I just spent a wonderful hour talking with a woman I haven’t seen since 1967 in Nigeria.
When I paint I often find memory rising up around me so dense and real that it’s hard to press it away. I’d been thinking of Jean and her infinite kindness to the child I was, in a place that had hardly another child around and none of my age. (Nigerian children worked except for the few lucky enough to go to school and there was no nearby school for any of us. I did correspondence school and kept to the company of adults and servants and my much younger little sister.)
Jean taught me to catch insects and preserve the specimens and can you imagine what a wealth of experience that opened up, in a climate like West Africa? It occurred to me it might be possible to see if she still lived, (she is ninety now) and I guessed I should try what I thought was once her home town in the United States. With some help from my husband, we found a street address for her — a great triumph — I wrote a letter and mailed it off.
A few days later the telephone rang and I looked at the caller id. with a shock of wonder.
She remembered me, she remembered everything. She remembered our family and the strange and good times we had in Nigeria at Umudike before the war. She reminded me of how she liked to walk and how once she went out on her own down one of the paths into the jungly area and noticed several vines hanging from the trees overhead and around her. All was well until one of them moved and looked at her. She said to me “I would have won an Olympic medal for the running I did then, and I never stopped until I reached home!”
I shall mail Jean a copy of my book about the Nigerian Civil War. When I told her I had written this, she understood immediately, and we spoke of what that had been like, from her adult perspective and my child’s view.
Sometimes the past is not to be kept in the past, sometimes we can do time travel.