I sat perfectly still on the mat under our jacaranda tree. My mother’s fingers, braiding my hair, felt soft and gentle. They made me want to sleep. But I didn’t. I didn’t even slouch.
If I’m very good, I thought, maybe Mama won’t get tired before she finishes. I wanted her to go on touching me forever.
“Vroom, vroom!” My cousin Mzamo scooted across the dirt, making loud motor noises for the wire car he had made.
“Be quiet,” I said. “You’ll wake the baby.”
“Why do you care?” Mzamo sounded exactly like the bad boys who hang out at the corner and sometimes steal things.
I did care. I didn’t want Thabile to wake up. I didn’t want Mama to stop braiding my hair and take care of her. Thabile had Mama all day while I was at school. Now was my turn.
“Hush, children,” Granny said. “Is that how we taught you to behave?”
Thabile stirred and whimpered on the mat beside us.
I put a fallen leaf into her hands. “Here’s something for you to play with.” Thabile was sick like Mama. She had no energy to play, but at least she stopped crying.
“Don’t forget the beads that Baba gave me,” I reminded Mama.
Mama leaned against the trunk of the tree. She looked very tired. “In a few minutes, Lindiwe. Let me rest a little.”
“You mustn’t tire your mother,” Granny scolded. “Grace will braid your hair when she gets back from weeding the garden.”
I pressed my lips together and didn’t answer back. I didn’t want Grace to braid my hair.
“Now go do your homework,” Granny said. “You must study hard and make your Mama proud.”
I dragged my feet across the yard. My head felt funny, half in tight braids and the other half black fluff.
“You’re messing up my roads!” Mzamo complained.
I stuck my tongue out at him when Granny and Mama weren’t looking. But our neighbor saw.
“Is that how your mother taught you to behave?” she asked. Her daughter, Sibongile, watched over the fence.
I was ashamed for Sibongile’s mother to think poorly of Mama. “No, ma’am,” I said. Sibongile used to be my best friend, but now her mother won’t even let us walk to school together.
When Grace came home, she was hot and sweaty. I brought water for her to bathe. If I pleased her, maybe she wouldn’t be angry about having to do my hair. I watched while she poured a measure of cool water over her head and scrubbed her cropped hair with blue soap.
“Granny told me to braid your hair,” she said.
“I can wait until you finish your homework.”
Grace grunted. “You’ll be asleep before I finish my homework. I probably will be, too. If Granny let me quit school…”
“You can’t quit school,” I interrupted. “Granny said you must finish your education so you can get a good job and take care of us.”
Grace grabbed the towel out of my hands. “And who made it my job to take care of you?”
I didn’t know the answer. I went and sat in the shadow of the house.
Grace checked the water drum that I had filled and stirred the pot of samp and beans that Granny had put on the hot plate to simmer. Then she came and sat on the step behind me.
“Stupid braids,” Grace muttered. “Did you bring the comb?”
I handed it to her. She dug it into my scalp and jerked three strands of hair into position. I sat up straight and didn’t say “ow.”
She did two braids in silence.
“Don’t forget the beads,” I said.
“Silly beads! I don’t have time for this foolishness.” The comb scraped painfully on my head, and she jerked my hair until the tears came.
“When your mother passes,” she said, and I caught my breath. No one had ever said those words before. “I’m going to cut off all your hair.”
“No!” I screamed and clutched my head. “You can’t cut off my hair! Where will I wear the pretty beads my baba gave me?”
“Is that your baba who brought the sickness home to your mother and then died and left the rest of us to take care of her and her sick baby? Is that the precious baba you mean?”
“No! He didn’t mean to make Mama and Thabile sick.” I tore my hair out of her hands and scrambled to my feet. “I hate you!” I screamed and ran around the corner of the house. I didn’t go far. I didn’t want anyone to see me crying or with my hair half in beautiful braids and half undone. I hid behind the shed in our neighbor’s back yard.
