There is an (igbo) adage that says ‘if you want to know what a young lady would look like or behave like in old age, look at her mother’.
I mean this proverb is taken so seriously that it isn’t unusual to hear someone say ‘oh she must be a nice girl. She comes from a nice family, her mother is this that that… ‘. This phrase is especially peddled around in marriage conversations and talks. Even in relation to looks, it is not unusual to see someone comment on a slim shapely girl ‘when she gives birth she will blow up, look at her mother.’ (Actually in Nigeria (or at least igbo culture), people’s perception of one’s mother counts for A LOT when it comes to the issue of marriage and respectability) .
Now this is incredibly hilarious and low-key (and very high-key) stressful for girls like me who couldn’t be more polar opposites of their mothers. While my mother seems to age backwards, I am forever looking older than my age, while she is forever stunting with her small petite beautiful body, I am strongly considering using my first real salary for weight loss surgery. (I joke ?) but honestly, it isn’t unusual for my friends to meet my mom and say ‘your mom is so beautiful. Where are you from?’ Not because I am not beautiful but I am a different kind of beauty – not bad, just different!
In no way am I more different from my mother than in the area of household duties. My mother never gets tired. She does it ALL. I don’t often admit this because we are constantly in a pettiness war (often very jocular till it turns left) but the past few days, I have had cause to reflect on just how extraordinary she is.
I have recently started work at a small law firm that resumes each day at 9am and closes at 4pm. This is super relaxed for the standards of most law firms in Nigeria and across the world really. Yet, if you saw how exhausted I would act as I would leave the office eh, you would think I am burdened with the entire legal problems of Nigeria. Then when I would make my way to the gym, any laziness would be blamed on ‘hectic day at work’. Then when I get back home, I head straight to my room, peel my clothes off my body, grudgingly take a shower and lie on my bed like I have done the work of 5 bricklayers.
Now this happens to be the time when my mother, who wakes up most times at 6am, and who the rest of her day finds a reason to be on her feet, starts running around the house and kitchen.
How terrible it is in a Nigerian household when your almost senior citizen mother is running around the kitchen, and you the young supposedly springy adult is lying around. The more I interact with my female friends (those who wake up at 6am to make family meals and rush back from work to make sure their parents, especially dads, have something the eat, the more I am convinced that my mother is more tolerant than most.)
A few days ago especially, I was struck by the relentlessness of my mother. It isn’t often that I notice these things so I was extremely emotional when I did. I got off from the law firm and went to my parents’ office. Mom was there packing up to leave at 7pm. I made a show of my exhaustion, ripped off my wig, opened the fridge and gulped down a full bottle of water. Then I settled to eat the fruits my father has secured for me during his work day. My mom at that moment was on her way home. I waited an extra hour and finally made my way home. I got home tired, exhausted and generally just ready to bounce on my bed.
I went to the kitchen to open the fridge to see if there was something else to nibble on, there was my mother with her 10 hands, blending carrots and tomatoes, for drinking, blending tomatoes for stew, chopping onions and cooking meat for stew and a pot of soup which she hoped to cook the next morning, cooking yam and frying egg for her dinner and washing up the mess that accumulated along the way. Already prepared was a pot of bambara nuts pudding (okpa) sitting and cooling. ‘How does this woman do all of this?’ I imagined, stunned.
I was not only stunned at how she was managing this at this time but was also upset because I knew I couldn’t go back to my room now I had seen her. I stood in the heat of the kitchen, watching her, running her errands to bring crayfish or stockfish or stir the contents of this pot or that pot. Half way into my kitchen sojourns with her, she announced that she had a terrible headache.
I have this joke with my mom that I inherited all of her bad qualities. Her headache is one of them. They don’t happen often but when they do, all you really want to be doing is lying down. It would feel like there were a million tiny pins pinched into your head and a flaming hammer repeatedly hitting different sections with each movement you make, however purposefully slow the movement is. When she mentioned her headache, I wanted to shout and scream ‘so why are you doing this? Bothering yourself with this cooking?’ But we had had this argument too many times. I knew you well how it would start and end:
Me: Mom why are you doing this?
Mom: doing what? What will your father and brothers eat if I don’t do this?
Me: The boys are adult. They are grown men they can take care of themselves.
Mom: Take care of themselves is eatting indomie, bread and sardine every night?
Me: Mom. They are adults. LET THEM….
Mom: And what of your father?
