Pages in Life: Mama Bookworm (2)

by Enitan Doherty-Mason

In a country such as Nigeria, where at this point in history, poverty amongst the masses increases at such an astronomic rate in light of a highly corrupt and lightly responsive government, my mother lived a truly altruistic life. She was sometimes unbelievably unassuming and did not act in a manner conducive to self preservation. It was confounding that she continuously gave to people that she perceived as needier than she was even when it caused her significant discomfort. This part of her personality was often a source of great bewilderment to those who had worked hard to give her things it appeared she needed. The only car my step-father had bought for my mother at an earlier stage in their relationship was a source of such consternation.A younger neighbor, Mr. Ibrahim, whose family my mother had adopted as part of hers, had asked to borrow her brand new car. With little hesitation and perceiving the neighbor’s need as greater than hers, my mother had loaned him the car.

Much to her dismay and every one else’s, the neighbor turned out to be an unscrupulous fellow. He had vanished along with the car. The car which was by then in great disrepair, was found after an extensive search was launched for Mr. Ibrahim. The situation, as it typically did at that time, ended with an apology. Naturally, the situation incurred the wrath of my step-father. I do not recall what happened to the car after that. My mother in her guileless unselfishness found herself in these situations many more times than I care to remember. She wished to believe the best of a good number of people but more often than not, she found them wanting. She believed that whatever good she did, she did for God.I find it difficult to imagine that she did not privately regret some of these circumstances.

My mother’s “career” seemed to have been centered on her children. Before the children it was centered on my father’s well-being. He had been the collector and distributor of most of her income. My stepfather on the other hand was never the center of her universe. He was a man meant to serve the role that becoming a doctor served for my father- maintaining the status quo. Although she had learned to love him, my stepfather, without being fully cognizant of what this position entailed, believed somehow that he could be the “more acceptable” man to society; the man who had bettered the one that came before; the winner. He wasn’t and he couldn’t be. My mother and stepfather were two ships on a parallel path in opposite directions. Perhaps he had sought to chart a course of his own, but his appetites, habits and custom had guided him directly into the waters that would easily drown a man such as he was. He was unaware that he had walked away before the journey began. My mother on the other hand had agreed to follow custom but was not amenable to the terms of the agreement.

The idea that education and a career were invaluable was part and parcel of my mother. She had been raised on that premise and held firmly onto that belief. She stressed being the best one could be at anything one chose. Wealth was not everything. One could not buy a good name or dignity. My mother had a formal career. It was one that she loved and one that suited her somewhat easily embarrassed, empathetic and compassionate nature well. She was a nurse by profession. She had arrived in England at the end of World War II and was a certified nurse and mid-wife in the early years of the Korean War.Her arrival in England was at the end of one war and her departure was at the early part of another. Her own life experiences, her experience with rationing in England and personally administering pain killing narcotics to disabled men whose bodies had been ravaged by war had made her even more empathetic to those in pain.

Her nursing badge proffered to her by Whips Cross Hospital was a source of great pride for her. She carefully saved all her letters, telegrams, results from examinations, certificates and mementos related to her arrival at that place as a nurse and mid-wife. Her records show that she was indeed an excellent scholar. She treasured memories of her school days and the experiences with students and colleagues whose lives she had touched over the years. She derived particular pleasure from those special students and colleagues who remembered her after many years. Some called her “sister” as in nursing sister, others called her Aunty Layide. Aunty Olugbo Bailey who fondly called my mother, “my sister” was particularly close to my mother during her child rearing years.

My mother loved her people. She loved Ijebu Land and took great pride in being a Yoruba woman from Ijebu-Ode. She was born in Ago-Iwoye in a house that her maternal grand-mother’s had built. Her father was then an itinerant court clerk and Nigeria was a British colony.My mother was equally literate in Yoruba and English. Her penmanship was bold clear and definitively the formal script of her era. The Ijebu language was her first language and it flowed freely from her lips. It was the dominant language my mother spoke to her children and her kin. English which she spoke and understood quite well was a third tongue; trailing behind Ijebu and mainstream Yoruba. She could and did speak other Yoruba dialects when need arose, but she essentially spoke Ijebu.My mother was an exacting woman with regards to learning and completing tasks. She was as particular about the correct pronunciation of /th/ as she was about cleanliness. If you were going to speak a language you had to speak it well. In order to speak it well, you had to understand it well.

