Last Friday, November 24, around 1pm, I was getting pleased with myself for having scaled the hurdle of yet another chapter in a school dissertation I was writing when my phone rang. Before then, I sat cross-legged like someone who had just won tombola, thinking of further routes to take to arrive at the final destination of this academic obsession I wangled myself into. These days, when my younger brother called, I was always seized with trepidation. Thirteen years ago, September, 2010, to be precise, he had similarly called me. It was a dawn call. His wail on the phone ten years ago, I would soon know, would assume a sequential familiarity. He barely got the words through. Barely audible from his wail was the message: Our father, Joseph Adedayo, had just crossed to the other side of the divide. Now, as his call came through on Friday, my heart was in obvious turmoil. My mother, Victoria Ajoke, had been ailing for a while. So, I picked the call. The wailing on the other side was the uncommunicated communication I needed to affirm that I had finally received a pass into the orphanage; my gold had undergone everlasting rust. My brother was crying. I didn’t ask what the matter was. I got the message and ended the call. She was just a mere 77 years old girl.
Since Friday, I have not shed a tear. I have however worn a cloak of melancholy that I cannot explain. Like all mothers, Victoria Ajoke dotted on me, the child who opened her womb. These days, the suffusion of prayers she sprayed on me seemed to announce to me that she was preparing to shed the furs of mortality she wore. Like all mothers, she was excited seeing that little stubborn boy of hers, weaned on the apron of lack, become a man. A few weeks ago when I visited her in our family house at Oke-Ijebu in Akure, Ondo State, as frail and ailing as she was, she had a good laugh as we reminisced in what was going to be our last, on our journey thus far. I told her to get well quick so that I could take her to see a recent story of my life. I was afraid she might not. I remembered that my father too had, a few hours to the ailment that took him, wondered when my PhD defence would be, apparently for him to be the father of a ‘doctor’. Now, my hunch was right.
Some years ago, on a visit to Ilesa, Osun State, I branched at Ayeso barracks, with a friend. I stood in the front of a row of shanties that were the homes of policemen and pointed at one of them. That was where I grew, I announced to my friend. He bluntly told me I was lying. Nine of us, my parents inclusive, lived inside that dinghy cell-like apartment, I said.
While my mother and I reminisced, I reminded her of how far God had taken us. Indeed, like Bob Marley sang in his Talking blues, growing up, cold ground was our bed and rock, our pillow. Victoria Ajoke was a disciplinarian. When I tell my children, who hear Grandma now address me with so much respect, the story of how her lacerating cane wangled through my back, they found it hard to believe. Or, when she discovered I had stolen out of the proceeds of her plastic wares I hawked round Ikirun, Eko-Ende and Inisa those days to buy puff-puff. My cheeks suffered tremendously from her slaps.
She taught me the values I hold sacrosanct today. At dinner, all of us, her children, would circle round our bowl of eba or amala meal. Woe betides whoever picked meat before the end of the meal. She would hit the back of your palm with such ferocity that you wouldn’t feel like eating again and you must not decline to eat further. That was insolence, the penalty of which was another slap. She would announce that you were greedy and a potential thief. Till today, when I sat with a collective to eat from the same plate, I am cheated because Mama taught me that meat eating was the last plate assignment. At dinner, she told us folklores and we loved to listen to the songs she sang to wedge home the morals of the stories. The one I still remember vividly was delivered in our Akure dialect. It was in the early 70s when the military government began executing armed robbers. “In m’eyin re t’okun, omo ke sare moto ko binrin binrin dana (let him face the firing squad; the child who robbed in the bid to own a motor vehicle).
When she thanked me profusely for taking care of her as her days thinned out, I wondered if she had forgotten her toils on me. My mother was an expert in frying gari and preparing cassava meal called fufu. Her fufu could last for weeks without gathering moist. Her proficiency came to bear in 1994 when I had to go study for a Master’s at the University of Ibadan, at a time my father had just retired and hunger was our most notorious companion. I would take her fufu, cocoyam and gari to my hostel and was known for my indigent life. A few years ago when I slumped into a financial distress, immediately my mother heard of it, she called me. A huge sum had just been allotted her from the proceeds of the sale of a paternal family inheritance. She handed everything to me so that I could solve my existential challenge. Such was the mother I lost on Friday.
When I remember her sacrifices for me, I remember Plato’s The Phaedo. It is one of the most ubiquitously read dialogues that was written by that ancient Greek philosopher. In it, Plato gave what is considered to be one of the most essential philosophical validations of the sweats of motherhood. Motherhood, said Plato, is not only about love, but “a selfless self-emptying for another, not because the child has earned or deserved it, but simply by the very fact of being the mother’s child.”
That was Victoria Ajoke, my mother, who lies alone right now in the morgue.
I will miss my mother immensely. It is such a painful separation of mother and her son. I will take solace in her blessed womb that held me for nine months and the lacerating whips from her cane that nurtured me to what I am today.
Adieu, Maami Victoria Ajoke.