Perhaps of all the art forms, I am most
fascinated by the mosaic. The
exquisite poignancy of Michelangelo’s virginal white marble sculpture, the
Pieta; and di Cambio’s somber bronze, St. Peter, with his
foot worn away by the countless hands holding it in reverence—these two
magnificent works of art probably attract the largest numbers of tourists
thronging the vastness of St. Peter’s Cathedral.
But on my two visits to Rome, separated by a thirty-year period, I
found myself leaning into the rails that guard the ‘paintings’—which
are not paintings at all: every
‘painting’ in St. Peter’s is actually a mosaic.
Creating a work of art with oils and
brushes, whether or not while lying on one’s back painting a cavernous
ceiling, is an astonishing feat, filling me with enormous envy. Like most
artistically-challenged people, I humbly bow in obeisance to the
painter—to the water colorist—the caricaturist—even the police sketch
artist. But producing a
glorious ‘painting’ as those in St. Peter’s from bits of stone surely
exemplifies the greatest of human artistic endeavors.
Today as I sit writing, as I do most days
now, I am blessed with one of Joyce’s epiphanies as I see clearly one of
the truths of my life: I am a mosaic. I
have been created—or have created myself—out of bits and pieces of Texas
and Africa and points between.
What is ‘That Place I Call Home’?
Certainly the Piney Woods of East Texas, spending my early formative
years from ages three to sixteen in a very sheltered, small town existence.
Going when I was five to the only family reunion I have ever
attended—to a lakeside cabin named ‘Plum Nelly’ by my Great-Aunt
Kate—because it was ‘Plum’ out of town and ‘Nelly’ in the
country….summers spent on that same small lake, where swimming out to the
‘raft,’ a sturdy wooden structure boasting two diving boards, required
great courage and stamina for the ten-year-old.
Even today, over forty years later, I can still feel the squelchy
coolness of that mud between my toes after I held my breath on a dare and
forced myself down the ladder to the lake bottom, bringing up ‘proof’
that I had indeed touched it.
The pieces of my mosaic in my young life
were pretty homogenous.
My insular existence changed when at the
vulnerable, impressionable age of sixteen, I found my world turning upside
down: within a period of six
months, we packed up our house, our dog and cat, and moved twice. My father
worked in an oil field, and looking back now, I realize how unusual it was
for us to have lived in that same little East Texas town for so many years.
I vaguely remember that a few of my father’s co-workers, and the
children who belonged to them, had been forced to move to Saudi Arabia and
other distant places, like Midland or Odessa.
We moved first to ‘the Valley’—which
might just as well have been categorized as another country, despite the
geo-political maps that put the Piney Woods and the Rio Grande in the same
state. From a small city,
newly home to me, I seemed to view Life through a kaleidoscope.
New shapes and shades evolved all around me.
I had moved from a racially segregated society, oblivious to the
colors or the cries of others, and now for the first time, I called the
values and mores of my life into question and set myself on a path that
would not always be easy, but one that would always be true.
As I write this, I am made newly aware
that my sixteenth year was in many ways the most important year of my life.
Perhaps that explains why, after teaching for thirty-two years, my
happiest classroom memories--whether in Texas or in Africa--are those when I
found myself teaching fifteen-and sixteen-year-olds, an impressionable age
when a teacher can plant the seeds of altruism and good will and hope they
will grow. At sixteen I realize that I was acquiring the first contrasting
bits and pieces of the mosaic that would eventually be me
Three months in the valley and then we
settled on the Gulf, not far from Matagorda Bay. I found my niche in a
not-so-small town I
dreamed of performing on Broadway—or at least of being a star in the local
high school Thespians Society and the Community Little Theater—and saving
the world afterwards. Broadway
aside, the remaining theatrical aspirations were easier realized, and I
acquired several trophies, medals, and honors--along with the corresponding
mosaic pieces--during the year and a half I lived there before high school
My first step towards saving the world
was, naturally, to attend the University of Texas.
In those days, going almost two hundred miles away to attend
university was considered meritorious in itself…and according to
conventional wisdom, attending UT that bastion of liberalism—was widely
viewed as a threat to Texas conservatism.
Twenty-some-odd years later, teaching in rural parts of Texas, I was
both amused and proud to discover that it has retained that reputation.
Intent on finishing my education and
embarking on my mission to save the world, I listened and learned and
broadened my horizons in the three years and two summers that it took me to
complete a B.A. in English. Austin
became my home—what wonderful memories I have of Barton Springs, Mansfield
Dam, and little trips in a friend’s Volkswagen to the surrounding Hill
Country! Who could not feel an
overwhelming sense of Texas pride upon seeing the glorious acres of
bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes in the spectacular springtime Hill
Country? Lake Travis, Lake Austin, and Town Lake—links in the Colorado
River, squeezed out by dams here and there, affording swimmers and boaters
endless hours of summer fun for eight months of the year. And who, walking
across the UT campus that August day in 1966, would ever be quite the same
after Charles Whitman in the Tower? Austin provided me lots of shapes and
pieces for my mosaic. Those memories—good and bad-- would have to last me
a very, very long time.
At the age of twenty I had called East
Texas, South Texas, Central Texas, and the Gulf Coast ‘home.’
