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In June of 1982, with the harsh sun beating down on their small, rural city, my mother’s community danced throughout the streets in her honor, making music with makeshift instruments as they moved. The quiet town, on the outskirts of Bishoftu, Ethiopia, was shaken to its core the moment my mother made history, becoming the first girl among them to attend college. That first step outside of her village would lead her to a life that spanned three continents and four different homes. Eventually settling in America, my mother sought to stake claim in a new and unfamiliar place.
There was no sense of self, nothing that distinguished our home from our neighbor’s–each apartment the same size, the same color, and the same brick pattern. Yet, hiding behind each building was a garden–some well-cared for while others neglected–that was unlike anything that surrounded it. Though each garden was the standard 10 by 10 plot of concrete-free land, my mother somehow made her garden her own; confined to only a few square feet, her flowers, so full of life, hope, and promise, still bloomed.
“Mom,” I remember my child self pleading, “Can I water the flowers today?”
Smiling down at me, she handed me the watering can, telling me to be careful not to pour too much. As I bent down, my mother began to guide me through each and every one of her plants. The small space to me felt large and vibrant, a fenced-in forest that I would explore with her.
Peeking over their wooden cage, the flowers continued to grow and escape from our plot of land, and, as I grew older, my mother helped me see the garden as something far more precious to me. She explained that though it was full of flowers that she grew simply for their beauty, there were also herbs and spices that she grew so that our meals would have the authentic flavor that she had grown up eating.
Carefully seasoned with everything that tasted like home, our food is a cacophony of vibrant colors; injera soaked in wot, cooled by the fresh ayib, and balanced by the bitterness of the gomen. Always a blend of both Ethiopia and America, our meals were characterized by the rapidly spoken half Amharic and half English conversations, the bizarre stories from my parents’ childhoods, and the unforgettable jokes that never translated quite right. This language, spoken quickly and loudly, was a blend of my American and Ethiopian roots, much like the garden I kept with my mother, which contained both plants bought from local florists as well those shipped from thousand of miles away.
It was such moments that made me realize that culture wasn’t something bound by national lines. We couldn’t simply leave it behind because it would always be there in the language, the food, the music, and simply in the way we chose to live. Our apartment was always full of music and dance. The rhythmic movement of our shoulders to the beat, the joyous ililta calls in our moments of celebration as we shift our bodies in the traditional eskista, we dance because the music makes us move. This fluid movement between both worlds–Ethiopia and America–was something that could not be taken from us. It was rooted in the garden where my mother recreated Ethiopia and maintained in the home I grew to love.