“My mother had never been to London, but it was such a presence in our house that I’d promise her that when I grew up and began to make money, I’d buy us tickets to smell London.”Tweet
The day Diana died, my mother made egusi soup for lunch with no salt and no pepper. Dipping my eba in the soup that afternoon was like dipping it into palm oil mixed with water. My aunty, who was visiting, asked her why she was so distracted. My mother said it wasn’t distraction, it was grief.
‘Who are you mourning?’
‘The people’s princess.’
‘Diana. Did you not hear that she died?’
My aunty might have hissed or said something about the mad woman who wiped her own buttocks for somebody else’s mess, but guests knew their place and she silently ate the mourning food my mother dished out.
There was not likely to be anyone in Enugu who had not heard of the princess’s death, but I suspect now that there couldn’t have been anyone else who mourned her, and forced the entire family to, the way my mother did. In her village, when a man died his widowed wife was supposed to show her loyalty and love by eating bland food – boiled yam with no sauce; eba with no soup; rice with no stew – for weeks. When my father died, my mother liked to say his people subjected her to even worse by forcing her to eat roast yam. ‘There’s nothing on earth drier than roast yam, yet they wouldn’t even let me drink.’
My father’s family knew she had loved him, they were just testing the weight of that devotion. She wore her perseverance like a badge of honour. She could have complained, she said, but didn’t. ‘I could have made noise, but I mourned your father the way he deserved. Like a good man.’
I was two when my father died and have no memory of him. Or of my mother bobbing me on her knees as she stoically forced the weight of her love for him down her throat. After my father died, it was just my mother and me and picnics at midnight, and her projects, which mostly involved scrapbooking. At 4, I had my own pair of plastic scissors and if I close my eyes and concentrate hard enough, there are days I can still hear the snip-snipping of our scissors, my mother singing God Save the Queen as we worked. Or telling jokes, her laughter mingling with mine. She collected all the snippets in scrapbooks which she stored in a vitrine in the parlour already spilling over with knick-knacks. She treated me like an adult, even at that age, talking to me, asking for my opinion as if I were her best friend or her mother. ‘Doesn’t the Queen look beautiful here?’ ‘Should we have a picnic after this?’ It made me feel important. Indispensable even. Like her right hand.
My mother was very good at tailoring, and with some encouragement might have made a living from it, but she sewed only for the two us: clothes patterned out of the designs she found in the humongous catalogues she bought from Leventis. For her: dresses with tiny waists and flared skirts, all the rage, the catalogues promised, in London and Paris. And for me: dungarees and dresses with satin bows. When we dressed up for church on the Sundays that we went, it felt to me that we did not look like real people, people of flesh and blood, but like storybook pictures, glamorous drawings conjured to life. That my mother wore long gloves like the white models in the catalogue did not become embarrassing (I liked it), until much later, together with everything else.
I was just ten when Diana died, old enough to remember my mother howling that Sunday morning but young enough to feel not embarrassment at how she grieved this stranger, but inconvenienced. She had heard of the accident on the radio, yet she would not believe it until she saw it with her own eyes. She switched on the TV, and all of that Sunday, we spent in front of the box watching and re-watching the news of Diana’s death break. The princess was neither a man nor my mother’s husband, but my mother rated her high enough to serve some form of the widow’s meal in her memory. As she could not get herself to Paris to pay her respects, it was only right, she said, that she subject the entire family to a bland meal.
On Monday morning, we had yam and palm oil (sans salt) and eba and egusi from the day before for lunch. For dinner, she gave us groundnuts and milk to add to garri soaked in water. When I complained, she reminded me that there were two little children, Will and Harry, who had lost their mother and were probably too upset to eat. I didn’t care about Diana. Or about Will and Harry. I wanted a proper meal.
This must have gone on for a few days before the aunty – my dead father’s relative – who had been visiting forgot she was a guest and installed herself in the kitchen as a guest should never do, and above my mother’s screamed protestations, took over the cooking for a while. When my mother began to sob that no one loved her, I held her and told her I did.
‘I’m going to move out! You don’t love me.’
I assured her that I did.
My mother was born in 1956, a few months after Queen Elizabeth II visited Nigeria for the first time. My mother’s mother, Nne Lokpa, seven months pregnant, was one of those who lined the streets of Ikeja as the Queen and her husband drove by, waving regally as they were driven away from the airport. My mother had a framed picture, cut out of a newspaper, of a sea of heads on that day. She’d circled one of the heads, as tiny as a dot with a red pen and swore that that was her mother.
