A Book Review: The Father Daughter War by Jennifer Armstrong

At the time that I began reading this book, a lot was going on in my life, and I didn’t have the time to get fully immersed and give it the attention it deserves. So I began again recently, and was very glad that I had the ability to really dive in, because it is the sort of book that is impossible to put down.

In The Father Daughter War, Armstrong describes her childhood in pre-Zimbabwe Rhodesia in such a way that the reader is carried back through time and given the chance to occupy the place of a child in a war-torn, colonial-African country during the late 1960s, and through the 1970s. Her descriptions viscerally depict the soul-nourishing, womb-like experience of growing up in the arms of the African wilderness, the certainties, and also challenges, of living in a society that was so isolated that it remained frozen in time, twenty years behind the Western world, and the utterly disorienting experience of having to leave her motherland behind and emigrate to Australia. In this book, she takes you along for the journey as her soul emerges into existence on the back of a horse, racing through the frontier of Rhodesia as it transformed into Zimbabwe.

Throughout this book of memoirs, Armstrong flashes back and forth between her own narrative and excerpts from her father’s perspective of his own life. The shift between the two perspectives illustrates the contrast in their personalities and experiences, and it also demonstrates the extreme disparity of living in a traditional patriarchal culture. She brings the focus well-past the thin facade of what the Western world is taught about Rhodesia and its transition to Zimbabwe, and reveals a largely unknown realm from the perspective of an inside-outsider– a white colonial with no power or agenda.

The portion of the book that describes Armstrong’s emigration experience truly gave me a sense of feeling one’s entire world being ripped away, but in such a manner that onlookers are completely oblivious to the trauma as it is taking place. It can be likened to being a caged wild animal, being jabbed and taunted, but all the while, having to appear tidy, polite, and civilized. She elucidates both the backlash she received for the accomplishments toward assimilating into the new culture she made, as well as the destructive process of being cut off from everything she had ever known before. The greatest conflict of all arose from her father’s reaction to the symptoms of her suffering from the loss of her previous life.

The Father Daughter War is not light reading, and for Western readers, I highly recommend you set all of your cultural norms aside before you embark on this journey. Nothing you already know can prepare you for this story, nor solidify your sense of orientation. This book is the most emotionally engaging one I’ve read in years. I cannot praise it highly enough. Jennifer Armstrong has captured the spirit of Mother Africa in text, and in contrast, has also revealed the emptiness of Western life that so many have accepted all their lives without question.

Four Crows

Blog Drawing Four CrowsDuring moments like these, I can remember who I once was. Inside, I am silent, and outside, I am as still as stone. Like two gates to a common garden, my heart and mind have been left wide open. There is a deep sleep waiting behind my eyes, its weight increasing gradually and steadily. In the deep pool of shade beneath an ancient oak, I can feel my own roots growing from the bottoms of my feet, extending toward the earth below, burrowing into the soil.

In my youth, I would sit for hours beneath the trees, just observing the world around me. I was so quiet and still, the crows came to trust me. They would congregate along the chain-link fence that defined the churchyard, or sail down from the high branches of the oaks in the park to scavenge picnic leftovers. They weren’t threatened in the slightest way by my presence, and it seemed to me that they came to enjoy my company. Every morning, as I walked through the churchyard, cut through the thicket, and made my way to the bus stop, four crows followed. They would already be waiting for me on the fence when I emerged from the back door, and they would stay with me until my bus came. And when I returned in the afternoons, they would be there in the thicket waiting, and follow me back home. One might say that they knew something about me that no person knew, and rightly so. I had a relationship with them that a person cannot have with other people. They were the only others who existed within my narrative of solitude. They could come and go, speak freely, and carry on with their business of the day without breaking the connection between my senses and the world around me. When I couldn’t determine whether I saw them as a part of myself or a part of the world, it became clear that the three were bound together as one: myself, the crows, the world.

The noisy, unnaturally bright world of human beings came crashing through my walls of solitude, and for many years, I was held prisoner by a mob of people who talked incessantly, just because they felt compelled to always talk and hear each other talking. They were not the ones holding me against my will, actually, but the one they served. He was a vile creature who fed on the accolades of his followers. He charmed fools with his wildly exaggerated, or even fully fabricated tales of extraordinary strength and cunning. They were drawn to him like moths to a flame, and in their constant flapping of brittle, dusty wings, I could no longer find moments of silence and peace amongst my friends, the crows. As one year gave way to the next, and the next, I could feel parts of myself withering and dying away, like coal-black feathers dropping from my wings to the ground.

