Some say home is where the heart is. Others proclaim it’s where you hang your hat. Query Stephen King, he’d probably reply, “Home is where they’ll always let you in” Just don’t ask my overly animated, “potty humor” obsessed husband; he might regurgitate something like “home is where I can peacefully pinch a loaf! And in case you’re worn out from all the mutated variations of this ancient cliché, I’d say power up for one more. I intend to whip out a home –grown rendition of my very own before this story is over!
Seriously. If home were remotely close to any of the above-italicized descriptions, why then do I ultimately live in the house of my dreams, with a family of my own… yet long for that place? Why is the need to reminisce often strong when I am alone? Why do I feel this void inside my soul? Then it struck me again like a new idea to a blocked artist! But this time, there was no room to entertain second thoughts or the usual excuses. If I wanted some answers, I had to go back! Back to that place where the child once played hide and seek under the moonlight….
I grew up in “the land of the red earth”; a small town conveniently nestled between Benin City and Asaba in the now defunct Bendel State.I was raised by a single mother in an era when polygamy was rampant and the culture did very little to hold fathers accountable for child support. There were some rough times as I recall… luckily; my gentle, kind, and independent mother had an entrepreneurial hunger that ensured I always had food on my plate, clothes on my back, a roof over my head and a big mouth to complain about all the other things that I didn’t have. Perhaps watching episode after episode of “Soul Train” made me feel like I was missing out on a whole lot of fun! And like most kids my age at that time, I too fantasized and longed to travel abroad. I dreamed of going to America!
Right before my 18th birthday, an extended family member from Texas came home for a brief summer visit. The scoop? His wife had just given birth to their 3rd son and they were desperately looking for a live-in help. To me, this was the perfect getaway and several weeks later, I was good to go. So, with a suitcase full of my meager belongings, and a heart full of golden dreams, I hugged my mom and waved goodbye to all the friends and relatives I was leaving behind.
Outside Houston Intercontinental Airport, Mrs. Osaje and the boys were waiting to pick us up. By the time we arrived at their apartment, I knew the household routine like the back of my hand. I would take care of the children while both parents were at work. And somewhere in between, I was able to attend school mostly during the weekends and evenings. Upon my graduation years later, I immediately landed a job as a Child Psychologist at a local shelter working with emotionally handicapped children. That’s where I met my husband, John…
“I can relate to the call of the unknown,” he teased. See, not too long ago, he and his best friend, Tony, had gone on this road trip with no specific destination in mind. They had driven from the Florida Keys, across the Lone Star State; up through the Arizona Desert, down by the Californian Coast to Yosemite, in search of what they referred to as the “wonder”.If he understood why I needed to visit Nigeria, well, who could argue with that? Unfortunately, my 6-year old daughter, Sidney, didn’t share our sentiments.
” Mama, I don’t want you to go to Africa,” she cried.
“Honey, I know.But this is something mommy has to do.Alright?”
“Well, promise you’ll come back home soon?”
“Cross my heart” I said as I squeezed her gently.
I purchased a round trip ticket and boarded a flight to Lagos. Approximately fifteen hours later, I was a passenger on an Ekene Dili Chukwu bus en route to my hometown!
I spent the first couple of days entertaining family members who had come to see me. We mused over the past and they fired a bunch of questions at me “Is the electricity on all the time in America?” asked my niece.”Pretty much” I replied.
My elderly uncle was so intrigued that we had nonstop access to running water. “Does hot water really come out of the shower? “I nodded and smiled. We in the western world really need to count our blessings occasionally, I thought. Finally, the excitement began to wear off. Each day, the pupils, the farmers, the housewives, the traders and the office workers would all head out to tend to their daily routine. And I would take off to revisit some of my old stomping grounds.
First stop was the Orogodo River. As a child, I had spent many sunny Saturday afternoons fishing and swimming with my cousins and neighborhood friends. I even found the very spot on the bridge from where I took my first dive. However, the current state of the once mighty Orogodo was disheartening! A river that once flowed freely was now littered with all sorts of rubbish and had become a dumping ground for taxi drivers as they cross the bridge.
One evening after dinner, I asked my oldest nephew to accompany me to the local cinema. “I wonder if Enter the Dragon is still being recycled,” I said sarcastically. “Auntie, that place is now a car repair garage” he announced. “They tore down the building years ago!”
