about, deranged by the current of air the single fan provides against the dusty heat, but no one seems to mind.
We wait in line every morning, lingering in the doorway, exchanging greetings with our Senegalease neighbors. "Naka suba si?" How are you this morning? "Dafa tung." It's very hot today. Several hours before any of us wake up, before the kingfishers and starlings begin their morning chorus, the bakery truck delivers fresh baguettes to the boutique, a flour sac full of them, to entice us from our beds. For me, seeking our morning bread, "le pain quotidien," spread with fresh salted butter and local mango preserves, is the ritual that starts my day. Madeleines, those light and delicate French cakes, are Jamie's morning preference. Plain and unassuming, not too dense, not too sugary. One is never enough, but three is always too much, so he has settled on two. He eats them with gusto, wakes up thinking about them even before he is fully in the day.
I began taking Sunny and Jamie with me to the boutique when we first moved here. Still in their pajamas and sleepy-eyed, they would hide behind me while I placed my order. "Un pain et deux madeleines, s'il te plait." One bread and two madeleines, please. Over time, the kids began to look forward to our morning outing, their comfort level and familiarity with Boubakar, with the boutique and with Senegal increasing daily. The hands that once clung to the folds of my dress now reached out to shake someone else's. The eyes once stubbornly lowered to the floor, now took in and reflected back their surroundings. The timid voices and resistant ears once tethered to their native tongue, now tested new words in French and even Wolof.
The six months that we have been here have allowed my children to venture out of their comfort zone and wade into, not just a new culture, but an understanding of themselves in the larger world, their significance as individuals. This time has given them a measure of independence and an appreciation of a world that is at once foreign and familiar. All we did was show it to them, but they have made it their own, taken possession of it, found their way into it, grown from it's offerings.
One day recently, Jamie woke up and got dressed on his own. He came out of his bedroom and announced that today he was going to the boutique all by himself. An early riser, he usually lingers the morning away watching the waves roll in and listening to the birds chant as they tree hop, while Sunny still dreams in the deepest hour. Today was different. There was determination in the air and a new sense of confidence. "Where are my shoes, Mama?" I found them for him and bent to help him put them on. "No, no, I'll do it myself," he said, as he took the shoes from me. Who was this assured little boy? When had he found himself and put aside his fears? I hesitated to let him go by himself, my motherly urge to protect him welling up inside like the tide rising against the shore. I took a good look at my little boy, his eyes fixed, his demeanor calm and confident.
"Can I have some money?" he asked next.
"Well . . . sure," I said, and handed him a coin.
"What do I say again, how do I say it?" I told him in French. "Un pain, deux madeleines." He practiced once, and nodded. "Don't worry, I'll be right back," he assured me. I suppose he glimpsed what I was feeling in my expression, a mix of pride and loss. Not a painful loss, but one that had taken me by surprise, one I recognized as the first of what I knew would be many small letting goes. My first born, my baby boy, woke up a little bit more confident today, with a direction in mind, a goal to be met and a place to go. And I wasn't needed, wasn't invited.
I followed him outside, but he waved his hand over his head, shooing me away, gaining distance. He didn't look back. Once he was outside the gate, I ran to the wall to make sure he was alright. I watched him walk slowly, purposefully, but without hesitation toward the boutique. From a distance, I spotted several people waiting in line. The heat from the morning sun was just overtaking the night's chill and as it penetrated, Jamie shielded his eyes from it's glare. The sun. My son.
Just before I turned to go back to the house, I heard his barely audible voice repeating and receding from my own: "Un pain, deux madeleines. Un pain, deux madeleines. Un pain . . ."