Give thanks. Two words Mother deemed appropriate for use in every situation. She knelt to the ground and, weeping, gave thanks when Mo achieved three A’s for her A-levels, and also gave thanks that morning upon receiving the confirmation letter that Dolly would be offered the scholarship to study at the local independent prep; but yet, confusingly insisted we gave thanks during her lengthy unemployment spell shortly after she graduated.
“Don’t worry. Though God may tarry, He will surely do it!” she had said, pacifying the crushed soul. “But in everything, we must give t’anks.”
Her renditions would always bring with them fresh waters of laughter in the parched ages of our lives. We would wail at the cacophony of sound, her ungainly singing along to the ancient melodies of the Nigerian praise cassette tapes that boomed from the rusting Nissan Sunny.
“No matter what I face, when trouble comes my way, I will praise the Lord!” she would sing, nudging a frowning Timmy, who, though a few years younger than me, always managed to worm his way to the front seat.
And it would always irk us, my siblings and I, as she chorused—her oblivious pronunciation of the word the as da, her embarrassing disregard for the letter h when pronouncing words that started with them, yet forever annoyingly opting to add one when surplus to requirement. A staunch African woman’s resolve to hold on to her pidgin-ity, despite having graced the British shores for well over a quarter-century.
“I am an African woman!” Her riposte whenever we’d call her out on it. “Eyin, Omo London!”
And we’d laugh at her response every time; the shaking of her head, her pouting lips, the disgruntled knocking sound she made on the insides of her mouth. Omo London; we were, indeed, children of London, disengaged children of the diaspora; lounging halfway, somewhere in between here and home. Or had this now become home, and there?
“Are you not going to get cold sitting out there?” Mother was calling out to me from the kitchen, again. I sighed, knowing she meant well, but took a seat on the old swing, reminiscing, gathering my thoughts. The garden felt a lot smaller than I remembered as a child. The overarching tree towards the corner had grown considerably, and had begun push up upon against the wooden fence which now held a leaning gait under its weight. Its withered leaves were sprawled all over the yellow concrete slabs, our old football buried amidst them, deflated.
At least the swing was still there, the red swing with the bright yellow rubber seat. Though scuff marks were now strewn across her face, war scars; wrinkles that exposed her years. As I plopped on to her she creaked, the sigh of an aged one. Of one who had forgotten her old friend, memories suppressed under the latter day toils that more recent acquaintances had brought with them. I received a cold, awkward embrace as I latched onto her arms; her frosty chains revealing the first signs of dementia, she had forgotten me. I waddled, nervously at first, to and fro at a gentle pace, my boots lightly scuffing the turf. I would eventually lift my feet, a newfound, liberating, confidence birthing with each swing. We soon began to warm to each other again, rekindled, old pals, now working together in tandem to defy gravity. My spirit awoken, a little smile began to crack like dawn; and in the moment, I felt again myself, alive—a happy, wholesome child.
“This printer will not fix itself o,” Mother was now saying.
“I’m coming,” I said, bending down to brush specks of soil off my boot. The swing made another rasping sound.
I could see Mother through the glass sliding doors that led to the kitchen, praising and prancing around the domains of her kingdom.
“The kitchen is my own,” she would say all those years ago; Father, before he left, bearing the main brunt of her cries—every time he misplaced a pan, rearranged the thyme for the bay leaves in the cupboards, or removed the set of crumbling unused china dishes into storage.
“Please don’t touch anything here. Do as you please with the rest of your house; but this, this kitchen is my own!”
And it still made me laugh to this day, her more rounded self, still agile, swanning across her room as she sang hymns of praise, pulling and readjusting her wrapper from time to time, towering over her stove, dousing mixed herbs and spices into her pot. And yet, after each taste of the wooden spoon she would grimace and say, “Not enough salt.”
“Timmy will be released soon,” Mother said with an air of melancholy. She hobbled off her wooden stool, making sour grunting noises as she made her way to the oven. Steam gushed out as she pulled open the door to roasting chicken portions and a sating aroma of garlic and red onion bathed the room.
I pretended as though I hadn’t heard her, my eyes and fingers set upon the printer.
“It needs ink,” I said, shaking my head, before pulling out an empty cartridge.
“Oh really?” she replied, nonchalantly. She continued to attend to her chicken, placing the hot tray on the counter top before removing her oven gloves, and readjusted the green and red polkadot wrapper once again.
I did my best to look away, but in the brief seconds as she first untied, retied, untied and then retied again, I couldn’t help but notice her distended stomach; a blend of tones gravely darker than that of her face and fingers, awash with stretch marks deeply seeped into the sponge, as though a random assortment of fragments—coins, hair clips, bitten finger nails—had been pressed into her flesh during a lengthy claying process. Engraved a few inches below her navel lay a thick, long scar; the place of incision, where my eyes had first met with hers, with life; where my heart had first felt what I would come to know as love. And so she had sought to name the boy Remilekun—as her outcry from the unbearable pain. The wound would come to heal over time, though leaving in its wake a slither of eternal remembrance. It was in this moment, this very moment that I would first begin to see Mother as the swing; a swing that had endured many a rider in its time. Though not red, nor yellow; but a much warmer, far sturdier, cocoa-skinned giver of life. Yet, she wore her scars, upheld her sagging breasts, unabashed, as though glorified medals of honour.
