My mother’s first name is Lanre. Olanrewaju. I have been told this is a boy’s name but when I close my eyes and think of a Lanre, I see a girl in varying stages of life as captured by the photographs that hang everywhere in my Nana’s house in Ogbomoso.
There she is at 2, with her hair in puffs and ribbons and a polka dot dress my Nana tells me she sewed on the decrepit Singer that now serves as a shelf for her old books.
There she is again at 7, with a smile that breaks your heart because you know it is a smile that is devoid of knowledge, a smile of innocence, a smile that will not last.
My favorite photo of my mother is of her at 15. I can see the outline of pointy breasts that strain against another of Nana’s dress creations. Her hair, a curly halo around face. She is not smiling in this photo. I want to ask her why but I haven’t seen my mother in more than 10 years and a telephone is too simple to convey such a complicated question or the convoluted answers it will bring.
My mother has a mole on her chin. It is the only flaw in her perfect porcelain face. It is the mole my father tells me attracted him to her as they sat together in geography class at University of Ibadan in 1978.
My mother uses Chanel No.5. Nana tells me it is the only perfume she has ever used. I do not remember what my mother smells like even though I have many of her old perfume bottles sitting on my study desk in the home I share with my father in Ikoyi.
My mother’s father is a chief in our hometown. He smells like camphor and when I look at his lined face, it is hard to believe that this flawed creature had a part to play in the porcelain beauty that is my mother. I call him Kaka. He is a man prone to tears, especially when I visit. I have caught him staring at me many times. I am a quiet child, with none of the exuberance of my mother, so I let him stare and when the tears fill his eyes, I wipe them away with the sleeve of the blouse my Nana made.
Nana is the daughter of a milliner from Missouri. Her skin is burnt dark now but from old photographs I can see that she was once as white as the tiger lilies my father plants in our garden in Ikoyi. She is freckled and her once vibrant red hair now covers her head in hesitations.
We have a ritual for the holidays when I visit. Every morning, after breakfast, she hands me the comb and shea butter and settles herself in between my thighs. I comb and oil while she tells me stories with no settings but with the same theme; love.
We have the same brown eyes and smile, I and Nana but that is where the semblance ends. I am more my father’s child than my mother.
My mother left my father and I when I was 6. The days when I am angry and refuse to speak of or to her, my father reminds me that at least she had waited till I could do without a mother to abandon me. As if that can make up for everything else.
My father is kind and beautiful and forgiving. I use to think I was like him in until I started getting my periods. After that, tt became harder and harder for me to forgive the shrill nasal voice that called me “Sweetie’ over the phone every Sunday at 2'o clock sharp. It became tougher to respond to “I love you”s from a stranger.
I haven’t figured it out yet; what my periods have to do with my growing dislike and impatience for a woman I once worshiped. Maybe it is nothing, maybe it is everything.
I am 17 in a few days. It will be the first birthday I spend with my mother.
“But what if I hate her, Papa?”
“You won’t hate her Ifejuwura.”
“But what if I do?”
“Then you call me and I will buy you a ticket to come home. Besides where is the time to hate her, you are heading to the university in a month’s time.”
“If I hate her the moment I see her, I want to come home, you hear Papa? I don’t want all your ‘story story’ about kindness and forgiveness and about how she is my mother, okay?” I scold my father.
He laughs and reaches out to hug me for the hundredth time since we’ve arrived at the airport.
I make my way to customs as my father watches. It is almost my turn to be harassed by the men and women in algae colored uniforms when I suddenly remember something I forgot to tell my father. I panic and scan the airport wildly.
“Papa!” I yell, louder than I need to.
I step out of my place in the line and retrace my steps.
“I am right here Juwura.”
“How will I know it is her Papa? I haven’t seen her since forever. How do I know she is the one?” I am stumbling over my words in panic. I am afraid. I have waited all my life to find what was never lost. I am racked by a guilt and shame that doesn’t belong to me.
My father pulls me to himself. Even with my recent ‘growth spurt’ as Nana calls it, I only reach his chin.
We stay that way till I can breathe again and then without saying anything, my father takes my hand and we return to the queue. This time he stays with me.
“Have I ever told you how we chose your name?” My father asks.
“Yes you have but tell me again.”
“I was a poor man when I met your mother. So poor that I could not afford a ring of any kind for the woman I loved. Everyone was sure she would leave me for someone better, for someone richer but she kept saying ‘Ifejuwuralo’, Love is greater than gold, than riches, than wealth. It is why I have stayed in love with your mother, Juwura. Because she gave me something greater than all the gold in the world — you. “
“The first time you lay eyes on her, she will take your breath away. You won’t have to second guess anything Juwura. You will know your mother because she is you and you are her, a better her; you are Ifejuwuralo, a better version of Olanrewaju.”
It has stopped raining in Lagos and the clouds have lifted. The sun that has darkened the complexion my mother bequeathed on me winks at me sadly. This is why I find the courage to kiss my father one last time and say goodbye.
My mother’s name is Lanre, Olanrewaju, and so she keeps going, seeking the better that is promised. My name is Ifejuwuralo and so I will be back around this way again, because I know better than to let love go. Not for all the gold in the world.