She told me I could serve her in heaven.
She accompanied me to school each day. School was about a mile away, and a few hundred feet into my trek, just as my family’s apartment building drifted out of view behind me, she would appear at my side.
I don’t remember how she looked. Memory often summons a generic figure in her place: an elderly white woman with frizzled gray hair, slightly bent over, a smile featuring an assortment of gaps and silver linings. I do remember her touch however—it felt cool and papery, disarmingly comfortable on the hottest days of fall. She would often pat my head as we walked together, and a penetrating silence would cancel the morning sounds around us. I felt comfortable, protected somehow, in her presence. She never walked all the way to school with me, but her parting words were always the same:
“Remember, if you are a good boy here on earth, you can serve me in heaven.”
I was five years old. Her words sounded magical to me. Vast and alluring. I didn’t know her, I barely knew her name, but the offer she held out to me each morning seemed far too generous to dismiss lightly. In class I would think about what servitude in heaven would be like. I imagined myself carrying buckets of water for her on streets of gold, rubbing her feet as angels sang praises in the background. I imagined that I’d have my own heavenly shack. I’d have time to do my own personal heavenly things as well.
How else would I get to heaven?
One day I told my father about her offer. We were talking about heaven, a favorite subject of his, and I mentioned that I already had a place there. “I’ve already found someone to serve,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
Dad smiled warmly at me. I felt his love. I repeated myself: “Daddy, I’m going to heaven.”
“And how are you going to get there?”
I told him about the old lady, my heavenly shack, the streets of gold. My father stared at me a moment, grief and sadness surging briefly to the surface of his face. And then anger. He leaned forward, stared into my eyes.
“Listen to me now. The only person you will serve in heaven is God. You will serve no one else.” [End Page 1070]
My father has told me many times that he settled in Utah because he didn’t want to be where anyone else was. His cousins and siblings had left Nigeria for Athens, London, Rome, New York City, and Houston. My father wanted to be an American, but he also craved isolation, so he decided he would travel to the one place in America that he knew nothing about.
He left Nigeria in 1979, after a school in Utah, Davis State University, offered him a place in its mechanical engineering program. His bride, my mother, accompanied him. They arrived in a country that bore little resemblance to the country they expected. Dad, a devout fan of television shows like Gunsmoke and Bonanza, was disappointed when he discovered that cowboy hats were no longer in style, and he sadly stowed his first American purchase—a brown ten-gallon hat—in his suitcase, and under his bed. Mom arrived in America expecting peace and love—she had fallen for the music of The Beatles and Bob Dylan as a high school student in Lagos while listening to the records that her businessman father brought back from his trips abroad. Though she had imagined a country where love conquered all, where black people and white people had finally managed to surmount their differences, Mom and Dad arrived, instead, in a place where there were no other black people for miles around, a place dominated by a religion they’d never heard of before.
But this was America. And they were in love. They moved into a small apartment in Ogden, Utah, and began a family. I came first, in 1981, and my brother followed in 1983. Dad attended his classes...