‘You are so busy making a living, you forget to live your life’.
It was a cold winter morning and I decided to take a Uber ride. I had the app on my phone but never bothered with it. It was a black sedan.The ride was swift and smooth. I wished I had taken one earlier.
My driver was a slender woman with blonde hair that looked straight out of a bottle. Her bangs were uneven, her eyes were bright and friendly. Her name was Cindy.
She had a basket of candies in the crook between the back and the front seats. She asked me if I wanted a chocolate bar. I shook my head and smiled. She used to drive for a trucking company. She said her job entailed driving for an average of eleven hours daily. It was an industry where women comprised 8% of the work force when she started eight years ago.
“I remember driving to small towns in Illinois and seeing people get out of their cars and homes….all wanting to see if I could park my semi. I used to be like..really?!” Her laughter was contagious and girly.
She wore a black tank on black jeans. A blue- black tatoo of a fire breathing dragon curled from her right shoulder to her elbow. It was beautiful.
‘Driving for uber gives me flexibility. I have a two years old son and don’t have to pay for child care. Plus, I get to spend more time with my son. I work from 3 to 11 am every day.’ I express shock at her start time. She tells me she doesn’t sleep much….might as well make money instead of tussing and turning. She tells me about her teenage years….her bad choices. She says she is trying to do better…since she knows better.
I feel my eyes grow heavy listening to the soft lull of her sing- song voice…and quickly roused myself.
I looked out the window. It was snowing. The white crusted crystals fell quickly and melted almost immediately they hit the window. My eyes strayed again to the dragon on her shoulder. It’s fiery eyes red embers. I looked away.
I walked with the basket of vegetables expertly perched on my crown. My arms were stylishly poised around my waist….like Nne Ngozi’s. My neck didn’t ache. I had practised in from of my mother’s full length mirror before I left home. I’ve been practising for weeks. Today I have been allowed to visit Chuka alone. Prior to today, on all my trips I had been accompanied by my older brother, Emeka. Emeka was free to roam with his friends now, or visit with Nneka…. his intended.
My waist was adorned by four rows of brightly colored beads. My thick curly hair were in six shiny corn rows. I wore no shoes. I never did.
Marriage. The word unleashed a plethora of emotions within me. All my older cousins had married earlier….sixteen, seventeen. My mother said she came to my father’s homestead a week short of her sixteenth birthday. So, I guess at eighteen, I would be considered over the hill. My mother had requested I finish high school. My father reluctantly agreed. “She will bring more to a marriage well schooled”. He didn’t argue. All their bantering on the subject had been done behind closed doors. She won. I won. As my slender limbs drew me closer to my destination I thought about the many suitors that has made their intentions clear. There was Mazi Ochuko, the village carpenter. My skin crawled. A short, stocky fellow with a unibrow. He always drooled like a lecher whenever he saw me in the market. When he came to ask for my hand in marriage, my father threw his head back and laughed. My father was a tall man with broad shoulders. His skin like polished wood. His teeth a sharp contrast to his complexion. Read More
I was born in the later 70s in the back of a towing truck. My parents had snuck off late in the night in my Grandpa’s Chevy. They were both seventeen and believed they were madly in love. Even after I was conceived, they still believed they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. They were banned from seeing each other, which was laughable considering she was already pregnant. And so, that dark rainy night they were going to run away together to San Antonio. San Antonio was their choice because my Dad’s older brother was living there. Anyway, as they made their way in his father’s stolen vehicle…I decided it was time. In panic,Dad skidded of the road and I ended up being born at the back of the tow truck that was towing their vehicle to the garage.
I heard when both sets of grandparents saw me for the first time in the hospital, all ill feelings previously that soured their relations gave way. My mother was no longer the little whore who threw herself at my father and my father was no longer the little bastard that defiled my mother. My parents relationship continued to college, but, by the time they both hit their early twenties, they had outgrown each other. He wanted to go on to medical school….. she wanted to travel to Sub-Saharan Africa to teach English Language. They had me in common but that’s all that remained of their teenage indiscretion.