When I finally escaped the cacophony of idol-worship, it took a great deal of time for me to heal to the point that I could return to my peaceful silence. But one early-autumn afternoon, as the sunlight was tilting out of the west in a golden hue, I sat very still behind the building where I worked, and along came a crow from the cemetery nearby. He was at first cautious, because few people are to be trusted, but he began to widen the circles he paced on the pavement, bringing his path closer and closer to me. I very slowly reached inside my satchel and found some scraps of food to offer him. I gently tossed some crumbs his way, and he quickly ate every one. I threw down a few more, this time, closer to my feet. He hesitated, but eventually walked over, ate them, and hurried back to a safe distance. I waited silently. He kept watching me as he walked around the pavement, as if to say, “I’m waiting. Throw some more.” I sprinkled some crumbs right at my feet. I could see him struggling with the internal conflict of whether or not this food was worth the danger. He slowly walked over, stopping at intervals to assess the risk. Finally, he made his way over, right at my feet, and ate as quickly as he could. This time, he didn’t walk away, he flew. But he came right back. Again, he was observing me. I held some crumbs in my hand, and slowly bent forward, lowering my arm nearer to the ground. At first, he seemed to refuse to take food directly from my hand. I held it there until my shoulder began to burn, and my muscles began to cramp. He gradually crept closer and closer, watching me, but regularly looking away as if to convey that he had no interest in what I had to offer. But he crept right up beside my foot, and he clasped a pinch of crumbs right off of my fingertips with his beak. I had never been so close to a crow before. My heart leapt in my chest. But just as he snatched the benefit of his bravery, the rear exit door swung open, releasing the sounds of loud conversation, as a group of people came clomping out for their break. Before I could turn my head and look back at him, he had flown away.

Sometimes, in the dead of winter, I will sit in my grey-brown, slumbering garden, and listen to the crows talk. They call from tree to tree, from branch to branch. I leave feasts for them, but they never come to dine with me. I watch as small groups gather into a great murder in the bare, ink-slash branches that cut through the pale sky. The tallest trees grow so heavy with crows, it looks as though all of the leaves that fell throughout the autumn caught a wind and sailed back up, filling out the branches once again. To hear hundreds of crows in excited conversation together is a kind of music unlike any other. This is what my mind grows silent for. To take in this symphony of crows.

Reflection: A Year In Blog-Writing


It has been a year since I created this blog. Although I didn’t do as much writing over the past year as I had intended, (not even remotely as much,) I feel pretty satisfied with the things I did write. The most logical challenge that I can set before myself at this point is to commit to writing more, while trying to maintain my personal standards for quality of entries.

I certainly don’t fancy myself to be an exceptional writer, but the things I write are all rooted in something that is profound to me. If it doesn’t stir some level of emotion in me, or it doesn’t translate revelations I have had into language that other people can understand and possibly even appreciate, it has no place amongst all the other entries. As deeply in love with the English language as I am, I have pressed into it with enough force to have discovered some of its limitations. There are some things I have experienced that I couldn’t even begin to describe. This year, what I want to do is write about those things. It will likely be an exhausting endeavor, and even as I write this, a small voice within me is saying, “Surely you must be kidding yourself. Surely this isn’t the journey upon which you intend to embark.” It isn’t exactly a kamikaze mission, but a significant challenge it may certainly be considered.

I have undoubtedly neglected my personal writing goals for the majority of the past year, and this indicates to me that I really need to set structured requirements for myself as a writer as I go forth into the future. If I don’t prioritize my writing, it will not flourish. And if I allow my writing to stagnate, I will be destroying a large and important piece of myself. My hope is that readers will grace me with their feedback, informing me of what they would like to read about, what knowledge of my own they would like me to share, and how they feel about various things I have written. I would like to expand my library of inspiration by whatever means possible.

To those of you who have accompanied me on this journey thus far, know that I truly appreciate you. I want to take you to new places, show you perspectives you might not have ever seen before, and possibly even inspire you along your own journey. May we all have a remarkable year for exploring our lives and immortalizing our experiences through writing. Thank you all.

