Your bones hurt you in ways your children would never understand; not even Dike, your eldest son who has become a Medical Doctor. A smile tugs the corners of your wrinkling mouth when you think of your children and their children with pride, pride that threatens to explode your weary heart, your dear heart that had spent decades of respecting and loving, chastising and loving, being hurt and loving, loving, loving…
Seated on the rear end of the bus, you contemplate what it really means to be old. You realize it’s only your body that deteriorates with time, your heart, your mind remains intact after all these years. It doesn’t matter that ‘elderly responsibilities’ become the bane of your existence, if you look hard enough, you will find you are still the person you had always been right from that moment of your first consciousness of yourself.
Jason, your eldest grandchild constantly picks on you on what being old is like. You laugh and tell Jason the truth: you don’t feel old. You have a beautiful life, you followed your dreams, you married the man of your life and had him (intelligent imp that he was) in your battalion of descendants. You don’t tell him about the pains of childbirth no, you don’t tell him about going through it eight times all over again, for you are lucky, some of your peers married beasts who made them go through it up to 15times. Others died in the process. You do not tell him how his uncles and aunts hate you when they are growing up; you do not tell him how hard getting pension is these days, after sacrificing your energetic years in service of the Government. You do not tell him these things because your mother never told you.
When you finally enter your father’s compound you do not feel the rush of mixed emotions associated with going home for the first time in years, even though it has been 40 in your case. For it seems like you never left; catarrh stricken children in cheap underwear still garland the compound cooking concoctions of mashed leaves and sand; 7 year old boys still play koso ; an Nwadigo still pesters your father. Nwadigo, the bad egg of your family laid by one of your father’s promiscuous wives has always disrespected him, now that he is probably too busy for that as he rightly should be, he has probably met a more promiscuous woman and sired more juvenile delinquents. Because nothing has changed at all you begin to feel yourself get drawn into the loop of the vicissitudes of your family compound. But you remind yourself that even if nothing has changed, even though the inner you has not changed, you do not look like an 18 year old girl anymore, beautiful enough to attract attention, dignified enough to command respect. Jason would never understand these things.
So you sigh briefly at the perpetual scene which does not seem to have snapped out of its continuum then enter your Mother’s room. Beside her bed is a special stool which had been meant for you since childhood. It has been 40years since last you sat on this stool. On this stool, your hair has been braided, stories about boys that irritated you had been told and your dream to follow the Reverend Sisters had been shared.
When you first brought up the issue of the Reverend Sisters once upon an oil-lamped evening more than a decade ago, your Mother had stopped in mid-braid and wondered if you were mad. All the girls your age were preparing to get married and here you were, having stupid dreams about a place where there was no future for you. She advised you to bury such wanton dreams.
But you are young, dreams are what you spend all your time under the udala tree in your father’s compound on, until your step-brother Nwadigo drops insects atop your head. You can not throw them away, these precious dreams, you do not want your story to end within the boundaries of Orlu, you want to taste adventure, freedom. So even when your Father threatens to never let you into his compound if you follow those white women you are but excited.
You spent the last 30years as a nurse married to an Igala man far from your tribe. Even last night, you still giggled at the thought of what your parents must have felt when they were invited for the wedding. Ha, such abomination! You had lived your life in excitement until you heard some months ago that your mother is dead.
It’s such things as these that you can not tell Jason, your beloved grandson; the way you really suffer consequences in old age for decisions you took in the brazenness of youth. It was at that moment you heard the news that you realized how much you missed this special stool, this stool with so much memories. Of course, she is buried long before you could come, thanks to the arthritis that cripples you. There is no way your husband will let you on the road again till you feel better, he is still that caring soul you met about 4 decades ago. So once your personal Doctor and son, Dike declares you free from bed arrest, you board the next bus travelling to Imo. And that is how you find yourself on this dear stool, with no mother on the bed to unravel your hair.
For a moment, a perverse question rears it head at you, daring you to at least answer if not wonder about it. You wonder between you and your grandson Jason who has had it worse in life, he losing his mom at a young age and you loosing yours at an old one. He lost his before becoming a teenager and you had yours all these years, but you traded her with adventure and a new life. Losing his mother, your first born child had taken toll on him, but it made him into a man. Losing your mother has done only harm, placing an eternal rift between the two that not even an apology can brave.
Your mother isn’t here to braid your hair or say you are her little girl anymore, after 40 years you are months late. At the end, you decide you had the worse lot in life having lost your daughter and mother. To bury your parents is only natural, but there is something that sucks life out of you, preparing food at your offspring’s burial. You are not allowed to grieve the loss of your own daughter; there are important personalities to be served, her children to be consoled.
So on this precious stool, tears begin to flood your worn out eyes as you stare into the spider webs at the ceiling. You cry for your daughter who will never carry Jason’s first child as you carried hers; you cry for your grandmother who never met this people. You remember nights you emulated what you had with your mother by braiding your own daughter’s hair when she was growing up. Gradually, images of your mother and your daughter become one and you find yourself wailing for womanhood, its joys and its pains.
After hours of reminiscing on these two women of your life, your experiences with them interchanging, you rest your head on the side of the sweetly aged bed. It is not your mother’s lap, but it will do. Then bed must have been replaced over the years but it still had that timeless essence of your mother on it; that delicious mix of rust and wet sand and spice and womanhood. You love this smell.
From the dusty curtained window, you realize its already late afternoon. You peek through it at the local kitchen where tomatoes grew. The weak stems are already under the weight of new tomato berries. The goats still go about their business, the male ones sniffing the urine of the females for more inspiration to woo them. It is as though nothing happened; you had thought the compound would be deserted at the loss of your mother. Your father spends most of his days at the specialist hospital after, yet there he is at the courtyard, albeit a mass of non-responding vegetable whilst Nwadigo’s children make fun of him.
You realize anew that life must go on.
You walk outside with a new sense of purpose, resolving the conflict between two teenagers who are your relatives and chastising the younglings that mock your father. Unless they want to climb on one of his wives they must never think themselves his equals. A man will always be a man.
There is calm in the house as you leave, a semblance of order is restored. Maybe it’s just your deteriorating sight, but you think you see the ghost of a smile touch your father’s withered lips. Maybe one day, if Jason asks you about motherhood, you will tell him it is not a choice for the African woman, it is a duty. For now, you will once again take care of your family with all your heart and leave God to take care of you.
Your foot hits a huge stone at the entrance of the house as it did 40 years ago and you find yourself asking the nearest person what day it is. The mucus masked child tells you itseke, and you smile. Eke was the day you left home. Mother says it was the day you were born. It was the day your daughter was born and the day your mother died.
You smile to yourself, and adjust your headtie with the grace that can only come with age.
Life must go on.
(This short story has been published on the sentinel and literatinaija.com)