The Familiar Stranger

I was about six or seven when I started to notice the aloof stranger who sometimes visited us. He always came in the evenings as if he could not bear for us, for anyone, to see him in daylight.

He never said a word, never to us children anyway and always seemed so shy and unsure of himself around us. I remember that he was trim and looked strong. His skin was a medium brown and he had close-cropped hair as black and frizzy as my own. I never saw his eyes because it was always cast down or looking away perhaps secretly wishing that he was somewhere else. I can tell you their colour, they are brown but to this day, even though we have met so many times since then and have had long conversations, I still don’t know what his eyes look like, are like.

The nights he would visit soon came to be special nights for me. Not because he came, but because my mother would be extra nice to us and never yelled or growled at us which she would do almost every night for no apparent reason. I knew whenever he was expected because she would gather us in early, make sure we were scrubbed down nicely with soap and bundle us into our best clothes. Not our Sunday clothes or our going-to-town clothes but the best looking clothes from the tattered hand-me-downs that comprised our wardrobes.

He would bring gifts. Well they were not really the kind of gifts one would expect, but to me they were early Christmas presents. Not that we ever had presents at Christmas but that is neither here nor there. His gifts were tins of meaty corned beef that my mother would heat up and serve with plump white cassava for our dinner.  Oh, those were the looked-forward to nights. I would eat and eat almost as if I wanted to fill myself up with hot chunky beef ready for the other nights when dinner was only a cup of lukewarm tea accompanied by a small piece of lonely looking cassava or if we were lucky, a few pieces of yeasty bread. I never knew where he got those tins of yummy corned beef from. I did not really care then. It was just enough for me to know that those fat round tins with their red and gold labels would be coming to visit.

My family back then were only my grandparents, my mother, and my siblings. And the families and relatives who lived all around us. No one in our family ever talked about the familiar stranger when he wasn’t there and no one ever told us children who he was. He was like a mystery that I felt I had to solve because he did not fit somehow in our existence. I remember that my grandparents would never join us for dinner when he was around. They would always say that they had to go visit a relative or that they were not hungry. That always made him draw himself so straight and rigid and his eyes would be so hidden from us it was as if he refused to acknowledge that we were real.

It was only many years later, when his weekly visits became monthly visits, became twice yearly and some years not at all, when I started to see his face in that of my siblings. I remember how funny that was and how odd that a silent, unfamiliar man could look so much like them. Like us.

When he stopped visiting at all my mother started to yell at us more and more. I remember feeling so sorry that I had not tried to make friends with him. Maybe if we were friends then he would still visit and my mother would not be so sad and so angry all the time. But it was too late. He was gone and I didn’t know where to find him or how to get him back. I was afraid to even ask about him or to even start looking for him. A big part of me was afraid that if I found him, he would think that I only wanted him to visit again for the tins of corned beef he would bring and not because I wanted my mother to be happy again.

Many years later, when I was about eleven years old, my grandfather bought a thick photo album announcing that it was about time they sorted out all the family photos they had moldering in the clothes cupboard. I didn’t even know we had photos, let alone family ones. The photos were to my young eyes, a revelation into another time, another world that only adults knew about. There were photos of my grandparents during a trip to New Zealand before I was born. One of my mother looking so young and happy in a printed white dress. And there among those memories was one of a man holding a chubby baby in his arms. The man was smiling and looked so strong yet gentle as he tenderly cradled the baby in his arms. There were more photos of him and in all of them he looked like a different man, not at all like the morose looking stranger from all those years ago.

It was then, when my grandmother seeing the questions and the confusion in my eyes, sat me down and introduced me to my father.

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