I recently spent an amazing ten days with my sister-in-law, Ferne, in Milwaukee as a treat from her for my XXth birthday. I don’t use the word, amazing, frivolously. Ten days that went entirely too fast.
Ferne Caulker Bronson is the founder and director of the Kothi African Dance Troupe out of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which will be celebrating it’s 50th year in 2019. FIFTY years… for an African dance troupe in a (majority) white institution. That’s history-making!
From the time I disembarked from the plane, I understood the importance of Ferne. The aide who pushed my wheelchair (I’ve got back issues) from the plane to the luggage claim saw Ferne waving to me and said (in his thick African accent), “You know FERNE!” That surprised me and I said yes. He continued to inform me that “She is big in Milwaukee. BIG!” He embraced her when we met up and reminded her how he knew her. This kind of greeting happened almost every place we went, even in Michael’s crafts store. Each person excited to recall to her how or when they met, and who they knew in common. She is celebrated.
Most of my young adult years were spent in Milwaukee and I graduated from North Division High School back in the 60s. While there on this particular visit, however, I only reached out to one former schoolmate, but she didn’t respond to my call and text until weeks after I returned home, so other than my family, my time was spent with shadowing Ferne. Ferne, I found out, casts a very large shadow for such a small woman.
Ferne was my shaman (shawoman?) in that she pushed me to see through my reluctance to see what was right in front of me in how I was living my life; not so much as unhappily as it is just not as full as it should be at my age.
Every day she promised that the next day we would spend eating leftovers and sitting on the patio looking at the wildlife just arms length from her back door, but every day was a whirlwind of places to go, people to see, foods to experience, new African words for me to hear (I’ll never remember them all, especially for all the drum names). Living such a full life seemed like a distant, but enjoyable, memory and I thought about what I had given up to retire to a place that has no social connections for me, nor family nearby.
I’m living a rather reclusive life now where even the thought of working in some capacity at our church isn’t feasible or viable because of the distance to get there, and the lack of transportation to make that happen. I realized that how I live is not what I honed my skills for so long to end up doing. She kidded me with a job offer to manage her upcoming grant that will be funded next spring… or was she kidding??? I’ve got a few months to figure it out.
My after-visit thoughts center on what I want the rest of my life to look like, and I know it has to be, at the very least, completing my doctorate, which I can do here because of the quiet and lack of demands that once filled my life. I can remember any visit I made to Milwaukee in the past 55+ years that I felt it was as welcoming as it was this past trip; it really felt like home.
I have no children to rear, no volunteer work to do, no neighbors to visit, no immediate improvements on my house to make, no ramblings around to get to know the city during the day, no friends to see. Does one with all my education, skills, training, abilities, stifle all that to become a house maid in a house that feels like a prison in spite of the beauty of my surroundings. Is being unproductive enough anymore?
In my musings, I realize that being needed, or in service, lasts until the end. It doesn’t stop because of some magic age, nor circumstance in which one voluntarily posits themselves. It doesn’t have laurels upon which to rest. It is fluid… like life.
Ferne took me to African (for yummy oxtails), Indian, Asian restaurants, had me accompany her to watch her dance troupe practice (and I did so completely enthralled), forced me to be pampered with nails being done, and then on to her personal mate who adores and dotes on her, and who is still a full time, working master barber to do my hair.
We entertained with other family and bonded again over red beans, rice, cornbread, fried chicken, and caramel cake. Most of all we laughed and laughed and laughed; we cry-laughed and fart-laughed, and could break out in spontaneous laughter at nothing at all. It was ten days of living–experiencing–the antithesis of my life at home.
My sister/sista lives life to the fullest and continually bugged me with questions like, “what do you WANT, my Sista’?,” in her revived African accent, which always set me into the giggles as she pushed me to examine where I wanted to be in my life at this age. It was jarring and uncomfortable at times, but necessary. Every woman needs another woman to push them with love. Every. Woman. Needs this. We should never live out our lives feeling like we’re missing out, or that we haven’t given all we were trained/experienced to give.
While there I felt free, unencumbered, necessary, cared for, loved in a way only a person who wants nothing in return but to see you happy can give to you. When I left I felt full with a lot to process.
Now I’ve got to work on having my life mean something; having it full; having it filled with laughter and occasional abandonment of mundane tasks; back into service. This is my #F**kIt stage of life and, thanks to Ferne, I’m working on myself.