She did her best to ensure our fluency in the Yoruba language, but the Lagos society in which we lived supported her best only in our acquisition of the English language. Those of us who chose to had to make a concerted effort to keep our mastery of spoken Yoruba language alive and well. My mother was not to be outdone in her defense of her home town. She did not take kindly to jokes that reflected poorly on her people or her family. She was proud of the fact that Ijebu culture had not been over run by African slave trade or the colonization of Nigeria. Criticism of her family or people was reserved solely for people within that particular membership. As with many people of her time, she appreciated people of other cultures but struggled with the idea of her own children choosing spouses outside of indigenous Yoruba groups.

My mother was very sure of whom she was. She did not equivocate when it came to her beliefs, her expectations and her goals even when they seemed totally impossible and unachievable.She willingly made the sacrifice she needed to attain many of her goals no matter how much she was inconvenienced. She valued a good name and refused to engage in acts that would have her name associated with unbecoming conduct. She believed in honor; this included honoring ones obligations. She loved family even though she painfully expressed and acknowledged that hers was fragmented. She often spoke of her relatives who lived beyond the walls of her father’s estate. She wanted her children to know that she had relatives beyond those who were wealthy and celebrated people. She wanted us to understand where and from whom she came and that although she had not always agreed with some of the commonly held beliefs of her people, she still was a part of them and had not abandoned them.

During the latter part of her life she took a trip to her maternal grand-mother’s house in Ago-Iwoye, to revisit the room in which she was born. She traced her steps to the parsonage where she had lived a part of her earliest years with Reverend and Mrs. Beckley, a missionary and his wife. She credited them for her love of nature and her interest in the names of various plants and animals because it was while perched on the shoulders of Reverend Beckley on bicycle trips through the woods that many plants and animals were first pointed out to her. Her final trip to Ago-Iwoye proved to be a history lesson about her childhood for those of us who accompanied her. Although I knew that she had lived with various people during the course of growing up, as was the educational training practice of her time, I had not given much thought to the collective of people who contributed in various ways to the person my mother was. People she lived with included an aunt of hers, Mrs. Jadesimi and the Winter family.

The eye indeed does not see itself. My mother was an authoritative individual; a consequence of her birth and background. Although she perceived herself as closer to the masses, they were suspicious of her motives and often perceived her only as a product of her wealthy upper class background; an aristocrat hiding among lowly people to preserve her wealth. That which might have been perceived as humility in some circles was seen as a shrewd act of deception by many. My mother’s speech patterns, attitude, expectations, values and overall demeanor did not reflect or coincide with that of the masses with whom she sought to identify. She held ideals reflective of her societal class and her educational background.

She truly believed that she could effect change in an emerging and often turbulent society.She failed to recognize the power of other people’s perception of her person on her life. She was not an ostentatious person and did not promote herself by declaring the power of her status by birth. She frequently described herself as the daughter of a court clerk; a position her father had left behind very early in his life. She rarely admitted that she indeed was the first born of the business mogul that her father had then become. My mother yearned for simplicity. She did not perceive herself as just another woman in the sea of women. She emulated her role models who were strong willed hardy pioneering people; her father, both her maternal and paternal grandmothers and her grand uncle. She strove to have equal rights with men at a time when it was contrary to the mores of the society within which she lived. She perceived herself as the equal of any man and lived her life as such.

Although my mother was imposing in presence, she was essentially an introverted, guileless, nurturing idealist who staunchly believed in teaching by example in a world full of pain and injustice. She did not believe in titles beyond academic ones and consequently shunned membership in many secular organizations lest she be trapped in group think; unable to express her own opinions freely when her ideas differed from that of the group. She moved freely between many groups especially in her church but avoided situations that involved titles. She did not like to draw attention to herself. She was shy but appreciated being valued. Her idea of a good time ranged from a caucus with her children, including the many children she had adopted through the years, to enjoying solitude while reading a good book. She served her fellow human beings as faithfully and as completely as she could.

Her generosity was remarkable and at times to her own detriment. When she had, she shared what she had. When she did not have enough to share, she tried to find a solution to the other person’s problem. Despite her inability to employ diplomacy in some circumstances that required it, she was a leader and a friend to a multitude of people in many stations in life. Her impatience with injustice made her an advocate for the weak, the downtrodden and anyone whose voice was being drowned out in a loud world. My mother loved and lived life passionately. She was a relentless problem solver. Her faith was her mainstay and children were both her greatest joy and greatest mystery. She was imperfect and so human, yet she was a woman of great conviction who stood solidly behind what she believed. She died believing that neither wealth nor clothes made a man; personal integrity was paramount.

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