This is the story of a grandmother who had always been a role model in her community. When she dies, her granddaughter discovers that she had a secret.
When Yeye died, the world as I knew it, warm and predictable, suddenly froze, and everything turned to ice. I was eighteen but I had been living a prolonged childhood thanks to my maternal grandmother. My mother was the youngest of her five daughters. She was born when my grandma had already reached the ripe age of forty-two. Five wonderful women raised her but she could never quench the thirst of being the center of attention.
She was not ready to be a mother, and when I was born, she suffered of what would be called now postpartum depression. She made sure to remind me as often as she could of the grueling pain she experienced during the thirty hours of labor without painkillers. She would also add that she had thought about throwing herself through the window of the hospital room on several occasions during that ordeal. It went from bad to worse from there.
My mother was never close to me, and my grandma acted as a mother figure. I said my first words to her, took my first steps toward her and every time I would experience joy or pain, she was the first one to know and to either congratulate me or console me.
When my oldest aunt called us from the hospital to say that Yeye had passed, my heart sank deep into my chest. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Darkness had laid its ugly veil on me and I went to my room and sat there for hours, not able to accept the news.
The day of the memorial service at St. Augustine, I couldn’t be of any help. After a while, my aunts just told me to stay out of the way and I just sat on one of the benches and stared at the mahogany casket inside which my grandma reposed in her Sunday best. It had been one of her wishes, along with having her nails painted.
Yeye died of colon cancer and during the last few days of her life, she had needed a colostomy bag. I knew how proud of her neat appearance Yeye had been. She had tried to instill that pride in me at an early age. I had been devastated to know that this humiliation had been inflicted onto her.
The casket was closed, and at that moment, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to touch her hand anymore or kiss her forehead. The thought gripped me and tears started to roll on my cheeks as I fondly remembered the day Yeye looked at her hand and seemed so surprise to see age spots on her smooth light brown skin. I had stroked her hand gently and understood then that there was still a little girl living inside of her, wondering why she looked like an older woman.
I looked around and I could see women wearing scarves, most of them my relatives, some of them from her church. Some were talking softly and some were greeting each other, happy to see familiar faces they had not seen for a while. People had come from Abuja for the occasion and some had come all the way from London.
Grandpa was praying quietly in the front pew, his eyes closed and his hands joined. My mother and her sisters were going back and forth, making sure everything was done the way it had been planned. Suddenly l felt a ripple in the crowd and I turned my head to see what was the reason of the commotion.
“Who be that oyinbo?” I heard one of my cousins ask.
A tall man, with white hair and grey eyes, was making his way in the church nave, oblivious to the wake of comments spreading behind him. He looked out of place but he seemed to walk with a purpose.
He went right to the casket and I could see my father and uncles ready to make a move, but the man just kneeled and closed his eyes for a brief instant, stood back up and walked to the back of the church, where he sat motionless during the ceremony.
As pastor Adedoyin read Psalm 23 and later as Amazing Grace echoed in the sanctuary, my thoughts kept turning to the stranger. I was wondering where Yeye had met him. She had never mentioned him to me. When the ceremony ended, I noticed that he had already left.
We took grandpa home, as he hadn’t wanted to come to any of his daughters’ houses. As my oldest aunt was preparing some dinner for him even though she knew he wouldn’t eat it, my mother and her other sisters stayed in the kitchen to help her, together again like old times when they were kids doing homework at the kitchen table.
Grandpa was very still and pale, sitting on a chair in the living room. I put my hand on his shoulder. I didn’t know what to say. They had been married for fifty-eight years.
He said, “She was the light guiding me on every dark road of life. What will I do without her?” The rawness of his words struck me. Grandpa had never said anything so personal to me. He taught me chess and would speak to me about literature. When other girls my age would read Mills and Boon, he introduced me to the words of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka but he never spoke about anything else. This closeness was overwhelming.
“God is able, grandpa. He will pull you through,” I said to him.
“I will go sort Yeye’s things,” I added. I left him there petrified in his grief and went to my grandma’s room. The perfume she had been wearing was still lingering in the air and her pictures and the knickknacks she loved gave the impression she was still around and could enter the room at any time. Nobody had touched anything and I didn’t think I was ready to do so.
As I sat on the bed, one of my earrings fell on the floor and when I bent down to pick it up, I noticed a small box tucked under the bed. I reached for it and put it on the nightstand. I opened it and discovered a notebook covered with faded blue fabric.
I opened it at a random page, thinking it would contain grandma’s favorite recipes. Instead, I read, “I loved him every minute of every day since the day I met him”. I never knew grandma wrote poetry. On the next page I saw, “The sky had an angry color today. It made me think of your eyes. I love you more than I can say. I miss you more than you will know”.
I turned more pages and I found more poems and more journal entries that were all about the love she felt for a man. I couldn’t stop reading. Grandma had always been an open book for me, a pillar for her family, and an example for everyone. The lines she had penned were unraveling her life as I knew it.
I felt guilty doing it as if I were betraying her but I couldn’t stop reading. I felt like I didn’t know this woman whose pain and suffering had been so carefully hidden for more than forty years and which were bleeding through the pages.
She had lied to me, and to her whole family and all of us had believed her. She had loved someone else more than she had loved grandpa. As that thought went through my mind, it occurred to me that if grandpa would ever read these lines, it would kill him.
Still under shock, I read on the last page, “He told me that the only poet he liked was E.E. Cummings. I copied “I carry your heart with me” and gave it to him. I wanted him to understand how deeply I loved him even though nothing could ever happen between us. I don’t think he understood what I felt. I know he didn’t share my feelings. I decided to stop having any contact with him.”
I secured the journal in my purse and I left the room not knowing what to do next. For several weeks, there was turmoil in my soul. I couldn’t eat properly and I couldn’t sleep. My father was starting to worry about me. The love I had for my grandma prevented me from saying anything to anyone even though I was still hurt by what she had done to us. I was torn. I couldn’t understand. My whole value system was on the verge of being ripped apart.
One afternoon, I went to the main library, which was the place grandma had taken me often as a kid and where I had always felt at peace. As I was walking through the aisles, I noticed the stranger who had come to her funeral, sitting at one of the tables, with a pile of books in front of him, scribbling on a piece of paper. The anger that had been festering in my heart came bursting out.
I stood in front of him and asked,” Why did you come to grandma’s funeral?”
He looked at me, startled. I could see dark circles under his eyes. He probably hadn’t slept much lately either.
He said to me in a soft deep voice, “I loved her since the day I first saw her and I still do.” As he said this, he reached inside his jacket, took out his wallet, pulled out a wrinkled paper and unfolded it. It had handwritten words that had faded in some places. He handed it to me. At the top was “I carry your heart with me” in my grandma’s handwriting.
He said, “She gave this to me the last day I saw her. I wish I could have told her then how I felt for her. I know how faithful she was to her family and I would never have hurt her or anyone she loved. I don’t know if she ever felt like I did. I never met anyone before her or after her that I felt so close to. I believe she was my soulmate.”
I looked at his grey eyes and in a second, I understood my grandma’s sorrow, how much she loved us, and why she had wanted to shelter us.
I told him, “I think this belongs to you,” and I handed him the journal. He opened it and started reading it.
As I left the library, I turned to look at him. He was crying but he mouthed, “Thank you”.
With thanks to Yemi Adebiyi, John Ugoji, and Sylvia Ofili.