By Fred Owens
The photo shows Precious shivering in her winter coat but obviously enjoying her first glimpse of the daffodils in the Skagit Valley. This was in February, 1998.
"It's really cold in America and there are white people everywhere, you sure you want to go?" I asked her and asked her again. "Yes," she replied with no elaboration and no declaration of goals about how America was a dream of Disneyland, wealth and freedom. For her, life in Zimbabwe was not only harsh, it was boring. To me life in Zimbabwe was exotic. To her it was like New Jersey. A question I never asked, because I didn't want to hear the answer was -- did you marry me to get a visa?
We got her a visa, it took four months. At one point I had to call Ed Burke, the attorney, who lived in Framingham, Massachusetts. Ed had recently retired from a position as state senator in Massachusetts and began a private law practice. He was the widowed husband of a college classmate, that's how I knew him. I left him $5,000 on retainer before I went to Africa, figuring he might have to bail me out of jail or get me out of the hospital. He didn't ask for the retainer, but I thought paying him in advance like this would simply guarantee faster action and greater conviction. Because what if I did end up in jail or in hospital in Zimbabwe, who would get me out? Ed Burke.
This turned out not to be a problem, but we needed to jump through some immigration hoops to get her visa, so Ed took care of that. A funny thing is that she needed a criminal background check among other documents. We had to drive four hours to Harare to get that document because the issuing agency had run out of stamps and could not mail it. This is Africa, waiting for stamps. But we did not want to wait for the stamps so we drove the four hours and there was Precious's criminal background report sitting on the bottom of a stack of un-mailed letters.
We collected the document and looked it over. "Precious, it seems you were arrested for assault a few years ago, how did that happen?" She immediately launched into an elaborate fabrication of events. The boldness of her dishonesty astonished me. There was a fight. Somebody hit somebody else. Somebody called the cops. Somebody -- that would be Precious -- got arrested, but it wasn't her fault.
This situation did not disturb me. I knew her to be very feisty and strong. I had seen her look out for herself. Sometimes an African woman has to do that. And how much safer and easier would it be for her being a black woman in America?
We drove again to Harare for the interviews. Separate interviews were held at the American embassy to determine if our marriage was a matter of genuine affection and not some pay off for the visa. The embassy staff was charmed by our mutual appeal and gave us the thumbs up.
We got the visa in late February, 1998, and bought plane tickets to the Promised Land. Precious was never one to show excitement but we did get to the airport more than two hours early, her first time on a plane. We landed in Jo-burg for a four-hour layover. Precious did not fear flying but the escalator scared her to death so we took the elevator, which did not scare her. Whatever.
A long plane ride to NYC, a hop to Logan Airport in Boston for a short visit with my son. It was very cold and there were white people everywhere. Precious did not admit to being afraid but her face broke out in pimples, because she was afraid. But she was strong and there was no going back. We flew to Cleveland and visited my daughter at Oberlin College. Then we flew across the country to Seattle and took the bus to LaConner, just in time to see the daffodils blooming. It was very cold. She never complained. I think she liked it.
We bought a house. I made sure it was what she liked and I put her name on the deed alongside my name. We lived in that house for six years and then got a divorce. I guess you might say we ran out of things to talk about. I don't want to criticize her behavior or mine. It just didn't work out. And truthfully most people who knew us were not surprised. We didn't look like a couple, didn't fit in the grand plan. Except there is no grand plan.
For a long time afterward, I wished I had never gone to Africa and I wished I had never married Precious, but I got over that. I did get a good story. Precious lives in Pennsylvania now and works as a nursing aide. She returns to Zimbabwe every few years to see her family.
The Fire Next Time. Eugene asked me what I wanted for my birthday, June 25. I said James Baldwin. I had read several of his novels when I was a kid and I thought it might be fun to do it again. So Eugene sent me Baldwin's Collected Essays, which includes The Fire Next Time. I will read a few pages in coming days and let's see if it still works -- my reading brain. I often read challenging works during the sixties when I was in college, but these days I often look for something easy and I'm afraid Baldwin is not too easy. But worth the effort?The Election. ..... Current events can be overwhelming, but the news about Kamala Harris is uplifting...... Harris, quoting Biden, said "There is room for everybody." That is a hopeful mantra. The African story comes to a close this week. There are many more stories coming out of Africa, but who will write them? The entire text is about 35,000 words and could be worked up into a proper book manuscript. That is possible. But my energy, for the next few months, is getting Biden elected in November, so we are giving Africa a rest for now.
Baldwin is rich. Here is one section from Down at the Cross, written about his coming of age when he became 14.
"Negroes in this country -- and Negroes do not, strictly or legally speaking, exist in any other -- are taught really to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world. This world is white and they are black. White people hold the power, which means they are superior to blacks ...."