A few days before Christmas, I visited the homes of some of my childhood friends hoping that I’d at least run into a few who had returned to celebrate the holidays. The ones I really wanted to see were not around. Those that were at home asked if I had brought them presents. One in particular asked me for cigarettes. Another offered me huge amounts of money to take him with me back to the US. I grew tired of being harassed for one favor or another and decided to spend the rest of my visit indoors. I was stunned beyond words about all the changes that had taken place! What was I thinking? I should have realized that time (or people for that matter) waits for no man or woman. Suddenly, I felt like I was swimming around in a future that had completely drowned my past where all the faces I’d known have all changed! And like a child without his mother, I wanted to return to my home away from home.I longed for my children and husband.
I spent my last night with my mom. We sat on an old bench inside her veranda and stayed up late talking. We must have chatted about everything. “Remember how you used to run around naked in the rain when you were about 6”? She joked. How could I forget? Each time, I could always hear her screaming “Benneeeeee! Get your little bottom inside before you catch a cold”. Of course she had to remind me of a very special day. The day I officially became a woman! Her version of the story was that I barricaded myself in my room because I thought I was dying from some horrible disease.Well, I’ll just have to take the fifth on that one!
It was time to finally call it a night, but not before she showed me some old black and white photographs from a period I thought I had completely forgotten about. At the age of 10, when the top two “all girls” secondary schools within our local area would not give me the time or day, Igbanke grammar school welcomed me with open arms. And if “there’s a time and place for everything” (including defining moments that shape the direction of a person’s life); mine were carved in stone somewhere at that boarding school. The floodgates swung back and forth. The memories flooded in…
I remembered the evening prep, the echo of the dinner bell ringing, the piercing sound of the whistle blowing at 5:30 am-a wakeup call for a routine cross country “one mile” jog. Who could forget manual labor on the weekends or inter-house sports and birthday parties where “bite size” portions of sardines and geisha sandwiches were a treat? The names of all those kids who scrambled to befriend the girl with the “provisions jammed” locker danced around on my tongue. I remembered t
he lingo of all the diverse dialects. Edo. Yoruba. Ika. Ishan. Itsekkiri. Urhobo. Faces of my good-natured school sister- (Sarah Obaseki from Benin) and my school mother – (Lizzy Okoye from Umunede)flashed in my mind. Right before I drifted off to sleep, I recalled the day Matilda Ihensekhien asked, “Would you be my best friend?”
At the crack of dawn, my chartered Taxi was waiting to take me back to the airport and I was more than ready. I quickly ran into my mother’s room to hug her one more time. And when she would not lift her head up to look at me, I knew she’d been crying.
“Mama, please stop” I pleaded. “I’ll be back to see you again okay?” She nodded and started to say, “If anything should happen to me…” I had to cut her off with “I don’t want to talk about that right now”. I knew where she was headed and I just wasn’t ready for that sort of talk. If only I had known…
As the plane flew higher up into the clouds away from the west coast of Africa, a momentary feeling of sadness and nostalgia overwhelmed me. I wondered if I’d ever see my mother alive again. I wondered if I would ever set foot on my native soil. I wondered if my children would someday want to trace the roots of my family tree back to Nigeria. And somewhere in time between my last teardrop and the majestic view of the sun fading to a thin red line, I had an epiphany…
Perhaps that hollowness inside me is nothing more than a yearning to reconnect with an era that had gone by. To relive a time of carefree innocence, special moments and experiences that now sum up a big portion of who I am today. Perhaps it’s a call from the collective soul of my forefathers and the spirit of the land where I drew my first breath. And just perhaps they are saying “Remember who you are” like the ghost of Mufasa echoing to Simba in the “Lion King.” So let the rest of the world wallow in their definition of home. As far as I am concerned, home is not just where you hang your hat or set of keys. Home is more than where the heart is…HOME is also, that special place in your heart where treasured childhood memories reside forever!
P.S. And if “TOMORROW NEVER COMES” for me, I hope that my loved ones would honor my wishes to scatter my ashes over the Atlantic Ocean and let them sail with the wind. Better yet, maybe a huge wave from the distant shores of West Africa would carry what’s left of me back to my Motherland!