On A January’s Eve

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It was the twenty-first of January, a time of year that is usually characterized by ice-glazed snow piled along the streets and driveways, blackened slush that had thawed and re-frozen upon the medians, treacherous, gleaming-white ice where the roadways and walkways should be, and a lingering sense of dread at the thought of having to go outside for any reason. January is usually a dead month in Illinois, a period of time our minds record as an uneventful haze that bookmarks the long wait for spring to sound its trumpets of returning glory.

It didn’t look or feel a thing like January on this day. The air was mildly temperate, enough so that a coat was unnecessary. Breezes stirred and scattered the remaining leaves left behind by the previous fall, and the holdout birds who stay to weather through the winter leisurely picked at a meal they would normally have to fight the elements to attain.

The enchanting winter sunsets that all Illinoisans have come to expect still splashed and ran their watercolor shades across the sky. Inky scratches of bare trees plunged into the frame of glowing embers of daylight. We sat on the hill beside the pond, and the evening had fallen so quiet that we couldn’t bring ourselves to speak. Our eyes drank in this unusually serene scene, and we grew as still as the ground on which we sat. We watched a badger silently carve a V-shape through the surface of the water as he swam from the woods to his burrow on the opposite side of the pond. Flocks of Canadian geese passed overhead, honking their famous ballad all the way.

I snapped pictures from every angle around me, trying to capture this remarkable evening in an urn of immortality. A strange beauty, kept agelessly in a vessel for all eternity. Even as the roaring fire of golden sunlight died down into the black horizon, this sunset would never be doomed to an ending. This day goes on living in my mind, indexed by a collection of photographs.

Down Blue Halls

blue-hall-editedThis was a dream I had last night.