I was raised by both sets of grandparents. I did not grow up with hangups that came along with having teenage parents. I grew up seeing my parents more like older siblings, I mean, they were barely children themselves when they had me. We all grew together. My grandmothers were a force to be reckoned with. I was completely home-schooled till I was thirteen by my maternal grandmother and spent my weekends with my paternal grandparents. My birthdays were always a bit of a carnival in our town. My grandmothers always showed up in my high school with cookies for my teachers and class mates. I was the only one who felt the flame of embarrassment. They didn’t care.
At my high school prom, my parents and grandparents ferried my date and I in convoy to the dance. I thought I was going to die. They didn’t care. When I started dating, I would sneak around to avoid the barrage of questions. Our relationships were not without its tense moments, but, I knew I was loved spectacularly. When I broke up with my first boyfriend and thought the world was at the end, my two grandmas whipped my tears and took me shopping. Many years later, I found out they both slashed my ex’s tires that night after I had fallen asleep. They were feisty, fun and didn’t hesitate to test my butt when I stepped out of line.
When I decided to take a year off college to go on tour with my band, they encouraged me even though they were uncomfortable with the thought of a group of teenagers living rough for a year. They believed in me and that checked me. I only lasted six months before I ran back home into their waiting arms…and back to school.
I like to believe their love and investments in my life has made me a better person. I am extremely generous with my time when it comes to my family. I will drop anything and everything to be at their side, no matter what.
From time to time though, I wonder what would have happened if my parents had made it to San Antonio.
During this special weekend, I will be sharing a few stories. I have a few friends who have shared their stories with me. My friends and I have a lot in common, most importantly, we all had spectacular relationships with our respective mothers.
I was born into a big family. The last of eight children. I have very little recollection of my father. He never came back from Vietnam. My maternal grandmother was our matriarch. For a woman who stood barely four feet five inches tall, she commanded such awe and respect. My mother with the assistance of her mother raised five daughters and three sons. She was a school teacher and her finances were spread thin catering for our household. We didn’t have much material wise but our home was awash with love. I excelled in athletics, especially in wrestling and was able to clinch a full scholarship to college. My mother was ecstatic. My two older brothers had both joined the army-our ‘mothers’ were not happy with their choices. My sisters had gone on to college and were all experiencing great things in their chosen careers. I had dabbled into the wrong company in high school and had made some wrong choices. Back in those days, in the late seventies-drugs had become a common feature in the social circuits. We were the generation sprung in the shadow of Woodstock. There was so much decadence…so much indulgence.
With my choosing to go to college, I had effectually turned my back on all the negative influences my mother worried had the potential to destroy my future. My choice was a small liberal arts college that had a vibrant African American community. I took long walks, wrote long letters to my grandma and mama. I spent my days fully engaged in my academics and athletics. My mother was my compass and I kept my eyes fully fixed on the prize. I left school within record time and was able to secure an appointment as a teacher in an elementary school. My feet were firmly planted in the direction of my beloved compass! I moved back home into my old room-across the corridor from Mama’s bedroom. I was enjoying the warmth of my mother and grandma’s constant love. Mama had retired but was a part time volunteer in the high school she had spent thirty five years of her forty years of public service. Many of her students had gone on to do great things, in fact, the current principal at my return was one of them.
Two years into my return home, my mother fell ill. In hindsight, I felt a nagging heaviness I could not shake. The constant hospital stays, the tests and the shadow that fell upon Mama’s face were a constant reminder a storm was gathering. My siblings and I kept a roaster. We all did our part: constantly encouraging, echoing bible scriptures our mother had taught us as children. My grandma seemed to shrink within herself…almost like she was fading away. I remember I woke up one night and found my Grandma sitting alone in the kitchen, staring into an empty tea cup. I pulled up a chair and sat beside her. My mother had undergone a procedure the day before, the prognosis wasn’t good. “I will not bury your mother”. She spoke in a raspy whisper, I almost didn’t hear. She died a week later, in her sleep. Grandma’s death crushed us but in light of Mama’s health we couldn’t fall apart.
