Pages in Life: Mama Bookworm (2)

by Enitan Doherty-Mason

She watched television with us when the electric company, then the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (E.C.N.), allowed or when she had a moment of respite from trying to make ends meet. She left us hot meals when she had to be at the Bookworm or when she had to attend to other business. I remember sealed Tupperware bowls of eba wrapped in tons of towels to keep the warmth in. For a short while my stepfather featured in the some of the activities that nurtured us such as accompanying our family to the beach. In due course he became a memory; a person who emphatically made it clear that he would provide only for his own children. In my mind, he was more of a guest in the house than a parent. He operated from a different mindset than my mother did. Any relationship between two adults approached from such different perspectives was doomed to fail.

My mother was frugal and practical. She had to be. She bought most things including our fruits, snacks and medicine in large quantities. Between guests and our selves, things rarely, if ever, went to waste. She maintained a good relationship with Dr. Usim Odim, our family doctor who was a rotund genial gentleman with an infectious laugh even when he held a needle ready to inject you. No sneeze, cough or rubbing of the eyes went unnoticed. Between Dr. Odim’s medical care and mega doses of my mother’s vitamins, Sunday anti-malaria medicine, Antiper and penicillin shots, most of us remained in excellent health. The cupboard in the hallway outside her bathroom was the in-house drug store from which she dispensed medicine to her family and neighbors who sought her help.

We had some particularly trying times, some of them I failed to notice or have since buried in the recesses of my memory in a hard to reach place; that place that I no longer attempt to pry open. Despite the realities of the hardship involved in having a sizeable family that was headed by a female with limited personal financial resources, my mother was clear on her priorities. She maintained a stable home and kept us in some of the best schools. She did not allow us to forget for a singular moment how important a career and financial independence were. Perhaps our school years could have been less of a financial strain on the family had my mother sought the assistance of her father or enrolled us at his school in Ijebu-Ode. Life did not write that experience into her story. Pride and inflexibility on the part of both my grandfather father and his first child excluded that experience from our lives. None the less, we were never short on care, food and those things that supported our education and well-being and I do not regret the path on which I obtained my education for one moment.

Contradictory as it may sound, I do not recall truly ever needing money as an individual growing up because I always felt that everything I needed was in the house within my reach. The primary focus in the household had never been money; it was self improvement and excellence. Perhaps I had learned about contentment as well as she had taught it. My mother was determined to be a good mother who raised good children. My father’s bid to discredit her as being a bad mother since she divorced him only served to further motivate her to be the best mother that she could be. For some all is fair in love and war; for others only a battle to death will suffice. Battle scars run deeper for some than others.

My mother had a keen sense of humor that was more cerebral than casually funny. You had to be on your toes and thinking to realize that she was indeed joking because she was not always smiling when she told them. Her jokes confounded slow thinking people and left unsuspecting people pondering the words that came from such a stern faced disciplinarian. In a largely ostentatious society she would tell people to be careful not to dirty the clothes she was wearing because she had yet to finish paying for them. The reaction of the innocent victims of my mother’s humor, ranged from shock to pity for this “lady of grand standing” who had announced her own indebtedness. Those who knew better had a good laugh at the consternation she caused by such an announcements.

I do not know that she ever truly appreciated the effect that her sort of humor had on certain people. Her humor was a taste to be acquired much like acquiring a taste for bitternut or pickles. First you pucker your lips and then you smile. She jokingly referred to the first batches of water in sealed plastic bags on the Nigerian market as “Pure Gutter”. This was her jab at producers of the water which had a gel like residue lining the inside of the bags at that time and was marketed as “Pure Water”. Her mental equals tremendously appreciated her jokes that were sometimes laced with witty cynicism and engaged her in verbal jabs that they kept coming back to with skill reserved for players at an academic tournament. Those who did not either categorized her jokes as the professions of a cantankerous woman or regarded them as the peculiarity that results from living too closely and too long with English people.

Despite her propensity for off-beat humor she did not appreciate humor that attacked the physical attributes of others and definitely did not appreciate rude or denigrating remarks. She frowned on jokes about tribal marks, attributes that were inherent in a person or that poked fun at a person’s physical disabilities. She was willing to wait years for a joke to unfold. I had defiantly insisted on wearing my hair in a punk rocker looking bun for some passport photos as a teenager. Since I could not be convinced that I might regret the photos as an adult, my mother allowed me to do as I wished but kept several extra copies of the photos which she showed to my college age son, who found them extremely humorous even though I did not value being the object of their fun.