I was in a school that was dedicated to the philosophy of martial arts. Not a martial arts school, an academic school. But they did have martial arts training and competition instead of other sports. I wasn’t attending this school; it had long since been closed down and vacant. I was walking through the halls, and although it was dark inside, I was able to see it as dark, cold, and faded, but also see it as well-lit, filled with the nervous energy of living people going about their schedules inside, and everything looking freshly painted and kept up. There were a lot of murals painted on walls by art students in the theme of martial arts, and especially of Bruce Lee. Several different paintings on the walls of Bruce, some in fighting stances, some of him looking mindful and at rest, some of him standing and talking martial arts philosophy with groups of students. The main color of the school’s interior was blue, which was interesting, because it was a very warm, energetic blue as I could see it under warm, bright lights. But as I saw it in its dark, vacant form, wherein the only source of light came from the streetlamps shining through the windows, it was an extremely cold, empty blue. Through the pulsating transition back and forth between the life and death of this building, I gradually found myself in the company of an escort…and then a few people…and then a group of people. A young woman was giving a very rehearsed description of all the things we saw as we progressed through the halls, giving the history of the school, and pertinent anecdotes of how and why particular aspects of the school were built and developed as we were seeing them. The dead school wasn’t visible anymore, it had come back to life. I could feel that I was no longer in my own time, but had slipped backward into the school’s history. But not the school’s history, the history of the people I was walking with. Or was it, perhaps, the history of one person? The young woman guiding us led us to an apartment within the school. She explained that there were a few apartments for the more senior members of the staff, as well as sections of dormitories for students (which were no longer in use and were closed off from the tour,) but this flat, to her, was special. It was obvious that she treasured this area in the way she spoke of every detail of the architecture. It was painted the same blue color as the rest of the school. She said that the staff flats had originally been painted white, but when this flat was slated to be repainted in order for her to move into it, she found some of the old blue paint in a maintenance storeroom, and requested that it be used in her flat. This was where she lived. Bruce Lee was present, silently sitting in on her tour. I couldn’t tell if he was listening to her or completely ignoring her historical lectures. I watched him closely, thinking that he looks so young. He couldn’t possibly be more than twenty years old. How fluent was his English at this time of his life? Could he even follow what she was saying? He wore a green tracksuit jacket with three white stripes up each sleeve. The lot of us stood uncomfortably close in her tiny kitchenette, a few breaking off to claim seats on the sofa and chairs of the living room area, a couple sitting at her tiny kitchen table. She grabbed a basket of tomatoes from her tiny kitchen worktop and passed it around, encouraging everyone to try one. She said she grew them herself, and had discovered this season that this is her favorite variety of tomatoes. A few people took one, and those who didn’t faced her pleading looks and persistent gestures of holding out the basket in front of them. A few of them caved and took one, although it was clear that they didn’t want to. A feeling began to creep into the room. It was unsettlingly tense. It was like a silent, invisible cloud of mortal fear, but suspended in a stage before it was clear enough to identify. I hadn’t felt even a hint of connection to any of the people in the room. There was a deep sense of they and I, a clear contrast, a very certain sense of division. The young woman sat down at her table, and she seemed bothered by something. I was trying to search for some clue as to what she was feeling, and maybe even why. I stared at her in the uncomfortable quiet of the flat. She was a light-complected white woman with straight, blonde hair, a bit longer than her shoulders. She had blue eyes, was on the shorter side of average, and was slightly built. She wore an open cardigan over a plain shirt. There was nothing at all remarkable about her. Her teeth were straight and white, and she often wore an obviously practiced and empty smile. But now her discontent was showing, and her posture began to wilt. She brushed a hand along the side of her head and, elbow rested on the table, rested her head in her hand. Looking down at the table top, she seemed to be drifting off into whatever concern was nagging at her. As I studied her, I began to argue with myself internally. This woman was as dull and boring as they come. If I saw her on the street, I wouldn’t even glance at her. The most remarkable thing about her was her complete absence of any remarkable features. She seemed completely devoid of any visually apparent character. But she was beautiful, somehow. Spellbindingly beautiful. I found myself unable to readily look away from her. Another woman appeared from some dark hallway inside the flat, and walked into the room. She had frizzy dishwater-blonde hair and glasses, and there was something about her that gave the impression she was on some kind of mission- she had come into the room with some kind of agenda. Her eyes were shifty, and she was sizing up everyone around her. She spoke, but I can’t recall what she said, or even what general subject it was about. I couldn’t see what she was doing, nor could I hear what she was saying, because I was so completely distracted by the fact that her words and actions were false. She was hiding something, and I had an immediate feeling of distrust toward her. She seemed to be showing compassion toward our hostess, but it was seeping with insincerity. The hostess snapped out of her thought process and began asking us what we thought of her tomatoes. Nobody had tried theirs by this point, so most of us were only just biting into them for the first time. She began to ramble about tomatoes, making polite conversation through a phony smile. I bit into mine, and it was very good. While I stood awkwardly in the middle of the walkway through the kitchen, (the only place I could manage to put myself in,) there were quiet rumbles of discontent through the crowded flat full of people. They were making disgusted faces at their tomatoes, exchanging looks of disapproval. Whether intentionally to hang onto the only positive reaction she had to work with, or unintentionally out of flattery, the hostess watched me devouring my tomato with gleeful eyes. I told her it was fantastic, and she offered me another. As I was eating it, I suddenly noticed that it was gushing blood instead of clear juice. This did nothing to deter my appetite, and I went on devouring the second one. People looked at me half horrified, half in disbelief. The hostess grinned, now genuinely, and rambled on about fertilizers and finding the spot with the most consistent sunlight through the day for her plants. Blood ran between my fingers, down my arm, dripping from my sleeve, pooling on the floor in front of me. Bruce was still completely disinterested in and disengaged from the group. I started to see a slight red tinge on the face of the hostess, and it gradually darkened and spread, until I was sure that there was blood all over her. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from- it was as if it just began to seep from her pores. It was caked in her hair, beginning to dry there. And then she seemed to be decaying before my eyes, just a little bit. I looked back down at the bloody tomato in my hand, and it was no longer bloody. It was just the remaining piece of a tomato. I looked up, and my hostess was fine. No blood, no decay, just her unremarkable, pristine self. I looked over at the shady woman with the glasses, thinking at her, “You killed her, didn’t you?” I began to feel certain of what I had suspected all along, that everyone in this place was dead. They had all been dead for quite some time. I took a few steps closer to the hostess, and I asked her what was bothering her. She made some vague explanation about how this was her home, the one thing in life she had been most passionate about, but that it would all end soon, as “they” wanted her out, and “they” always get what they want. Her passive cheerfulness began to crack, and a couple of restrained tears broke free, one tracing down her cheek, the other free-falling from a lower eyelash and splashing onto the table. I even surprised myself when I reached out and began to gently rub her shoulder with one hand. Abandoning entirely the polite social behavior of keeping it light and avoiding heavy subjects, I very frankly asked her, “How did you die?” She seemed to talk in circles, never directly answering the question, never acknowledging that I had just blatantly addressed the fact that she was dead. Her death seemed to be completely irrelevant to the situation, and she was entirely focused on the worry that she would lose her home. I started asking what I could do to help her, whether the solution was to help her keep her home, or to help her move on. Choked up and tearful, she just sat and sobbed about how important this place was, latching onto details that were completely useless in terms of identifying her problem and searching for solutions. I could sense that something had happened here, something tragic enough to lock these people in at this location in space and time. I was trying to probe my way into the heart of the situation, determine what had taken place. But the hostess kept making very ambiguous, cryptic statements that got me no closer to an understanding. The glasses woman pulled me off to the side in a doorway that opens into the hall, looked me directly in the eyes, and made some strange statement which both sounded like nonsense, and at the same time, came off as an attempt to change my opinion of the hostess. I don’t know what it was that she had said to me, but I could surmise that she was trying to manipulate me, and that she had ill intentions toward the hostess.

