The House at Sugar Beach In Search of a Lost African Childhood, by Cooper, Helene
- ISBN: 9780743266253 | 0743266250
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 7/21/2009
This is a story about rogues.
Burglars are "rogues." The wordburglaris not in the Liberian-English vernacular. I occasionally used "thief," though only for two reasons: (1) to impress whoever was listening that I knew proper English, and (2) to amplify "rogue," like when yelling out "Rogue! Rogue! Thiefy! Thiefy!" to stop a fleeing rogue. But rogues and thieves were very different animals. Rogues broke into your house while you were sleeping and made off with the fine china. Thieves worked for the government and stole money from the public treasury.
Our house at Sugar Beach was plagued by rogues. From the time we moved into the twenty-two-room behemoth my father had had built overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, they installed themselves as part of daily life. It wasn't hard to figure out why: we were a continent away from civilization at eleven miles outside of Monrovia, my mother was hell-bent on filling up the house with ivory, easily portable if you're a rogue, and our watchman, Bolabo, believed that nights were meant for sleeping, not guarding the house.
Bolabo was an old man. His hair, which he kept cut very short, was almost white. He had nine teeth, at alternating places on the top rim and bottom rim of his mouth, so that when he talked you could see the holes, but when he smiled, which was a lot, it looked like a perfect set. He didn't have a gun, he had a nightstick. He walked with a bounce and always seemed cheerful, even when he was getting reamed out by my mother in the mornings after the discovery that rogues had once more gotten into Sugar Beach and made off with her ivory.
The first time it happened -- within a week of our arrival at Sugar Beach -- I woke up and stumbled out of my bedroom to the sound of my mother yelling at Bolabo outside. Jack was leaning against the wall, enjoying the proceedings. He winked at me. Jack was technically our houseboy, but none of us ever dared call him that because he grew up with Daddy.
"Rogues came here last night," Jack reported.
Mommee had hauled Bolabo to the kitchen porch for his dressing down. She was in the doorway, her arms punctuating the air with her grievances. She wore her usual early-morning attire: knit shorts that stopped just above her knees, a T-shirt, and slippers. Her hair, originally piled on top of her head, had come undone as she paced angrily back and forth on the kitchen porch, arms flailing. Before her stood Bolabo, his entire demeanor one of remorse.
Bolabo: "Aya Ma, na mind ya."
Translation: Gosh! How awful! Never you mind, Mrs. Cooper, please accept my apologies.
Mommee: "You hopeless seacrab! I should sack you!"
Translation: Bluster. "Seacrab" and "damn" were as close as Mommee ever came to cussing. History would show Mommee sacked Bolabo every month and always rehired him when he came back and "held her foot."
Bolabo: "I hold your foot, Ma."
Translation: An exclamation point that punctuates this heartfelt entreaty. When begging a Liberian's pardon, you can't get much lower than telling them you hold their foot.
This went on for about fifteen minutes, until Mommee slammed the door in disgust. Bolabo was extra vigilant for the next few days, making a big show of closing his bedroom door in the boys' house during the day so we would know that he was getting his rest for the night ahead. Then, at around six p.m., he came outside with his nightstick and strutted around the yard, inspecting the coconut trees that surrounded the estate, presumably for signs of imminent attack. He peered down the water well near the fence, as if rogues were treading water thirty feet down, waiting for the family to go to sleep before jet-propelling themselves out like Superman.
Bolabo settled into his chair by the laundry room, then jumped up self-importantly when a car drove into the yard, as if the rogues might just drive up at seven p.m. for supper. Invariably, he was asleep before my bedtime at eight p.m.
I, on the other hand, was not.
Who could fall asleep way out in the bush like that? I went to bed at night wishing we were back at our old house in Congo Town.
Liberia is nowhere near the Congo River, but the term Congo is endemic. We are called the Congo people -- my family and the rest of the descendants of the freed American slaves who founded Liberia in 1822. It is a somewhat derogatory term invented by the native Liberians back in the early nineteenth century, after Britain abolished slave trade on the high seas. British patrols seized slave ships leaving the West African coast for America and returned those captured to Liberia and Sierra Leone, whether they came from there or not. Since many of the slave ships entered the Atlantic from the mouth of the massive Congo River, the native Liberians, many of whom happily engaged in the slave trade and didn't like this new business of freeing the slaves and dumping them in Liberia, called the newcomers Congo People. Because the newly freed captives were released in Liberia at the same time that the freed blacks arrived in Liberia from America, all newcomers became known as Congo People. Monrovia is full of Congo this and Congo that. Congo Town, where our old house was, is a suburb of Monrovia. It was filled with Congo People like us.
We got the native Liberians back by calling them Country People, far more derogatory, in our eyes.
