Bridges: A Season of Surrender, A Memoir
by Rochelle Soetan
Part 1: September
One late September afternoon, my husband, Tim, gathered all of the African statues he’d purchased for me as gifts while on his recent travel back home to Lagos, Nigeria, seized a 15” handsaw from the toolbox and began severing the heads of each figure. The acoustics from the grinding traveled from the dining room up the stairs to the hallway, and finally to my eardrums. Our son, Gbemi, was nine months old and asleep in his crib. My daughter, Nia, was five-years-old and coloring quietly in her room. When I’d reached the bottom of the stairs, my frame froze, solid like ice, as I watched each wooden head roll heartlessly to the floor. The scattered tiny matchsticks of mahogany wood covered the carpet area like a shadow of sin. As he sawed their heads back and forth, left to right, he lifted his head only once to look at me. There was no exchange of words, only bloodshot eyes piercing sharp into my conscience. The gloss of his eyes reflected through the glass of the cherry wood china cabinet where he kneeled to saw. His pupils enlarged. Jaws strong and stiff and nostrils broad, while perspiring from the persistence of his reprisal.
As I stood adjacent between the dining room wall and kitchen entrance, I attentively charted each bead of sweat as it slowly rolled down the center of his face, dripping onto his drenched sleeveless white undershirt, as he beheaded those treasured sculptures from Africa. The pressure of my blood, so it felt, oscillated from passion to pain, love to loss, then danger to determination. He knew how much I’d adored those wooden statues, but for reasons I cannot recall, he was infuriated and far-reaching, and I, apprehensive of his next step. I could not imagine what ignited this volcano to erupt or why he’d become wrathful enough to firmly hold a saw in his right hand. But I could clearly see that deeply hidden beneath the surface of his flawless blackberry skin, the sclera of his eyes and straight, bright, white teeth, was a beast, if only a gentle one. I wasn’t looking at the charming appearance of Africa I’d come to know, my African King, the father of my son, the man I knew I loved. It was the face of pain that I saw, complexed, and internally at war. That evening, I’d bid adieu to those statues, and conceivably, my hopefulness, too. The statues had no resort. They were crumbled, like my emotions, just severed pieces, head and body, struggling for amity and reconciliation. The air between us was blocked, melded like the cement between the outside layered bricks, and the shock of it all held me captive to its consequence.
I’d blanked out and the visualization of colors and everything around the room became blurred. I saw nothing, said nothing, but felt everything. My lips defied movement, so I quickly nudged my feet to return up the stairs. I closed the children’s bedroom doors and sat on the edge of our bed, soundlessly waiting for the cyclone to cease.
The layered brick structure that mounted our home was a warm brownish-red color, squared and cemented, and connected us to the extended row of double-stacked multi-family townhomes that sat at the top of the hill of Georgia Avenue. The strong energy that encircled our home, perhaps, awakened us to our many abrupt realities and the powerful associations they held to the past. We were surrounded, so it seemed, by this influence of passion, flammable, outside and in. Our framework revealed an intense history, collective and independent, and gave way for teaching moments, seductive memories and the visibility of courage.
In autumn, our parking lot was noticeably covered with crisp leaves, rosy, amber and tangerine, and they crinkled with the chatter of the neighborhood children who ran through them, from one yard to the next. The first car that Tim bought for me was a vibrant red two-door Honda Prelude, which often brought to mind the nail polish color I frequently wore on my toes. He’d purchased it, in cash, from a local used car dealership and it was reliable and just big enough for me and the children to fit in. Until that point, we’d shared his car, a candy-apple red two-door Honda Civic, which wasn’t flashy but dynamic and reserved, much like his character. The exterior of our front door was cranberry red, deep and distinctive, like the prosperous fruit that was due to evolve during the harvest months. Within our proximity, the influence of red was everywhere, in some form or another. Beckoning. Bleeding. It was in the brain, on the spine, traveling through the arteries and flaming on his face, dark red, raging like anger or solemn ending of summer. It was fall, 1998.
The climate within our home and our regard toward one another was not always dangerous. For some time, and prior to the marriage, we’d settle our bittersweet differences with physical contact or some form of communication, becoming peaceful and friendly after each scarlet storm. Inspired by the good times, though scattered and branched, we often laughed until we nearly wet our pants, swapping both white teeth and wide smiles from tender ruby lips. We spent unique moments with extended family, traveled whenever possible, and shared many cultural traditions. We had challenging times, too, in cycles, phases and stages, sometimes comically theatrical, other times, compellingly distressing. And like any couple, we’d pull together when necessary, from both ends and to make the ends meet, if only for sanity’s sake. Perhaps, it was all of those impressions that connected us, but destroyed us too – like those sheared statues – once exquisitely melded but disconnected into the unsightly. Our diverse cultures, selective taste in everything from clothing to furniture to love of life, defined who we were as individuals, but confronted who we became as partners. As the season shifted, so did we. Our relationship became incapable of repair and during the most difficult of times, we’d bear resemblance to those African statues, broken and bewildered.
I was one person: a mother, wife, employee, sister, daughter and friend to those I knew, but I was broken, too. At times, I could feel myself slowly slipping into an abyss of depression and denial, while losing my sense of belonging. Over time and together, we’d undergone many losses: kinship, the practice of kindness, mutual respect, an unborn child and the willingness to communicate. Gbemi was my second child and Tim’s first; my first marriage and Tim’s second. Neither of us knew how to make a marriage work, and so, ours didn’t.
September slowly began to mold itself into a habitual season of sundry adjustments. It was symbolic, both in season and personal significance, and it was the one month that had etched its’ presence into every pocket of my pores, and obviously, everything that impacted me. Summer fun at the pool would end in early September, after Labor Day holiday and before grade school. Nia would resume her academic schedule, which also meant the inclusion of homework assignments, dance classes, piano lessons, school meetings, fundraisers and daycare costs. All of our seasonal allergies would ignite, consequently requiring me to stock the medicine cabinets with antihistamines, nasal sprays and aspirins of all sorts. Nia’s allergies were the worst. The tree leaves would transform their colors from green to cinnamon and red-yellow, to barely there, signaling the onset of cooler days ahead, cotton pajamas, hot tea and a series of holidays and more activities that would fast approach. Our daily grind would shorten by the hours on the clock and fewer smiles from the sun.
September was a reliable reminder of my father’s death on International Peace Day, and my mother’s birthday, two days before. The fiscal year would end for federal government contracts, thus subjecting private companies to reconsider their budgets and employees whose financial contracts would require annual renewal. I was one of them, and so my employment, at times, fluctuated. Strangely, this picturesque, yet emotionally dismal season, also reminded me of the emotional detachment from my marriage, and the occurrence where I contemplated ending my life while standing on the edge of a city bridge. For so many reasons, beyond the stories the leaves could tell, September was the ending of one cardinal season and the beginning of another. Its multihued implications gave me cause to pause and forced me to surrender to its’ series of realities. September made me remember.
Rochelle Soetan is the author and creator of the popular international blog and book “Tuesday Morning Love”. She is a contributor to Black Enterprise Magazine, workshop presenter, poet, commentator and the sole proprietor of Pearls of Poise, a transitioning 501c(3) etiquette and training organization. To connect with Rochelle Soetan: Amazon: Tuesday Morning Love the Book