Sunday, 19 May 2013

Conversations with my mother

I’ve been meaning to blog about the process of turning a large proportion of this blog’s content into a book. I still mean to and will absolutely do so; I just haven’t found the time. May has been such a crazy-busy month.

One of the things I will say about the process in the meantime is that I was introduced to my editor a couple of months ago; the editor has done the first review of Book Draft 1 and sent back comments, which I recently addressed before sending Draft 2 back. In the very first set of comments, a key message to me was that I would have to get written permission from the identifiable people in the book to actually use their words. As you can imagine, as I absorbed this message, I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

One of the identifiable people happens to be my mother, whom I’ve written about and whose words I use in the ‘Permission from my mother’ post (

I immediately emailed practically all of the other identifiable people, sharing the excerpts that involved them and asking for their written permission. With my mother, though, I held off until this week. I should also say that the editor’s comments included encouragements to say more, to go deeper on certain issues. After I’d fleshed out ‘Permission from my mother’ a bit, based on the feedback, I was really reluctant to have my mother read it. I just wasn’t absolutely sure how she’d react. I finally forwarded it to my sister on Monday or Tuesday this week, though, and asked her to print it out and have my mother read it for the first time.

By Wednesday, I sent my sister a one-sentence, nervous email, totally on edge:

‘Did she read it?’

She hadn’t.

My sister forgot to give it her. There were just too many distractions that day because my mother had all these impromptu doctor’s appointments, etc.

I got a two-sentence email from my sister the next day, though:

‘I gave it to her this morning. Give her a call.’


This was really nerve-wracking.

‘Why?’ I replied. ‘What’d she say?’

‘She was reading it when I left this morning,’ my sister explained.

Oh, Lord.

I took a deep breath and called my mother. She didn’t pick up.

I panicked and called my sister: ‘She didn’t pick up. I hope she’s okay …’

‘Of course, she is,’ my sister said impatiently. ‘She’s probably just on the other line. She’s going to say ‘yes,’ anyway. Calm down.’

I hung up, unconvinced. I decided to focus on my two million deadlines at work and get back to being on edge later.

I called my mother again that evening.

As usual, it took her some seconds to figure out which one of her children was on the phone. This ritual never fails to amuse me. I suppose with six children – four of them, girls who probably sound sort of alike – it’s easy to get us mixed up.

I nervously asked about her health and we chatted about this for about five minutes. This was followed by a pregnant pause. It’s hard to explain why I felt this way – extremely uneasy. I’d asked several other people for permission to use their words from actual conversations we’d had, after all, and they had all said ‘yes.’ I suppose my mother’s approval (which her permission symbolized to me) meant more to me than I ever realized.

‘Well, what did you think?’ I finally asked her – in my mind.

As if she had heard me, she said quietly: ‘I’ve read what you wrote.’

She said it in Igbo, suddenly switching the language with which we had begun our conversation.

I exhaled.

I didn’t reply. I couldn’t reply. I listened carefully with my ears pricked up, trying to use her verbal cues to picture what her expression was like.

After some seconds of silence, she said quietly, in Igbo: ‘You wrote well.’

I exhaled again, blinking back unexpected tears.

I finally spoke out loud: ‘Thank you.’

I said it in English.

I could’ve said much more, but I sensed that it wasn’t necessary. Without being verbose, we were having probably the most important conversation we’d ever had in my life. My sister later said – and I agreed – that those three, simple words (‘You wrote well.’) were high praise, coming from my mother. They actually seemed to hold deeper meaning, in Igbo, than they would have in English. In my mind, in Igbo, the words referred not just to the quality of the writing, but to the importance of the message conveyed by the writing as well.

Ordinarily, the fact that my mother carried out this entire conversation practically, in our language, shouldn’t be remarkable. However, my parents never really spoke to their children in Igbo, and so her doing so now made me wonder if there was any significance. The most my mother would do, typically, is give a, brief, one-sentence instruction in Igbo – you know: ‘Get me this’ or ‘Go get me that.’ So it was very unusual for her to be addressing me in Igbo throughout the conversation.