Daddy moved us to Sugar Beach because he thought the old house in Congo Town was too small. It only had three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a TV lounge, a living room, a den, an office, a kitchen, a palaver hut outside, and a huge lawn, where I learned critical social skills from Tello, my favorite cousin and role-model supreme.
"Jus' kick your foot de same time you jumping!" Tello, short for Ethello, yelled at me one Sunday afternoon on the Congo Town lawn. It was a typically heavy, soupy day, and my ponytail, drenched in sweat, glued itself to the back of my neck. Next door, the Baptist church people, who spent hours in that church singing their holy ghost songs, had quieted down -- it was time for their midafternoon snack of check-rice with crawfish gravy. The sharp, intense smell of the fish gravy wafted to our yard from the back of the church, making my stomach rumble with hunger.
Tello was teaching me how to play knock-foot, a girls' game where players hop on one foot and kick toward their opponents with the other foot. Knock-foot involved intricate maneuvers that need rhythm and balance. The Country People had thought it up. Knock-foot is sort of like rock, paper, scissors with feet. A good knock-foot session between two girls who know what they're doing looks like dancing, with each girl bobbing, kicking, and clapping to a precise beat.
There were many variations of knock-foot; one, called Kor, required such precision I knew I'd never be able to do it. All I wanted was to be able to do basic knock-foot. Hop, hop, kick. Clap, hop, kick. Except the clap was on a half beat and the kick was on a half beat.
Beads of sweat collected on my forehead as I tried again. Hop, hop, kick. "Not like that!" instructed Tello. She was four months older than me and very sure of matters of correctness. "You kicking before you jumping!"
"Aye, I tryin," I whined.
Hop, hop, kick. I raised my foot slightly higher, and when I kicked, got her full in the knee, good and hard. She stomped the grass, then turned around, and, with a sucking of her teeth -- that social skill I had mastered at last -- walked back to the house. I chased after her.
My escort into high society was mad at me. "Tello!" I said, trailing her into the house. "Na mind."
She forgave me when we entered the living room and we automatically headed for the black leather couch to pretend to be our mothers.
"I say, it's too hard to find good help these days," Tello said, crossing her legs as she sat on the couch with her doll propped in her lap. "I told Gladys to make up the bed, and you know wha' she did? Cleaned the cupboard instead!"
I sighed, in what I hoped was a long-suffering way. "Ma people, I got' de same problem m'self, I tell you," I replied, flicking some imaginary dust off my pants. "I asked Old Man Charlie to cook palm butter and he cooked cassava leaf!"
I loved the Congo Town house. It was close to town and Tello visited all the time. There was always stuff to do and people to see, even if it was just picking fights with the Baptist people next door.
But Daddy said we were crowded there. I shared a bedroom with my little sister, Marlene, and Marlene's nurse, Martha, a tall Kru woman. There were way too many people in my bedroom at night. "Don't worry," Daddy said. "When we build the house at Sugar Beach, you're going to have your own room."
My own room! Wouldn't that show the world how grown I was!
"What color do you want it?" Mommee asked me before we left Congo Town.
I thought for days and days before finally deciding. "I wan ma room be pink."
And so, bought off with the false notion that I actually wanted my own room, I followed my family to Sugar Beach and our grand new home.
This was our house at Sugar Beach: a futuristic, three-level verandahed 1970s-era behemoth with a mammoth glass dome on top, visible as soon as you turned onto the dirt road junction a mile away. The house revealed itself slowly, like a coquettish Parisian dancer from the 1920s. Emerging from the road's first major pothole -- big enough to swallow a small European car -- your reward was a glimpse of the house's sloping roof and glass dome, shining in the equatorial sun. Rounding the bend between the dense bush of plum trees and vines, you next got a glimpse of the house's eastern wraparound second-floor porches, painted creamy butter, with a roasted red pepper trim hand-selected for tropical contrast. Driving by the two huts that formed the outermost edge of the nearby Bassa village of Bubba Town, you then caught another tease: the sliding glass doors that formed the perimeter of the second-floor living room.
But nothing could prepare you for the final disrobing as you crested the hill that opened up to the panoramic view of the house, back-lit by the thunderous waves and pounding surf from the Atlantic as far as the eye could see. Shangri-la, Camelot, the Garden of Eden -- the Cooper family's perfect and perfectly grand paradise, where John and Calista Cooper could raise their perfect family, cosseted by well-paid servants, and protected from the ravages of West African squalor and poverty by central air-conditioning, strategically placed coconut trees, and a private water well.
The upper level had five bedrooms and three bathrooms and a TV lounge and an indoor balcony that looked down onto the children's toy room on the first floor. The middle level had an enormous kitchen with adjoining dining room, the two separated by double swing doors. There was a music room with a rock wall on one side, housing a baby grand piano that overlooked the ocean. There was the sunken living room with its rich velvet couches the color of cognac and its wraparound glass doors, from which you could view the ocean to the south and the bush to the north.
