My mother was a badly behaved woman. She held her own and did not let father, husband or society tell her how to live. She simply lived on her terms. In the 80s and 90s, this was a strange way for a woman to behave; the only conclusion was that she was badly behaved.
She was the first child of a man who waited 15 years to marry another wife before he could have a child. She loved her parents and siblings dearly and was as dutiful a child as she could be. But she wasn’t completely dutiful, because she did as she pleased and went wherever she wanted; a lot of times her decisions weren’t approved by her parents.
She met my father in her early 20s. It was a whirlwind romance and she became his second wife — a fact that she learned only when she had fallen too deeply in love and pregnant.
She lost her first child, a daughter, at 8 months. It took her nine years before I came along. My naming ceremony was a carnival; a cow was killed to celebrate. Husband and wives also got new matching bed frames with upholstery as part of the celebrations.
My mother taught me how to have fun and live fully. She took me to parties, parks and the National theatre. I remember going to parties after school. She’d bring along my party clothes and I’d change in the car. She drove a saloon car with headlamps that came up when they were turned on and retracted back into the bonnet when turned off.
Everything about her was fun. Even car rides were fun with her. She’d blast music and sing along, adding a shimmy here and there. She enjoyed listening to Ebenezer Obey and Sunny Ade records. Those records were stolen when she left her car at the mechanic’s workshop to be fixed. After that, every time she heard music from either musician, she’d curse the thief.
In 98 or 99, there was a New Year’s Day party at Trans Amusement Park, Ibadan. Sunny Ade was performing so we attended. She gave me crisp, new naira notes and asked me to go on stage to ‘spray’ him the money. It was with awe, pride and joy at being allowed to do such a grown-up thing that my legs moved as though in slow motion. I stood on tiptoe, the legend bent forward slightly and I sprayed the money I had in my hand. I was surprised to see that he had vertical tribal marks on each cheek. I ran back to my mother to inform her, and she laughed her delightful laugh.
She wore a lot of makeup and jewellery. Even for the 90s, her face beat was impressive: her eyebrows were neatly pencilled in, she lined her lips before wearing lipstick and drew on winged eyeliner. She often matched her eyeshadow with lipstick. She had a wonderful smile that showed off a silver tooth.
She was ALWAYS the life of the party. Back then, parties were often done from night till morning. She’d dance till the party ended. She’d glow with sweat as she undulated to the music and the musician, often singing her praises while naira notes were showered on her. The day after the parties were often spent sitting in bed with her feet wide apart and a mountain of naira notes in between them. She’d then count the money and smile to herself.
The first time I ever ate isi ewu, I was 8 or 9. By then she had moved to Ibadan where she lived in a room and parlour around Apata, Challenge area. She told me to go with her to a hotel (Majerita or something like that) to buy goat head. The image I had in my head was that of a goat with its head on a stake.
While we waited for it to be prepared, she asked if I wanted cow tail so she could buy it for me. I gave her a very dramatic ‘God forbid!’ as the image of a cow using its tail to swat away flies danced behind my eyes.
After she was eventually handed back her cooler, we headed home. I was so surprised when she opened it and it was full of steaming meat and not a chopped off goat head sitting in the cooler.
She put garri in cups for both of us and some of the meat on the cover of the cooler for me. It was so delicious! I finished it in no time and begged for more. I kept begging. She grumbled about how she’d asked me if I wanted cow tail for myself and I’d said no, but she gave me anyway.
My ultimate food memory with her is eating eba straight from the bowl it was made in. I couldn’t put my hands in the steaming eba, so she’d scoop some eba out and make small morsels on the side of the bowl for me. I’d pick the cooler morsels and dip them in my soup to eat. I feel like this is a tradition I’d have continued well into adulthood if I still had her. It made me feel so warm.
When she went on Hajj, she bought me a considerable amount of gold jewellery. She also owned quite a collection herself. She bought me the fanciest things, even down to cutlery. On some days she’d call a photographer to the house, dress me up in different outfits and ask me to pose for photos. Sadly, I have none of those photos now.
It is painful that I have only one thing that belonged to her: a pink sweater with a mother bunny and her baby bunnies drawn on the front. None of her personal effects was taken care of and handed over to me. I always wish I had something, anything that had belonged to her — a souvenir and a memento to remember her by or r a piece of jewellery I could later pass on to my daughter. But I have nothing. I don’t even have my personal effects from that era. Perhaps I’d have held on to my Mickey Mouse cutlery set which she bought for me as something to remember her by. Every single thing we owned was mismanaged, misplaced or stolen after her passing. And I don’t think I’ll ever forgive the people responsible for this.
The last time I saw her, I was 10. I had run away from my boarding school in Sagamu to see her in Ibadan. There was a growing and gnawing unease in my stomach and I felt like I needed to see her; Sagamu was the last place I wanted to be. It was the same kind of unease I had felt three years before when I begged my father not to go on the trip he never returned from. I was so uncomfortable and restless, and my entire being told me that all I needed to do was to see her.
I made my way to Isale Oko garage and begged the bus driver to allow me sit on the engine of the vehicle, opposite the first row of seats. From Challenge bus-stop, I walked to the home of our family friends, and someone was sent to quickly fetch my mother from her house. They were surprised to see me.