It was over. I was awake.

Remembering Louise

Blog Entry LouiseShe never knew what it was to be a child. She was raising children by the age of seven- a sibling on her hip, and another following close behind, hanging onto her skirt as if she was their mother. Youth was not a time of whimsy and delight for her. It was a time of hardship, strife, and duty. She bore the weight of adult responsibility as soon as she could walk.

She kissed her young new husband on the lips, and watched him turn his back and go off to the war. She gave birth to their first child without him there to see her. She suffered through a crippling illness while she cared for her baby on her own, and worked her hands raw for the domestic war efforts.

When the war was over, she had to pick up and move forth as if none of it had happened. They raised their first three girls, then after a gap of time, a son and another daughter. She raised grandchildren, as well. She kept her gardens. She did the washing and hung it out in the sun to dry. She cooked every meal. She canned and froze what she grew for later. They bought a farm, but kept their city home. Now she managed two lots of gardens, two houses. She dried a million tears. She bandaged a million scrapes. She found a million kind words to soothe broken hearts. She snapped a million green beans. She baked a million pies. She stitched a million seams. She patched a million holes.

She took us to the airport to fly out to California. She wanted us to meet our aunt, uncle, and cousins there, and see the ocean for the first time in our lives. She kissed her husband’s lips, and they both had a tear in their eyes. I had never seen this between them before. This would be the last time she would ever kiss him. It was meant to be goodbye, but not goodbye forever. The very next morning, she and our aunt were on a plane home, leaving us in the capable hands of our uncle while they sorted out the business of our grandfather’s life.

Twenty years she went on without him. She still took every window out of its frame twice a year and cleaned them until they sparkled. She still fed her birds. She still watered her flowers, pulled the weeds, and picked the tomatoes. She never gave up, not even for a moment. She went on and on as if she would live forever. She mailed handwritten letters, wrapped Christmas packages, baked cookies, greeted guests, made tea, cooked holiday dinners, shared garden magazines. She did the newspaper puzzles every day. She watched the news and kept track of the weather forecast religiously. She went to Central Park for the band concerts every week in the summer. She beat Joe at Scrabble. She got most of the answers on Jeopardy. She told us stories of her life on the farm as a girl. She kept track of the life events of every member of our massive family. She told the cleverest jokes. She played along with Joe’s riddle games. She clapped in time to his songs as he strummed his guitar. She refilled the hummingbird feeder.

Rheumatoid arthritis gripped her neck and shoulders, her arms and legs, her hands and feet. She was getting closer and closer to ninety years old. Aunt Melody was there at her house much of the time, mopping, scrubbing, stocking shelves, dusting, any little thing she could do. Her mother had never let anyone sleep on stale sheets in her house, and so she wouldn’t let her sleep on them, either. She couldn’t get up and down the stairs very well anymore. We washed her hair in the sink. We took her list to the store for her when she was feeling particularly badly, and we gingerly helped her into the car and drove her when she was strong enough to get out and about. We took her out in the sunshine on her better days. I did what I could to help. She didn’t like letting other people do the work she had done for so many decades on her own. When the day was done, I always told her whether or not she’d see me tomorrow. One afternoon, I told her, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” She said, “Oh, but tomorrow is Saturday. Take the day for yourself. Spend time with your family.” I shook my head. “You are my family. I’ll be here, rain or shine.” She said, “Well, at least sleep in a little. You don’t have to come early in the morning.” I took my time the next day. I was just ready to head over there and see what she might need help with when the phone rang. It was my father. She was gone.