Souvenir from another world

A family souvenir finds a home in coastal Oregon.

I was messaging with my cousin J. who is not a blood relative but a cousin through marriage. She lives in South Africa, where she was born and raised. We came to know each other in the late 1970s when she began her legal immigration process to become a U.S. citizen; her first step was becoming a New York nanny. It was a volatile political time in South Africa and Jill was running away from apartheid, looking to spread her wings and fly away from the life her family hoped and planned for her as a card-carrying member of the Cape Town bourgeoisie.

We were introduced at the Manhattan apartment of her cousin, Z., who was married to B., my mother’s baby brother. B. and Z. were obviously quite a bit older and had a young son, L., who was at the time in primary school. Although still her early 20s, J. seemed to me so sophisticated and self assured. And she was traveled; after all, just to get to New York, she’d already traveled halfway around the world.

J. had seen London. She might have seen France. She spoke a highly accented South African English and was fluent in Afrikaans. Her circle of expat friends her own age in New York were an urbane crowd.

The first time J. and I got together outside B. and Z.’s apartment, we met at an Italian coffee shop in Greenwich Village. The first thing I noticed was she rolled her own cigarettes. I still remember the shock of seeing her pull a little pouch of tobacco and a packet of rolling papers from her shoulder bag.

“It’s not pot,” she said, raising her eyebrows.

J. and I became friends. She liked spending time in my apartment. She finished out her nanny contract and secured an apartment of her own on lower Fifth Avenue. Her place was really tiny. It had once been a very snug hotel room. The kitchen was inside a closet which was OK because J. didn’t eat or cook. For awhile she dated a film producer friend of my cop boyfriend who had a rule about the women he went out with. The rule was they couldn’t weigh more than 100 pounds.

Things went the way they often do for young women. We got married and had kids. I moved to the suburbs an hour north of the city; J. moved to Staten Island. Once a year we met Manhattan in November to celebrate our birthdays, which are two days apart. Our rendezvous always took place at a tiny bistro on Cornelia Street so small the new smoking laws didn’t apply.

J.’s father passed away, and for awhile she went home to South Africa. When she returned to New York, she brought back some of his small things, among them a rather imposing paper clip. It’s embossed with the word “Greece” and appears to be handpainted. Her father likely picked it up on one of his work-related travels. It’s got potential as a handy weapon; for example, if you struck someone in the throat or temple with it, you’d cause a lot of damage. I was very surprised and honored one day when it arrived in the mail, along with a note from J. saying she wanted me to have one of her dad’s treasured desk items.

That was well over a dozen years ago. J. didn’t stay married. Her son grew up. She moved back to South Africa. We still communicate, although mostly via Facebook message. Today, as I am writing this, is her birthday. I’m not sure if J. still smokes (she probably does); the paper clip, by the way, has never left my desk. I’ve never used it to clip paper, but it feels good in the hand.

I think J., who is a legal U.S. citizen with a dual passport who came back to the U.S. last week to vote, would appreciate that.


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