I don’t really know what to call her. Sometimes, to outsiders, I describe her as my toothless hashaa Emee. My director once told me to call her a name that I translated as Brown Sister, but it could’ve been Ultimate Sister. For now, I’m just going to stick with Brown for the sake of modesty. And because it suits her in more ways than one.
Back in the fall, before she even knew me, she looked out for me. For whatever reason, she spent more time in her son’s ger than in her own home. She was always outside because she works extremely hard. I was always outside because I use the outhouse more frequently than possibly anyone I know. So we ran into each other, so to speak. She would talk with me in a language I had yet to comprehend fully (as if I can now); she walked me to school, arm in arm, in the advent of the winter wind; she ate my weird vegetarian food; she greeted me when she saw me out. I think she was curious, just like everyone else, but more than that, I think she simply and unquestioningly accepted me.
The more I visited her son’s guanz, the more we saw each other. She’d be the one to pour my cup of tea and to sit with me as I ate. She’d watch me. And she’d smile.
During family get-togethers — the ones to which I was invited, at least– I would occasionally find myself next to Brown Sister. Or she would find her way to me… Either way, I would also find my head, my arm, my leg being pet by someone. The someone being my Brown Sister. Once at school, someone came up and spooned me from behind while standing. That same someone pet my arms, and the scene confused and amused onlookers. Every time, I’d look, and she’d smile.
She put in false teeth once. Her smile seemed perpetual then, but with a hint of discomfort, and it wasn’t all that comfortable to look at her like that. When I looked back, the teeth were gone, the smile genuine.
She makes it a point to enter my ger if ever she’s in my hashaa. Usually she just sits on the edge of my bed, and I sit in my chair, and we sit like that for a few minutes until I remember to offer her a cup of tea, and she kindly refuses it–or accepts it willingly, adding to my chagrin at my cultural obtuseness–, and then we’re still sitting there until she might remember the weather report, to which I respond enthusiastically, regardless of the what it is, and then she leaves. Only to return a couple hours later to repeat the ritual.
Last week, during one of those times, she came in while I was doing yoga. It was really a yoga-gawking party with my three hashaa kids commenting on every move and Brown Sister sitting in her seat on my bed, unashamedly staring. My leg goes up, my leg comes down; my arms fling this way, my arms fling that way. The kids got bored; they can’t watch Shrek when Rodney Yee’s on. But Brown Sister stayed. I tried closing my eyes to pretend no one was there, but I felt something on my hand, and I thought that in my reckless flinging, I had hit her. But when I looked up, she was reaching, reaching her arm out like I was reaching mine, and was ever-so-lightly holding mine up. And smiling.
What is there to say? This woman who sits off to the side, who cleans and cooks and walks and watches without asking anything in return– who has cared for her? Sometimes I think I sense a sadness, but when I look, she just smiles. It’s a mystery to me, this woman with no teeth, this Brown Sister of mine, how we define beauty and how we define family. How she loves me. How I adore her. And how she smiles.
Oh, how she smiles.