“Lindiwe! Lindiwe!” I could hear them calling, but I didn’t come out. Not even when I heard the clinking of enameled plates and knew the supper was ready. I sat in a heap and cried.
My baba didn’t mean to make Mama and Thabile sick. He thought AIDS was something that happened to other people. I didn’t like to even think that word. AIDS killed my baba. It killed Grace and Mzamo’s mama and baba, too, although we never talked about them.
“I expect it was AIDS that killed Sibongile’s brother, as well,” I thought, “even if her mother did say it was tuberculosis.”
It was dark. The night air was chilly after the heat of the day. Behind me on the other side of the road I heard someone crying. I crept out of my hiding place and came near. It was Grace.
“Oh, my baba! Oh, my mama!” she sobbed. “Why did you leave me? It’s too hard! They all hate me.”
I slipped my arm around her waist. She looked at me, startled. I thought she would draw away, but she didn’t. “I don’t hate you, Grace. I’m sorry I said that.” I started to cry again.
Grace pulled me into her lap although I’m too big a girl for that, and we cried together.
“Tell me about your baba,” I said when we stopped.
Grace pulled a picture out of the pocket of her skirt. The edges were broken and bent from being carried. The man in the picture looked strong and serious like a schoolteacher. There was a woman who looked a lot like Grace, only older. Her face was kind and gentle, not angry like the Grace I knew.
“Is that you?” I pointed to a smiling little girl in the picture with masses of beautiful braids. Bright beads glittered on the end of every one.
Grace sniffed and wiped her eyes. “And the baby is Mzamo.”
“He wasn’t sick like Thabile.”
“Not all the babies are.”
I leaned against Grace’s chest and felt her softness. She wrapped her arms around me and held me almost like Mama.
“Who will take care of us…” I took a deep breath and said the words I’d been afraid to hear. “…when Mama passes.”
“But Granny is old. Who will take care of us when Granny passes?”
“But it’s not your job.”
“It is my job. God made it my job.”
“I’ll help you all I can. I’m getting big and strong. When the rains begin, there won’t be so much water to carry, and I can come to the garden and help you weed.”
“What happened to your beautiful braids?”
Grace was quiet for a long time. I thought she wasn’t going to answer. “After our parents died,” she began. Her voice trembled just a little. “We lived with our uncle and his wife for a while. She had three other children and no time for babies or weaving my hair. She said I would get head lice and cut it all off.”
“Did you save the pretty beads?” I asked.
Grace shook her head. “My uncle’s wife gave them to her daughters to weave in their braids.”
Grace slid her fingers gently through my hair and separated out three strands. She began to braid. I knelt between her knees to make it easier for her.
Grace slipped one of my beads from her pocket and tied off the end of the braid with it. She began another.
“Is that too tight?” she asked.
“No,” I answered.
“There,” she said when she finished the last braid. I stood up, and Grace turned me to face her. “You look very pretty,” she said. “It would be a shame to cut off all your hair.”
“If you grow your hair,” I said, “I’ll share my beads with you. You can pretend they are the ones your baba bought for you.”
Grace smiled. She looked exactly like the lady in the picture.
Note: Feel free to use this story with children, but please do not reproduce it either in print or electronically without prior permission of the author.
Why is Grace so mean?
Sometimes when we are hurting inside it makes us angry with other people even though it isn't their fault. When Grace and Lindiwe talked about their anger and their hurt, it helped them. They became partners helping their family instead of fighting each other.
Losing someone you love also means losing someone who loves and values you, someone who spends time with you in activities like braiding hair. Often it is the little things like a picrue or a small gift such as beads that help you to hold onto the memory of the person you lost.
Lindiwe didn't want to talk about AIDS or hear those words "when your mama passes." Why are people afraid to talk about these things? How does it help when we talk about what we are afraid of?
Make a list of all the people in your household. Beside each name write something you like to do with that person. Then write something that makes you think of that person when they aren't there.
LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her books come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will permeate lives.
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