My grandfather, according to my mother, worked in some domestic capacity (a cook? a gardener?) for one of the colonial administrators and insisted that they lived at home as his boss’s family did in theirs. The way to become an oga, my mother said he would often say, was to live like one. When they returned to their provincial village on holidays, armed with the English they had learned and the property they had acquired, which included some China my grandfather’s boss had given him when he married Nne Lokpa, they were treated like royalty.
My mother would often recall that Boy, as my grandfather was called (a name given to him by his boss), was the first man in his village to own a motorcycle. He was dead by the time I was born, but he left his legacy in the tea that my mother still drank every afternoon (that’s how they do it in London!) and in the fact that she never sat with her legs crossed at the knee (the queen would never do that!). When I was born, my mother took one look at me and gave me the only name she thought worthy of a daughter who had been yearned for, for three years. She named me Diana, after the Princess of Wales.
Diana was an albatross around my neck. It was a chain that manacled my ankles and kept me from raising dust in the field opposite our house, playing oga with the other children, or joining them to run around in the rain, chanting mmili na-ezo! Mmili nye m aku na uba! When I sobbed, eaten up in equal parts by jealousy and sadness that I could not join the neighbourhood children in their play, my mother whispered in my ears as she held me tight, One day you’ll be grateful. One day, you’ll thank me, Princess!
To ease my sadness, she’d buy me ice cream when next the vendor passed by, his bell tinkling merrily to lure children out. Diana brought me into the house for tea every afternoon and sat me in front of Sesame Street every Saturday morning when I would much rather watch Icheoku. It’s for your own good, my princess!
When I was old enough to notice, I pointed out to my mother that Sesame Street was American rather than British. She brushed it aside. ‘Proper English is proper English. Abi, you want to sound like Chief Omego?’
Legend had it that the wealthiest man in Enugu had called a travel agent to book a flight to London. The booking agent couldn’t make out which city he meant to book a ticket to and asked him to spell it. Ellu for Elephant. O for Onder. Ennu for Enemy and D for Dis and Dat! For failing to spell it right, he was refused entry into the hallowed city.
Diana was a name, on days when my mother stayed up all night, that had me learning the proper way to eat with a fork and a knife, to sip tea without slurping, to yawn without appearing to, the hundreds of rules my mother insisted I practised until I perfected them or keeled over from exhaustion. I’m preparing you for your future! That future included getting into a coveted secondary school, going off to university and getting a good job in London like Dr Onyekuru whom my mother had known as a child but who now lived in the UK and was said to be so rich that at his mother’s funeral, mourners had gone home, not with the usual cheap, plastic souvenirs but with leather suitcases and wall clocks plastered with the deceased’s grinning face.
Dr Onyekuru, my mother said, had suffered from a bad case of crawcraw as a child that no one wanted to play with him. The biggest insult, she said, anyone could hurl at a girl then was to tell her that she’d marry Elijah Onyekuru. Tufiakwa! It’s you that will marry Elijah crawcraw!
The first time he had returned from abroad, he was not recognisable. It was as if he had been picked up and cleaned up and then dipped in oil. His skin shone. His teeth glittered. He wore a halo of easy affluence around his head. People, old acquaintances who visited to say hello and welcome to him, were sent off with gifts of cash and throats full of stories. (Dr Onyekuru said that in London, people throw away cars they no longer need!) (Dr Onyekuru said workers are so well paid that there is no crime!)
‘You’ll never get to London if you speak like an illiterate!’ My mother warned me.
My mother had never been to London, but it was such a presence in our house that I’d promise her that when I grew up and began to make money, I’d buy us tickets to smell London.
‘No. You will get a job there and we will live there.’
I imagined us, side by side, walking the streets, pilgrims stopping to pay obeisance to all the places she dreamed of seeing: Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square, Oxford Street and Marble Arch. The streets of London, my mother pointed out, were so clean you could eat off them. I spent hours poring through the black and white picture in the London Monuments and Landmarks, a book she had spent a small fortune on and one that she treated with the same reverence as she did her Bible.
I wonder now what she would have made of the pestilential effluvia of the city; of the homeless who stretched out on cold pavements; of EastEnders and cockney; of Brexit and Theresa May; of the London that I now called home. It has taken me three years to do what I have come into the city to do this Saturday morning. Three years to see, to accept that despite everything, this is what my mother would have wanted.
