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Finding Mother: Journeys of My Melancholy Nights

A mother playing with her son. Photo Credit:Google.
By Femi Oluokun.

The night before I had turned sixty, or, perhaps sixty-one, can’t recall which, I lay on my back in bed, hands crossed behind my head suffering insomnia yet fervently finding sleep, which, of course, finally did seize me. But I had awakened that day to the crows of my neighbourhood roosters,shaving,after a morning bath, a three-day growth beard before the bathroom glass mirror looking at a man with grey mustache, tufts of aluminum hair at the temples of whose middle revealed a shining skull, and with face and eyes like mine. Only it was, actually, me.

Far from thought of an apparition, I seemed undisturbed by the identity which, I must admit, wasn’t at all deceptive. ‘A man changes’, but his eyes’, my doctor once told me, ‘doesn’t’. Convinced by the thought of that re-echoed notion, I leaned forward and took one closer look at the mirror for reassurance it was same as when I was a boy. But instead of hoping for a sudden epiphany, the inspection, I realised was merely a blank stare signifying thoughts rather than seeing, the kind that made things invisible, that doesn’t let anything in.

Enters Adeola, my wife. ‘Mom says she’s expecting you at the table’, she said, breaking off the reverie, ‘I just served breakfast’. From the mirror, without turning towards her, I cast a glance. Her hair was wrapped in a thick white towel. Save for her matronly hairs, Adeola didn’t change much, for she still walked with natural poise, her eyes unmoving, and yet her doe like gait made her seemed immune to gravity. Our home remarked her great force, for throughout the house one saw the care and good sense of a diligent woman whose feet were rooted firmly on the ground. ‘How fortunate’, I thought, as she had begun to undo the towel so that her hair, damp and dark, fell across her back, ‘time and age had favoured her handsomely’. Although eight years younger than me, she appeared as if she was half my age, for she looked graceful in her bathrobe. ‘Thanks honey’, I replied.‘I’ll be there in a minute’, adding as I finally looked over my shoulder at her, requesting she brought my spectacles for myopia. ‘Check my reading desk’, I said, pointing, in a manner of gesture, the lathered Gillette in my right hand, towards direction of the study room, ‘must have left it there….’ ‘Femi’, she interrupted with a smile, while draping the white towel over the shower curtain, ‘you have them on’.

Not a case of senility: my oft-repeated self-consolation. In any event, instead at the dining table, I found her sitting in bed, in her room, dressed in a fine apparel of turquoise lace from which rose the scent of camphor. She must have finished eating a long time ago, but it couldn’t be established nor could I remember if I ever sat at the table with her as requested, for she was preparing for a party and when she had asked ‘what time it is’, I had told her four o’ clock. She cast a glance at the bedroom window through which the afternoon sunbeam was moving towards her. Just like Adeola, time seemed to have stood still for her too, for she hadn’t changed from what she looked like when I was in my late thirties. On the contrary, she was seventy. And like the imperturbable reflection of my image in the mirror, I wasn’t shocked to see her, in fact, dressing for a party. Mother was a killer dresser of fine fabrics who liked to party. ‘Please help me with my necklace?’ she requested, holding it up. Returning from the window where I had drawn down the curtain, I went and took the jewelry from her, one of the many she had selected from a trinket box, and hooked it around her neck. She turned her head sideways, and smiled her thanks. I made to leave when she added, ‘one more thing, Femi’. She held out her bangles of fine gold. I sighed.

Practice of this domestic obligation wasn’t strange. It was what I did, for her, when I was younger, of those days we used to live together, alone. For then, she often would say,‘By the time you marry, you may have to help your wife with say, her headgear sometimes’. She would stress the headgear part. And yours truly Oyomesi would reply, ‘Humour me, mom, perhaps you meant to say I may have to plait her hair in cornrow, sometimes’ and we would both chuckle, but not without adding as her punch line, ’O baidi baba e’. Now, I must admit, I understood her better. (Our wives, in taking advantage of the novelty of love, are limitless and sometimes boundless on what they would ask we oblige them. Really)

 
In truth, it was one year, four months, and six days after her body had been laid in the episcopal coffin, with its brass handles and tufted linings, on Wednesday, November 3, 2012, (two days to my birthday) at nine-thirty in the night, to be precise that I had finished eating dinner at the balcony, and belched then lowered my head to my chest, and fell asleep. It was dusk, and a young boy was riding a bicycle about the street, back and forth, back and forth. His identity, at first, was unknown, that Mother suspected he was sinister. She had had a sleepless night and arose from her bed at about one o’clock to peep at the window when she saw the rider. Quickly, in tiptoes, she dashed into my room and informed me of it, then we stood together watching him discreetly. He was no stranger or sinister, after all, for he turned out to be a classmate I knew in my days in primary school: his name, Gbenga Lawal.