This privately gentle woman who fiercely guarded her independence after experience taught her that emotional relationships with men, though of her culture, could never amount to any good, was my mother. She did not galvanize a movement to liberate women nor did she advocate that women march against their men. However, she consistently worked hard to raise an awareness of what physical, verbal and emotional abuse could do to people and the need to completely reject any form of abuse from anyone, man or woman.

It is amusing that we do the very opposite of what will help us achieve our goals. A young boy who likes a girl delivers this message by punching her in the arm. The young girl retreats and the message of affection the boy seeks to deliver is lost. A wife seeking to gain closeness with her husband begins rather affectionately but somehow the discourse ends up on a sour note. He becomes defensive and the goal of regaining closeness is lost. Somewhere along the line, communication gets confused and the wires are tangled. Are they tangled forever or can the channels of communication be reopened?

My mother despised conflict and yet she often found herself right in the in the middle of it. She was very much the queen of miscommunication in emotionally charged situations. She adored her father even if she did not always agree with him on certain matters. She acknowledged his genius in the business arena but disagreed passionately with his management style as regards his family. She described his style as “divide and rule’ and often said that he pitched his children and wives against each other as a way to maintain absolute control of the family. My mother, who discouraged choosing favorites, adored her sister, my Aunt Desola, whose birth she witnessed. I do not know that she ever told Aunty Desola how special she was to her although she told and retold the event so many times that I felt that this aunt was to be treated with extra care so as no to incur my mother’s wrath.

In anger, my mother spoke her mind too clearly on specifics and this often obscured the larger message. Her anger at injustice dealt to anyone became her anger toward all the injustice she had ever been dealt. This sometimes spiraled into an explosive and unbridled volcano that sometimes spewed hurtful and destructive far reaching words; words that were best forgotten. She had the ability to make a vandal look like an angel because of her inability to manipulate words and attitudes as was required in the culture in which she lived when she perceived injustice to herself or to others. She empathized so deeply with those who were hurt, ailing or mistreated that she saw herself as one with them. Consequently she frequently took on the cause of the underdog relentlessly. Unfortunately, she did not always ensure that the underdog was being entirely truthful.

Her unwavering sense of fairness and justice too often caused her to kill a fly with a sledge hammer. Times without number, she threw all of her being into the defense of the underdog and the defenseless with little concern for whom the adversaries were. My mother would not have been a successful diplomat. She was a warrior who often did not calculate risk or ensure that she had the appropriate weapons when angered. This was indeed a great flaw.

In an ideal world where people were sensitive and caring my mother would have been queen. She was compassionate, generous and especially hard working. She spoke directly. She was honest. She sought justice and fairness. She was passionate about the higher values and eager to help others. Caught in her quiet and given adequate time to express herself, she was eloquent and her attitude was much more flexible. In quiet conversations she was able to remove that mask that served as a wall between a world she perceived as cruel and her self.

Inside of this woman of many great attributes lay a frightened child. Many conversations with my mother about her life revealed a frightened, abandoned child. She missed her mother whom she felt she had lost not just once but twice. She had lost her mother as a young woman due to discord between her parents. She had arrived home from school to find her mother gone and another one of her father’s wives occupying the room which used to be her mother’s. Her mother had been banished by the family patriarch. This was not an uncommon practice among men in those days. But for her losing a mother in such circumstances must have been an awful blow. She lost my grandmother a second time when her mother died on the second of September in1989. This time the loss was permanent. She missed some of her siblings terribly even though the challenges of being born into a wealthy polygamous home had dragged them all into an abyss of confusion.

My mother who was born Olayide Adebimpe Odutola on June the fifteenth of 1924 into a polygamous family headed by an upward mobile entrepreneur father was the first child in the household although her mother was not the first wife. She was born into controversy because her birth did not follow the expected order. Considering that a first wife expects to birth the first child and that polygamy is not a tree that bears fruits of peace and harmony, my mother’s life was always complex. My grandmother bore both the first and the second children in the household. She was especially close to her paternal grandmother whom she often described as her sole protector in her growing years. She expressed her indebtedness to her grandmother for shielding her from beatings that could have ended in her death at the hands of her father. Had all the physical scars from that period in her life healed completely, perhaps the memories of that bitter period would not have been so well preserved such as to rob her of the pleasure of the company of some of her siblings.

Being sent to school in England by her father was my mother’s great escape from the complexities of her affluent childhood. She lived with her father’s friends that comprised a family complete with a father, one mother and their children. She greatly admired the simplicity and serenity of this sort of life. Pa Winter’s family was not as celebrated as hers but she felt truly at home for the first time. This model of family was forever my mother’s ideal. She completed her professional training and returned to Nigeria as a full fledged nurse and a married woman.