My mother passed exactly a month after the surgery. I don’t think there are exact words to describe my life after my compass was broken. I took a couple of months off work. I remember the wake, the burial and weeks after that. I spent my days in my bedroom, blinds closed and completely turned my back on the world. My brothers went back to their posts, ,my sisters all lived out of state. We all grieved for our loss but in retrospect I think my loss was the most devastating. My brothers had their commissions, my sisters apart from their chosen carriers had spouses and children. I was the only one whose family, whose center had been completely obliterated. Remember the choices I had turned my back on when I said yes to college? Well, I fell head first down that dark hole. I was in so much pain, I snorted everything that took the pain away, even though they were temporary fixes. It seemed I stumbled into a dark room and some how, couldn’t find the door. Teaching during the day, shooting up or snorting cocaine at night.
I can’t remember exactly when it dawned on me, I was going to die. If I continued to make the wrong choices, these choices my Mama prayed against. These choices I promised my Grandma I would never make-I would eventually die. Alone. I couldn’t remember when last I slept properly in three years. I had lost almost forty pounds. And so, I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and enrolled in a rehabilitation program. Failing was not an option for me. I went cold turkey. My body was racked in so much pain, my head felt like it was going to explode. My nights were plagued with dreams. I would find myself running down a dark corridor, ahead of me I could make out the familiar posture of my Grandma. And even though, I was running I never caught up with her. I would find myself getting tired and would slowly come to a stop. At times, I would hear my Mama’s voice calling from far away and would wake up drenched in sweat.
When I came out of rehab, I moved to another town and went back to school. My siblings and I sold the house and I was able to have a soft landing from my share of the proceeds. I eventually went back to teaching after a stint in the public relations industry. I found my compass again, it was etched in my heart. Though I went through fire, I came out singed but not destroyed. My Mother and Grandma were my center, my voice of reason, my compass. It’s been over twenty years and from time to time I still catch myself feeling deep sorrow. I don’t think one ever fully recovers from some losses.
I’m sitting at the Istanbul Int’l airport, waiting for my connecting flight back home to Nigeria. I had been on a ten-day course in the Galilee College Israel. I was fortunate to have a little peek to what the capital city looked like…through the window.
I had five hours to kill (or so I thought, turned out to be almost seven hours. My flight was delayed due to bad weather). I sat there wishing I had bothered to get a transit visa, and then I would have been able to tour the city a little before boarding for my final destination, home.
Anyway, I’ve managed to kill some three hours so far: took a shower, made multiple trips to the buffet table, and made good conversation with a friend I had made during the course at the Galilee College who was also travelling on the same route and plane as yours truly.
I’m deep in thought as I watch the crowd of people come and go. I’m thinking to myself:The world is like an airport. Everyone rushing to their final destinations, arriving at different time…everyone in a mad rush. As my eyes wonder back to the big windows, I gasp with wonder. My friend looks at me sharply, a question on his face.
“It’s snowing” I respond with a big grin on my face. He glances towards the direction of my gaze.
“Oh yes, so it is”. He responds before promptly turning towards his book. I remember he is well travelled and not unfamiliar with what presently held me spell bound.
I had read about it, watched it fall in movies and international news, but to see it, coming from a climate that I had never experienced. For me, it was truly amazing. Realizing, I may be the only person in the room that felt excitement for seeing snow flakes, I decided to curb my enthusiasm.
However, I couldn’t help myself. My eyes kept on straying to the window. My companion would look up from his book and try to hide a bemused smile. I didn’t care. I was like a child, experiencing something absolutely beautiful. The pure white flakes rained and fogged the atmosphere. I felt giddy and hoped it was still snowing when my flight was called.
Lady luck was in my corner that day, as I made my way into the cold wintry air, I looked forward to feel the snowy flakes fall on my face and watch it melt away on my coat sleeve. I watched it slide and smiled to myself. Finally, I decided to taste it.
