Most ancient sacred texts write on the importance of the grey-haired angels in our midst. Many of us are alive today because we have praying mothers and grandmothers.
We know six scores and ten years is our life-span promise, anything more is a blessing from God. Yet, it would seem that we may have become negligent in our treatment of the most special people amongst us: older people. Perhaps not, this is just the way I feel. At this moment. The moment will pass.
I am named after one of his wives, my father’s mother: Iya Afin Olatundun Atinuke. I never met her because she died before my father was four. I like to think she was a tall, handsome woman who was just like me: practical and a collector of hotel shampoos.
Baba Oke- Ola was a huge man in his lifetime. He towered over my siblings and I. He had a larger than life personality and when he shook your hands, your palms were buried in his. I was not close to him as such, but I have fond memories of going to Okuku (our hometown) and sitting in his parlour and soaking in the scents and sights of his living room. No one was close to him like that, he didn't belong to that era of modernity. Grandchildren were meant to be seen not heard.
I remember once he took us to his farm and he showed my sisters and me how to get cocoa from the pod. He had been a dedicated farmer in his lifetime. He was a story-teller, used a lot of parables in his speech which confused me. I remember only some of his stories. I was maybe six or seven at the time.
Baba Oke Ola lived a full life, he looks down from heaven on us all.
I want to write about a very extraordinary woman: my maternal grandmother. She was called Alice Ibironke Adeoye. We called her Mama Oke- Aremo. Oke Aremo is the area she lived. She died many years ago. She left me with very sweet memories I hope to pass on to my own daughter. Memories pass on through generations. The other day mum was with her brother and they were talking about their mum. The conversation excluded me, but for a moment, it felt like they were talking about my mum, but they were not. Mama Oke-Aremo was their mum!
For a long time, I blamed myself for her death. I have come to terms…. but maybe she would have lived longer. The passage of time has eased the burden of my guilt. She had been diabetic and was being treated at the University College Hospital in Ibadan. As my mum was not going to be in the country for a while, I had been seconded to make sure mama made all her hospital appointments. Being with Mama was natural to me as my mum had taken me to visit her mother for most of my life. I had seen my mum wash her bed sheets, sweep her room, change her bed sheets and provide the things Mama Oke Aremo displayed to sell in the shop next to her bedroom.
I had seen my mum dust off cobwebs and sorts from the shop, I had seen my mum get out the black rusty kerosene stove from underneath the shelf in the shop. I had seen my mum lit the stove with matches that were kept by the window. I had seen my mum make amala or ewedu or warm stew on that kerosene stove. I had seen my mum call out to the girl who sells wraps of pap (commonly known as eko) so we could buy some for grand mum.
I will take care of my mum. My daughter will look after me. The beauty of life. Mum entrusted her to my care. She compensated me for my time. It was well worth it. Mama had a shop as well. Every month or so, my mum would go to the market to restock mama's shop. It was what mum was meant to do. She did it and I watched her look after her mum.
We live in a society where the government provides care for its old citizens. Canadian citizens over the age of 65 can rest in the knowledge that there is some provision for them when they grow older. Asian cultures also depend on their children to look after their elderly parents. This intergenerational lifestyle exists in Islam as well. Looking after our parents when they are old is tied to blessings.
I took mama for her appointments at the University College Hospital (UCH) and whilst we waited, she would reel me with stories of how Papa Oke Aremo had wooed her in her time. She would tell me what I needed to do to keep my man. She taught me several songs. She showed me how to tie the perfect (man catching) headgear. It was really sweet sat next to her singing or talking in Yoruba in UCH waiting rooms. I made friends with the staff at UCH because of mama’s congeniality. Mama and I were also the beneficiaries of acts of kindness and thoughtfulness by UCH staff. In many ways, UCH is family to me. My sister, a dentist works next door. Her friends came by to say hello to mama as well when she was admitted.
At this time, I was a penultimate student of law at the University of Ibadan. I had the pressures of submitting my dissertation proposal and exams were fast approaching. My father had also started making pure water and I was also helping him to market his water. Taking mama for her twice or thrice weekly appointments were beginning to take a toll on me. After her last appointment, I took the week off. A week? It was probably a couple of days of off.
By the time I returned to mama's house to check up on her, she was in a coma. I was told she had not eaten in days. Immediately, with the help of my dad, we took her to UCH where she was admitted, placed on drips and eventually, she stabilized. The following day she was well enough to seat up and I made her hair and we took some photographs. The third day, some of my friends from the University of Ibadan stopped by to pray with her. As she had her children, grandchildren around, her bedside was busy with activities.
By the fourth day, I am not sure what happened, but mama took a different turn. These things are unpredictable. Life eh?
I was at the hospital early with breakfast when I was told she had gone home. I assumed her other daughter (my aunt) had come for her. I thanked the nurses and even asked of the description of the person who came for her. I was on my jolly way when a nurse whispered to me, "she had gone home, don’t you know what that means"? Mama had passed on to glory in her sleep in the early hours of the morning.
It still did not register.
Eventually, when it did, it was like my whole world had collapsed. She is buried in Akobo in my mother’s house. Every year, my mother paints her gravestone. I remained inconsolable at her burial and years later the guilt remains. She could have lived longer. She was my mum's mother.
Mama lived very well. Up until the week before her death, she got every attention she needed. My mother will be well taken care of. My daughter will take care of me. The cycle of life. Sunre oo (Sleep well) mama.
Post Scriptum: I wrote this years ago. Random things bring back memories. I read a poem today 'My grandmother' by Elizabeth Jennings, some parts of it reminded me of my grandmother. Here is the poem. I so wish I have a photo to share. There are photos of mama somewhere, I can see her round face lined on both sides with tribal marks. I can see her smiling. All is well.
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My Grandmother: Elizabeth Jennings
She kept an antique shop – or it kept her.
Among Apostle spoons and Bristol glass,
The faded silks, the heavy furniture,
She watched her own reflection in the brass
Salvers and silver bowls, as if to prove
Polish was all, there was no need of love.
And I remember how I once refused
To go out with her, since I was afraid.
It was perhaps a wish not to be used
Like antique objects. Though she never said
That she was hurt, I still could feel the guilt
Of that refusal, guessing how she felt.
Later, too frail to keep a shop, she put
All her best things in one narrow room.
The place smelt old, of things too long kept shut,
The smell of absences where shadows come
That can’t be polished. There was nothing then
To give her own reflection back again.
And when she died I felt no grief at all,
Only the guilt of what I once refused.
I walked into her room among the tall
Sideboards and cupboards – things she never used
But needed; and no finger marks were there,
Only the new dust falling through the air.