Ajoke has come home after ten years just to bury her mother…
“We buried Mama last week. David and I are only here to finalize on the sale of the house,” Ajadi said softly.
Her knees gave way and she slid into a nearby seat, Ajadi remaining ramrod in front of her. Was it pity she saw on his face? It was well deserved. She had just missed her mother’s burial. She had missed the last opportunity to pay her last respects to the greatest woman in the world; a woman she had fought and blamed almost all her adult life.
Ajadi’s sigh brought her to. He was just two years older than her but the years separating their relationship spanned a decade.
“She told me not to miss her burial. Begged me,” Ajoke whispered.
Ajadi stood still, tears shimmering in his eyes. What had gone wrong? Ajoke had been the darling of the family. She’d been their mother’s pride. Mama had taught her to hold her head up, to be proud; never to allow the boys to cheat her. Where had who gone wrong?
“The most important is that she lived well, and died fulfilled. And she’s in heaven. She served God to the very end. And she died peacefully,” Ajadi murmured.
“How did she die?” Ajoke asked. Her eyes were clear, but she wailed within.
“In her sleep, on her knees. We believe she must have woken up at some time in the night to pray and from there gone. There was a smile on her face.”
“Exactly how she would have wanted it. I’m glad though. You were here with her?” she looked at him.
“Banke and I and the children had wanted to spend the holidays with her but Banke couldn’t get away from work so we chose that weekend to come. She died on a Sunday morning.”
“How‘s Banke’s job as a… ur director in central bank?” Ajoke asked. She wasn’t sure.
“Fine. She got the break after all, for the burial.”
Ajoke remembered kicking against her brother marrying Banke because she was three years older than he was; in essence, she became the oldest daughter-in-law Mama had. To Ajoke’s chagrin, Banke stood as the eldest daughter till the end. Her war with Banke had come to an end. When the chips were down, Banke had been there.
“You say you are sure Mama did not have any pains, she wasn’t sick or anything?” Ajoke fiddled with her fingers.
“Are you disappointed, little sister?” David walked in, strolling to the refrigerator as though he’d been in on the conversation from the start.
“We decided to focus on how she lived, and the lessons she taught us. It’s no use dwelling on how she died. We must only learn from her life,” Ajadi said.
“We all did. Except one. Even Jesus had a one,” David said bitterly. He looked round and his face lit briefly as it alighted on Ajoke, “I see you got to the stout before me.”
“What are your plans, Ajoke?” Ajadi looked at her. “We were just about to go back to Lagos.”
“I hoped to spend the night.”
“That will not be possible,” David said, opening a can coke he’d found in the fridge. “The new owner takes possession of the keys today.”
“We can tell him to come tomorrow,” Ajadi pleaded softly. He turned away from his brother, ever the advocate, and looked at her. “He wants to use the place as a guest house so we’ve sold with most of the furniture, but Mama wanted you to have her bed and rocking chair…” Ajadi swallowed hard, battling tears. “We were going to move them to Lagos for you.”
“Those were her favourite possessions. Well, as usual, you win with her Frank. I’ll call Prestige and tell him to pick the keys tomorrow at 10?” he looked at Ajoke.
“Ten is fine. I’ll like to see her grave.”
“It’s at the cemetery. The freshest grave you’ll see. The only one with green marble.”
Green marble. They already had marble for Mama.
“Her favourite colour,” Ajoke mumbled.
“Frank, we need to leave now. I still need to branch Ede to pick the boarding house children,” David said matter-of-fact.
“Of course. I’m also ready.” He moved toward the rooms, leaving an awkward silence behind.
“How are Bibiana and your children?” Ajoke asked softly. She had never approved of the Mexican woman either, because of her lineage.
“They are all fine. Jemima will be getting married in a few weeks. We thought we’d tell you at the burial,” David said, flippantly.
“That should be your second daughter, right?” Ajoke asked, rhetorically. “How are my baby brothers?” she looked at him tiredly.
“They all missed you,” he said, softening his voice for the first time since he came in. “We all do need family, after all,” he added sarcastically.
Ajadi came out of the room with two overnight bags and looked at them both. “All set.”
It would have been so awkward to hug themselves or do anything so personal but Ajadi pulled Ajoke into his arms all the same. It felt particularly difficult. She had not hugged anyone in over ten years. In fact, it seemed her life practically ended with the divorce. David stood back, and watched rigidly as
Ajoke clung to her brother.
“The keys are all in the lock. Feel free to stay as long as you wish,” Ajadi said as he drew back. There were tears again in his eyes, but he controlled them from spilling. Both men headed for the door and only stopped when she spoke.
“David, Frank” she paused as they turned to face her. She’d never called them those names. “I’m sorry. For everything.” It was another first.
