Four generations of women sit in the room.
My grandmother is fixated on the TV, peering as far as her rheumy eyes will allow her. Over the years, she’s lost weight but her fleshy arms yet remain fleshy. True, the skin has sagged, is no longer unlined, but it is fleshy nevertheless. I remember those arms in various stages of hard work. Cutting up the fire wood, stirring the chili-drenched stew, pulling cassava tubers out of her dry garden. And these are the same arms that cuddled, that wiped sweaty feverish brows, that handed out her hard earned money.
In her almost eight decades of life, my grandmother has given birth nine times, buried four sons before they each turned three, and has single-handedly raised five children to adulthood. When her children started their own families, she joined in the raising. I remember living with her for five years while my mother sought out a better life for all of us outside the country. Then Mama’s grandchildren began to get married and raise babies, and she was there. While I was recuperating after the birth of my daughter, she spent countless hours bathing her, holding her, loving her.
Then there is my Mum. She turned fifty last year, has finally filled out in places where she was at one time lean. Her face is soft but not flabby, can be stern when it needs to be but is filled with love all the time. She’s been pregnant five times, lost one pregnancy late term, and spent her lifetime raising the four of us. Sometimes when I allow myself to think about it, I remember her crying late at night when she thought we were all asleep, tallying up the family finances, thinking up a storm on how to make ends meet. I remember her buying us new clothes while she wore the same clothes time and time and time again.
Mama and Mum have one thing in common: they’ve both had hard lives.
Mama got married at twenty, Mum at eighteen, both to much older men.
Mama spent the first five years of married life having and losing children, finally held her first child (which happened to be Mum) at twenty five. Mum spent the first five years of married life bearing three children and desperately trying to hold on to a husband who had his eyes outside.
Before each of them turned thirty-five, their marriages had fallen apart, Mama was raising five children on her own. Mum was raising four. Grandpa and Mama lived for a while in a sort of truce, finally called in quits when Grandpa found himself a new woman. In Mum’s case, Dad took off into oblivion, not to be heard of for four years. When he returned, the damage was no longer repairable.
But these women have more than a hard life in common. They also share warmth, undampened humor, a desperate love for their children, their children’s children, and in Mama’s case, her children’s children’s children.
Sitting down with the two women, I feel a tightening in my chest and know that I will do everything and anything for these women who both nurtured me.
And in the same breath, it occurs to me that I will do even more for my daughter. I will die for her, perhaps kill for her, will gladly lay down all of the joy in my tomorrow if it means that she’ll never suffer the heartache my Mum and Mama suffered.
Jedidiah is three years old, bright and spunky and full of tremendous energy. She runs amok in her grandmother’s living room, upending miniature fake fruits. She picks a cluster of grapes and dangles them in front of Mum.
“Grandma, do you want some?”
Mum smiles and nods yes, pretends to snack on the grape and rubs her belly afterwards. “Thanks sweetheart. That just about filled me up.”
Jedidiah howls with delight, snatches the grapes from Mum and offers them to Mama. My grandmother and daughter are separated by seventy-two years and a language barrier but the gesture is unmistakable. Mama imitates Mum and manages to tell Jedidiah thank you in broken English.
Like the three mothers in the room, Jedidiah has known the love of a mother, basks in it with every breath that she takes. But unlike Mama, Mum and me, she also has the love of a father.
Unlike Mama and Mum, I have a husband who’s level headed, loves me with a hunger that is refreshing, and who lives for his daughter’s smiles.
“Do you want some food?” I ask everybody as I heave to my feet and start for the kitchen. I’ve been here since morning, leaving home right after my husband went to work. Jedidiah is on holidays from her kindergarten class, it is a work-free day for me, and it had sounded like a good idea to spend the day with Mum and Mama.
Mama replies in the negative and so does Mum. Jedidiah trails me into the kitchen and asks for a cup of yoghurt. As I hand her the cup, she breaks out into a huge smile and wraps her chubby arms around me.
“I love you mommee.”
I revel in her powdery smell and the love that surrounds us snugly. I know that as she grows, we will have our quarrels and differences in opinion. I know that there will be times of despair, of desperate prayers, of heart-wrenching frank talks. And I know that there will be times of joy, of hugs and sloppy kisses, of secrets to be shared only by women.
And I know I will never forget our bond. The bond of motherhood and daughterhood.
“I love you too, baby.”
She wrenches away from me and smiles again. “I can run faster than you.”
Before I can stop her, she’s running back to the living room, the yoghurt sloshing around in the cup. I sigh and follow and return to the easy camaraderie of four generations of women.
NB: I wrote this when my daughter was three. She is nine now, and I just stumbled on this from old files. This is dedicated to all the women out there who love their children selflessly.