Samoan memoriesA week in Samoa, but I lost track of time just after the first couple of days. Whenever someone asked me how long I had been here, I just answered – enough. Long enough to forget…
People would come, and become friends, and they would go, and in a way it was sad to know with such acute certainty that this part of life would never happen again. That we would never sit like that again because those people would never come back in the same time and the same place again.
But the ocean on my doorstep is a good teacher. Day in and day out, morning, evening and night, its eternal rhythm, ever-changing and yet ever-present, was the very rhythm of the Earth. Life itself started to feel like the ocean, coming and going with the tide, a high tide, and a low tide, time for party, and time for romance, time to remember and time to forget, time to love, and to feel nothing at all, a time to live, and, indeed, a time to die. But when I am no more and even my bones will have become sand, the eternal ocean will still be moving with the tides…
For this is how God’s perfect world is created – some things last, and some things happen only once, some people you stay with, and some you never see again, but somehow, in the eternal movement of the ocean it all makes sense, it all is a part of life.
Two Kiwi families I met on the beach we were staying at, invited me to join them in exploring the island. They wanted to visit a local village and find a distant relative of theirs.
We come in a minivan for 8 people, after having asked around a bit. We find a local methodist minister to be our guide and translator. He comes along and for some reason finds it imperative to speak about land – and Israel. The Kiwis give me funny looks and whisper of destiny. The village in front of us has a common laundry/ kitchen, where a woman is cooking something on an open fire, in a house with no walls, just the floor and the roof, and the poles supporting it. Small pigs are running around and the graves of the ancestors are right outside the kitchen, to the right. They are beautifully decorated with flower garlands. It’s huge house, but it is also shared by a large extended family.
An old woman comes out to greet us. Her skinny, sun-withered frame shows someone who has worked all her life, who has known no idleness, and no riches either. She speaks no English, and has never seen either of us before. She was in the garden working, and is now wiping her earth-soiled hands on her apron, squints at us and comes to hug each and every one, and kisses me on both cheeks. She motions us inside the house, where chairs stand by the perimeter of the walls of sleeping-living-meeting-room. We take off our flip-flops and put them by the outside wall. The mattresses are stacked along one wall and on an only bed in the corner. There are windows in this house, tropical style, and a bird comes and sits on an open slate.
With the help of the interpreter-minister, the visitors explain to her that they are relatives of Ama, a lady who died recently, and whose memorial portrait is in the corner behind us, black-and-white, with a few garland decorations. I sit next to the old lady, and right next to the portrait. She tells me she is 82, and begins showing me the pictures of Ama. I am not quite sure what to do, because here I am in the remote corner of the world the name of which I didn’t know two years ago, seated next to the matriarch of the family I have absolutely no connection to, and yet she treats me like a part of it.
She points to the pictures on the wall, that hang from a decorated strip across the perimeter. Some of them date back to the 1800s, to the Samoan war of independence and R.L.Stevenson’s time (one of my favourite writers lived and died in villa Vailima outside Apia). She tells us the names of remote aunts and uncles from the ages past, as she points at them, in old uniforms and posing in front of invisible photographers who, too, have long turned to dust, and yet their pictures are still there, along with the faces that they captured, watching us with a soft smile from the walls. Look at Ama, she is so beautiful – I am given a new stack of photographs. The withered hand rests on my knee, and she smiles apologetically for not knowing any English.
She makes sure we are all seated – around the walls, underneath the pictures of the ancestors, across the whole perimeter. She motions to the young girl who just came from school, and she brings us coke, in glasses that soon begin to drip with condensate, as every drink does in this climate, and then another girl comes and brings papaya.
So many people have left, the old woman tells us, gone to New Zealand, to Australia. They have gone for a better life… But they are family, I wish they could be here – she smiles softly, looking around. They belong to Samoa. Now you, she looks around at all of us, I am sorry I am not ready for you, would you like to stay for dinner tonight? Oh no, no, we object, we just came to say hello, we have to go elsewhere tonight. Then Friday night we will have a dinner here, she decides. Please come, all of you. Then I will be ready for you, and we will celebrate. I wish we could have more of our family here, she sighs. That they didn’t have to leave and get spread around the world.
She cries for her grandchildren, so far removed we don’t even count them as relatives, the far removed nephews and nieces lost to other lands. She wishes to have them near her. She, a widow who has worked all her life, who has never traveled outside this small island on the international date line that most people would never visit.
Underneath the portraits of ancestors, I sit quietly with a lump in my throat, as my eyes well up with tears. Some of us are unusually quiet. I don’t think I even know anything about family, it was never important to me, it was something I wanted to escape, and certainly this particular encounter has no relation to me whatsoever, and yet here and now I understand – no, I feel! – the primal, pre-historic, almost supernatural power that Family is. This woman next to me knows more about life than I ever will.
We ask the minister what should we bring. Alcohol, perhaps? Food? (Wine is not quite an option in this climate, but I think it was suggested at some point – in any case, gin and other stronger drinks go much better). Nothing, he says, this is Samoa. You are guests, don’t bring anything. Nothing at all, seriously.
The dishes are washed in the bucket on the floor of a big toilet/shower room, which is in the back part of the house. My new friend Sophia helps one of the girls with washing the glasses. And when it’s time to leave, the old woman stands on the porch looking at us intently, silently, without smiling or even waving much, watching us get into the car and drive off, following us with her eyes – and her heart.
The graves in the centre of the yard outside are white and sparkling in the sunshine…
You are absolutely welcome to come with us, my new Kiwi friends smile, you have now become part of the family. They tell me in the car that they, too, had wanted to cry. None of us can quite explain why. But I can’t come – I have to leave on Thursday. Parting, too, is a part of life, for in the end, all is one. But today indeed, I have become part of the family. Today I have become more human than I ever was before.
Post Scriptum. It is on arriving back from Samoa that I asked for divorce. Seemingly, out of the blue, on the third day of my arrival. The arrangement was finalised by the end of the month. It was then, in the big rectangular room, that I realised I knew what I had to do.