My 11th December.
My father worked in Malawi for long enough that my younger sister only saw him as the stranger I called my father. She flinched at his affection and shied away from his gaze. I think the heartbreak I always saw on his face when she rejected him was what pushed him to suggest we spend December in Lilongwe with him.
I missed home. Back in Kenya, December was always in my parents' village. I knew my grandfather was choosing the cows and goats meant for Christmas while my grandmother segregated the chickens she would fatten up for the feast. My mind idly drifted back to the last December I spent back home with family.
"You've grown fatter," my cousin Becky said, not with any vicious intent, but as an observation.
"You're only jealous cause I'm taller than you now. Anyways, it won't stop me from being the first to reach the top," I said, shifting self consciously in my shirt.
"The rules have changed. Since the boys always win, now we'll be in teams," my other cousin Mumo started. Becky was older than him by a few months but she never cared for leading anything that didn't involve a prank. I noticed they switched from mother tongue to English for my sister's and my sake. I was grateful.
"This time, the most oranges picked wins. Any questions?" Mumo finished, handing Becky a basket. It meant team leader. Envy flared within me. They picked their teammates.
"Okay, Go!" Mumo yelled, and our little teams of three began scaling the closest trees. I picked the tallest tree and started climbing. Warm sunlight streamed through the leaves making them glow. I climbed higher, wanting to see the view from the top.
"Faith! Are you even picking anything or is the sky more interesting than winning?" Becky yelled from beneath me. Picking the closest orange, I chucked it at her head, which she dodged with a shriek. I then began picking oranges and throwing them in our basket on the ground. My aim was terrible, so they always ended up rolling away. Becky scrambled for them. Then I realised something.
"We're wining!" I yelled. Mumo had carried his basket up the tree which meant each orange picked had to be passed to him by his teammates. Meanwhile, we threw ours to the ground so more oranges were collected.
"Mumo! Where are you and where are those oranges I asked you to pick an hour ago?" Aunt Mwende's voice rang through the farm. Everyone stopped and a lapse of silence ensued. Then we all burst out laughing.
"MUMO!" we all yelled in unison and started pelting him with oranges.
My mother never understood how I could love travelling so much yet miss home just as much. She saw the trip as a status elevation, 'Better than Christmas at the village. Be grateful.' She escaped the village life for a better one, while I escaped my normal life for the leisure of the village life. She would never understand. At least that was what I thought.
"We're having a barbecue with all my expatriate friends on Christmas day," my father announced one morning during breakfast. My mother said nothing but her smile spoke volumes.
That Christmas, I met my first crush.
I was throwing another tantrum. I refused to leave my room to celebrate Christmas with strangers while my cousins climbed new trees and played new pranks and sang new songs without me. I cried and locked myself in the bathroom, refusing to get changed. My mother left silently after yelling and threatening me at the door for thirty minutes. Then I heard the visitors' voices and froze.
A soft knock sounded at the door. "Faith, the visitors are here and you have to come out to greet them," my younger sister Diana whispered from the other side of the door. I was mortified. I had only a towel on and had carried no clothes in there. The bathroom door faced the front door for some absurd reason, so I was trapped. Opening the door slightly ajar, I asked her to bring my clothes. Five minutes later she brought my pyjamas. Angrily, I shoved them back in her hands and asked for a specific outfit.
Again, she delivered and I shut the door in her face. I wish I had been kinder.
I stepped out of the bathroom and was met with the intense stare of a pudgy boy holding a large box. He quickly walked into the nearest room.
"I was told you have fireworks," he said noncommittedly as he arranged his new Christmas presents in a line. To gloat, I was sure. Everything he said seemed to be aimed at bringing a rise out of me. He was obnoxious. Rude. I wish those reasons stopped my insides from somersaulting in his presence.
That was the first Christmas I ever got gifts, saw fireworks and held hands with a boy.
My cousins called it my first western Christmas.
My 17th December.
I would have treasured each December if I knew that was the end of my family centered Decembers. I would have climbed to the top of that tree if I knew it was the last I'd ever climb with my cousins at my side. I would have helped my grandmother catch the chickens if I knew it was the last time she would ever ask me. I would have helped decorate my grandmother's hut if I knew it was the last time I'd ever see it.
I eventually learnt that the magic of Christmas was carried by my grandmother's stories, my cousins laughter, my aunts' pastries and my family's happiness. If only my parents saw the village Christmas not as a curse of poverty but a blessing of family. What's the use of sandy beaches and long plane rides if there is no magic?