The lower level had two bedrooms and three bathrooms and a huge recreation room with a full bar. There was a playroom and a toy room and my father's office. And there was a nook under the stairs for storing our plastic Christmas tree.
With the exception of the bedrooms, all of which had wall-to-wall carpet, all floors were marble. A nine-foot-tall grandfather clock stood in an atrium halfway down the marble staircase separating the middle level from the lower level.
The five-acre grounds had a lush green carpet grass ringed by hibiscus and bougainvillea plants, and coconut trees. The two-car garage housed the favorites of the moment; the older cars and Daddy's pickup truck were relegated to a parking area by the boys' house.
In moving to Sugar Beach, eleven miles out of Monrovia, we were supposed to be suburban pioneers. If the world had worked out the way it was supposed to, Monrovia would have followed us out there, as housing developments, businesses, cafes, and restaurants overran the city and pushed its boundaries farther east from Providence Island, where the first Congo People -- the freed black Americans -- built their houses and established their capital city. My parents, especially Mommee, had both grown up in houses in what was now the heart of inner-city Monrovia. Mama Grand, Mommee's mother, still lived "across the bridge" on Bushrod Island, an area near the port that was now completely overtaken by shops and business.
By contrast, Sugar Beach was in the bush on the edge of the sea. Our closest neighbors who weren't Country People were the people at the mental hospital Catherine Mills, about five miles away. There were plenty of Country People living in Bubba Town and other Country villages nearby. Uncle Julius, Daddy's brother, built his house right next to ours at Sugar Beach, so we at least had our cousins -- Ericka, Jeanine, and Juju -- next door. Together, the two houses made up the Cooper Compound.
Our house at Sugar Beach was a source of pride and of pain. It was a testament to the stature of my family in a country where stature mattered, sometimes above all else. Liberian society rivaled Victorian England when it came to matters of social correctness. In Liberia, we cared far more about how we looked outside than about who we were inside. It was crucial to be an Honorable. Being an "Honorable" -- mostly Congo People, though a smattering of Country People were sometimes pronounced educated enough to get the title -- meant you were deemed eligible to hold important government posts. You could have a Ph.D. from Harvard but if you were a Country man with a tribal affiliation you were still outranked in Liberian society by an Honorable with a two-bit degree from some community college in Memphis, Tennessee. Daddy was an Honorable with a proper college bachelor of science, but being Hon. John L. Cooper Jr. was a hell of a lot more important than whatever degree he got in America.
But the Cooper Compound was far from Monrovia. It didn't take more than two days out there for me to realize that I'd been had. Eleven miles is a continent when you are seven years old and all of your friends live in town and rogues and heartmen rule the nighttime. Radio Cooper, my grandfather, wired Liberia, but his telephone lines didn't reach Sugar Beach, where his two sons had decided to build their houses.
"How much longer until we get a phone?" I whined to Daddy on the first day we moved there.
"You're seven years old. Who you plannin to call?"
In Liberian English, saying "'them" after someone's name is a shortcut for including a whole group. "Tello 'them" meant "Tello and her sisters."
"Ain't nothing you and Tello got to talk 'bout every day. You can talk to her when your Mommee carry you to church Sunday."
I knew not to argue too much with Daddy. He sat at the top of the Sugar Beach hierarchy, with Mommee. Together, John Lewis Cooper Jr. and Calista Esmeralda Dennis Cooper, represented three Liberian dynasties: the Coopers, the Dennises, and the Johnsons.
Hon. John L. Cooper's ancestors dated back to one of the first ships of freed blacks that immigrated to Liberia from America in the early 1800s.
Mommee's ancestor, on the other hand, was on the first ship. If Elijah Johnson hadn't existed, Liberia might not exist. He and sixty-five others survived the trip to Africa back in 1820. The three white men sent along with the group, along with twenty other blacks, all died within weeks of landing in West Africa. Elijah Johnson lived, and ostensibly founded Monrovia after disease ravaged the group of freemen settlers.
When native Liberians attacked the newcomers, Elijah Johnson led the fight back. A British gunboat came ashore and its commander offered to send help if Elijah Johnson would cede to the British flag. "We want no flagstaff put up here that will cost more to get it down again than it will to whip the natives," Elijah Johnson said, in a phrase we memorized in school.
Elijah Johnson's son, Hillary Johnson, became Liberia's sixth president. His great-great-grandson, my great-uncle Gabriel Dennis, was secretary of state and secretary of treasury. Cecil Dennis, the minister of foreign affairs, was my cousin, although we called him Uncle Cecil.