On the days that the dark clouds that trailed at the edges of my mother’s sunny days descended on her and held her in bed so that she could not get up, on the days that nothing I did was good enough and she hurled words at me that cut and left their splinters embedded into my skin, I wished I had another mother. I swore to myself that once I could, I would run away to London, that promised city of wholesome dreams and she would never see me again.
But it was not until I went off to boarding school hundreds of kilometres away in Benin City that I began to think of my childhood as strange. I was surrounded by people my age with no mother to tell me I could not play with them. At recess and in the dorms, we exchanged stories of home. Their stories were nothing like mine. No late night parties with their mothers (that’s cool!). No crazy shopping sprees (I wish my mom did that!). No mothers who kept them away from playing with other children (that would drive me mad!). The accent I had been cultivating from years of Sesame Street had become more pronounced. When I said Enugu each time a classmate or a teacher asked where I grew up, I saw the eyebrows shoot up, the follow-up question never quite making it out of their lips.
One day, while wanting to show off in Geography class, I told the teacher that I could name all the big European explorers who discovered this and that in Africa, my mother had taught me even before we learned it in social studies in elementary 6, quizzing me on it all night while we ate popcorn until I could recite them without stumbling over the names.
My teacher smiled kindly and said, ‘What’s there to discover if it’s already there, Diana? Would you go to Ghana or Cameroon or England and rename their rivers and lakes and say you discovered it?’
Questioning everything my mother taught me gifted me a new set of eyes through which to see her. When my new friends at school asked why I had no friends in Enugu, why my mother wouldn’t let me go to birthday parties or let me have one, why she did not want other children in our house, I had no answer. When they asked why she wore gloves every day, why we had tea at home, I stopped talking about her to any of them. My mother became a huge secret I carried, my heart the deep freezer where I kept our relationship, only bringing it out to thaw during the holidays when I went home.
I don’t know when I realised that my mother was not strange but ill. Was it when she told me at the beginning of term in my last year of secondary school that if I left she would kill herself? She didn’t. Or when, in my second year at the university she had spent an entire weekend not sleeping but singing and cooking and cleaning and calling me to sit with her through hours of TV? I remember feeling resentful, and then guilty for the resentment, and then nothing.
When my mother died of a heart attack, she was alone. I had graduated from university and was living in Lagos, in my second year of working as an engineer for an oil company. I had not been home to visit my mother in an entire year. As she no longer worked by then, the private school she worked at as a teacher’s aide had closed down, I sent her a monthly allowance, transferring a portion of my salary to her account. Every time we spoke on the phone, I promised her that I’d visit her. And yes, once I’d saved enough, we’d take the trip I promised her to London. What I did not tell her was that my keeping away was deliberate.
The last time I visited, I had asked her, gently, treading around it while we were having lunch, if maybe she did not think she needed to see a doctor.
‘For what?’ she asked.
‘You know, a . . . maybe a psychiatrist. Just to —’
‘Shut that mouth. Shut it now! You’re calling your mother mad?’
‘No, I —’
‘You are nothing. Nothing!’ She pushed back her chair and left the table. She didn’t speak to me again for the rest of the day and I found myself apologising, over and over again.
There are days I will still feel as if I abandoned her, as if I could have tried harder to save her; days when I will question the weight of my love for her. There are days I will imagine my mother whole again, the two of us walking the streets of the London of her imagination. But now, as I walk along the Thames and surreptitiously scatter her ashes into the water, I see her, the mother of my childhood, smiling at me, her princess Diana. I hope that all she sees as the waters carry her will be the utopia she had imagined the city to be.
Chika Unigwe holds a PhD from the University of Leiden, Holland. She is the author of four novels, including On Black Sisters Street and Night Dancer. Her short stories and essays have appeared in various journals including The New York Times, The Guardian, Aeon, Wasafiri,Transition, Guernica, Agni, and the Kenyon Review. Her works have been translated into many languages including German, Polish, Hebrew, Italian, Hungarian, Spanish and Dutch. A recipient of several awards, she sat on the jury of the 2017 Man Booker International Award and is the director of Awele Creative Trust, an NGO she set up to encourage creative writing among young Nigerians.
“The Weight of Love” was previously published in Wasafiri.
Feature image: Pexels (Pixabay)