She usually won on that because she knew I didn’t have the audacity to continue my line of argument which she very much believed was insane. On days she was particularly upset with me, she would tell me that degrees and career don’t keep a home, to which I would respond that neither does domestic prowess. On days she was in a particularly good mood, she would look at me with eyes filled with hope and pity and say ‘the man that will marry you must seriously seriously love you’, to which I would burst into laughter because I knew how deeply she meant that as a prayer too. Perhaps it kept her up at night that I might one day, in true Nollywood style, be sent home from my husband’s house because I can’t stand in the kitchen for longer than it takes to slice a watermelon.
I would walk away from our arguments with arrogant pity in my heart. I believed she was the one that signed up for this social construct of the woman having to cook and fend domestically for the family. She signed up for it and wore it proudly as a badge of honour. She believed it was her duty to cook for her husband, her adult children. So I didn’t understand why she wanted to force me to sign up too to this construct. I believed and always said that no man would be delusional enough to marry me and assume I was the sole cook and cleaner. We would do it together. There will be division of labour. I won’t slave away in the kitchen while he sits comfortably in the sitting room waiting, I would think.
I suspect sometimes when she shouts and gets upset. It isn’t just because of the fact that her only adult female child barely knows her way to the kitchen (not around… I know my way around but barely find my feet taking me in the kitchen direction) it is to do with the adage at the beginning. Whoever would look at her would see a woman who loves her family enough to cook every meal they eat, as well as a beautiful, eloquent and very godly woman. She must think that somehow she has failed in her duties. She must think that I would ‘fail’ in my wifely and motherly duties for this reason. She was afraid for me. It wasn’t about the fact alone that I wasn’t helping out in her own house.
While I was still trying to bite my tongue, and watch her cook. She brings out a bucket of fresh lemons, goes to join my father in the sitting room and starts manually squeezing them, to extract the juice. I asked her to use the juicer and she said she preferred to do it manually. She would eventually go on to add some ginger and keep for my father and brother in the fridge. (My brother has bought the mixture once at a smoothie bar and she decided there was no reason he should when she could do the same at home for him). She couldn’t understand why he would ‘throw away N700’ like that.
The moment I saw her squeezing the lemons, I couldn’t contain my anger anymore. I went upstairs in my exhaustion, peeled off my clothes and lay down. While I ruminated on my anger on why my mom was so hyperactive, I realised it was more than a social contract for my mother. This was her way of showing love. This was her expression of love. My eyes shut, I heard her voice and my father’s drifting up the stairs, I I heard her laughter and his laughter intermingled. A few minutes later the blender went on and I knew she was blending her ginger now. She came upstairs after a few minutes tray in hand and packed the juices in the fridge. The next morning my brother grabbed a drink while he set out to work and my dad had his with his breakfast. The next day, while I feasted on my mangoes after my hard days work, she tried to convince me to try the ‘best okro soup’ she had ever made. She repeated it two or three times and despite my aversion to okro, I promised to eat some. And yes it was the best danm okro soup EVER. And I believe it was for more reasons than the taste of the ingredients. For the first time, I could taste the love that went into the meal. I made a public show of my love for it and went for seconds. That same night she was busying in the kitchen, frying stew for the special jollof rice she would make for her prayer circle. I stood in the kitchen, despite my discomfort and stirred the stew with her, licking half the pot of stew in the process and talking with her.
‘Everything tastes and smells excellent’ I said, stealing a piece of fried chicken. Her eyes twinkled with love and happiness. The next morning while the aroma of special jollof rice wafted up to my room, I walked over to her and put my arms around her while she stood in the bath tub.
‘Thank you for all you do mama’ I said. She asked me what it was I was thanking her for and her eyes moistened as I rattled off how these past 3 days she had been super human as far as I am concerned.
‘it is my duty. It is my responsibility’ she said, waving me out of the tub. I smiled and walked away. I knew it was more than her responsibility and duty as a wife. Perhaps it started as that, but I am certain that it is love that kept her doing this after 3 decades, even for her adult children. It was love that made her go the extra mile in squeezing lemons and bragging about her soup, trying to convince me to eat. It was love. Love is often a responsibility. Love is often a duty.
I still do believe that there will be division of labour when I start my own family. But now I look at my mom through different eyes, not as a woman trapped in the prism of a societal construct or contract but as a woman trapped in the prism of love. An intensely more potent potion. I know now that I am extremely blessed to be a recipient of this kind of love.
I wrote this sometime in April and hoped to post it on my birthday or on her birthday, but in my mother’s true fashion, she UPSET ME SO MUCH me before that day and I never really got around to it because I wasn’t feeling so grateful (YES I am an ingrate – I know!!!!) Anyway, it is the end of the year and now is as good a time as to celebrate her as any other day.