Mommee took great pride in the fact that, as one of the heirs to Elijah Johnson, she received a $25 check from the government every once in a while. It was his pension, divided up among his descendants. Sometimes jealous people -- Country and Congo -- complained about why a poor third-world country was still doling out money to Elijah Johnson's heirs more than a century after he died. To which Mommee replied, "Excuse me, there wouldn't be a country if it weren't for Elijah Johnson."
Daddy had clout, but Mommee ruled Sugar Beach. She was tall and thin and light-skinned, and had the ultimate symbol of beauty in Liberia: long, silky, soft, white people's hair. She had long legs and a long neck and she never went out without her Christian Dior sunglasses propped on her nose. She had the first Lincoln Continental Mark IV ever to show up in Liberia. She could order Old Man Charlie, one of our cooks, to make sure he put enough raisins in the cinnamon rolls one minute, and then turn around the next minute and give $100 to the market women who came to the house to beg for school tuition for the children.
Daddy's side of the family, the Coopers, made their mark in business. The four brothers arrived from Virginia as freemen in 1829 -- newbies by Mommee's standards. They bought up land left and right and quickly became one of the most powerful and wealthy families in Liberia. My great-great-great-granduncle, Reid Cooper, became a Liberian navy commodore who helped to fight the Country People and rescued one batch of early settlers up in Maryland County from a group of angry native Liberians. Radio Cooper, my grandfather, was chief of the Liberian Telephone Exchange. My uncle Julius was minister of Action for Development and Progress. My father was deputy postmaster general.
There is a photo of the cabinet of former Liberian president William V. S. Tubman, taken just after his inauguration in 1944. My great-uncle, Gabriel Dennis, secretary of state (Mommee's side), stands next to my grandfather, Radio Cooper. I see my mother's, and my own, flat mouth in my uncle Gabriel. I see my father's, and my own, deep-set eyes in my grandfather Radio Cooper.
Their pedigrees matched on paper, but in reality, Mommee and Daddy were from different planets. Daddy took nothing seriously. He drank like a true Cooper -- beer with raw eggs for breakfast, gin for lunch, whiskey for supper; Mommee thought a sip of brandy was deliciously naughty. Mommee went to church religiously; Daddy treated church like it had a black snake inside. Mommee was hypersensitive and quick to take offense: her college epitath was "Calista Dennis, Lah to us; Nice and friendly, willing to fuss." Daddy was an incorrigible jokester who prized his wit and whose favorite brag was: "I lost a million dollars by the time I was thirty."
Daddy was light-skinned, too, with those big round fat Cooper cheeks. He had a beard and a goatee mustache and deep-set eyes. Mommee called him a shorty, because they were the exact same height and he was always trying to stop her from wearing high-heeled shoes when they went out together.
After Mommee and Daddy in the family totem pole, at least as far as I was concerned, came me. "Helene, the great," I called myself. "The Joy of my Heart," Mommee called me. "Hard-time Biscuit," my brother, John Bull (same Pa) said. "Cracky Cooper," my cousins said.
I was darker than Mommee and Daddy but still light-skinned by Liberian standards. I weighed eleven pounds thirteen ounces when I was delivered by cesarean on April 22, 1966, at Cooper Clinic in Monrovia. When the doctor whacked me to check out my lungs, I growled like Barry White. Mommee, who only weighed 118 pounds at the time, was too tired to get a good look at me after the operation. "Is it okay?" she said, then fell asleep. When she woke up, the nurse said: "Are you ready to see your monster?"
I was living proof that Mommee could conceive. She was thirty-two when she had me, a full two years after she and Daddy got married. That's old age in West Africa, where girls are married off as soon as they come back from the Grebo bush. We were civilized Congo People withAmerican roots,so nobody was sending Mommee off to the Grebo bush when she was fourteen to get circumcised and to learn how to be one of umpteen wives to some husband. But even in civilized Congo Liberian society, thirty-two was old to be having your first child.
She swaddled me in wool before taking me home, bundled warmly to protect my mocha-latte infant skin from the African sun. And the mosquitoes. "You are the joy of my heart," she told me, again and again. No question about it. I was special. Nobody was more special than me.
But I came out with Mommee's flat Dennis mouth. That's what we called white people's lips: "flat mouths." African lips are full and juicy. Daddy had full juicy African lips. His lips wrapped around a forkful of palm butter and rice, and he chewed, and his lips moved up and down, with moist palm oil oozing out before he licked it back in with his tongue. I loved watching him eat. It made me hungry. Nobody would watch me eat like that, because I had a flat mouth.
Five years after me came Marlene. Marlene and I are same Ma, same Pa, a critical distinction in a country where men routinely father children by multiple women. If a Liberian asks about your relationship to a sibling, you can always just answer "same Pa" meaning "we have the same father, not the same mother" or "same Ma."
