I’ll be the first to unabashedly admit that I’m a Mommy’s boy. And why not? I am her first, and the one who had and held her affection for two solid years before my siblings came along and started interfering and ruining everything.
She was the one who unwittingly ignited my love for the written word. She used to have this medium-sized raffia bookcase that took up a spot in her boudoir. I must have been 7 or 8 when I clambered up the bed that was positioned beside the case in order to rifle through the books at the top. There were the glossy blues of Mills and Boon, the bright reds of Harlequin, and the dog-eared pages of the Historical romances. Nothing fascinated me then more than the busty, porcelain-faced women with flowing blond tresses clinging to the arms of the brawny, swarthy-skinned men with smokey gazes and the hint of danger. I opened the first page of the first book I picked out, read the ‘Once upon a time’ words and promptly embarked on my lifelong love affair with words and books.
So you see, first she gave birth to new life on a certain day in June. And then she gave me new life on that day I discovered my destiny in books.
When I sat down to write something to commemorate yet another day and reason to thank God for the life of my mother, there were so many childhood memories to choose from. But none is as much an expression of my devotion to her as the incidents of that Saturday night. Yes, I remember it was a Saturday, even though I was 10 or 11 at the time, because it is one of those days you can never forget in a hurry.
Mommy and I spent a lot of time together when I was a child. And one of the things we liked to do together was shop. We didn’t have any help then, and so, whenever she was headed out to the market on Saturdays, I would accompany her, the better to see her in action in the bustling metropolis of buying and selling. The woman was a mean shopper, the kind of customer who drove such hard bargains that made me cringe with empathy for the traders. And you’d think that after years of shopping with her, that I’d have picked up on all her bargaining wisdom. Ha! These days, I either shop online or wade through the market in the company of a friend who knows how to haggle with the salespeople.
But that is by the way.
On this Saturday, we went to the market, really late in the afternoon, I must add. There wasn’t much to buy, but the market was crowded that day, and the traffic of shoppers didn’t cease even with the approach of sunset.
And then finally, when we had made our last purchase, while still in the stall, Mommy waved the naira note in her hand, and with a chuckle, she said, “This is my last card o.”
For an impressionable young boy, I took those jocular words very seriously. My expression was grave as I watched her tuck the note into her big leather wallet that was already bulging with all sorts of knickknackery, before shoving it into her bag. She hefted one of the polybags and I lifted the other one, and we exited the stall, and began making our way out of the market.
Even though the day had started out bright and sunny, the skies had become overcast sometime in the evening, and the air was marked by a sudden chill as we weaved our way through the crush of bodies and assortment of wares toward the main road. I was in front of her, and she shepherded me forward with the hand she placed on my shoulder. The marketplace was a maelstrom of people, and that hand was both guide and reassurance of my proximity to her.
By the time we came to stand on the roadside to wait for any taxis heading our way, the clouds had darkened over, and not by a blanket of the approaching night. My mother craned her neck this way and that, and muttered words that betrayed her hope for it not to rain, even though the cloud cover was now an improvement over the afternoon’s pounding sun. The rapid change in weather had also communicated itself to the community of market people around, because there was now an urgency in the movement that eddied around us – more hurried gestures, more screaming voices, and more hastening feet. The scramble for public transport quickly got frantic, and it was under the scanty fall of the first rains that Mommy finally fought our way, baggage and all, into a taxi.
I let out a sigh once we were in, and under the weight of our purchases and squeezed in next to a buxom lady, I burrowed into the protective hold and warmth of the woman on my other side.
The taxi driver hadn’t moved far from the market before a crack of thunder finally tore open the skies, sending down a heavy downpour. As a shrapnel of rain sprayed itself against the wound-up window beside Mommy, she sighed and said something about how we were lucky she’d had the fortuitous thought to bring along an umbrella. Surrounded by her warmth, I gazed almost hypnotically at the windscreen as the rain slanted in streaks and streamed down over it. The storm had made it a bad, bad world out there, but I didn’t have a care in the world. Right here, it was just Mommy and me.
The downpour bogged down the traffic, and our taxi kept inching forward amidst a phalanx of blaring horns and flashing headlights. There were okada men, sharply cutting into and swerving out of corners, with their passengers clinging tightly for dear life to their backs, and then there were pedestrians – those who were either bravely slogging through the rain in a run or fast-paced gait, or ducking under covers to wait the storm out. All that was without was drenched by the weepy rage of the heavens.