Mama’s room was just as Ajoke would have expected, all neat and tidy. The room looked like it had only just been cleaned. All Mama’s things were left as she would have them.
At first, a deep anger roused in Ajoke. Did they expect her to dispose of Mama’s old things? What was the work of all their pretty and rich wives? But she was the daughter. The only daughter.
She sat at the edge of the bed and looked for the emotions expected. They were not close. When would she finally feel something, anything apart from bitter hatred?
She opened the wardrobe and looked through all Mama’s clothes. They’d done the wardrobe good. Several Holland fabrics yet to be sewn lay in a neat pile to one corner. She liked the colours too and was already planning what she could do with them. Her tailor was a great one, who she’d kept for almost twenty years. But these were clothes her brothers had bought for Mama! She looked through the hung clothes and brought out a pretty floral gown. It was well laundered and looked recently used. The dress brought the emotions Ajoke had searched for.
As she struggled to control emotions well locked away in the prison yard of bitterness and anger, the story behind the dress came to her vividly. She’d given Mama the dress when she came to visit her in Lagos for the first time. Mama had again warned her of life on the fast lane. And she had again reassured her.
“Mum, you worry your head too much,” had been her parting statement.
Ajoke continued to look through her mother’s wardrobe and saw several other articles she’d bought for her years earlier. They brought the memories like a flood. And the emotions, like a dam, preceded, cleansing, freeing her. She was clutching the favourite dress… the one she gave back to Mama after they fell out. Mama had given her the dress as a birthday gift. When the tears dried, she looked at the dress again and noticed the letter pinned to the right breast. Mama Mama Mama. How well she could predict her only daughter.
She sniffed and opened the letter. Mama had apologized and asked for forgiveness.
“I should ask you to forgive me, Mama. I changed. You did your best for me.”
She stood up and clutching the letter to her chest walked in the early dusk through several corners in the village to the community church cemetery. She located Mama’s grave at once and went to lie on the cold stone. She was fifty years old, yet she felt like a child again, cuddling on to her mother.
“Mama,” she finally whispered as darkness enveloped her and she sat up, gazing at the stars up ahead.
“I know you are up there, watching me. That’s why I will spend the night just talking with you. Telling you all the things I wanted to all those years…
“First, you should know I did have an abortion though I lied to you I didn’t.”
She heaved a heavy sigh and cried for a while, and then began to laugh.
“Wooh, it feels so good to be able to say it. You were right in the end. You told me the story your mother told you about your grandmother’s sister’s daughter, and I thought it was just an old woman’s tale. Now I’ve re-written the tragedy in my own life…
“You’re right. A woman never gets over an abortion you always said, no matter how many children she has. I ended up with one abortion. One too many…
“That summer we travelled to Ghana together, I told you it was for medical check? I lied. It was for surgery. That’s why I was so sick on that trip. You thought I was reacting to the drugs I took? No, Mama. It was a surgery checking out my fertility problems. I can’t quite remember the name of the surgery now… that was twenty-two years ago? Yes, twenty-two. Like yesterday. If I could take the years back…
“Adoption would have been the best. I do agree with you now. Contrary to what I told you, Bode was ready to adopt a child, I was the one who refused just to hurt you… and him, I guess. So it won’t look like I took your advice. That’s why Bode asked for the divorce…” She choked and sobbed briefly.
“Oh Mama, I’m so sorry. So sorry. I am miserable now. I miss Bode so badly I sometimes want to kill myself…
“Mama, I want to go back and beg him. Should I? I think I should. I will…” She laughed briefly. “I can just imagine the look on his face when he sees me… Who knows he may have remarried… No, he hasn’t. At least as at two years ago. God, Mama, I can’t believe I’m talking about Bode and laughing… I still love him very much…
“I’m sorry, Bode. I didn’t tell you about the abortion I had just before we met. I thought one abortion should not be such an issue and see what it did to me… to us. I love you,” she whispered. “I love you, Mama. I love everyone so deeply. I miss everyone… I’m so lonely…
“See how I antagonized everyone, Frank, David, Ige… I miss them now, and their children. I pretend as though I don’t know their children but I do. I mark all their celebrations in my heart…
“Mama, you forever live in my heart. I will take your advise… I will do everything you ever asked. I will serve your God as you’ve asked of me. I will mother your children now…
“I can. I will.”
Dawn was breaking when Ajoke gathered herself up and headed back to the house. She never noticed the two men, Dauda and Ajadi, lurking in the shadows, after having spent the night with her at the graveside. They’d thought she could harm herself and hung around the house, and then followed her out.
They’d never been prepared for what they saw and heard as they both soberly headed back to their jeeps, parked a kilometre away from the cemetery.
My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments;
Proverbs 3:1 RSV
By Sinmisola Ogunyinka