On this occasion, I hadn’t been the man in the mirror, for then I was about what I looked like in the year she was buried. And I had returned home tired from work after a devastating downpour. Adeola like an alchemist knew the elixir, so she made me hot beverage: Horlicks and milk, and I were as out like a light. Bunmi Adigun and Kunle Omotunde (both friends of mine) joined the company of Lanre Akinyemi, a titular cousin and me in front of the former’s house where we stood singing, a capella. Lanre and I had just finished singing JODECI’S, ‘Forever My Lady’, and were on the bridge of ‘Comforter’ by SHAI, (a most sensational part of the song, for it is here our mere mouth replicate the sonority of the saxophone) when the duo joined in in the song. That night, we quadruple sang body and soul like the band on Titanic. But this was no dying moment, however, no sooner had that ended that we were debating another to be sung when Papa, my nephew came calling that Mother wants me back home. No one, not even I seemed jolted by the call, for it was as if expected. ‘Bro, its ten o’clock’, said Bunmi, ‘all men should get going’. And in the starshine, we parted company in different direction, each one accompanied with his thoughts. For my part, I carried with me Babyface’s and Jon B’s verses from ‘Someone To Love’.When I returned home and chimed the doorbell, the door opened, and in the shadowy interior stood Mother.‘Now, you’re going to have me warm your dinner the umpteenth time’, she said. She was, indeed, someone to love.

It never seemed she appeared from very far away and very long ago. For one evening, on another occasion, my maternal brother, Yomi (maternal, because I have a paternal of the same name) was home. In fact, we were actually sitting together with Mother in the living room, talking. Although it couldn’t, however, be established what Mother had told us, for I no longer remembered. Though, I wish I could or did,but then came my daughter’s, (Anjola, twenty-one months old), voice coming from the lobby, as she broke into a rhyme:

Shitty shitty

Poopoo poopoo

Pissy pissy

Messy messy

E no good o…!

She was in the company of our tenants’ children,whose voices, in the second stanza, because they were a little older, now drowned hers in the rhyme. The youngest of the lot, Ijeoma, had defecated in her pant at our apartment lobby, and when Mother, Yomi and I arrived the scene to figure out what was amiss, we found Ijeoma, thirteen months old, encircled by other kids, standing immobile, her look replete with the innocence of a child, but in actual fact, was browbeaten by the humiliation of her peers dirge. By the time Mother called out to the turd expelled kid’s mother instructing her to give cares, and left for her bedroom alone, none of us ever felt the heavy weight of time we had lost while she was away.

Another time, I remembered vividly her word and deed the night I travelled to Ilorin. I was to have an exclusive interview with Bolaji Abdullahi, State Commissioner for Education, Science and Technology. I had unpacked my overnight bag after a cold bath, in my hotel room, and made for the bed. Then she threw a welcome mat for me at home, as it turned out that I had just returned from school. She seemed happy and broke the news: news of my dad’s homecoming. Dad had, indeed, stayed in the United States for more than eighteen or nineteen years now, and his homecoming had been long anticipated. ‘See?’ she said, holding up a white-washed blue mail, with a flying falcon and USA 45 imprinted on the top right and AEROGRAMME I VIA AIRMAIL I PAR AVION written on its bottom left. Dad resided in Tampa.Only the mail carried an address in D.C, but it was from him, anyway. Strangely, the letter hadn’t been broken. How come she learned the content read homecoming, I wondered? Truth to her saying, however, it read his arrival to the country the day after. The mail took longer to deliver than necessary, because of the thankless inert services of NIPOST, we both agreed. Having fuss about the late delivery, she yet began, in earnest, preparation in honour of his reception.

Three days ago, when I began to write this piece, a family meeting held. Notable in the fold were my father, maternal Grandma, step-moms, yes step-moms, Uncle Dotun (my dad’s youngest brother), and Mother. I was the reason for this sit-down. Why? Pure and simple, I had impregnated a girl. That’s why the voice of my father kept reverberating behind the closed door of our living room, where the meeting held. He wasn’t happy with me. Hear him: ‘Is this what Femi should consider priority, now?’ he told the gathering, then as if lost for words he added, ‘I mean, I don’t… don’t understand’. His grouse, however, was understandable. In my absence, Bisi and her mother, the day before, had been home to meet their potential in-law: my folks. It was then they broke the news.Bisi was the impregnated girl, and as it turned out, I had only turned nineteen. ‘Instead of him to be thinking of how to further his education, he went to impregnate someone’, my father kept saying. Outside, Mother waited to receive me and choreograph me on how I handle matters. ‘Whatever your father says, just tell him you are sorry’, Mother told me.

