They met in an elevator at a leadership conference in New York. Rama ribbed Luke about being one of the only white people at a gathering for students from historically black colleges and universities. Luke teased Rama, who grew up in Côte d'Ivoire, about her French accent.
They had dinner, exchanged phone numbers and went back to school: Luke to Cheyney University, and Rama to Morgan State University in Baltimore. But they kept in touch via Facebook and the old-fashioned way, through long, soul-searching phone calls.
When Luke endured a bad breakup, Rama proved a wise and sensitive listener. By spring of their senior year, the relationship had a more serious tenor. Luke borrowed his mother's van to help Rama move into an apartment in New Jersey, and his family attended Rama's graduation.
The young couple had their eyes on the future - albeit two slightly different versions. Luke was headed to India on a volunteer trip at the end of the summer; then he'd start law school in Pittsburgh. Rama had landed a job at Goldman Sachs.
They talked, in a vague way, about marriage and family. Rama had grown up in a clan so close that she called her cousins "brother" and "sister." Luke, too, was raised with a posse of cousins. They wanted kids. Eventually.
Then, Rama's period was late. Luke bought a pregnancy test kit. Both were shaken by the result.
"My immediate thought was: 'Oh my god, I just started working. This is not happening,' " Rama recalls. Luke knew he'd feel resentful if he canceled the long-planned India trip; but what about after that? Were they certain enough to get married? Were they ready to be parents?
"We had to make some game-time decisions," Luke says. He broke the news to his 90-year-old grandmother one afternoon when he was pushing her wheelchair along Kelly Drive. "Rama's pregnant," he blurted. "And we're getting married."
"I should hope so!" his grandmother responded.
On Rama's side, the reception was less enthusiastic. "You have to get married, and he has to convert to Islam!" her mother said in a phone call from Côte d'Ivoire. Luke, who is "agnostic to the core," chuckled at that.
Suddenly, their future hurtled into view: Luke went to India, where he checked in by phone daily - long enough to hear how miserable Rama felt in her first trimester.
They were married that fall, just before Luke started law school, on a sticky September Saturday at the Unitarian Society of Germantown. Close to Rama's delivery date, she joined Luke in Pittsburgh so they could be together for the birth of Maryam Rose, named for both grandmothers.
Compared with the first year of law school, Luke thought parenting Rosie was an easy A: "You just feed them and change their diapers." Rama concurred: "I've always been around babies; it's part of my culture. For me, it was joy more than anything."
But their lives were still far from stably anchored: Luke transferred to Penn State's law school so he could be closer to Rama's new place in Jersey City. Her mother was able to visit, but only for six months at a time on a temporary visa. When she was back in West Africa, Luke's mother stepped in to care for Rosie.
In December 2008, amid the economic crash, Rama lost her job. By then, she was already pregnant with Aiden - "also unplanned, but not unwelcome," Luke says. After Aiden's birth, the family felt full - especially because the five of them, Rama's mother included, had moved to the third floor of Luke's mother's house in Germantown.
"Sometimes we thought: 'This is great. We have a boy and a girl; what more could we want?' " Rama recalls. "But other times, we thought: 'They're so awesome; why not have another one?' "
Once again, nature took command. After hearing the news, Rama's mother had a dream in which she saw two little girls, one on each side of her. Rama dismissed that as wishful thinking until she saw doubles on the sonogram screen. "It was pretty scary," she says. "You think about finances. You think about child care. I was worried about the pregnancy itself. I didn't know if my body could take it."
But this time, life was different. Rama and Luke both had solid jobs in the same city: she as a business analyst for Comcast, he as a class-action litigator. They'd bought a nine-bedroom house on an acre of land in West Germantown. Rama's mother had acquired a green card and was here to stay.
A week or two after the twins were born, in a scheduled C-section, it was Rama's mother who followed West African custom by whispering a prayer into each baby's ears and repeating their names seven times: Naima. Safiya.
Now the house hums with the accents and smells of Rama's home country. Her sister, who recently got lucky in the Immigrant Diversity Visa lottery, lives there with her 18-month-old son. A longtime friend of Luke's camped out for a while to help the couple build a new kitchen. The dinner table is crammed with adults and children, rice and stews, baked fish and attiéké, a couscous-like dish made from fermented cassava.
Luke, who says this brand of communal living required some adjustment, has become a convert. "There are three amazing cooks, and an excellent adult-to-child ratio. It's so much easier to get things done."
For Rama - often exhausted from working full-tilt, breast-feeding the twins, and trying to find time for Rosie and Aiden - it may not be the life she planned, but it is the one she craved: everyone gathered on a Saturday morning, Luke and his pal hammering away on the kitchen, cousins tumbling on the floor, Rama and her sister teasing their mother as she gets dressed up to meet friends.
"It's a community kind of living," she says. "It's in our culture. I just love having my family here."
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