"Tell me again what the nurses said when they saw me for the first time," I demand.
She laughs, dog-earing a page of The GuerrillaAnd How to Fight Him and settling my head in her lap. On this last point she is always eloquent. The nurses had never seen a mixed baby before, she recounts, slim fingers working my curls. "They fussed over you for days. Everyone did. For years strangers stopped us in the street and gave you presents—pieces of candy, shiny dimes—old men who looked like they had nothing to give."
Despite the sun shining on my face, my parents divorced soon after, and my father returned to West Africa. We haven't seen him since.
Before we could afford to buy the Norse legends and African folk tales that peopled my childhood, my mother wrote stories set in mythic African lands and illustrated them with her own watercolor paintings of wise queens and beautiful warrior princesses in pastel tunics. Every morning and evening she read aloud to me, creating different voices for each character. Sometimes, if she were tired from teaching, she lost a voice, and I would bolt upright, protesting, "That's not the right voice!"
"No?" she would say, blinking rapidly like when she's trying to think. "Was it higher?" She would try again. "Dear Prince Amalu*"
My eyes widened in horror.
"Lower? Ahem, Dear Prince"
"No!" I wailed, hands trembling like leaves.
"Okay, pause for a minute." She would lean forward and enact her usual ritual a sip of tepid water masquerading as tea, a quick blow of her nose, the unwrapping of a half-sucked cough drop and popping it into her mouth.
Throughout all this, I squirmed. How could she take so long? How could she have forgotten this character who'd been living with us for days?
"Okay, let's see." She cleared her throat and began anew.
Not until she recaptured the correct voice or invented a new one close enough to placate me could I resume my curl in her lap, accept the narrative. Her own tale, however, she delivered in a detached, matter-of-fact tone.