There it is. I’ve been looking for you. In the corner of what Ebraima Manneh calls his sitting room, in his three-bedroom house in northeast Raleigh off Louisburg Road, is a piece of my mother’s furniture.
It’s a small desk, sometimes called a secretary, with drawers below and shelves on top, behind two glass doors. How this modest piece of aged furniture found its way to Manneh is a story of loss and sadness, of family and freedom, and ultimately of renewal and new life.
My mother, Ann Drescher, didn’t want to give up the secretary — or any of her other furniture. But about a year ago, at 78, she could no longer live on her own. Fifty years of smoking had ravaged her. She was frail and tethered to a long tube of oxygen, increasingly short of breath and anxious, getting by on morphine and a large glass (or two) of Merlot.
We moved her out of her condo and into the 24-hour-care facility at her North Raleigh retirement community. I began the task of cleaning out the belongings of her lifetime.
Family and friends took a few pieces of furniture but most I donated to the Green Chair Project. The nonprofit on Capital Boulevard restores donated furniture and sells it for a small fee to people recovering from crisis, homelessness or disaster.
In packing and discarding, I was businesslike. This needed to get done, checked off my list. There were financial considerations. We moved with haste. In a little more than two long weekends, we cleared out the place.
My mother’s health had been failing for several years, during which time my father, her husband of 56 years, died. I oversaw her finances and medical care. She had always been a warm, kind person, and that extended into her final years. She often thanked me for looking after her.
But not when I moved her into the nursing home. In response to her questions, I finally told her she would not be returning to the condo, as she had previously after several brief stints in the 24-hour-care center.It took more than a week for her to grasp this.
What about my furniture and everything in the condo? she finally asked. Is it gone?
She cried, which was unusual for her. And she was angry at me for moving so quickly and for not consulting with her.
I was exasperated. What was I to do — roll her and her oxygen into the condo and go through 78 years of possessions drawer by drawer, photo by photo, baby spoon by baby spoon?
You didn’t have to move so fast, she said.
Our roles had reversed since my childhood and I had shoved her into the final phase of her life. She wanted to stroll there at her own pace.
When I gave her furniture away, I had no interest in knowing who would receive it. But then I thought it might help my mother if she knew that her furniture was being put to good use.
By the time I called the Green Chair Project, a representative said they were only able to tell me about the secretary. It had been purchased by Ebraima Manneh, who sought asylum in the United States from the small West African nation of Gambia. Until recently, Gambia was governed brutally by Yahya Jammeh, who took power in a coup in 1994 and ruled like a dictator. He was often criticized by human rights groups.
I saved the email but didn’t contact Manneh. There were other, more pressing issues. A few months later, we buried my mother.
This year, as Mother’s Day approached, I wanted to know about the secretary. There was unfinished business. Who had my mother’s furniture that was, to her a year ago, representative of what was left in her life?
I couldn’t reach Manneh after several attempts. The address I had for him didn’t check out. But with a slightly different spelling of the street name, I had a real street address.
Earlier this week, I found Manneh’s house. Manneh, however, was in Gambia. With the help of his family, I reached him by phone. For him, it was nearly midnight.
No matter. He was glad to talk. He is 73 years old and a former top government official. He came to live in Raleigh in 2014 with few belongings.
“Raleigh is wonderful,” said Manneh, who speaks five languages, including English. “I thoroughly enjoy it. It’s nice and calm.”
I asked him about my mother’s secretary, which he spotted at the Green Chair Project. My sister and brother think our mother probably bought it in the 1960s, when she used to hunt for antiques.
“It attracted us,” he said. “Me and my daughter said, ‘Look, we should take this one.’ It was so nice and quaint. It looked almost antique. We are very proud to be the owners of this furniture now.”
Manneh, known affectionately as Ebou Manneh to many in his country, was a founder of Gambia’s opposition United Democratic Party and has been a voice for tolerance, urging Gambians to set aside their tribal differences.
He told me he was in Gambia to talk with the new government about his role, which would be announced soon. Several media outlets have reported that Manneh will be named Gambia’s ambassador to the United States.
I met Manneh’s five children, ages 8 to 22. Like their father, they were charming and polite.
My mission was complete. The circle has been closed. I’m delighted a piece of my mother’s furniture is being used by the Manneh family, who love America and came to Raleigh seeking freedom. Mom, who always had a soft spot for children with good manners, would be happy too.
Before we said goodbye, Manneh asked about my mother. I said she died in the fall.
He said, “It would have been lovely to know her.”