by: Hiywot Teshome
I kidded her that she ran a hotel, not a household. I called it Yeshewa Hotel. Her name was Shewangiziw Yonas, but she was mostly Shewiye to the people who knew her. Her children called her Emama, and since I was the newest addition to her family (married to her only daughter), I called her Emama, too. Emama's house was always full; especially full for a household that contributed all of its children to the mass exodus we call yeAmerica nuro. Some people said I should call her Anchi, instead of the Antu that everybody her age deserved. I refused, and when the Abetuta reached her, she said, "Who else is going to call me Emama and Antu?" That was the end of the issue. She brooked no nonsense when it came to cultural formality; she called everyone older than her Etiyé or Emama and she expected the same from others. It wasn't anything that you bestowed on anybody, she said, everybody deserved it.
Anyway, 4 years ago, when my new bride and I went to Addis for the mels that our two families said they couldn't do without, I got to know her better and love her even more. She took 2 month's worth of feQad from her job at Ethiopian Airlines so that she could be with us during our stay. I tried to reciprocate by spending as much time with her as possible, and more importantly, making my first order of business, almost everyday, the picking up of the tikus Bombolino that the Roby Pastry Shop made available at 10:00 AM sharp. Emama, just like I, had a sweet tooth. She would protest, "Ay Ante lij, zarém teshekimeh meTah?" but she always made sure that the buna beWetet was ready for this morning ritual. We devoured the Bombolinos while she regaled us with stories from past and present. She was an excellent storyteller, by the way. You could see a good story coming when she gently wiped the corners of her mouth and say, "Min HoNe Meselachihu...." The Teret'na MiSale would flow like she had rehearsed her bit for ages. All you had to do then was make sure you were supplied with enough cakes to last you an hour or so and let her take you to wherever her stories went.
By lunchtime, most of the daily 'customers' of Yeshewa Hotel would begin to menTebaTeb into the house for their only meal of the day. Emama would rise out of her chair and say, "Wiy Emama, meTu indé? Enema T'fu iyalku sawera!" She was saying this to the same woman that would drop by the house at lunchtime, everyday, like clock work. Her intention was to make them feel welcome and wanted, I soon found out. Whether the family was seated for lunch or not, she would request that a meal be brought out for the latest 'guest' and say, "Isti bilu, beTam T'fu 'ko!" When I first started teasing her about running a hotel, she would humbly tell me that it was just a coincidence that I saw all these people coming for lunch. She would, unconvincingly, tell me that most days it was just she and her husband eating lunch by themselves. Oh, but I knew better! Talking to these 'guests,' I soon found out that most of them would walk clear across town to be at Emama's house for their only meal of the day. It wasn't for lack of other Zemedoch close by that would provide them with food. Actually, some of the Zemedoch would probably offer them better food than they would get at Emama's, but no one else would make them feel as at home and, most of all, as wanted in their house, as Emama did. That was the talent and grace that Emama had. Most of us, even when we give something, have this look and feel that shows that we would rather have done something else; not Emama.
She had a saying that everybody had something good in him, however bad that person may be. She always said to look at that side of a person when we think of that person. She never talked about the bad side of people, even when a logical conclusion would lead you to believe that a certain person was an AH. I couldn't ever do that. But, come to think of it, I never had as big a heart and sefi hod as she did. No wonder people loved her. People saw the hope that whatever other people thought of them, Emama saw something redeemable in them, however unlikely. She had friends from every age group. She had close friends who were a lot older than she was; she had friends her age and she had friends so young that people thought they were her children. Everybody could come to her and pour their hearts out, trusting her with all their secrets, knowing full well that whatever they told her would stay with her. She wasn't a judgmental person. She always told you how things could be done better or in a different way, but never told you that your way was wrong or at fault.
She believed in taking care of the small things that made peoples lives better and easier. Whenever she sent us some w'T or Qibé through whoever was coming to America, she made sure that whoever was meSom at that time would get some y'Som misir w'T that they could enjoy with the rest of the haTiateNoch. She never would let you feel that you weren't thought of by your loved ones. You mention to her that you wanted to do this or that, or that you had a craving for this or that, and the next time you see her that is exactly what you are going to get. I sometimes felt like I abused her goodwill in talking about things I wanted because she always went out of her way to get whatever it was that I wanted. I casually mention that what I really wanted was a nice QuanTa Tibs and she would say, "Qoy Isti," and get up and be back with a piping hot Tibs that could mesheNet 4 people, easy.