"Same Ma, same Pa" implies you share the same blood from both parents.
Marlene was a chubby, white, green-eyed, silky soft hair, Chinese-looking Buddha-baby. We were all lined up in the upstairs TV lounge at the Old House in Congo Town on the day she was born, waiting to hear whether Mommee had had a baby girl or boy. Daddy came trooping up the steps. I held my breath. I didn't know what I wanted, a boy or girl? I already had two sisters through Daddy's first marriage -- Janice and Ora -- and one brother, John Bull.
Daddy looked at us and grinned. The suspense was too much and Janice finally yelled. "What Aunt Lah got?" Daddy looked at me. "Your Mommee had a baby girl."
We erupted into whoops and cheers and took off out of the house and down the street, chanting: "Baby girl again! Baby girl again!" The original baby girl was me, but now there was another one, who would always be the babiest baby girl. The people who lived near our house in Congo Town came out into the streets. Some of them danced with us and some just stood on the side of the road observing our antics. "You see how these Cooper people crazy?" one woman said.
Daddy took us to Cooper Clinic to see Marlene the day after she was born. "Wha' she look like?" I asked him excitedly, as we marched up the steps to the second-floor maternity ward.
"Like a Cooper," he said. Translation: fat and white.
Marlene could easily be taken for white if it wasn't for her African features. She had a big wide African nose and Daddy's lips. Those fun-to-watch-eat-palm-butter lips.
She was always hungry. Marlene ate things that I wouldn't consider putting in my mouth, like kernels from the palm trees, which she dug out of the yard. She had two nicknames, both given to her by the servants at Sugar Beach: one was "PlurTorTor," which meant pepperbird, and the other was "Mrs. Palm Kernel," except in Liberian English we don't say "palm kernel" we say "pam-kana."
I didn't immediately adjust well to being usurped as the reigning baby girl. One time Daddy caught me standing over her crib pinching her fat butt. I got spanked, and was banished from my parents' room, where Marlene was sleeping.
Fortunately, there were other distractions at Sugar Beach.
Janice (same Pa) was Daddy's oldest daughter, five years older than me, from his first marriage. She was the shortest one in the family, with a smile that always somehow looked fake.
Janice could sit for hours on the floor cross-legged, each leg on top of the opposing knee like some kind of deranged yoga instructor. Then she smiled that fake smile at you and you knew that whatever had been going on in her head was a matter best left alone.
She spoke with a British accent because she went to boarding school in England: the Queen's Park School for girls in Oswestry, Shropshire. She was geeky before she went to boarding school, but once she started going, she became a "been-to."
A "been-to" in Liberia meant you'd been to America or Europe. Going to visit for a month or so didn't count; you had to have lived there. When longing to be a "been-to," I never really considered the part about actually living away from home. It was always much more about arriving back in Liberia, to great fanfare, after an extended stay "abroad." In my fantasy, I looked fresh and hip and American or British as I swept off the plane after a year living in the States or London. Everyone would greet me at Robertsfield airport like I was a celebrity, and I would speak with an American accent, just like Janice spoke with a British accent whenever she came home from boarding school in England.
I wrote Janice letters telling her how boring life was at Sugar Beach, so far from town. She wrote me back that she had a white girl for a best friend, Jane, and how they ate four times a day in England because of tea. We only ate three times a day at Sugar Beach. How could anyone eat four times, I thought, shaking my head in wonder. When Janice came home to Sugar Beach during her summer vacations, Marlene and I followed her around the yard mimicking her British accent. "Whatever are you up to!" we said in high-pitched voices. "Bloody hell!"
John Bull (same Pa) was Daddy's only son, also by his first marriage, and four years older than me. We called him John Bull because he was thirteen pounds twelve ounces at birth and he ate and ate. His only rival when it came to eating was Marlene. John Bull's favorite game was Boofair. If he said "Boofair," while you were eating and you didn't have your fingers crossed then John Bull got your food. John Bull hid cans of corned beef in his room and at night, Marlene went in and the two of them snacked right out of the can. Marlene was in love with him and wanted to marry him. She told everyone she could find that she planned to marry her brother.
John Bull was husky and tall and had the Cooper round cheeks. When he went to boarding school at Ricks Institute up-country, we sent him care packages: cardboard boxes filled with Spam. Eventually he switched to the St. Patrick's all-boys Catholic school in Monrovia. He flirted briefly with teenaged cavorting around, before he became a born-again Christian at age fifteen and stopped going to movies and dancing parties. He started hosting Bible study classes in the TV lounge at Sugar Beach. I asked if I could attend but after a while I got bored and stopped going.
