My Mom’s Love Letter: Ojinguh over Fire


When I was a teenager living in the Midwest, I ate dried squid in the winter.  My mom would roast the ojinguh in our fireplace while cups of Swiss Miss hot cocoa grew cold waiting on a coffee table close by. Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus sat on our mantel above the fireplace where she took the dried squid flesh out of the flames and pulled off long, ragged strips resembling pale-yellow beef jerky. My parents, my sister, and me huddled together on the floor next to the fireplace, leaving the couch lonely. We eagerly gnawed on these strips, our teeth working hard on the tough texture to get to the chewy bursts of sweet and salty.

It was on the coldest nights of our midwestern winters when my mom would ask my dad to get a fire going with ojinguh on her mind. He obliged, putting aside whatever he was doing, the same way he almost responded to her requests. Squatting in front of our white-washed brick fireplace with the fire screen wide open, he placed new logs on the log pile and shifted the old ones around with a poker.

The smell of wood and ash mixed with an inescapable scent of burnt sealife took over the entire lower level of our home on nights like those. I love remembering those nights and the way my family of upbringing shared food. It wasn’t just the sharing of food I treasured. It was the language of love my mom spoke effortlessly, knitting our multi-cultural, bi-racial family together.

When my mom held a large squid in the fireplace, her eyes lit up with dancing flames. I could almost see the seaside vendors in her simultaneously-happy-yet-ever-lamenting eyes. They reflected the fire of hunger she held close no matter how the time, distance and understanding between then and now stretched. The same fire fueled her everyday desire to make sure my dad, sister and I were always more than full. It was this fire in her that packed my dad carefully-curated lunches every day for as long as I can remember. No one told her she was supposed to be a Proverbs 31 wife. She did it, because she knew what it was like to have nothing but the hope of a few seconds of warmth from someone else’s fire, and only the scent of what roasted over it to feed her empty stomach and aching heart.

When she pulled at the ojinguh, her tiny but able hands stripping piece after piece for us, it was as if she offered us the flavors of her past by taste and smell and sight. She offered us food by fire, inviting us to know her, understand that these gifts were more than mere sustenance, and in the end, know and receive ourselves and the One who made us in full. The taste of sweet smashed against salty, the gritty texture that forced me to chew harder and longer before I could swallow, and the almost claustrophobia-inducing scent of burnt sea: all of it was an education in loss and lament. My mom’s ojinguh over fire was a love letter reminding me that we are beloved children of God throughout the unfolding purpose of generations, culture and time.

I wrestled with this love letter of fire for so long. What would’ve happened if the doorbell rang and an unsuspecting neighbor arrived and smelled the squid and didn’t understand? Would any of my white friends have joined us if I had asked them to?  Would they have laughed at the things I treasured most and labeled them as comedy and mere side notes to my life?

An image of homes being warmed by fire chased after my imagination like a dream … or maybe it was a nightmare. I imagined that the most ideal and perfect picture of American families during the winter looked like enjoying each other around fireplaces while their faces glowed with warmth from firelight and togetherness. But these phantom images never came with roasted dried squid. Did our nativity scene fit that kind of American family, sitting by their fireplace, too?

For the past ten years of my life, the love of Jesus has been wooing me to open the doors to the stories of my multi-cultural family and biracial upbringing.  I’ve moved from shame to embrace, one slow step at a time and I am still moving.  Sometimes, even after all these years, I still struggle to know that these parts of my story, the ones I treasure most, belong. I know I can’t be the only one. There must be more fires to kindle and food to taste and see that the God who created every color and culture is, indeed, good.