So unusual was it, that as she spoke, I wondered whether the choice of language was a conscious or sub-conscious decision. I knew the subject of conversation was extremely sensitive for her. It’s one thing to talk about other people, but talking about your own daughter – talking to her about her own divorce must be extremely difficult. And so, at first I thought that in choosing to speak in Igbo (a language she never actually speaks to me in), she was using the language as a sort of barrier between me and her raw feelings. It must have just been too close for comfort – a bit too overwhelming. And then I changed my mind and thought perhaps she just needed to speak in the language she’s most comfortable with, and so her first language made the most sense. I don’t know.

‘In our days,’ she continued, ‘that’s just how it was. You didn’t talk about those things. You couldn’t talk about such things. You just kept quiet. That’s how it was.’

I nodded understandingly on the phone, reaching out with my heart to the woman she once was decades ago as a young bride.

And just as we had made this rare connection, my mother brought us abruptly back to reality (the reality of our relationship), saying:

‘You got what you wanted, now.’

My heart sank momentarily and then I burst out laughing. Good ole Mummy, I thought. You just had to ruin the moment, didn’t you? LOL.

I thought to myself that perhaps this was yet another measure to ensure that we didn’t get too close for comfort. Of course, with my knack for over-interpreting things, I could be totally wrong.

‘I wouldn’t say I got what I wanted. I just did what I had to do. If I had stayed and gotten HIV, what would you have said? That I got what I wanted?’

I listened patiently without surprise as she swung (in her characteristic fashion) like a pendulum, back in my corner, re-hashing stories of the many she knew back home with ‘malaria’ that wasn’t really malaria. I continued to listen, bracing myself for the time when she would, like a pendulum, swing back to her earlier position.

She spent some minutes lamenting over what good people my in-laws were, and how she couldn’t understand how I had hand-picked the ‘wrong’ brother to marry. I patiently pointed out that the problem might not have been that I married the ‘wrong’ man; the problem could simply be that he married the ‘wrong’ woman. It could simply be that his brothers are married to women that are very different from me. Who knows? They may have had similar experiences as me without talking about it. Not to suggest that they have – I’m just saying. I pointed out that in my days, it’s still rare to really talk about these things, so her generation really isn’t all that different. Maybe I’m just an outlier. If I had just kept mum, I would still seem like the ‘right’ woman, and he would seem like the ‘right’ man. What’s happened has happened, so let’s just move on, I urged.

In the end, she didn’t actually indicate verbally that I had her permission to use her words, and although I didn’t actually ask, I sensed that I had it. The next day, my sister emailed me back a scanned copy of the ‘Permission from my mother’ excerpt. My mother’s signature was on it. She had signed it, indicating the date: May 17, 2013.

I marveled that her hand-writing was still the same after all these years. My mother is in her seventies now. Her beautiful, neat, cursive hand-writing stood out from the page almost like art work. I thought about what a stark contrast this was to my absolutely hideous, chicken scratch writing.

My mother and I definitely have our differences. Apart from our shared natural shyness, we are really nothing alike. Both of my parents firmly believe(d) I am my father’s mother reincarnated. This idea is way to spooky for me and far too removed from my own belief system for me to have ever given it much thought. But I am aware that this belief on my parents’ part informed their individual relationships with me. To my father, I was the mother he adored; to my mother, I have always been the mother-in-law whom I never met, but who allegedly made her life a living hell.

All the more reason why I’m grateful we’ve come as far as we have in our relationship ‘second time around.’


  1. You do realize that you need to get permission to publish this (if you intend to) as well? Just kidding- probably not. But well written as usual. Or in the words of your mother, " You wrote well." ;)

    1. Hahaha! I actually thought about that as I wrote it up. Fortunately, I don't plan to use this for anything more than the blog (not to say that I don't need permission even for that, but hey ...). Thank you for the kind words.

  2. Since I know your mother quite well, that is the highest praise she could ever give. Well done! Her switch to Igbo, as you rightly deduced, stems from her seeking comfort in her native language to discuss a very uncomfortable topic. It is well.

    1. Aww, thank you. I wasn't absolutely sure what the 'code-switching' meant, but you've confirmed that my hunch was right, Anonymous. Thanks for visiting.