Sketches of my Mother

4.

The day I took my mother to Farmers’ Market was the first day I heard her laugh. It struck me that I had not realized before then that I had not heard her laugh since she came. She had smiled. She had complimented but she had not laughed.  At Farmers’ Market that day, she picked up a guava, pinched it, smelt it, laughed and threw it in the shopping trolley. At that moment, I realized that even though I had been unaware of it, I had dragged her around the city —taking her to museums and malls— especially to dazzle her into letting out that laughter of hers that made my father’s death easier to bear. In her first week with me, I took her to the Georgia Aquarium where we caught a dolphin show and she wondered aloud how an animal that looked so dumb could be as intelligent as to dance in sync with humans. She wondered about how much water the aquarium contained, asked if we were single handedly supporting the place when I told her her how much — at her insistence — our tickets had cost. She had gone with me from one part of the aquarium to the other but nothing had elicited the hint of a laugh. I did not see in her eyes, the same enthusiasm that had been in mine the first time I went to the aquarium.

When we got home from Farmers’ Market, my mother sang as she cooked. Back in Nsukka, her singing would have been substituted with chatting with the neighbours. I remember thinking as a teenager who liked to spend time alone that the only time my mother was ever truly alone was when she was in the bathroom. She sought company. If nobody came to visit, she went and visited them. As a first year psychology student at the university, I was certain that my father’s death caused my mother to suffer from fear of being left alone. Once I asked her about it, she said that the world was made to be enjoyed in company.

One day I came back from work and my mother was sobbing and rolling on the floor of the living room. The day my father died, I came back from school to find my mother wailing and rolling on our veranda the same way she was doing now. I had buried that image but now excavated, it hit me with a ferocity that it had not as an eight year old.

My mother’s laughter lasted exactly two months. It was a generous, capacious laughter that accommodated even the most ridiculous:  Judge Judy’s tight smile on daytime TV (this Judge woman looks like she’s being forced to smile with a lemon in her mouth. Ha! Ha! Ha!)  the Geicko advert with a pig on a date (a pig with a beautiful woman? You know our people have a saying that the beauty of a man is his wealth? Ha! Ha! Ha!) The fact that in this country, you did not just turn up at people’s doorsteps. You were expected to make an appointment (Ha! Ha! Ha!) And then, just as it had descended upon my house, the laughter vanished. As did her voice. She no longer spoke to me. No longer asked if I had no friends. No longer marveled at all the shiny, new things my home had to offer. When we took rides, she no longer said anything of the size of the roads (wide! Does it not scare you, driving on such wide roads?) The house became a tomb of silence, too sturdily built for me to saw into with my own voice.  My mother looked sad, and this her sadness permeated the house so that it seemed as if too was in mourning. The entire house, from the door knobs which no longer seemed to have the lustre my mother  had so admired, to the smell of her cooking which constantly —regardless of what she cooked — smelled of the incense burned in the church the day my father’s funeral. Often I asked her what was wrong. Each time she told me it was nothing. The sadness wound itself around my ankles so that I lost the quick strides that earned me the nickname, ‘The Running One’, in primary school. For the first time, I began to wish that I had never asked her to come. This was not how I had imagined us living together.

5.

One day I came back from work and my mother was sobbing and rolling on the floor of the living room. The day my father died, I came back from school to find my mother wailing and rolling on our veranda the same way she was doing now. I had buried that image but now excavated, it hit me with a ferocity that it had not as an eight year old. At eight, as much as I loved my father and missed him, my grief was borrowed from my mother’s. Now, I felt the full force of that grief. I opened my mouth and it snaked into the pit of my stomach, clutched it tight and came out in a bellowing sound I did not at first realize as mine.  That day when my father died, my mother was not left alone on the veranda to cry. About four friends of hers were there, standing over her like guardian angels, crying with her. She had never been without friends. In that we differed. I found it difficult to form attachments. I spoke to colleagues at work but never invited anyone home for a coffee. Perhaps what I missed was not so much my mother but the company of someone who could act as a friend.

I rolled close to my mother and held her tight. I held her until we both stopped crying. She got up, wiped her eyes and went into her bedroom. I did not follow. I did not ask what was wrong. I knew. I sat at my computer and bought her a return ticket to her familiar life.

Chika Unigwe is the author of three novels, including ‘On Black Sisters Street’(2009, 2011 Jonathan Cape, UK and Random House NY) and ‘Night Dancer’ (Jonathan Cape, 2012). Her short stories and essays have appeared in various journals. Her works have been translated into many languages including German, Japanese, Hebrew, Italian, Hungarian, Spanish and Dutch. A recipient of several awards, she lives and works in the USA. 

 ‘Sketches of my Mother’ previously appeared in Mslexia, and is republished here with permission from the author.

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