But for the next twenty years, my home would be in Africa—in a
small country only one-tenth the size of Texas.
I joined the Peace Corps as a young,
liberal-arts college graduate eager to do my bit to ‘save the
world’—in short, just like most of the thousands of others who swelled
the ranks of the Peace Corps in the mid-sixties.
It was a marvelous time to be alive—to be unashamedly
idealistic—to be filled with the burning desire to rid the world of
evil—to eradicate racism, suffering, disease, and poverty.
the moment I arrived in Washington, D.C. for the first stage of my Peace
Corps training, I felt my world almost physically expanding—meeting young
people from all over America—all races—all religions—all friends. We
welcomed the challenge of living in a developing country, one that had
recently gained its independence from Britain.
We avidly read from our recommended reading lists and studied the
languages and culture of Sierra Leone taught to us by Sierra Leoneans
studying in America, who had been hired as trainers for our group.
We sat up late at night earnestly discussing the U.S. ‘s role in
Vietnam and our role as ‘Ambassadors of Good Will.’
We shared our hopes and dreams—and our fears:
leaving our families, friends, American culture—and probably
Coca-Cola—for two long years.
Who knew that in two years, as my friends
were leaving, I would make a decision to remain in Sierra Leone for the rest
of my life? And, who could
foresee that, eighteen years after that decision, I would feel a strong pull
to return to Texas, to that place which I first called home?
When I look at the mosaic pieces of which
I am composed, I am very aware that many, many of the little tiles are
African. My children’s father
is Sierra Leonean, and thus my two sons are truly children of two worlds,
only having come to Texas when they were junior high age.
They are very cognizant of the fact that they have roots in two
cultures, though one now works as an investment banker in London and the
other as an art director in an ad agency on Madison Avenue. The three of us
carry on secret conversations in the lingua franca of their
childhood—Krio—occasionally to the annoyance of others. We have a love
for African music, African art, and African food as our separate homes and
menus reflect. We are in
regular contact with our African friends and relative--by phone, email, or
by the quite effective ‘grapevine’ method of sending messages via
travelers to and from Sierra Leone.
When I pick up a photograph album in my
house, I may be sent back to my Peace Corps days; I may remember my first
trip ‘up-country’ to the town where I would live for four years—the
four and a half hour journey of seventysix miles, traveling in a Land
Rover, jostling and jangling us along the laterite road made almost
impassable by the heavy downpours of the rainy season. I see myself
surrounded by my Sierra Leonean students as we walked home from school along
the bush path leading to town. I
recall how jubilantly we celebrated with other Volunteers when, alongside
WHO workers, we heard the Voice of America broadcast telling us that the
World Health Organization had eradicated smallpox from the face of the
earth. I remember how we wept at the assassinations of, first, Martin Luther
King, Jr. and then Bobby Kennedy.
With the birth of my sons, the photographs
in my album took on a different focus. I am reminded of the masked devils
dancing in honor of the birth of my first son, Jason Sahr—Sahr being a
Kissy name for ‘first son.’
I see Jeremy Lendor, peeking out as a two-year-old, from behind the
chair of a New Zealand visitor’s to my husband’s village as we watched
the ‘Goboi’—the fearful dancing spirit from another world.
I remember the touch of Cleo, my chimpanzee who wrapped her arms
around me tightly and gave me kisses for the nine years of her life, and I
see the photograph of Jason and Cleo going down the little wooden slide
together on his fourth birthday. I
recall the infrequent trips to Texas when my sons were small, greeting their
American relatives and friends with their infectious smiles and loving
innocence, born of a culture where race was never an issue and hardly a
In the same album, I may laugh at a much
later photograph of Jason, wearing his electric blue tux with a
multi-colored cummerbund, in his role as the Junior Class President in his
East Texas high school. I see
the sports photographs when at their high school banquet one brother won MVP
for basketball and the other for football.
I see Jeremy holding up his award for Best Art Student in the sixth
grade and Jason holding his U.S. Savings Bond for a seventh grade Rotary
Essay Competition. I am reminded of the proud moments in ‘the Drum’,
watching my younger son Jeremy playing for the University of Texas Runnin’
Horns, and Jason in his boots and bandanna raising money for charity on
behalf of the University of Texas service fraternity, the Texas Cowboys.
When I dream, I often dream in Krio.
When I see a house in my dream, it may very likely be one of the
Sierra Leone houses I lived in. When
I dream of a classroom, it may very likely be a Sierra Leonean classroom
filled with my Texas students—or the other way around.
If I have not saved the world, I have
embraced much of it in my life---and the mosaic I have created reflects
that. I long ago realized that
if my life had a purpose, it probably was not to go to Africa and teach
English for twenty years; rather, it was to return to Texas with my two
biracial sons and teach here. Oh,
the class schedule most often said ‘Sophomore Honors English’…but I
pride myself on having introduced a good measure of world literature, global
understanding, and racial and religious tolerance along with the standard
‘That Place We Call Home’—I now live in
North Texas, adding once again to my personal Texas resume of
residences … but I am a mosaic, composed of my many parts and
pieces. I proudly recognize that I am more than a Texan. Sometimes
I am fractured—I have had two separate lives, and moving between
them has on occasion caused tension and strain. But how blessed
and proud I am to have had so much of Texas and a small part
of Africa to call home!