“It needs ink…” she hummed, her lips curled into an upside-down U.
And as she scooped the boiled rice into rose patterned china dishes, drenching the long grains with spoonful’s of tomato stew, she would continue to hum to herself.
“It needs ink,” she said again, lips still u-turned, looking up to the oil speckled ceiling, as though beseeching of God, “So, I should buy ink?” she asked. I couldn’t tell if the question had been poised at me, to the Lord or if she had perhaps been talking to herself.
“So, tell me—what do I have a grown son for?” she continued, first in Yoruba, and then again in English. “When will I eat the fruits of my labour?”
Her melancholic words stirred me—the fruits of my labour; expectant words, impregnated with a wistful longing for an abundant class of crop, that had always and would always continue to fail. In between mouthfuls of the spicy rice, I made space to chew upon these words. Though I could not explain, because I could not understand, why her crop often seemed to wither come harvest time.
Had she merely been too passive, allowing life to, in a way, just happen to her? Because, of course, “no man could override God’s will,” she had said many a time before. Perhaps this was simply fate; her calling, her story. The bags under her eyes were heaving with chapters of imposed misery, the contaminated dams that held back her tears had blackened the creased skin. I would, from time to time, think back and draw parallels to the cries of the indigenous tribes alongside the Niger Delta, as I saw the mounting trail of devastation spread across the oil drenched beds of her soul, forever sapping away at her subsistence. Yet, in all this, she remained expectant. Expectant that her season would one day come; that her seed would, one day, bear fruit.
As she aged, I often wondered whether all this—her expectation, her perpetual prayers, her constant offerings of thanks—was simply a mask, her only source of hope, her way of hanging in there. And though I secretly admired her for having such faith, I was certain that lodging somewhere within the enclosed walls of her heart too was a demon called Sadness—a close relative of the spirit that dwelt inside me.
She sure had a good way of concealing it all; behind the contouring regimes, lace wigs and golden necklaces, underneath the extravagant geles. She would sport her outfits effortlessly, always smiling, always matching—heel with bag, ear ring with bracelet—, arms raised high on the front row every Sunday morning. She practically lived at church, lived for the church; a matron of the woman’s society, an ever-present volunteer at each outreach. She would spend her Saturday afternoon’s preparing meals to take in for the Men of God the following day; steaming pots of jollof rice, heaped bowls of spicy ayamase, fried akaras and sliced plantains. We were never allowed to touch any of it.
“This is for Father Benedict and the priests,” she would say. “You guys can eat the white rice.”
And some, the gossipers in the church, were saying that she only brought food for them because she had no husband of her own to prepare food for and would even question why she still wore her wedding ring. But she ignored them; after all, she was “doing God’s work.”
And till this day Mother has not retired from this work, she’s still very much about her “father’s business”, still facilitating the divine affairs of his chosen men.
She’s learned to be content with life, to accept her portion; and refuses to change. The Nissan “still moves,” she says. So why would she replace it? And, as she slows down to avoid yet another gaping pothole in the road ahead of her, she still sings along to the same ol’ cassettes, her accent still as thick as the cheap bottles of supermarket concentrate she brought home after the night shift.
I, oftentimes, wished that God would one day intervene for her. That he would take her, take us, back to days before the western winds came to scatter our motherland; to a time, long before her husband was seduced away by the blue eyes and the straight blonde hair of the other woman, rendering her children fatherless; when the sun shone down in its brilliance and soaked our melanin with a bronzing effect, rather than the harsh burns that we have readily succumbed to. And I saw her, saw Africa in her glory, smiling again, a fervent smile; her palm leaves a vibrant green, no longer wilting away; her animals flocked again to flowing streams of fresh water; her Queenship restored.
But the dream always ends there, in the realms of my sleep. I have long since awoken to the fact that even after the other woman has finished with him, daddy is never coming home. He’s too afraid, too ashamed to face us, a people he no longer knows. And I’m still at odds with the idea, double minded as to whether I’d even want the man to return to our depleted soils, all these years later—a shrivelled excuse, a fragment of his former self, lost. It can never be the same.
“She should have never let him go in the first place.” I hear them say. “She should’ve done a better job of keeping her man.”
Because Mother was, of course, the one who pushed him away; caused him to look offshore for his salvation, to sell his soul; to abandon his woman, obliterate his history, starve his seed, and resent his own coves of gold in exchange for pittance. The deceit.
“Oh, be weary of the ravenous wolf wrapped in—white—sheep clothing,” Father Benedict had once preached from the book of Matthew. And as I sat there, a squashed morsel amidst the pews reciting the rosary for the fifth time that morning, it suddenly dawned on me that he—a pious, yet cumbersome man, adorned in the whitest of robes, barely etching a smile as he made the sign of the cross—was in fact no different to the other woman; that perhaps he, and this supremacy of a belief that he proclaimed, had a part to play in the demise of my mother’s land too.
And I imagine what Blondie would have to say for herself, now that she has finally declared independence. I can’t but hear the apathy in her sorry. “My sincere apologies for taking him away,” she scoffs, as she sips yet another apple martini and takes in the view of the city from the 37th floor; a toast to the closure of the firm’s recent divestment—a tumbling stock. They’re chuffed, she’s chuffed. “You can have your daddy back now,” she says.
Thanks—I hear Mother saying [again]—but, no t’anks.