By Delia Corridon, Medill, Immigrant Connect May 2021
Aklema and I are sitting in the back of a yellow taxi, driving home from my Friday afternoon swim lessons. After a full day of second grade and an hour of swimming, I’m bubbling with energy. I pepper Aklema with questions as the taxi heads through New York traffic toward our apartment.
“Do Fara and Arifa share a room in your house in Queens?” “What are Fara and Arifa doing today?” “Are you going back to Guyana soon?” “What do you do in Guyana?”
Aklema indulges me and calmly answers my slew of questions. She tells me that her two daughters, Fara and Arifa, have school today. She says they share a room at home in Queens, just like my sister Erin and me.
Aklema immigrated to New York City many years before she came into my life as my babysitter in 2004. For eight years, I’ve seen Aklema almost every day. When I was six, she cut my bangs in the living room of our apartment. When Erin was three and cut her face on a radiator, Aklema held her until the cut stopped bleeding and my mom came home to take her to the emergency room. Aklema came to our piano recitals, soccer games and birthday parties. When she tucked us into bed, we said, “love you.”
I love learning about Aklema’s life outside the time she spent at our house. She sometimes brings us leftover Guyanese food, stored in Tupperware and tucked into her bag for the train ride to our house. I love listening to Aklema’s long phone conversations with her cousins and friends, even though I don’t understand them. Occasionally, when Fara and Arifa have the day off from school, they tag along with Aklema to our house. These are my favorite days.
In the taxi that Friday afternoon, Aklema tells me that she’s going back to Guyana soon to see her two sons. I’m shocked and confused. Until then, I didn’t know Aklema had other kids besides Fara and Arifa. I can’t believe they’re living in Guyana as Aklema lives here in New York.
“Why don’t they live here?!” I ask. Aklema says they’re older than Fara and Arifa, so they’ve stayed in Guyana with her family. They’re going to come here soon, she says.
I can’t believe I don’t know that she has two sons who still live in Guyana. Whenever I’ve badgered Aklema with questions, she’s told me about making curry and roti with her daughters, how her family calls her Bibi, that when Fara graduates high school she might become a babysitter just like Aklema. She’s talked about her house in Queens and her cousins who live in her neighborhood. Once she pointed out to me the pharmacy where she worked before she became a babysitter.
My community in a diverse New York City is relatively homogenous. I’ve lived in the same neighborhood since I was born. Growing up, I’ve gone to my neighborhood elementary school. I spend a lot of time with my cousins and extended family. Both my parents grew up in the Northeast, and everyone in my extended family still lives on the East Coast. In general, most of the people around me come from similar backgrounds.
Learning of Aklema’s two sons who still live in Guyana makes me realize that not everyone has the same life experiences as the adults I grow up around. I know about Aklema’s life in Queens, her cooking, and her family. However, I know nothing about her experiences before immigrating to New York from Guyana. While it may sound silly and ignorant, this makes me realize that not everyone lives in the same apartment their whole life like I do.
Aklema stopped babysitting for us in 2012. She’s come back to see my family every so often and we’ve kept in touch through Facebook. Her sons traveled to the United States in 2017. On Facebook, Aklema posted photos of her and her four children at special events and life milestones. There are photos of Aklema and her four children posing together at her birthday party, Arifa at her wedding, Aklema holding Fara’s newborn baby.
Last month, Aklema passed away at a hospital in Queens due to complications from COVID-19. She was the same age as my mom. Aklema was a big part of my life. I feel so lucky to have known, loved, and learned from her. I regret not knowing more.