Even an old train stops once in a while. As I did. Also, it was a Jesus weekend. Praise God. Thankfully Eddy is here to hold court this week.
By Eddy Ashioya
Love has always come easy to our family. It’s hard not to fall in love with us. Heck, I bet my inheritance that by the time you are done reading this article, you will be in love with me too. You see, I am the product of a raunchy love affair—is this too much, too soon?—my father, the quintessential Luhya man had me outside of wedlock. So, you can call me a love child.
A virile man with dashing good looks (my father, not me) had me 27 years back, with a foxy mother who I not only love, but like. But that’s not where this story begins.
I have grown up shuttled between three women, nay three mothers. I don’t know whether my mother was the other woman, but if she was, my father went to great pains to ensure she never felt that way. Growing up in a blended family has not always proved the juice to be worth the squeeze. The lawless banter and sly remarks that make one family feel more alive might have another reduced to fist cuffs in seconds. It’s a mountain of unpredictability, a leap of faith that succumbs, at least most of the time, to a haze of dust at the bottom of a tall cliff. It’s messy, but so is life.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I suffer from scarcity, but more from abundance. But I know that at any moment, it may all come crashing down. That’s why we appreciate many things, such as beauty and flowers, not despite their impermanence but because of it.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. So, where do we start?
The woman who raised me when I was a teenager, my aunt, I call her mom, because well she had the best years of me. When I was still a kijana barobaro, before vacuum cleaners were a thing, I used to scrub the carpet. She made it look like fun because she knows me thoroughly, enticing me with a hot plate of whatever-I-want. She introduced me to chapati, great chapatis which have become a deal-breaker for me in any relationship. I come from a Luhya heritage where we feed guests until they’re in pain and then send them home with leftovers. There’s always a boiling pot on the jiko when you visit us.
She rocks serviceable blazers and power vitenges. She still believes 2004 was the best year to be alive. Or was it 1999? I can’t keep up. Discussing heart matters is considered gauche, tacky or untoward, but when I got my ass handed its first heartbreak, I told her about it and we had chapati kuku (wa kienyeji) while listening to ‘I’m doing just fine’. Dark days, those ones.
Most everyone knows teenagers can be rude, bawdy, sarcastic, entitled, ungrateful, self-righteous, and my personal favorite, use up all the hot water with their endless showers. Now imagine living with such a teenager. Being snide was my weapon of choice. However, she never made me struggle with what every petulant teenager wants —to fit in. And because I responded better to the stick, coupled with her ready-to-go temper, she never withheld the red slippers and leather belt. It runs in the family, this mood thing. A hair-trigger temper is my go-to pessimistic reflex. One slight irritation awakens the dragon. No water in the apartment? Call for an estate meeting RIGHT NOW. Slow internet? Get on Twitt…oh.
But eventually you need to come of age.
And age, we did. Now I talk about anything with her. From finances to family. She’s a prayerful woman that one, and I still have the letter she wrote me when I was sitting my KCSE, which I passed in case you are wondering. I know she prays for me because the number of times people in the government office have served me without questioning my hairstyle is suspicious. So, because I know someone from her chama will send her this link, thanks mom.
But she’s losing her eyesight now and that means I am often called at wee hours of the night because she can’t find her Bluetooth button. Or why are her WhatsApp messages not sending? “You have to switch on your data mum, it’s the two arrow buttons…er..no..on the screen…yes..press it…oh it’s on? It’s not working..did you buy data..no?..it says no data..,?”
And how she’d try to hook me up with some randos? Like Sister Grace from the choir. You need a woman who will sing when she is angry, she’d cajole. She seems pretty, a little old-fashioned, but nice, right? You need to find someone like that. Like in any relationship, we have our moments of friction.
“When are you coming home?” she blurted over the phone the other day.
“Soon mom, soon,” I’d mutter.
I didn’t want to tell her I had made plans with someone’s daughter for the weekend. Besides, why have I not brought said daughter home? Soon, mom, soon.
Then there is my ‘biological’ mom, whom we shall refer to as Mother, was(is?) one hell of a looker. I like calling her ‘Mother’, because that’s a good name, a defiant name. Even as a young woman my mother, from whom I inherited these sexy teeth and an unhealthy obsession for avocados, had always been an affable thing: a chancer, amiable, always apprehensive to state her needs. She was often too humble and generous to a fault. With a dove’s innocent laugh, a soft voice that swayed between apathy and aloofness, and long silky black hair, as if her thoughts couldn’t be contained by her head—she was everything you’d need in a girlfriend. Men loved her, women loathed her.
I felt like an addendum that came at the beginning of her script. She had barely started going to Disco Matangas when I popped up in her life. Was my father then to be condemned? Back then, in the ‘00s, there were the flickers of disdain, whispers, sneers. And she, if not a fuddy-duddy, fun-loving giddy lass, was naïve at best, a silly young woman, easily duped. Oh, the folly of youth.
Marriage has never been her shtick. Besides having me when she was young, in her early 20s must have taken a toll on her. For some reason, I feel like I owe it to her to succeed. She reminds me that I made her a promise to buy her a Jeep. When I was like 3 years old. You can’t take a 3-year-old at his word!
Boredom is like acid and I can tell from the way she gets antsy just sitting there. She’s 45 now, and as the wrinkles encroach upon her face, her beauty silently radiates. She has a smile to die for, with perfectly arranged teeth and a hairline that has withstood the test of time. She has that look. That quiet storm. If my aunt was thunder, then Mother was lightning. I’m always afraid to ask her what she always wanted to be, what her dreams were, who she wanted to turn out to be. I feel partly responsible for her dreams. I don’t think I can handle the truth that she gave up her dreams to raise me. It’s always easier to live with a lie if you believe it.