She had married my father, a debonair Nigerian man six years her senior who already had one child from a romance in his youth. That marriage was unsuccessful partly because my mother sought to replicate the family she had so much admired in England – A family where one woman was deemed enough for one caring man. My father on the other hand was in reality all he knew a Nigerian man to be. He was one of 44 children and his mother was one of 22 wives. Just as my maternal grandfather had done, my paternal grandfather as was fashionable with elite men of their day had ensured that all his children received western education in as much as they sought it. My father’s education in Dublin had not influenced his inner perception of women.

Upon returning to Nigeria where there was ample support for my father’s polygamic views, it did not take long for him to begin to express the traditional views he held on women and their role. My mother pursued a divorce from her husband much against the advice of many friends and family members. This was a daring move for a female straight shooter who naively expected the truth and God alone to be adequate defense in an arena where men typically won. Divorces were rare in Nigerian society. Women typically waited patiently for men to dismiss them or to relegate them to the background from where they escaped under the guise of going to help raise their grandchildren in due time. Nigerian divorces were rarely, if ever amicable. Furthermore when a woman sought separation from a man it was considered a major attack on his masculinity; this was something worth killing for. Male children were and are still considered superior in many circumstances. Wives were not supposed to and typically did not leave their husbands even at the cost of their lives. My mother defied custom and she paid the price through isolation and financial deprivation.

Taking the advice of her mother, my mother duly committed herself to a second man, my stepfather who was an only child. The jewels of that union were three children. My mother had established what she saw as her security at the beginning of the union. She had vouched never to live under another man’s roof. Rather she and her children lived in a house that she had secured. She found the union to be another empty promise unsuited to her ideals and so chose instead to devote herself entirely to her children.

The problems of a single man with a hundred children are quickly resolved by friends and family in a culture where it is an exception for a man to raise children and women are of no consequence. A divorced woman with eight children is considered a fool; one who should have known better than to leave a husband of any kind. It did not matter that five children belonged to one man who had refused to provide for them as a weapon against their mother or who at every opportunity tried to prevent their mother from earning a living. One could also not fault a man who chose to support only his three children although he willingly chose a relationship with a woman who already had children from a previous marriage. My mother chose all her children over having a husband. Thus my sense of family was firmly established.

For a long time I did not feel that we really lacked anything. We had siblings for companionship. We were well fed. We went to school and we spent Christmas vacation within the gates of my maternal grandfather’s estate surrounded by a host of my mother’s relatives and our grandfather’s guests that included his town’s people who often came to pay their respects. We children played in the shadow of the adults. Adults, including servants hustled and bustled and plotted. Those adult voices were sometimes louder than they knew. The loudness was not just in volume but in fierceness.

When my mother’s paternal grandmother died my mother wept for what seemed like an eternity. She had lost her best friend and the woman she saw as her only true ally and protector in the battleground she knew as home. My mother’s grief was unbearable as I watched her prepare to return to her hometown with eight children for this last rite amidst trying to cope with the one more in a series of robberies at our house and my stepfather’s latest dalliance connected with a close neighbor with whom my mother had become friendly. In ignorance and kindness my mother had welcomed the neighbor into our home and had nursed a persistent infection on daughter’s legs. It seemed as if sorrow dug a trough deeper and faster than her faith could fill with joys.

Sometime after the death of my maternal great-grandmother the Christmas holiday trips to that bustling community of relatives in the country came to an abrupt stop. I never quite knew what precipitated this change but I suppose it was related to conflict that never seemed to be in short supply in a rather large and diverse family. I often wondered how the gate and walls that surrounded my grandfather’s family managed to capture so much hostility within it at that point in time. The real battle seemed to be within the walls. Walls intended to protect the dwellers from the dangers on the outside had somehow locked hostility and rivalry within. I do not claim to understand the dynamics of the greater family that I knew. I was only a young observer then.

My mother drew her strength from religion and lost a lot to religion. Religion finds those in adversity much as those in adversity seek religion. My mother knew much adversity and therefore relied heavily on her faith. It was not an easy feat to be the first child of the giant industrialist her father had become while she suffered the humiliation of two failed relationships and the scorn of those who could have helped but chose not to because they said they could not imagine why any one of her birth would need help given her father’s significant status in Nigerian society. I observed much of the events of that time period as I observed all the others, quietly and unobtrusively. Though her losses mounted, her children were growing up and became more and more her support.

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