Ope oku. E wo mariwo ope. — The palm is not dead. Watch its branches sway – Yoruba folk wedding song –King Sunny Ade (Nigerian musician)
Memories of my mother are bitter sweet. I was the last child she had for my father. She was nine months pregnant with me when she finally left an abusive husband with the help of her mother who had had one opportunity too many to observe my father’s brutal temper. I often asked her why she waited so long to leave a man who beat her and cheated on her mercilessly. She replied that she had to try to make the marriage work, that she had his children; that divorced women were thought to be prostitutes and that outside of the beatings and cheating my father was really not a bad man. She often tried to make me understand her reasoning for remaining with a man who frequently tried to grind her humanity to dust; I could not understand that then. Now, I do. I now understand the possibly fatal connection between the abuser and the abused. I now better understand the depressing weight of the opinion of others in a culture that values the lives of children of one gender over another.
As a young child, constantly watching and hearing my mother’s pain as she struggled with trying to raise five children from a bad marriage with little help, I learned to be quiet and somewhat withdrawn in public. I did most of my talking at home. I did a lot of it. I was an expressive child caught in the web of adult lives. I also became a good observer of people and the complexities of their lives. Looking back, I was luckier than many other children caught in similar situations. My mother had chosen to live alone with her children although she entered into a new relationship with my stepfather. As she often said, SHE had chosen never to live under the roof of another man. As with most women in her circumstances at that time, my mother was never legally married to my stepfather. My maternal grandfather had for his own reasons rejected my step-father as a worthy suitor for his first child even though my grandmother saw my step-father who was eleven years older than my mother as a practical choice for her divorced daughter.
Enough people thought that my mother should have counted herself lucky to have the attention of any man given the fact that she had five children from a previous marriage. In reality she was in fact a good catch; a generous and well educated woman for her time who was bringing with her the benefits of excellent business connections from a significantly affluent father as well as her own personal landed property.She had three children from her union with my stepfather who already had another wife and who took on several other wives in his lifetime. Despite the fact that my mother had bowed to the mores of a culture that marked a woman by herself as unworthy, she never could accept that she was deemed unworthy and fought very hard to maintain her independence and to prove her worth
My mother was an introvert in a country that valued and still values extroverts. She was not averse to celebrations but shunned social events that she thought would be unduly boisterous. She enjoyed the quieter things in life. She was a bibliophile. I do not believe that there was a room in her house that did not contain some sort of reading material with pages worn from recurring use. I met Amos Tutuola on the pages of books from her collection. I learned to appreciate my Aunty Ebun’s husband, Uncle J. P. Clarke better through my mother’s collection of his books. I willed myself to read his Ozidi Saga because I found a copy that my mother had read before me. My mother’s library was diverse. She collected different genres of literature; autobiographies, biographies, comedies, poetry, science fiction etc.I inherited my first collection of books by African authors from my mother. She delighted in the written word.
My mother loved nature. She taught me how to appreciate nature as we shared weather worn pieces of wood (drift wood) she discovered at the beach or while she was out on a walk as well as the picturesque sky splattered with color as day changed. I treasure memories of the little fish that swam around me while my hands were cupped ready to catch a pet to take home as I waded in the Yemule River in Ijebu-Ode. I remember being woken up in the early hours to observe a flower about to bloom. I grew up surrounded by chickens, cats, turkeys, dogs, pigeons and even a foundling antelope on the Lagos mainland! If it were not for limited space and time, I am certain that she would have extended her collection of pets, foundlings and other of nature’s creatures because she truly delighted in them. As she got older her collection of animals became fewer but included other items like nests abandoned by its owners for the grand children.
Much as she loved to read, she had some rather diverse interests. She found the science of the human body as well as the science of construction very engaging. She seized upon numerous teachable moments to name the different bones in a chicken while she cut the bird we were soon to cook as part of a meal up. No animal headed to our cooking pots were exempt from this type of analysis as long as my mother could find the time. If you appeared interested, she would relate those bones to corresponding bones in your body. She’d jokingly tell the scientific names for various muscles in the body hoping that it would catch our interest. She loved architectural drawings and details.
She was just as quick to notice the flaw in a building that looked perfectly fine to the untrained eye as she was to notice a person in need of medical attention. She would discuss structural parts of a house and the measure of land as one would an interesting article from a newspaper. Perhaps that was the nature of the whispering conversations she and her father held before day break outside her house prior to his directing her to oversee some of his construction projects. My grandfather treated my mother more like a man than a woman with children who needed to be readied for school and she often responded as if she was the son he expected her to be. Along with books, biology, architecture and construction, my mother loved to sing. She enjoyed musicals. She sang songs from musicals such as “Annie Get Your Gun” so frequently that I sometimes felt that I was born in her era.I knew my mother loved the music and the slow elegant dances of her grandmother’s era, but it was not until later in life that I discovered that she loved apala, the music of Haruna Isola.
It is the face that one turns to the world that one is best remembered by. How and why then do some of us choose to wear such severe masks even though it does not match our inner workings? Life and how we deal with it draws our frown or smile lines. My mother with her outward mask deeply scarred by frowns intended to hold people at bay was essentially a gentle natured woman. She taught us numerous songs and rhymes as children. She abhorred cruelty and did not tolerate cruelty to animals. One particular poem that stands out in my mind is one about ants.
Mase pa kokoro won ni Do not kill ants such as these
Yi ese re si apa kon Turn your foot away from them
Kokoro ti iwo ko le da Ants, that you cannot create
Olorun lo le da.Only God alone can
As with most other African Christians, she ensured our religious instruction through regular church attendance and unending admonition at home. As an old world disciplinarian, she did not tolerate the use of vulgar or harsh words from members of her household or anyone who passed through her portals. She often reprimanded me when I said I hated something. She said hate was too strong a word even if it referred to food I did not wish to eat. She said it reminded her of all the arguing and bickering she had heard in the past and wanted to forget. Religion, Christian ethics and her children were her main stay. In her bid to protect us, she fell into the hands of a lecherous church leader, who was well practiced at manipulating unsuspecting and trusting persons through religion for financial gain. He successfully blinded my typically perceptive mother and managed to extort significantly large sums of money from her over the course of many years.
She chose not to let the hypocrisy, malice and corruption that lay within the church and some Christian circles deter her from church membership. Even after being denied permission to baptize one of her own children at one Anglican Church in Ibadan because she had divorced, she continued to hold membership in the Anglican Church. She protested the extortion of money from parishioners and the shabby treatment of less fortunate church members until the time of her death. She found serving the church by supporting its youngest children and engaging in beautification projects that involved planting flowers particularly rewarding.
My Nigerian mother did all the things some people considered “western mommy” things and more. She baked cakes and cookies, made chin-chin, fried fish and steamed huge pots of moyin-moyin for us on weekends while neglecting outings with her friends and family. She was unable to attend many a wedding because she was busy sewing and mending our clothes. She cooked and cleaned, supervised and marshaled. She waltzed with her children to music from her prized records now all broken, lost and part of a future archeological dig. She constantly reminded us that we had to be independent and able to hold our own because no one knew where or how they’d end up in the future – prince or pauper.