Victoria Yvette Nadine Dennis added the "Nadine" herself because she liked it. Vicky was Mommee's niece, the daughter of Mommee's oldest brother, whom we all called Bro. Henry, short for Brother Henry. You run the two words together "BrHenry."
Vicky's mother was a Gio woman named Season, who was Bro. Henry's girlfriend while he worked briefly up in Sanniquellie, up-country in Nimba County. He didn't own up to Vicky until she was two years old, when his brother, Bro. Gabriel, discovered Season and Vicky in a shop in Sanniquellie.
Vicky had the trademark flat Dennis mouth, which quickly gave away what Bro. Henry had been up to while in Sanniquellie. Faced with the obvious, Bro. Henry confessed. The whole extended family trooped up to Sanniquellie to ask Season if they could raise Vicky and send her to school.
Vicky moved to Monrovia to live with my grandmother, Mama Grand. Soon thereafter, Bro. Henry, still a bachelor, was appointed deputy consul to the Liberian embassy in Rome. The job came with a nanny, so he took Vicky. When they came back, Vicky went back to live with Mama Grand -- a single man in Liberia couldn't raise a child. Mommee was living with Mama Grand at the time, rapidly approaching old maid status at thirty. When Mommee finally got married to Daddy, she brought with her into her marriage a trousseau, a lot of land from her father, and seven-year-old Vicky.
Vicky was cursed, as far as I was concerned, because she saw spirits. Late one night at the old house, the first year my parents were married and before I was born, my father was eating dinner by himself in the dining room downstairs. Vicky and Mommee were upstairs watching TV.
"Who's that man there?" Vicky, seven years old, asked my mother.
My mother looked at the doorway, where Vicky pointed. No one was there.
Mommee decided not to answer Vicky. But Vicky persisted.
"Does he live here?"
Mommee started screaming, jumped from her chair, and raced downstairs yelling: "John! John! The child's seeing spirits oh!" Vicky ran behind my mother. Neither of them would go back upstairs until my father accompanied them, and Vicky spent that night in my parents' room.
Vicky continued spirit-spotting at Sugar Beach. She saw them playing in my hair. She saw them dancing outside the dining room. It got to the point that whenever we saw her getting that faraway look, we'd all jump and run.
Vicky often wore her hair in an Afro, and platform shoes and bell-bottom pants. Her skin was the deep brown color of milk candy after you fry the sweetened condensed milk. Sleeping was her favorite hobby.
And that -- Mommee, Daddy, Marlene, Janice, John Bull, Vicky, and I -- made up the family half of the house at Sugar Beach.
In Liberia, servants are called "boys." Occasionally you might call them "old men," like with Old Man Charlie, the cook. But most of the time, they're called boys, no matter how old they are. At Sugar Beach, all the men who served our family lived in the boys' house, about two hundred yards from the main house.
Fedeles, the driver, had the most clout because he drove the cars. Mommee and Daddy could both drive so Fedeles mostly drove us, the kids. He was from Ghana: tall, thin, and always wearing tight jeans. He was my first crush; I was fascinated with how he looked in his tight jeans. In Liberia we called butts "boneyhinds."
Jack was the houseboy, but that was too disrespectful a term for him so he was just Jack. Handsome and from the Kpelle ethnic group that populated the area around our family farm, Kakata, he grew up with Daddy and had been with the Cooper family all his life. Jack always wore skinny black pants that stopped right before they got to his feet, so you could see his white socks. He looked like Sidney Poitier. He vacationed in Spain with us. Jack nursed me with bottled milk when I was a baby and cleaned my room and made my bed. He always reminded me not to give him cheek because he "used to clean my poopoo drawers." He organized the household and saw to it that Mommee's orders were carried out by the other boys.
After Jack came Old Man Charlie and Tommy, our two cooks. Why did we have two cooks? One came from Daddy's side of the family (Old Man Charlie) and one came from Mommee's side (Tommy). Old Man Charlie, grumpy and irascible, also worked for Uncle Julius, next door. But Uncle Julius's house was often empty when my cousins, Ericka, Jeanine, and Juju, went and stayed with their mother, Aunt Millie, since Uncle Julius and Aunt Millie had divorced. So Old Man Charlie would come and cook for us, which was a good thing, since Tommy, our other cook, who had worked for Mommee's family for decades, often disappeared for weeks at a time. Tommy's disappearances usually came after paydays. We never knew where he went, and Mommee always vowed not to let him come back. But eventually, Tommy would come back and "hold" Mommee's foot, and he'd be our cook again.
Old Man Charlie was grumpy and irascible, and was always throwing people out of the kitchen. He made the best cinnamon rolls. I was the only person he didn't kick out of the kitchen. He let me help him make biscuits, dipping the top of the water glasses in flour and making the round biscuit-circles.