As with most stories that are too good to be true, what we had with Emama didn't last long enough, as we soon found out that Emama was terribly sick. She came to America and got checked out by doctors, doctors who told her that she had a terminal liver disease, but that she could manage to stretch out, with proper care, into years of whatever time she had left. 'Proper care,' in Emama's case meant being away from the people who counted on her and being a 'burden' on her children who were in this country. Emama couldn't do either. She would not impose on her children or relatives, so it was back to Addis to "agere memot." Nothing could dissuade her from leaving. No one could ever argue with Emama. How could you? This was a woman on whom you relied throughout you life; we just didn't know how to make her rely on us for a change.
She went home, promptly retired from Ethiopian, lost the required weight that the doctors said she should and went on living as if nothing happened. It was always "iné beTam dehna neN, lené minim atasibu,' whenever we mentioned her health. She was actually getting better for a while. Then her aunt and uncle decided to go and die on her within six months of each other and the old Emama, who had to make sure they were mesheNet in a proper way, lost her head and dived into the job like there was no tomorrow. Her mind and heart were up to the job, and then some, but her body wasn't. It just couldn't take the rigors of an all out leQso and Q'bir. It just couldn't. She fell sick again; family members and friends begged her to go to America and just rest, but she adamantly refused.
When her husband refused to drive her to her daily rounds of zemed meTeyeQ, in the hope she would stay home and rest, she hired taxis and went on about her business. She put her trust in her God and started spending whole days at her church and sat with the Qes and Menequse that did nothing but pray all day. All during this time, she absolutely forbade anyone from telling her children about her situation, still thinking of us even in her time of pain and suffering. Finally, she lapsed into a coma and the children had to be told; her husband had to break the story and had to hear it from us on why we weren't told about the situation, but his answer was that she wanted it that way. Somehow, that sounded very reasonable and just like Emama. We couldn't accuse her husband, let alone Emama, for this lack of communication. She had also forbidden her husband from letting any of her children from traveling to Addis to be with her, but we finally convinced the father that her only daughter had to be there; she just had to be there.
Fortunately for my bride, Emama came out of the coma for about a week while her only daughter was there. Emama was happy to see her daughter; the two of them had a little heart-to-heart; talked about the future, but Emama knew that her time had come. Emama told my bride how much she loved her children, how proud she was and what her hopes were for them. She blessed all of us, especially my Noah who was still in his Mommy's womb. I know her blessing has taken, because he has turned out to be a boy that Emama would have been proud of. Even though Emama tried to stay upbeat about her situation, she refused to accept everyone's upbeat prognosis of her health; that she would finally go home and live to see her grandchild that my bride was carrying at that time. She was right, too. She passed away, of all days, on St. Valentine's Day. What a day to lose your loved one!
It was absolute chaos for the family. Most people cried their heart out. Some pulled their hairs out for not feeding her what she was craving for while she was at the hospital. They thought she would pull through if they just adhered to the diet the doctors ordered. When she wanted real Ethiopian food, they refused, thinking they were saving her from herself, but I guess she must have known there was no going back from wherever her God was taking her. Some tried to be brave and strong for Emama, but not me. What was there to be strong and brave about when you have lost the only person you considered your hero and saving grace? What was there to be strong about when the son that you would have in about 6 months won't have any idea what he was missing with her death? What was there to be brave about when you knew that your pregnant bride wasn't going to be metares with the loving care of her Emama? Why try to be strong and brave at a time like this? I rather decided to let everything hang out and cry my heart out. Somebody had to know she was that important in our lives.
Emama's sister-in-law said Emama was the 'jewel' of the family. She said you could impress people by being associated with her or by just mentioning that you were a relative or friend of Emama. The funeral was an affair to remember. Most people, especially immediate family members, were proud of the fact that thousands of people showed up for Emama's funeral at Qidist Mariam Betekristian, and that an Abun presided over the funeral proceedings. Somehow, I have a feeling her God was prouder of Emama for a job well done, for she was his angel, sent on a special mission to brighten up our lives. "Heaven must have been missing an angel..." goes the old song. Whoever wrote that song must have known something about Emama... .