Our conversations are punctuated with spooky silences, eerie awkwardness rushing in to fill the cracks where our words can’t. Sometimes, I open up my mouth to tell her things, but I choke on the words, only managing to let out shrill ‘Mmmh’ and ‘Hmms’ — that dim hum buzz sound that we’ve always been aware of, the soundtrack of our lives, the hum of our mortality. She has this long dry look, a look that holds your gaze, a look that contains a certain amount of pain. A certain amount? A lot. I see her as something of a hornet’s nest—I don’t want to poke at it, for fear of what might emerge. I’d want to take her out, buy her favorite coconut wine and watch her whine about my father’s lack of taste in shoes (I agree) and listen to her big dreams. She was a girl with big dreams, I can tell.
Our relationship has always been time-bound, spending only my first three years as a toddler with her. But even now as I sit here, it doesn’t feel like time is on my side. From her whom I learned that to live, then, is a matter of time, of timing. Suddenly, the ‘Hourglass’ seems less apt than say, ‘Time Bomb.’
Enter my stepmom.
Stepmothers have a bad rep, at least in nearly every fairy tale. Everyone talks about the wicked stepmother. Mine? How do I say it without sounding haughty—she is the gold-standard. First of all, she is Kikuyu (which is completely irrelevant information but trust me, there’s somewhere I am going with this) because the only time we ever ate cabbage was never. I call her Ma, because just like one-word syllables, things just feel easy when she’s around.
Ma is the most laid-back person ever. If cool-headed was a person, it would be her. I have never seen her angry. Never. Not even when I once transferred some coins from her purse into my pocket. We met when I was four, and we just hit it off. She looks like a woman who can blend in anywhere. Fly on the wall or a gun holster, she’d play both roles with unrivalled distinction. She doesn’t fret drawing you in with her charm, chutzpah and aura. She glows as if coolly lit from within by some tiny inner moon.
My papa, while we were exchanging drinks a certain day, told me that he loves her. I was so proud of my ol’ man. My papa? Love someone? And he is blushing? Is it him speaking? Or is it him speaking to the bottle? Then he poured some deeply intimate stuff about marriage on my ears as my eyes widened—stuff that I could but won’t tell you. They had always been affectionate with each other as the photo album hidden under his bed would paint, but it wasn’t until I prodded that he seemed fully, recklessly, to confess his sizzling love for her, turning me into a witness of a courtship that ought to have faded with the mire of parenthood. This must be love, deep in the trenches, borne of respect, appreciation and gratitude.
A woman of Biblical patience, when my papa had his fits of temper, I’d saunter under the cool shade of her indifference. The story arc is not out of character for Ma. You’d tell her her head was on fire and she’d still make you a cup of tea first before putting it out. She’d flip old magazines and newspapers, rereading passages with the surgical precision of a glassblower, marinating on these tales as if they were scandals plucked from her own life. Ma likes to read. I like that she likes to read.
She also likes to show me off, and I also like to be shown off, telling anyone who cares to hear, ‘Eddy has done this,’ or ‘Eddy was on TV,’. She has a pure heart—a woman who is partly conscious of the fact that her unrequited love for Maria is slowly ebbing its way into my siblings. But she also defended us: when people would come with accusations ati sijui my brother has broken whose glass, sijui my sister called whose child ‘mangoto’ she’d take it up with the relevant parents. But nothing forces you to create boundaries like having several hard-headed brooding children. Something had to give and it wasn’t gonna be Maria. So we had to grow some manners. Every time I am in Kakamega, we slouch at the table, all eleven of us, a house in chaos, and I, always looking to be apart from, choosing to be a part of.
She’s easy with people, like a spread of peanut butter holding two slices of bread together. You immediately feel the need to tell her things, to ask her things, to confess things, which is why I never call her on a Saturday morning.
She is quietly powerful, like a humming German machine, you only realize she was around when she is long gone. Heck, now that I am typing this, I just missed her. I should call her. I still remember an incident where she had the opportunity to rat me out but she held her own. None of my siblings has ever felt like an outsider, I know because we all call her ‘Mama.’ She doesn’t play favourites, sauce for the goose is generously dished to the gander as well. The first time she hit me, I must have been twelve. A hand, a flash, a reckoning. My face ablaze with pain. She’s never hit me again. Cliché shattered!
She cools papa down. I like how when he wants to address me he’d say ‘We’. We, as in him and my Ma. And because history has a knack for repeating itself, if he wants something from me, he’ll use Mama. Oh, how the tables turn. Now that their knees are buckling, and their backs hurting from carrying the responsibility of feeding several teenagers, they only have each other. It may not be perfect, but who wants perfection anyway?
It’s a topsy-turvy relationship. Sometimes, I wonder what people think. But people’s opinions don’t matter. Not to them anyway. However scorned or bland, their relationship has taught me: Don’t be so quick to judge.
This is love, undeniably. (I’m sorry, Mother.)
She’s taught me to be open to life: the great, the meh, the scandalous, the scary. She’s shown me, by example, exactly the kind of person I want to be — someone you can count on, someone you can trust — because that’s exactly how she is. That thing about values and ethics? Yeah, she’s big on that too. That when the chips are down you step up. You do the right thing. She’s always known what I yearn for, who I was and what I want. She’s taught me that it’s my job to find out what my children desire and long for. And then not give it all to them so that they have something to discuss with their therapist in 20 or 30 years. Hehe.
From each I took, and from each I learned: My aunt gave me discipline, my Mother gave me presence, my stepmom gave me acceptance.
Even as I now have more empathy for my parents, and especially my mothers, I am consumed by the realisation that maybe, this life thing has no formula. That eventually it all adds up.
Because every time someone asks me, “How is your mom?” I am spoilt for choice.
“Which one?” I croon.
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