After Old Man Charlie came Sammy Cooper, the yardboy. Also Kpelle. I liked hanging out with Sammy Cooper because he knew, and told, stories about Daddy from when Daddy was younger. Old Sammy Cooper, who I always thought was Sammy Cooper's father but who was apparently not technically, used to work for my grandparents. He helped Radio Cooper plant the Cooper family farm up in Kakata, and believed Radio Cooper should have given the farm to him when Radio Cooper died, instead of leaving it to Daddy 'them.
It was the common belief in our household that Old Sammy Cooper, who was Kpelle, witched Radio Cooper, and that's why Radio Cooper got sick and died. When we first moved to Sugar Beach, Old Sammy Cooper brought a chicken to the house, and asked Mommee if he could sacrifice it and bury it in the yard so that we'd have good luck at the new house. Mommee didn't trust him but was too afraid to antagonize him so she let him do it, but then spent the next seven years trying to figure out where the chicken was buried so she could have it dug up.
Galway, the washman, was Bassa, and had his own room in the Sugar Beach house, next to the laundry room, where he slept away from the boys' house. Galway couldn't see out of one eye. He was also a grump.
And after Galway came Bolabo, the watchman. Bassa. Asleep by eight p.m.
Unlike me. I had demons to wrestle with.
The first night at Sugar Beach, I eagerly reported to my bed at seven forty-five, a full and shocking fifteen minutes before my scheduled bedtime. I couldn't wait. It was going to be so great, sleeping in my own room, all by myself.
Mommee went in with me and closed the curtains. She knelt beside me and we said my nightly prayers: "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, I Pray the Lord My Soul to Keep."
I was antsy to rush through and finish so I could get into bed. We recited, "If I Should Die Before I Wake, I Pray the Lord My Soul to Take."
A small shiver of premonition shot through me. If I died, I would be all by myself in that room. I hadn't thought about that.
I crawled into bed and Mommee leaned over and kissed me. "Good night, joy of my heart," she said, and left the room, flipping off the light behind her.
I was immediately engulfed in an impenetrable, malevolent blackness.
Vicky's spirits were in the room with me. There were three of them, one man and two women. I could feel them; each was standing in a separate corner of my pink room, looking at me silently. They were trying to decide what they were going to do to me. I started to shake, and curled tightly in my bed, putting the blanket over my head. But then I couldn't breathe. Was that how they were going to get me, by scaring me into suffocating myself? That's how I would die before I woke?
Slowly, so the spirits wouldn't notice, I drew the blanket down and stuck out my nose, ever so carefully. Cold air-conditioned air filled my nostrils. I could breathe again.
But the spirits were still in there, edging closer to me, especially the two women. I clutched myself tighter and squeezed my eyes even tighter.If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
This was not a good prayer. I was accepting death as a fait accompli, without appealing up high for a different outcome.Please God don't let me die before I wake. Please please. I promise to be a good girl. Please please please. I'nt want die before I wake.
I was still praying when I finally fell asleep. Every night for two weeks, I prayed myself to sleep in sickly fear.
In those same two weeks, Sugar Beach had three nighttime visits from rogues. They took one of Mommee's favorite paintings, a pastoral scene of a Kpelle village by the river, with two women washing clothes, their babies on their back. Mommee had hung that painting up on the wall next to the music room; it was one of the first things you saw when you walked into the upstairs part of the house. The rogues took it, along with a giant elephant tusk in the living room.
They didn't pick the place clean, only taking a couple of things each visit. In the morning, an empty shelf or bare wall taunted us: the rogues could come in and do whatever they wanted.
The night after the rogues' third visit, I realized that the rogues were actually heartmen. That's why they were only taking a couple of things at a time; they weren't really coming for ivory and paintings. They wanted me!
Heartmen are witch doctors who kidnap people and cut out their hearts while they're still alive and use it to make medicine. Now that I was sleeping in my own room at night, they had the perfect opportunity to come and get me and cut out my heart and I would die before I woke.
They floated into the room that night as I slept, two of them, their cutlasses strapped to their waists. Long gleaming knives that curved at the tip, the better to carve out your heart -- a paralysis came over me and woke me up. I lay on my back with my eyes open but I couldn't move, as the heartmen floated closer.
If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
They closed in on me, and I tried to scream. Nothing, no sound. I tried and tried, but no sound came from my locked throat.
If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Just as they were about to pounce, a scream burst out of my throat and I almost fell out of my bed as I ran out the bedroom door as fast as I could, straight in to Mommee and Daddy's bed, refusing to leave until morning.
The next day, the Mandingo men came to sell Mommee more ivory, to replenish her reserves, which were being rapidly depleted by the nightly visits from the rogues.