When asked why I came, I tried to explain what I’d been feeling, but they couldn’t understand. So I told them I was tired of the hardship in the hostel. By the time my mother came, all she heard was that I’d run away from school. She grabbed me by the hand and flogged me all the way back to Sagamu. When she knocked on the proprietress’ door, it was assumed that she’d come to ask for permission to take me home for the weekend. Imagine the shock when she said she had brought me back as I had run to Ibadan.
All I remember was adults losing their shit and yelling, asking how could I do such a thing. I don’t recall being given a chance to explain and even if I was, I doubt that anyone would have understood me.
The adults labelled me a badly behaved and troublesome child.
The last time I spoke to my mother, I don’t recall who phoned who. But we spoke on the telephone and I told her how much I missed her. She told me she was still upset and disappointed in me for the stunt I pulled. Then we said our goodbyes.
At the time, I had no idea it would be the very last time I would speak to her.
It was during summer school and we’d just returned from an excursion to the Lagos airport when I found both of my stepmothers waiting for me. They said they came to take me home. I had just come from Lagos, and I didn’t want to make the journey back. I was enjoying summer classes and preparing to go on to Primary 6 with few of my friends. But I had no choice, and off to Lagos we headed.
Both women were uncharacteristically chatty, friendly and saccharine sweet with each other all the way to Lagos. That was how I knew something was amiss.
The same kind, elderly neighbour who had broken the news of our dad’s death three years earlier put me in his lap and gently explained to me that my mother had died. She died trying to create life.
If I close my eyes and take a deep breath, I can still hear my high-pitched scream. I asked God why he thought it was okay to do this to me. It was the only time in my life that I remember questioning God angrily. ‘Why me? What did I do? Why me?’ And why wasn’t I dead too? Because how was I supposed to live with no parents at 10? What was even there to live for?
Adults don’t believe a child needs to grieve. They don’t think a child understands death, pain, loss and grief. But children do. Young as they are, they are human. I am simultaneously blessed and cursed to feel things too deeply, too completely, too profoundly or not at all. I was enveloped with grief, despair and wallowed in it for many years. Dealing with these emotions while the adults bossed me around, thinking I had no problems because ‘children have no problems’ was probably why I slipped into depression. It was a grief I shared alone being her only child. When my father died, life paused briefly in our household. But I had six siblings to share my grief with, and another was born three months later. This time, while everyone else sympathised, I mourned alone. I was the only person who had lost a mother, and I was so alone. Yes, they felt sad and sorry for me because it was a tragedy, but I was the only one who was bereaved; who was mourning; I was the only one for whom life was over.
When making decisions for children, adults rarely think to ask the child’s opinion or to even explain anything to the child. They just decide what they want to do ‘in the child’s best interest’ and carry on. Since they don’t need the child’s permission to make these decisions, they feel they do not need to explain anything to the child or prepare the child for the changes about to happen in his/her life.
When my father died, two or three adults, without my mother’s knowledge, decided that I should be in boarding school. I was told that I was going to spend the weekend with a distant aunt in Sagamu, but I found myself in a hostel. It was the first time I heard I was going to be in a new school and in a boarding house. There was no mental or emotional preparation, I simply found myself living a new life overnight.
This time around, they decided that I would resume secondary school. Back in Sagamu, the plan was that I’d go through Primary 6 with my friend and cousin, and my friend and I would go to Federal Government College, Sagamu. But my mother died and I found myself in Mayflower School, which my brother and sister attended at the time. I found myself, crazed with grief, mad with despair and wild with longing in a school of about 4,000 students.
This was about two decades ago. And sometimes, I still get overwhelmed. Grief and loss never really go away, you just learn to live with them, manage them and subdue the waves they ride on in your brain, or alter your emotions.
Her mother is still living; her father died in 2008. I call her Mamah. I see her as my last link and connection to my mother. I try my best to take care of her, and I always feel like my best is not enough. But I try. And I keep trying. She’s had a hard life, having lost two of four children and then her husband. She’s also living out what we believe to be her last days in Lagos, when she’d truly like to be in her hometown, Abeokuta, where she lived until her husband’s death. I also know that I’m a consolation to her. The daughter of the daughter she lost. I try to be a worthy one.
I think about my mother a lot and try to imagine her reaction to certain things I do now. Many times, I believe that she’d be pleased. I turned out to be a badly behaved woman just like her, only that these days, they call us feminists.
I believe she was way ahead of her time and misunderstood. She was the kind of woman who’d wear shorts under her wrapper in case she needed to quickly physically fight a man who was stupid enough to think he could cheat her because he was a man and she was a woman. She lived as she pleased, and there was truly no man alive, father and husband included, who could tell her what to do.
In the 40 years she lived, I knew her for 10. And she lived a full life. She never did anything by half. She was either all in or she didn’t bother at all. She was a fun-loving, party-hopping fashionista. Marriage and motherhood didn’t rob her of her individuality. She lived her life and enjoyed it as though she knew she wouldn’t be here for long.
I try to learn from her and fully live too. But I honestly think she was less held back by society than I’d ever have the courage to be.
Whenever I remember her, I remember her as a lively, bubbly and vivacious woman. I remember her having fun and I remember her smiling. So many times I cry from missing her. Even though I know she wouldn’t approve of me spending so much time wallowing in sadness, I still cry. Because grief has no expiry date and some losses will stay with you forever. And that’s okay.
Fatimah Flawlessmilo is a book lover, writer and feminist — a fierce Muslim woman. She tweets at @flawlessmilo