Right there, in the full glare of some of the other passengers (I got some stares but didn’t care); I stuck out my tongue and let some flakes settle on my tongue. It melted in my mouth and was just like the crusty ice that embedded itself in my freezer back home, whenever NEPA allowed it to form.
I settled myself in my seat on the plane and close my eyes briefly in prayer before staring out the window, again. I loved window seats. It gives you the opportunity to experience your journey from take-off to landing…something many people don’t particularly think or care about. Everyone always seems to be in a mad rush….” We don’t take time to take deep breathes, look into each others eyes…and really see the other person. We don’t savor meals, just want to stop being hungry. We don’t take the time to look into the heart of whoever we’ve been blessed to meet, we just want them to meet our needs and then dispose of them, hurting them and cheating ourselves. We don’t take the time to unravel our issues, we just stick them down our loved ones throat and expect them to deal with things we selfishly wouldn’t take from others……”
Someone clears his throat beside me. I reluctantly pull my eyes away from the window and look up towards the gangway. It’s a middle aged man I had noticed was on the queue behind me on entering the plane. He flashed a smile, exposing a gapped tooth which reminded me of my mother. “I stuck out my tongue the first time too”. He whispered conspiratorially and winked before moving away.
I felt a warm glow encircle me and then turned back to watch the beautiful, white blanket encircle the plane.
Her beautiful, dark, almond shaped eyes give away her Asian descent. They brightened with joy as her daughter flew into her arms. The little girl wrapped her slender arms around her mother’s painfully thin frame and for moments, they seemed oblivious to the world around them.
The little girl’s cherubic face was awash with joy. Her eyes were clamped shut and her mouth open in silent laughter, head partially hid in the crook of her mother’s shoulder. The young mother whispered words of endearment I guessed into her daughter’s ears. Swinging her round, and around and around.
Watching them from where I stood in the shadow of the hallway, I felt like an intruder watching something almost intimate, something I had no business witnessing. Something beautiful, something pristine. Blind, unadulterated, all-consuming love between a mother and her much –missed child. Yet, still, I couldn’t pull myself away. Not yet.
The mother had not seen her daughter in a year I had overheard a teacher say, as I waited for my children to join me from their respective classes.
One year?! I gradually took it in and then imagined walking in her shoes. One year of not seeing their grubby, smiling faces. One year of not picking up after them. One year of not doing chores I complain insistently about. One year of not being constantly interrupted when speaking with their Dad, or of not making sign language to each other for some “quality time”. One year of not screaming at their obtrusiveness, “can’t you see I’m on the phone?” One year of no car pools, drop-offs and showing up half asleep for little league practice. One year of silence….. Waiting, not knowing where they were, what they were doing, what or who made them cry. One year of not having the things I take for granted.
Finally, I tear my eyes away and go back into the school with a big grin on my face. My noisy, unruly musketeers had finally finished their classes. They run towards me making so much noise. Three grubby little children laughing and chatting excitedly about their day. Today, I’m more receptive. I’m really listening and not answering mechanically, halfheartedly. I’m really happy to listen and not pretending to care. I match their enthusiasm and really see them clearly.
As I walk away with my children, I pass the young mother and her child still clasped in each other’s arms and then, I thank my God for my “noisy” little blessings.
The lie was not deliberate. It started with her name and just developed a life of its own. A life she resented but lacked the strength or resolve to destroy. Initially, she found it amusing, then just shrugged it off whenever there was reference to it. Her coworkers took her nonchalance attitude as humility.
When she was first interviewed as an administrative assistant in Ascension, a multi million dollar publicity corporation with shoots springing up all over the globe, Adetutu’s name caught the attention of the HR manager. After she had been employed and started the mandatory one month long orientation exercise, the manager, an African American, middle aged man Horatio Clitard did his best to acquaint her with her schedule.
