They had all disappeared before I arrived. Death. Distance. Disconnection. And discontent.
Mother said her mum jubilated when she conceived me. But earth had taken her in, folding its arms around her still body before I became too big for her belly, while I exerted my readiness for a life outside her womb. Mother mourned her departure for months, months after my birth. I cried every time nursing you drained me, every time I needed someone to tell me I will be fine, every time sleepless nights send migraine to split my head open, she told me later.
I learnt she also cried at the absence of her best friend every time I squirmed, polluting our compound with a cry that jarred the nails holding our roof. She would have advised me on what to do to you at such moments: Give him this to drink! Take off his cloth, he’s hot! Rub this mixture on his neck! Leave him, he’s going to stop when he’s tired! Let me back him while you go to bed. You also need to sleep, she said.
I grew as a boy watching mother move on from her mother’s departure. I would look at the treasured monochrome photographs that told me where my mother got some of her physical features. Her smile defied stillness and placated my mother. A visor for the wrinkles that lined her face, the smile also covered the many years of worry, the heartbreak, the submersible effect of single parenting and the invasion of the spaces she once occupied by the wives that came after her.
I could have had another mother, another friend, and another shield to save me from mother’s spanking as a child. I cursed death the last time I saw the pictures, the last time I imagined her presence.
I bear my father’s father’s name. Perhaps I took other things from him too. I understood distance from a loved one when I imagined I could smell him whenever he walked languidly from his room to the living room or the times I remember his stories that produced loud laughter and told visitors if he was awake or asleep even before their knocks on our door announced their arrival. I was still a baby when asthma allowed other things into his senescent body. He had to live with us in the city for care, and my parents always talk about the things he could not change:
- To beat his doctor’s advice and my parents’ supervision, he would keep meat and dried fish under his pillows for the dark hours of the day when sleep closed my mother’s monitoring eyes, when the day’s work tired my father’s surveillance, and when his conscience allowed him things daylight forbids.
- He scolded no one. This often infuriated his wife and children. He offered hugs and tales relevant to every situation and act instead.
- He was considered too simple for complex environments where competition, foes, politics, commerce and profit shape societies.
When I learnt he died when I was two, I realized I lost a cover for the excesses of my childhood and the exuberance of my teenage years. My adult life also lost an empathetic advisor.
He was a man of influence and character before he became the old man that hid fish under his pillow and welcomed everyone with stories, I learnt.
He accommodated stranded strangers that supplied his wife kola nut. Against the wish of his community and its chiefs, he let them till and profit on one of his farmlands. He would leave his main farm before the midday sun finds its place, squeezing the juice of big oranges carefully arranged in baskets into his sons’ mouths while they walked home with hoes that tilled the soil for a short while and cutlasses that slanted in rest beside heaps and shrubs awaiting their owner’s care.
He never waited for other famers that took off weeds disturbing their cocoa farm, not minding the scorching sun that tinged their backs and left them with sunburn. He did not yield to the pressure of the friends that implored him to give more time to his yam and cassava plantation. His friends would not return home till the in-between passages of their yam and cassava heaps were swept clean of insects and grass. Like other farmers would do, he did not instruct his sons to fix the weak pegs of the farm tent. The tent’s awning had succumbed to helplessness, beaten by the rain and penetrated by the sun.
The four events that got me and my paternal grandmother in the same space offered chortles after hugs and a rhythmic rendition of my praise song; an urge to know each other more; and an intrusive stillness that grew in branches at each attempt to satisfy the urge.
My parents fed my curiosity about her with little. Father did not show me pictures of his mother as a girl or as a lady, as a kola nut seller or the matriarch of the family, and as the woman many described as fearless. My father never filled me with excitement each time he drove many kilometers for a visit down the sloping highway that frightened me with its badly formed bumps and the sharp bends that jolt drivers not familiar with the road.
So this is how I remember her: the grandparent with whom I shared a few jokes; whose funeral—where I danced as a ten year old and also ruined a large bowl of jollof rice with a stagger when a drunk cousin fell on the hem of my agbada—is my most lucid memory of the familial connection we had. The years of asking, finding, and drawing mental pictures have produced memories blurred by disconnection.
The discontent that embodied my maternal grandfather’s lifetime became clearer in my adulthood. His polygamy generated discontent for his family first. It afflicted them with division, pain and lack. This affliction birthed the discontent that formed his last days. I chose not to annoy my mother with questions about her complex relationship with him, knowing wounds we nurse are not for flies that seek to perch, lick and hum to rile us; knowing the scars from the wounds that have healed are covered so they do not remind us of the pain we once carried.
The complexities of his life took him away from me. The significant memory I have of him was the visit I paid him weeks before my sixteenth birthday. With a giant frame towering over others except me, his partial blindness and weakened gait exposed the discontent of his old age; explaining the remorse that colored his language and other interactions.
I would have loved to know him. I would have debated colonial politics with him, listening to his quivering voice while he argued as a retired court registrar whose suits and neckties became his material indicators for those that betrayed their faces with astonishment at his ability to articulate the English language with no conspicuous smudge. I would have loved to listen to him on subjects shaped by the philosophical clarity age gives.
If we had known each other more, he would have told me of his intervention when his neighbor slammed an esu figurine after converting to Christianity. Esu’s seed of confusion germinated in the heads of the man’s wives, pushed them into the morning’s feeble darkness after the cock’s crow to fight with their nails and teeth on the silliness of the wife that made sauce with another oil for their husband. Our husband prefers palm oil. No he eats all, they argued as they clawed each other’s skin and covered the surfaces in the mud they rolled in. His account of this event would have given contexts and other events. But my mother’s version is all I have.
Grandparents are more than the men and women that formed one’s parents. They sometimes have a presence enmeshed in complexities, sometimes spurting tumult, pinning down shoulders with burdens, or bearing the peace and wisdom we seek. Their absence too could conceive longings, leaving blankness in the spaces they could have owned. It could also mean nothing; nothing being no true absence or a ritual that averted tumult and pain.
Whenever I remember how a friend’s paternal grandfather wittingly transited to the impropriety of military dictators while narrating tales about gods and animals, a cousin’s grandmother’s effort at ensuring bail for him against his parents’ objection after his arrest during an unrest makes me smile. And anytime my cousin and his siblings did things that caused worries or panic, I won’t live to bury any of you was their grandmother’s repeated response. This response and the other tiny things that represent how they are seen leave me with ponderings on the weight and influence of grandparents.
I would have loved to tell my grandmas about the first time I fell in love, ask any of my grandpas if they also had bouts of palpitation the first time loss in whatever form blighted him. I would have loved to cradle at their feet as a child for stories my parents never told me, watching them stretch the narratives with anecdotes and references with my parents’ lives; or an account of how one of them escaped the violent fangs of death that came as Operation Wetie which dismembered its victims and left people and places with a gloom that follows loss; or their struggles of adaption with colonialism, especially Christianity. I would have loved to mourn them too, finding comfort in memories, their assurance of protection and, the gifts they gave.
An absence not helped by faint memories from the little I saw and heard, and the peculiar interruptions that pinioned me from reaching for each and all of them is how I remember them.