I wasn’t though. I was inside a taxi, sheltered under Mommy, and there was a certain smug satisfaction I derived from that.
However, that soon vanished, to be replaced by anxiety when we finally got to our stop. After giving out a fortifying sigh and with a determined expression on her face, Mommy pulled open the door, and an icy shower of rain sprayed itself over us. I quailed from the onslaught, but there was no time to dwell on my anxiety, as she’d already snapped open the umbrella and was heaving her bulk out of the vehicle. I followed after her, clutching tightly at the polybag under my possession, and grimacing as more and more of the tidal rain swept over parts of my body that was exposed to it.
“Hold my hand!” Mommy yelled.
I heard her, just barely though. Her words were almost drowned out by all the sounds around us – the grating roar of the traffic, the hiss of tires on rain-slick asphalt, the distant rumble of thunder and the deadening thrumming of the rain as it pelted both the concrete-laden and un-tarred earth.
Under the poor cover of the umbrella, we started on the road from the junction back home. It wasn’t an easy trek. The rain was ponderous and unrelenting around us, cold and biting as it drenched more parts of us than the umbrella could bravely protect. The storm had become so heavy that we could barely see far ahead of us. Low-lying areas had become lakes and gutters roiled with currents as swift as rapids. The vice-like grips I had, one on Mommy’s arm and the other on my polybag, felt so frozen I was sure pliers would be needed to pry them apart.
On and on we trudged, buffeted by the storm. And at some point during the trek, I stopped minding the rains. I was cold and right in the middle of the bad, bad world, but I didn’t have a care in the world. Right here, it was just Mommy and me.
Eventually, we got to a part of the road where both downpour and darkness did nothing to help with the visibility of the road ahead of us. Water frothed on the ground all around us, and beneath it was a small cliff that steeped dangerously downwards. The precipice was something everyone who plied this road knew about and could navigate even in the inkiest blackness of the night.
But it wasn’t just dark tonight. It was rainy as well. And a foot not well-placed at this point could result in an accident we really didn’t need.
So we paused so that Mommy could deftly rummage – somehow through the collective hold she had on the umbrella, me and her polybag – for a penlight from her handbag. She found it, and was simultaneously picking it out and snapping it on, when her wallet began to slip out as well. In that microsecond it took for her hand to emerge from her bag and the wallet to follow after it, she wasn’t aware.
It felt like a slow-motion scene in a movie, as I watched that leather billfold come forth and slip from the bag’s opening, into the air.
This is my last card o! Mommy’s words replayed themselves in my head in that instant. And I gave a small gasp as I stretched out a hand for the airborne wallet. I missed. It hurtled on downwards and plopped into the water.
“NO!” I screamed and dived forward after the wallet.
“UCHE!” I heard Mommy call as I slipped out of her grasp.
This is my last card o!
Well, that last card wasn’t going anywhere, not on my watch! I snatched for the billfold, but the current of water was much faster, sweeping it forward and rapidly out of my reach. I darted forward after it.
“UCHENNA, LEAVE IT!” Mommy yelled urgently after me.
But my 10-or-11-year-old mind was too determined, too focused on my mission to be deterred. Clutching my polybag close to my chest, I splashed through the water after the wallet. It danced crazily about in the rapidly-flowing water, getting lodged into place by earth here and then dislodged to continue its flight away from me. I sped after it, my feet cutting frantically through the current of water.
And then, the next step I took found nothing. No solid ground beneath it, just water and emptiness. It was the precipice. My ankle twisted and I let out a strangled shriek as I began to fall. But I never made it to the ground. With strength that I can only describe as superhuman, Mommy grabbed me mid-fall and hefted me upright.
“Leave it, let it go!” she admonished lightly as she hugged me to her body.
“But it’s your last card!” I protested, as I watched wrathfully as the wallet continued downstream, bouncing this way and that on the small waves until it disappeared out of sight.
Mommy chuckled then. “Wait, that’s why you were going after the wallet…because of the money inside?”
“Oh, my dear son…” And she hugged me even closer, her bosom heaving as she chuckled some more. A disaster had just happened and she still found humour through it all. Then she said, “That is not my last card, not when I have you, you hear?” At my nod, she continued, “Let’s just get home. Your father must be very worried by now.”
I nodded, feeling my spirits lifted by her reassurance, and we continued on, cold and wet and in a hurry to get home, out of this bad, bad world. I didn’t have a care in the world then, because right here, it was just Mommy and me.
Happy Birthday, Mom.
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