He was closer to retirement than most of the management staff. He had spent almost forty years in Ascension and knew all the upper echelon staff and referred to them by their first names. It was hard to guess his age. A tall, dark skinned man with beautiful pearly teeth and a rumbustious laughter. The Clit, as he was called behind his back had become something of a legend in the corporation. It was he, who decided who was shortlisted for any top position in management, who went on course to Yale, who was chosen to strengthen the companies ties to Asia. He may have seen unlikely as the voice the CEO listened to but those who had served long enough in the corridors of power knew he was the one who decided which square peg was best suited for any square hole. And so, when Horatio peppered her with questions of her heritage, all within earshot paid close attention.
He had read about the Yoruba tribe of Africa and so inferred from the root of her name “Ade”she was royalty. “Adetutu Adebimpe”. He said her name with the right notations…which was unusual for Tutu. She had gone through school hearing her name called different things but what it really was. Only at home was it called properly by her family and so she knew, Horatio had taken the time to practice saying it long before he said it out loud. Tutu shot to her feet. We have a real princess in our midst people. Horatio addressed the whole class, all one hundred new intakes with his eyes firmly on Adetutu. He lectured them on the root of her name, or atleast what he thought was the root of her name. He said her genealogy could be traced back to the Ooni of Ife, who was to the Yoruba Kingdom what David was to the Israelites. She was a true African princess, the real McCoy.
Tutu failed to correct him,her great grandfather had migrated from Benin Republic to Nigeria in the early 1800s. He had started a small but prosperous village along with his brothers and their respective families. Back in those days, polygamy guaranteed a man a slew of women and plenty of children to help cultivate a vast farmland.Her great grandfather being the oldest had been named the Ba’ale,something of a mayor and not a king. Her grandfather had fled from Benin Republic in his teens to escape the family pressures and sporadic violence that had broken out in the village due to the claims to the property acquired by the brothers.
Her grandfather had kept his father’s first name has his surname,a ploy he hoped would keep him hidden in plain sight. It worked. the name was a throwback to the past…when her ancestor was the Ba’ale of his village.
She didn’t correct Horatio.She reasoned, it didn’t matter what they thought. What mattered was her job and her need to stand apart from the rest. She did not do well at her job however,she excelled at it. And so, the African princess became Admin Officer and by the time a decade had rolled by, several promotions and courses at Ascensions’ expense later,she had risen to the upper management position she had coveted from day one: Executive Vice President, North America,Ascension. Horatio Clitard had retired. She had given the toast at his retirement party and never neglected to send him two presents each year: one for his birthday, another for Christmas. The lie seemed to have been retired too, it seemed until the Ooni of Ife passed on to be with his ancestors, and all hell let loose.
Her phone rang incessantly from colleageus all over the world. All wanting to offer their condolences on the death of her “uncle”. Ascension colleagues across the globe reached out to her, her office was awash with flowers, and cards. Some sent her expensive chocolates.She was a princess,afterall, they remembered and should be treated as such.She was stunned. Adetutu kept her eyes downcast whenever someone approached her to offer their condolences. She didn’t even know where Ife was, not to talk of the king. She felt like a fraud everytime someone asked her when her “uncle”was to be buried.
She stayed in her office and avoided contact with coworkers, when she declined the routine TGIF night outing, her friends at work made excuses on her behalf: she’s still grieving. She knew the night would be riddled with questions on the burial rites of her uncle. Every time she took a bite from her stash of chocolates and felt the molten wonder of caramel melt on her tongue she asked God’s forgiveness.With her annual leave looming in the horizon, she diligently planned a trip home, to her parents, home to Chicago and not Ife, Nigeria like her friends assumed.
She told me she was Jamaican. A doctorate student of Psychology. I guess that was why she was more receptive to my intrusion. Most likely thinking: maybe this woman is suffering from a late onset psychosis brought on by grief. She told me, she had recently lost her mother, the culprit: cancer. I listened to her, a total stranger upheaval her precious thoughts on the emotional roller-coaster she couldn’t get off. The effect her loss was having on her relationships: the tensions between herself and her boyfriend, the loneliness she felt because her family was so far away. She started to cry…I didn’t feel awkward handing her my tissues and buying her more coffee. That was the least I could do after helping her come undone with the imposition of my person.
And hopefully helps you adjust your lenses to focus on what really matters.