THE COURAGE OF SMALL THINGS


Rwanda-Landscape_R1_5917_2_-3
Rwanda Landscape Wikipedia

Now and then we come across a story, simply told, about someone who opens a chain of thoughts in our own minds.

This is David Brooks’ inspiring story about his friend Clemantine Wamariya. She was born in Rwanda 27 years ago. When she was six the genocide began and her world started shrinking. The beautiful land she knew was changed forever.

To escape the mass murders, Clemantine and her older sister, Claire, were moved from house to house. One night they were told to crawl through a sweet potato field and then walk away—not toward anything, just away. Away from family, home and friends and not to look back. They left with only the clothes they wore and no food.

They crossed the Akanyaru River living off fruit. Clemantine spent the rest of her young girlhood in refugee camps in eight African nations.

Claire kept them on the move, in search of a normal life. Clemantine wrote her name in the dust at various stops, praying somehow a family member would see it. Their struggles in the camps, for water and much else, gave them a sense that life is arbitrary.

In 2000, Claire got them refugee status in the United States through the International Organization for Migration. Claire went to work as a hotel maid in Chicago. A few years later, Clemantine was one of 50 winners of Oprah Winfrey’s high school essay contest.

In the middle of the 20006 show celebrating the winners, Oprah brought Clemantine and Claire on stage. Oprah asked when was the last time the girls had seen their parents. It had been 12 years. Then Oprah gave them a surprise: “Your family is here!” Her parents, brother and sister had been found in Africa, and now walked onstage. They all fell into one another’s arms. Clemantine’s knees gave out, but her mother held her up.

Clemantine’s story, has a comforting arc: separation, perseverance, reunion and joy. It’s the kind of clean, inspiring story that many of us tell, in less dramatic form, about our own lives, with clearly marked moments of struggle and overcoming.

In David Brooks’ words, “Clemantine is now an amazing young woman. Her superb and artful essay reminded me that while the genocide was horrific, the constant mystery of life is how loved ones get along with one another.”

We work hard to cram our lives into legible narratives. But we live in the fog of reality. Whether you have survived a trauma or not, the psyche is still a dark forest of scars and tender spots. Each relationship is intricate, fertile ground for misunderstanding.

Clemantine displays the courage of small things: the courage to live with feelings wide open even after trauma: the maturity to accept unanswerable ambiguity; the ability to create tenacious bonds.

David Brooks, Op-Ed Columnist, NEW YORK TIMES
July 7, 2015

GOODBYE UNCLE LENNIE


LENNIE_0004 He wasn’t our uncle; he wasn’t even related except by choice. For over 65 years he was our “big brother”, wise advisor, lawyer and well-loved friend. The only photos I could find among the many taken during the years of our friendship, had someone’s arm around him, so I’m including this one. He was “Uncle” Lennie to many people for his wisdom and good humor, especially to us and our family.

He loved kids, and as his grandchildren began arriving, he took them all for a day of fun every Saturday. When our own grandchildren arrived, my husband’s first remark was to say he wanted to be the same kind of grandfather as Lennie. I think he has been.

For thirty years he gave his own all-male birthday party at Scott’s, a prominent Oakland restaurant, to which over 100 guests came, entertained and were entertained with jokes and hi-jinks. He was fond of saying that women were also invited as long as they would jump out of the birthday cake naked! To my knowledge that never happened. He always arrived at the party in a limo wearing a tophat and his red clown nose and a big bow tie.

Lennie was a joke-teller supreme. He told jokes to his grandkids, to the postman, the waiters, and to anyone who would listen. The coming of the internet with its joke-sharing gave him constant new material. His penchant for crazy hats and a red clown nose added to the fun. At one memorable party he brought the mascot mule for the Oakland A’s and at another, the cast of the musical “Chicago” came to liven things up. Red clown noses were passed out at his funeral which he would have approved.

He was a CPA, and at the age of 44 he went to Law School and became an attorney as well. Besides that, he became Probate Referee for the County of Alameda for many years. His loyalty to the University of California was legendary, and he loved the Cal football team, win or lose.

He was a good athlete, including tennis and raquetball, and loved golfing, was a member and also the president of the prestigious Sequoya Country Club. Upon his death, the flag was lowered to half-mast in respect to a man loved not only by fellow members, but by the bar and wait staff as well.

Most of all, he was our dear friend, and we will miss him. He always used to say, “Just because they don’t call you, you call them. The phone works both ways. Remember, you’re a long time dead.” Lennie Gross, your 94 years went all too soon.