When I was younger, I looked forward to growing up. I would wake up the following day wondering when I would ultimately morph into the woman I have now become. I had hoped I would look like my mother, tall, beautiful, with a striking figure and permanent red-tattooed lips. I would strut like her in futile attempts to practice my grown woman walk so that when the time came to use it, I would be an expert at making men fall to their weak knees. Every one of my male teachers, all a bunch of irritants, loved her. They would each take turns to watch me after school – I was always the last person to leave the premises because my mother was always late – and take the opportunity to talk with her when she finally came around to picking me up. Afterwards, they would make side commentaries to me, “Oh, your mother is very lovely.”
I would smile in return and forgive them for making me detest my life and school that much more.
They didn’t know she was married, or that there was another child locked up away somewhere in boarding school, and because her husband was never around to shadow her, they shamelessly flocked around her like hungry puppies waiting to be fed. One would say that they were able to “appreciate her beauty”.
She enjoyed it; she tried really hard to mask her pleasure when I was around there was always a smile dancing around her faux taut lips, waiting to break when my eyes weren’t watching. Her husband did not know how to love her like my teachers did, and even though it had been so distastefully done and had almost always been embarrassing to watch, I had allowed myself forgive her for loving it as much as she did. When she would ask me about Mr. Fredrick, my primary 4 math teacher who had been so obsessed with her, I would give her a satisfactory response. It was like stripping off layers of myself every time I had to sacrifice my comfort for her happiness, and it was not a pleasant feeling.
I did not like it at all.
I loved my mother – love my mother – dearly, but I needed her husband to love and guard her the way a shepherd would his sheep (you know? That Jesus type of love – unconditional and selfless and all that)
I prayed so desperately to grow up so that I would be free of that life (taking care of her feelings, monitoring her emotions) and just have mine alone to worry about.
That one night that I spent with my brother (he came in from boarding school) and my cousin sleeping in the room that we shared, is still vivid in my memory. It was most unfortunate because I had been fast asleep until the yelling and slapping and shoving against the walls. I remember waking up and looking down from the top of my bed (I shared a bunk bed with my brother) to see if my brother was awake. My cousin, a much older lady, shushed me and told me to go to bed, saying that everything was fine. The words rolled out of her mouth like honey sliding down a steep slope.
My heart would not stop beating fast, and I remember my hands wrapping around my neck as if to stop my abdominal content from creeping right out of my mouth.
My brother never woke up, he was as still as wood and I couldn’t even make out his face in the dark. Mine was wet, either from crying or sweating, and my cousin was sobbing uncontrollably –ironically still trying to convince me to go back to bed because everything was fine. At that point, I had stopped listening to her and slipped out of my bed slowly. I walked to the door and opened it to take a peek, catching the vicious punch that fell on my mother’s face. My cousin had proceeded to close the door in front of me, blocking my view with her body and saying sternly,
“Go back to bed!”
She slipped out of the room and I could hear her pleading with my parents.
“Aunty, the kids … the kids… Uncle please, you people should stop this.”
“Get out of my way.” That was my mother’s voice. I heard a loud thump as someone got shoved really hard to the sidewall whilst the aggressor walked on towards the kitchen. I heard the cling-clang melody of metal meeting metal. My cousin was shouting now,
“This is ridiculous! Aunty, please! … Aunty No!”
My father screamed like a woman – seriously – it was the shrillest, most alarming feminine cry I had ever heard from a man (and although I had always made fun of my brother in the past for screaming like a lady in time of freight, the genetic explanation for his anomaly made sense that night.)
It all ended so fast, so abruptly. Cousin was back in the room, sniffling and heaving heavily, concomitantly repeating, “Everything is fine now. You go back to bed.”
My brother never moved a muscle. I don’t understand why; our space had been too loud to sleep through.
When we woke up the following day, I watched my dad leave the house with a big bloody scar on his right arm. I could tell from the way it looked that the wound went deep. He caught me staring at it as I helped put his suitcase in the back seat. He looked at me and said,
“Your mother did this to me.” He brought it closer to my face as if to insist that I took a better look. I got a whiff of the sore. It made my tummy turn. “Look at it… No, I want you to look at it very well. Your mother stabbed me with a knife.”
“Bye Dad” was all I could muster as he entered the car, not giving me a second glance.
My mother sat all dressed up for church at the dinning table, arms crossed over each other, resting against the table in front of her. She couldn’t speak articulately because her right cheek was so swollen, so she spoke with a bit of a lisp. She gave me money and said, choking back tears,
“Amem, go to the mallam and buy me some buttermint. Just a pack.”
When I came back with the pack of buttermint, she ripped it open and took out a couple, offering me some. I shook my head, I was too sad to want anything and I couldn’t understand why after all of the trauma, her craving would be buttermint.
“Does it look that bad?”
“Your face?” It did look bad. It was swollen and red, and although she had tried to cover it with makeup, no amount of camouflaging could cover her shame. She was the ultimate victim of abuse and it was written all over her face.
“It doesn’t look bad at all.”
“Does it look like I have candy in my mouth?”
“I know my cheeks are swollen and I’ve tried to get it to go down a little bit but it’s still slightly swollen.” I tried to make out her words as she struggled with getting them out, wincing before continuing. “So I want people to see me having buttermint when I go to church today. When they see me holding the pack in my hand, do you think they would think I just have candy at the side of my mouth?”
“Oh.” Befuddled by the concept of it all, I responded, “I think so ma. It does look like it.”
“Alright then.” I watched as tears rolled down her cheeks and choked back some myself. “I’m sorry that you had to see what you saw yesterday. I want you to know that I love you and I’m always here for you and your brother.”
“I didn’t see anything.” I assured her in a barely audible voice, folding my arms in between my thighs and staring down at my church dress.
We both sat there and waited together until my brother was all dressed up and ready to go. All through the day as she greeted church members and friends, she held on so tightly to her pack of buttermint, and I just kept wishing to be finally grown up, so I could eventually forget.
I did grow up, but it never happened.