Until, 1999, when Kunle, my oldest brother died, death, in my maternal family had been conceived as a misfortune that befell others: other people’s fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, brothers and sisters, but not ours. For in actual fact we often heard news of deaths of those she had acquaintance, that when death news of these other people broke and reached her, she would breakdown and cry. That was all we would ever do: breakdown and cry for others’ sorrow, I often thought. Never thought we would suffer same fate someday, or maybe I in particular had shut my eyes to its eventuality. So it was that when Kunle died after a long illness, it was like a tornado hit the house, for it devastated everyone, most especially Mother. It was then she succumbed to the beckons of old age, that in the same year she retired after forty years of meritorious service as restaurateur.FEM RESTAURANT, in those years, served delectable hot meals of African dish. It was second to none, that even in the year after, she excused herself from social functions, retiring her inspired feet from dancing to Ebenezer Obey’s Miliki tunes. True, Mother loved to dance and she danced well. Pruning this convivial path, she hadn’t accepted a social engagement that was not obligatory. Instead, she was more for the church like she married to Jesus.

In the mornings when my neighbour’s first roosters, accomplice in the Peter’s three denials of Christ crows,during these chance meetings with Mother, I was always devastated, depressed, and disappointed, for I am almost always confronted by a gale of startling revelations. That, in actual fact, mom wasn’t expecting me at the table as told me by Adeola, that I neither wore eyeglasses for myopia nor long sightedness, that I never found her in her room nor was she preparing for any party, at that, that I, indeed, did know Gbenga Lawal, but hadn’t seen him since we last sat for common entrance in the eighties, moreover, he didn’t reside in my neighbourhood nor ever did, that I did admit we sang like nightingales under sunshine and starshine, but it had been more than sixteen years since Lanre and I walked holding hands, or stood together singing songs of soul to kill idleness of years past, and that he had relocated to Abuja after school, about four years and six months before Mother would die, and another eye opener, that Bunmi and Kunle never, in reality, sang with us in those years, and if indeed we went in different direction, then Bunmi who never stayed on the same street as us would closely fit GbengaOdunjo’s profile, closely, for the latter resided opposite Lanre’s until he emigrated to England six years before Mother died, admittedly Kunle and me, on the same street, resided south and north respectively, and as for Papa, who never lived with us, in search of golden fleece had headed to Johannesburg three months before she was going to die, and vivid as the scenery of the chat she had with Yomi and I was, nothing of the things she said could be recalled, and on the contrary, Anjola had only been two months and three days old, far from blabbing, least to say wording a rhyme, when Mother died, even so is it that Ijeoma hadn’t breathe the air of Mother’s time, for she hadn’t been born when Mother was alive, and that, of course I had severally officially and personally visited Bolaji Abdullahi in Kwara, but he had been named federal Minister for Youth and Development about the period she died, hence Abdullahi’s forwarding address: the FCT, and I had passed school long before her death, for so, in the countless letters of father, none heralded his homecoming, nor did a reception await,t hat I had, indeed, met Bisi, as it turned out to be, when I was twenty-seven at the university, and during the brief relationship, she had neither said or been pregnant nor conceive for me, least to say know her way to my folks, and that true to form, my hair is receding, but hadn’t been or become the man nor his age in the mirror, for it was however an age far, but not between.

Impossible as it seemed, for it had since been a passage of time, two years today, that Mother passed away, yet all of these account had indeed taken place after her death.It was as if time had turned around and we were back at the beginning, or as if by God she had been graced a second chance, but no.For it were like drawing a picture in the air with your finger, the image soon vanishes as you are making it. There’s no result, no trace, no mark, nothing. Yet it was the only place I found her during those accounted journeys: saw the feature of her face with magnificent clarity, heard her voice and sound of her laughter, soft and tender, like a church organ coming from a distance. Only it were in the navigation chart of my dreams, here pieced together, and upon which I had sailed among, two years past, in the countless islands of my life in sleep.

Ma Femi, odi a rinnoko, odiojuala. Sun re o.

Dedicated to the memory of my Mother,
AbikeArinola-Adunni Oluokun (nee Samuel)
April 10, 1941 – July 27, 2011

Oluokun, is an award nominee journalist. He’s married with two children and resides in Lagos.

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