Ending up far from home wasn’t my choice entirely. Though of course, as Laura — my very best friend since elementary school — has pointed out more than once, choosing to specialize in malaria in my third year at university sort of indicated that would happen. “Not a lot of malaria in Europe these days — what a shame,” she would say, laughing. And of course she was right. Instead of going on holidays to Greece or Ibiza, like all my friends, I started spending my summers in places like Madagascar and Ghana and Cameroon. Then, right out of college, I was offered a temporary, six-month research position in Ouagadougou; six months which had somehow become seven years without my ever making a conscious decision about leaving home.
But now, having to face the brunt of all my past history wasn’t my choice either. I had tried to keep my family out of my thoughts as much as possible. Until just a few days ago when I picked up the phone and heard my sister’s voice saying that my father had died the day before of a heart attack, and did I want to come home for the funeral?
I had asked my professor for two weeks off, packed my bags, rummaged for sweaters and jeans, socks and scarves, amidst the sandals and the loose African-print dresses which were all I wore nowadays. And all the while I tried not to think about the fact that it had taken my mother and my sister twenty-four hours before they had remembered to call me.
So here I stood, steeling myself, in a corner of the sitting-room of the house where I grew up, watching my mother and my sister smile and wipe away tears and shake hands and thank all the mourners who were here today to say farewell to the respected Professor Jones.
I remembered the last time I had seen my father, two years ago, when I came home to give him my news in person. We had been sitting in this same room one evening while my mother and sister were in the kitchen, discussing the menus for the week. I had saved up this piece of news for days, waiting for the right moment to tell him: my article with the results of months of research in three remote villages in Burkina Faso had been accepted for publication in Nature.
“Nature?” he said, raising his eyebrows. “Excellent journal, certainly. Perhaps the best.” Then he turned to look at me, as if puzzled. “How old are you now? Twenty-nine? Hmm. I was twenty-six when Nature published my first article.”
I shook my head and took a sip of wine, brushing the humiliating memory away. I set my glass down on the mantelpiece, next to the silver frame with the photo of my sister on her wedding day. It was the only addition that had been made to my mother’s photo collection since we were children. Beside it sat the other four slightly scratched plastic frames that had always sat there, part of the shelf, part of my childhood. I picked up the first one. My sister and me, aged five and seven, wearing identical pink organdy dresses, sitting on the same flowered sofa on which my sister sat now, talking animatedly to two older women whom I had never seen in my life. In the photo she has an angelic smile on her face, while my mouth is a distorted grimace; she had just pinched me — hard — on my bum.
And then, of course, the other three picture-frames.
The first time I had had the courage to bring Laura to my house when we were fourteen, after seven years of intense best-friendness, she had seen them immediately. She had been quiet for a bit, while I got some biscuits from the kitchen. We were sitting on my narrow bed, eating and doing our homework in silence, when she suddenly looked up at me, chewing on the end of her pencil. “You, know, I was thinking… if you ever want to run away from home, you can come stay with me.”
I had known even then what had prompted that sudden offer. But I was so used to the photos that they didn’t seem especially terrible. Just a tiny bit odd perhaps. I looked at them now: identical frames in different sizes. With a portrait of my sister, taken when she was ten, on the day of her First Communion. She was wearing a white dress, her blond hair neatly parted in the middle as she smiled at the camera. And now smiled triply at me: 6×4, 7×5 and 10×8. The same photo, absolutely identical, but blown up to different sizes, like something out of The Three Bears.
I turned away from the pictures and found a young woman standing next to me.
“Tragic, isn’t it?” she sighed. “I don’t know what we’ll do at the University without him. Professor Jones was a genius, don’t you think?”
“Oh yes.” I nodded sympathetically. “Tragic. Definitely, a genius.”
The woman pointed to the flowered sofa. “That’s his daughter. She’s devastated, you can tell. He adored her, talked about her all the time. He was so happy that even after she got married she moved to a flat in this same street, so they still saw each other every day. What a loss.” She shook her head. “And what about you? Are you a relation?”
I turned and looked her straight in the eyes, this unknown woman whom I would never see again. “No. No relation at all. I barely knew him. And in fact I have to leave now. I have to catch a plane to Ouagadougou. Nice talking to you.”
I set my wine glass down again, right next to the triple photo of my sister, picked up my handbag and walked unnoticed out the front door.
For the first time, my choice — entirely.
Nicole Dunaway grew up in Rome, Italy, where she obtained her BA in Contemporary History. She has lived in California, South Africa, Chile and is now based in Argentina with her four children. She has a Masters in Ethnic History and a second one in Education. She has worked in the television/film industry in various capacities, has done volunteer work with several NGOs, has worked for many years as an elementary teacher, and has been a translator for an international news magazine. She has recently edited a book of texts and photographs on Argentina from the perspective of twenty-five women.