We arrived in Akpafu by late morning, having left Tema at half past five. According to my father, his hometown is only three hours from Accra. That’s a lie. It’s easily a five-hour journey. My mother laughs as she explains that he simply doesn’t like to admit just how remote his village really is. I had brought my laptop along to catch up on things and I was feeling something like guilt about it. The feeling sharpened in the last hour of the journey as the roads muddied and the voices singing from the car stereo turned slowly to fuzz. Leaving behind the din of the urban jungles, women with babies clinging to their backs peddling fried and baked treats, drivers who regard traffic signs and lights as suggestions, we ventured into the village.
It was on these muddied roads that I began to sense just how much it could mean to the people of a village like Akpafu when one of their sons or daughters succeeds in the wide world. How it can touch, warm, and sustain an aging grandmother or inject spirit and hope to a raucous young man. These muttered rumors of distant success ran electrified through and along the road to Akpafu, charging every metre.
My father’s sisters Auntie Roberta and Auntie Aku met us at the gate with open arms and a warm smile. “Folose-ori,” she said, welcoming us in a language I didn’t understand. I smiled, hugged her, and responded (more because it felt like the right thing to say than because I truly meant it about this sliver of Ghana that took five hours to reach and brought me something like guilt), “It’s so good to be home.”
Auntie Robbie lived down the street from the house in which my paternal grandparents had lived. The first item on our itinerary (the itinerary obsession runs in the family, you see) was to visit this home, which had recently been renovated. Auntie Judith, my father’s eldest sister and the Queen Mother of Akpafu was our willing guide. I waffled over whether to bring my iPhone to capture the scene, feeling sensitive to the incongruousness of the device in this space. A pen and paper was surely a more accurate lens than a photo I would snap and then struggle to fit a filter over. I brought both in the end, and felt my iPhone grow heavy in my purse.
As we entered the home, I realized I couldn’t remember my grandmother’s name. I’m not sure I’d ever really known. I felt (something like) shame as I raised my query. “Grandma Julie,” they answered.
Grandma Julie. What a beautiful name. I moved slowly down the hallway, chewing over the name, examining it like a new friend. Auntie Judith took my mother to admire the new finishes in the living room, indicating who had inhabited each room. I heard nothing past the second room on the left, Grandma Julie’s room. They moved on, and my feet led me into her room, curious and hesitant.
The room was completely empty, sporting a brand new floor, a fresh coat of paint on the walls, and hanging golden curtains that whispered in the gentle cross-breeze. Even though we had never met, I thought I’d walk into the middle of the room, close my eyes, breathe in deeply, and open something somewhere so that I could feel her, my Grandma Julie. I stood there, breathing, with my mind empty and at peace, and waited.
Any minute now.
… Nothing. My eyes flipped open. I couldn’t feel her. She wasn’t here. Or if she was, she wasn’t minding me. And in a flash, something like panic began to set in. “Grandma Julie?” I called gently for her in my mind. Was that rude? To call for a Grandmother as though she should come to me? Surely I should go to her? Of course. I should go to her. And so I set off. I looked behind the whispering curtains, in between the blue patterned diamonds on the newly tiled floor, and behind the door of dark wood with the new doorknob. She was nowhere to be found. So I returned to the center of the room, deflated.
And there it was – there she was – very faint, but definitely there. I could feel her, a light pressure, compelling and comforting. But it was too light, too faint. I wanted more – to feel her securely, wholly, beyond a shadow of a doubt. She was wandering, still faded and warm, and I followed her to the wall, pressing my forehead against the crinkled, cream-colored paint. She lingered there for a moment and I smiled, feeling certain that she would greet me now, welcoming and embrace me, and I could begin to know her. But she retreated, floating not into the next room where I might have followed, but beyond the pale walls into another dimension where I could not go. I willed her not to go, feeling my pulse quicken. My breaths came in harsh and shallow as I pressed my palms against the wall, turning my head so my cheek lay flat, desperate to feel as much as I could of the grandmother I had never known.
And then, she was gone. I dropped my arms as tears sprang to my eyes and a crease appeared in my forehead, carried there by flashes of regret, anger, mourning. I shed tears for the woman I would never know, for the stories she’d never tell me, for the love we’d never share. I cried for her pain and pleasure at her dissipating descendants, flowing ever further away from home into the wide world, returning rarely or never to Akpafu, Where It All Began. I cried to wash away any gunk that might cling to me, keeping her from recognizing me in the future.
The tears slowed, my breathing quieted, and I lifted my hand to the wall one last time to say goodbye to Grandma Julie. In Ewe, the language my parents speak at home, when someone is taking their leave, you bid them goodbye by saying gbכ kaba, or, go and come. It doesn’t necessarily matter if they won’t be back for a while, you can still say to them, go and come. My fingers grazed the wall as I turned to leave, and I swore I could hear Grandma Julie whisper from the curtains and beyond, gbכ kaba.