Any private detective worth his two cents could have immediately figured out that the Mandingo men who sold Mommee the ivory had the most to gain from the constant burglaries, but Mommee welcomed them in anyway.
They came, in their customary long white flowing robes and their white pointy slippers. Two tall statuesque haughty men, with skin the color of a Hershey's chocolate bar. They walked up the dirt road to Sugar Beach, carrying barley bags, the sharp end of one of the elephant tusks poking out, gleaming in the sun.
Marlene's dogs, Happy, Blackie, and Christopher, started barking as soon as the men entered the yard, rousing themselves from their usual slumber under the kitchen steps and running around the men furiously. They were all mutts, distinguishable by color: Happy was light brown, Blackie was black, and Christopher was white. Happy, in particular, was yipping around the Mandingo men's ankles.
But the Mandingo men didn't even flinch. They walked right up to the steps and asked for "Ma."
I didn't understand how they could wear those long robes in the heat. It was the height of Liberian summer -- January -- and there wasn't the slightest breeze, not even from the ocean right at our backs. I was in shorts and my favorite Wonder Woman T-shirt, which the men eyed disapprovingly. "How they looking at people so?" I muttered to Old Man Charlie, standing next to me on the kitchen porch.
"That Muslim people, wha' you expect?" Old Man Charlie replied, not bothering to whisper.
Old Man Charlie eyed the Mandingo men. He was Kpelle and Kpelle people didn't really like Mandingos. The Mandingos had been in Liberia for about as long as anybody else, but somehow Liberians still thought of them as outsiders. Mandingoes worked hard and saved their money -- a definite cause for envy and suspicion.
Just after he became president in 1971, William R. Tolbert, in an attempt to be inclusive, permitted the Mandingos to celebrate Ramadan at Liberia's Centennial Pavillion, which set God-fearing Christian Liberians muttering. It was bad enough the Lebanese people were all flocking to Liberia to take over the shops and stores, because of the fighting in Beirut, but at least they weren't pretending to be Liberian. The Mandingo people, on the other hand, loved reminding everybody that they had been around since way before us Congo People first began to return from America on ships.
Mommee liked the Mandingo people because her grandmother, Ma Galley, used to hide them in her basement whenever the police came looking for them to hit them up for bribes. She liked that they knew where to find good ivory, because she had a house to decorate.
Mommee took the Mandingo men into the living room to inspect their wares. I trailed behind them, observing as they visibly blanched upon walking into the cool, air-conditioned house. I sat on the brown velvet love seat in the corner to watch the proceedings.
One of the men had a glass eye. He put one elephant tusk on the glass coffee table and started to describe it to my mother. "This came from a great African elephant from the Serengeti," he said. "You see how it da' form like this? If you put two of them together, one on each side o' de' table, it will be fine, so."
The whole time he talked, his glass eye kept looking at me. I bolted from the living room and locked myself in my room.
That night there was a thunderstorm, and the electricity went out. The air conditioner rattled and wheezed and stopped. The porch lights went out. Lightning crackled through the air, and I quickly took off my gold bracelet so I wouldn't get struck. I burrowed as deep as I could under the covers, but I was still scared. I knew this was all the doing of the Mandingo man with the glass eye, who was clearly in cahoots with the rogues, who themselves were actually heartmen. And they were angry that I had gotten away from them the night before, but they would be back, I knew.
I just knew the elephant tusk was witched. I was whimpering under the covers when the door opened and Mommee came in with a candle. She already had a crying Marlene in tow. She looked at me and shook her head, and before she could motion toward her bedroom, I was out the door and climbing into bed with Daddy.
The next morning we had a family meeting. We always had family meetings in the living room, because it was more formal. I tried to sit in "my" corner by the sliding doors -- the same spot I used the day before to watch the Mandingo men -- but Daddy just eyed me and pointed to the love seat.
"She's too scared to sleep by herself," Mommee began. This was technically true but not something I, at the age of seven, wanted discussed so brazenly by the whole family.
"No I'm not!" I said, hotly.
"You're too old to be sleeping with us," Daddy said, Marlene on his lap sucking her pacifier.
That was it. I felt my ears get hot with embarrassment and I stomped out of the room -- though I stopped in the kitchen to eavesdrop on Mommee and Daddy. I couldn't hear all they said because Old Man Charlie was singing "Old Yellow Woman" in the kitchen.
"Old, yellow woman...you want make trouble for me...every day you come to my house...I don't want trouble, no...you are somebody's wife...go away, yellow woman..."
It was Old Man Charlie's fault I didn't hear Mommee and Daddy making their decision. I didn't know it at the time, but the house at Sugar Beach was about to get one more resident.
Copyright © 2008 by Helene Cooper
Excerpted from The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood by Helene Cooper
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.