Meet Leila – the heroine. She’s eighteen, daughter of an ex-Peace Corp volunteer and a Samoan mother, spent all her life in Washington DC and she’s newly arrived at Faleolo International Airport. Her father died a few months ago and she’s still reeling from the blow. She’s come to Samoa in search of family, a home…will she find it?
– I emerged into the waiting area tense with suspense. I had written to my aunty Matile and her husband Tuala – using an address I found in one of my dad’s old fragmenting notebooks. Remnants from his time as a US Peace Corp volunteer in Samoa. Unsure how reliable the Samoan postal service was, I had followed up my letter with a phone call, leaving a message with the woman on the line about the date and time of my arrival. Apparently both my aunty and uncle had been at church. I was nervous. What if they didn’t show up? What if they did show up – and I walked right past them? I had no clue what they looked like – and for sure they wouldn’t know me from a bar of soap…
Passengers jostled past me, anxious to greet their waiting relatives. Families. Loved ones. A small child in pink rompers called out ‘Mama!’ and ran with unsteady feet to hug the old lady in the red sequins. The Elvis-lookalike was met by a crowd of people – as if an entire village had come to welcome his return. Even the unsavory gangster teenagers transformed to sheepish, smiling boys as family swept them in a warm embrace. Not for the first time, I felt my ‘alone-ness’ keenly emphasized. No parents, no brothers or sisters. A distant grandmother. Kind but distracted uncles. Several cousins way older then I and already busy with raising families. That was about the full sum of my family. I hardly dared hope –even in the darkest recess where I admitted my deepest secrets – that this alone-ness would change…that my desire for a family to really belong to had been my real motivation for coming a thousand miles to this unknown land. I bit my lip as I scanned the waiting crowd anxiously. Would they show up? Someone spoke from behind me.
I turned eagerly and was stopped short by the sight of a slight woman dressed in navy, gray thinning hair drawn into a tight bun. Her eyes were deep-set pools that stared at me unblinkingly, her mouth set in a frown. Behind her hovered an equally stern looking, heavy set man formally dressed in a long sleeved shirt and black lavalava skirt.
“You are Leila.” It was a statement of fact, not a question. “I am Matile. This is your uncle Tuala.”
The old lady did not smile in answer to my hesitant greeting. Indeed, if anything, her face darkened even further. She did not move to hug me or even offer her hand. It seemed to my tired brain that she took several steps backward, as if loathe to get too close to me.
I tried to break through the awkward painful silence. “Umm… hi. Thanks for having me.”
My aunt only shook her head slowly. Then she spoke six words laced with ice that dashed to pieces my hopes for a family, for welcome – and set the tone for my homecoming.
“You should never have come here.”