The Things Refugees Leave Behind


It was the last night he would be one, this grandson of mine, so I cradled him extra close as I rocked and whispered, “Whose birthday is it tomorrow?”

He popped the ba out of his mouth and smiled, “Mimi’s.” Then he flashed me one of his toothy grins. Sawyer Bean is a tease.

“Noooo,” I said, shaking my head. “Not Mimi’s. Whose?”

“Sawyours” he said, popping the ba back in.

We read a book, an old familiar one. One that I read to my own children, many moons ago, back when Carter was president, while pushing back and forth in that very same rocker. You know the book, too, I’m sure: “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can … I thought I could, I thought I could, I thought I could.”

My now dead mother bought me that rocker when my first child  was born. The memory of holding my toddler boy, his thick gold hair matted from sweat or swimming, and singing to him, “Oh, How I love Jesus” is as present as if I’d done that very thing only a few hours ago. Why is it I remember being the mother to toddlers so much more vividly than I remember being the mother to teenagers?

The rocking chair was unfinished when Mama gave it to me. I rubbed linseed oil into it, but being a borderline granola, I didn’t want to ruin it with stain or paint. The rocker lasted me through the raising of four kids. It’s width made the nursing of twins less cumbersome. One baby would lay on my lap and the other would lay with her head resting on her sister’s lap as they doubled-up for the usually 40-minute long feeding sessions. Because they each only got one spigot to drink from, they took their own sweet time. I sang to them from that chair, too. The same song. And when their sister came along only two years later, we dressed her in a soft sweater set and the generations of my husband’s family gathered around that chair and took family portraits.

After the kids got grown and moved off, the chair became my sitting place from which I wrote the story from my imagination titled MOTHER OF RAIN. A book you really should read. Really. By then I had two other rockers, one carried atop Vanna the Van all the way from Georgia, Beverly Hillbilly style. I’m sitting here looking at that rocker now. It came from Dawson, Georgia, home to Aunt Grace, she of the carrot cake recipe fame.

Aunt Grace wasn’t my aunt. She belonged to my girlfriend Beth. We were raised up like sisters, she, the only child, and me, the fatherless one. The first book I ever wrote was about her momma, the judge. We don’t talk anymore. Not since last summer when Trump spoke so poorly about that Gold Star daddy and hurt me in places so deep I can’t even. Well, you know. It’s awful, isn’t it? The way one man has been able to stir up so much division, so much animosity, so much just downright ugliness between so many. I’d fix it if I could but I don’t know the fix for this situation. Do you?

I hardly ever sit in Aunt Grace’s chair, even though I love it.

And downstairs, I have this fancy rocker, the kind they sell at fancy furniture stores. It has a shiny varnish to it, and a big, really too big, flowered cushion on it. But we only use that chair for when company comes, which isn’t much, if I’m honest. I used to entertain a lot. Nowadays, I keep to myself and live mostly with the made-up people in my books.

The entire community of CHRISTIAN BEND was birthed in that rocker my mama gave me. I guess in some way or another, I sang them into being from that chair where I once rocked my real babies to sleep and my grandson Sawyer Bean on the last night he was one.

The very first time we found out we were going to be grandparents, Tim and I spent a week spiffing up that old rocker. The linseed oil had long dried up and the wood had cracked and splintered with age. The legs were wobbly and the spindles kept popping out of their sticking places. Tim took the sander to it and worked it over for a couple of days. He got him some wood glue and clamps and worked on the rocking part. I got me some not too shiny white paint and brushed it on, stroke by stroke.

My daughter Ashley nursed her own son while rocking in the chair from which she had once stretched across her sister’s belly, feeding and rocking, rocking and feeding. Then when her baby sister had a baby of her own, Ashley passed along the chair from which I sat rocking my grandson, who on the night Sawyer Bean would go to bed one and wake up two. “See you in the morning,” I said, as I tucked Sawyer’s baby doll up close next to him and covered them both with the blue blanket.  “It’ll be your birthday in the morning.”

Sawyer clasped his hands behind his head, a man in a hammock-fashion that cracks us all up. Then he smiled from behind his ba.


As I turned off the light, I thought of my friend Moses. A U.S. Army Major and a Sudanese refugee who had escaped Civil unrest in the South Sudan back when he was just a young boy.

Moses hasn’t seen his parents since the day he fled. They had given him up for dead for many years ago, figuring that he, like the other Lost Boys of the Sudan, probably had been captured, maybe tortured but most assuredly killed.

So you can imagine their joy when years later they learned their son had made his way to a refugee camp in Kenya, then on to America, where he got a college education, and a beautiful wife and four kids of his own. And now has a stellar career in the U.S. Army.

Moses knows I consider him my second son. We see each other whenever we are able, given his frequent deployments to wars and military bases in other countries.

I’ve never had to flee a country because of religious persecution or racial bigotry, the way Moses has. This matter of what they leave behind as they escape with their very life weighs on a refugee. How does one do that? Flee a country? Leave behind loved ones they may never see again? Grandmothers and grandsons? And all those worldly possessions from which memories are made and identities are formed, songs sung and hopes uttered?

And how does it feel to wake up as a Major in the U.S. Army after having completed numerous war zone missions, fighting for your adopted country, only to learn that the country that took you in so lovingly, so openly, has now instituted a ban on refugees from the Sudan, your homeland?

All in the name of a false security for a drummed up fear of a bogeyman that never existed.

I hope I never know that sort of betrayal.

It does beg the question though: Is this president completely off his rocker?

Trump has been vetted less than any refugee entering this country, or any former president for that matter,  in his already too onerous for us lifetime. And he has proven himself to be far more dangerous to this nation than any terrorist on U. S. soil.

The one thing I never asked Moses in all these years is how does a body know for sure when is it time to flee a place? Or when is it time to stay and fight for one’s way of life and that of one’s grandchildren?

Such complicated questions will surely require some rocking chair pondering.

It might be time to dust off Aunt Grace’s old rocker and put her back into active duty again.


Karen Spears Zacharias is author of BURDY and the forthcoming CHRISTIAN BEND (Mercer University Press).







Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.



about 5 years ago

Glad I read this. I'm going to pose that very question of vetting in a Letter to the Editor of the newspaper as soon as I sign off. I'll give you the attribution. Brilliant. And sobering.


Karen Spears Zacharias

about 5 years ago

Thanks, Roger. Good luck with that L2E. What times we live in.


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