My Mother, Her Mother and Myself

Last night, my Grandma paid us a surprise visit. I had recently arrived home from work and was stooped over on the bed with a splitting headache likely brought about by dehydration and too much sun. I had been meaning to propose a business idea to her – something which I am hoping will be my ticket out of formal employment – and alas she was there. I got to it right away. She had sent me a text message earlier in the day to say she’d just wanted to check up on me and it made me glow all afternoon.

As I sat up and turned to explain my income generating idea to her, I noticed her striking face and almost stopped mid-sentence. I come from a long line of outstanding women, but my great grandmother, my grandmother, my mother and my aunts are by far the most active forms of inspiration to me in my mid-twenties (that just sounds so close to thirty is scares me!) and a few years back. Well, considering that I grew up cushioned by the love of my Grandfather as a father figure, Grandma and I did not always see eye to eye. In fact, as I child, I sensed that she disliked me a great deal and although it came to bother me when I was a little older, I mostly did not care for her feelings.

I recall once making a joke about there being a witch in the toilet and running off to hide in my bedroom – one which I shared with my mother. To my horror, I found my mother stifling laughter in her bed. I peeped through the door to see Gran wobbling off to her bedroom. Mom, of course thought that this was the story of the century; she and her rigidly Christian mother had fallen out long before she came home with news of a pregnancy before there had been wedding bells (there still haven’t been any and Gran has even asked me about it) – but I felt guilty. I may have disliked how firm and petty she was, but I did not hate my Grandma. At least not yet.

Grandpa had lived with Diabetes for as long as I could remember, but it got complicated when I was in high school. He was in and out of hospital a whole lot and I assured myself that I would also die if he did. There’s no way of putting in words what it’s like to have a man in your life you makes you feel like you are perfect just as you are. That’s what Grandpa always made me feel: special and great at being me. He once came out of the house with a Maasai sword to threaten a bunch of kids whom I had told him were “bothering me”. He told me I couldn’t cut my tough kinky hair simply because “a woman’s pride is in her hair” and so I endured years of burns from backfired blow-dry sessions at the salon. I still recall getting home in tears and wishing the huge ebony black tuft on my head would simply lie still for a few days like the other kids. It never really did. I walk by the place where Grandpa and I would get fries every once in a while because he believed in moderation, and it still warms me up. They now sell grilled chicken too and not just deep fry. Grandpa left us in 2005. I had resigned to so many things by the time and my life really began to crumble inwardly. My rock had left me.

Grandma and Grandpa had been living apart for a while before his passing. The longer she had stayed away, the more intensely I had detested her for leaving him all alone. He refuse to live with Mom and I because he did not want to burden his single daughter who would, in his own words, need to have her girlfriends come over. There was some sort of show of reconciliation between the two – they had raised  children together and it was truly time to say goodbye – but I don’t know how that went. I was away and I’m still getting over the fact that I did not get a chance to bid him farewell. Eight years after his burial I visited his grave and broke down. That was last month. I guess I’d still hoped to have him walk me down the aisle.

By the time I was done with high school, my anger towards Grandma had solidified into a steaming pot of fury and disdain. I wanted nothing to do with her and would have been fine if I did not see her again. At least that’s what my head told me. I don’t quite remember how all this came to me and I decided that I needed to try and work things out with her, but I started to visit her and we would talk on phone and although she still upset me when she talked about my Grandpa, I started to really listen to her. There must have been a reason why he left whatever he had in her name – or rather, did not mention anyone, thus making her sole heiress to his estate. Then I decided that I was in no position to be the judge of right or wrong if I hadn’t been married to the same person for almost 40 years. I guess it made it somewhat easier to let go and I did want to let go. Between teenage crises, academic obligations, campus life ahead of me and going back to my mother after 6 years in boarding school (2 in my final primary school and 4 in high school) and trying to figure out who I was becoming and what direction I wanted my life to take, there was little energy left within for hatred; because hating someone is a chore.

Little by little, she started warming up to me. The most surprising revelation in all this was how much of myself I saw in my mother’s mother. I took on her strength of frankness and assertion, but I also bore the less pleasant tendencies of worry and a need for control. My mother and I are so alike, what is left is to pick out what is different about us; a lot like selecting rice before cooking – you take out the few rocks and bits with husks still on them, but they are always just a handful when compared to the larger batch which you’re preparing to cook. I grew up hearing that my mother and I looked alike, that we sounded the same on phone (even among close family members), that we seemed to have the same interest in outdoor activities, that we were both had possessed a deep appreciation for the queen’s language. So I got used to it. It was sometimes cold in the shadow of a person so well admired and liked, but we all adapt to uncomfortable situations and so did I.

A mentor of mine in my campus days helped me deal with a chasm that had grown between my mother and I soon after I joined campus. I wanted to do my own things: get my hair braided differently, make my own friends, go for concerts, date outside my faith, see the world, study something new and simply be young. I wasn’t too delicate about the rift because I felt that I was getting held back and still living someone else’s life. For instance, my mother wanted me to study Medicine. So did Grandpa. And so did I until I started to wonder how realistic it was to do so since I hadn’t made the grade and it would cost mum a fortune to take me through a parallel medical school program. I worried that my life would be a struggle for 5 years of my youth. I feared that I would become exactly what she had wanted – like a little pastry in the kitchen that was my mother’s life. She made a joke about Public Health being about meat inspections and sewage plants and so I picked Nutrition in retaliation. When I was upset about something, I stayed on campus over the weekends. Sometimes I would spend the night at a friend’s place. Anything to get away from my mother seemed like a perfect plan. I dreaded holidays and visited my uncle M and Grandma in turn just so we had fewer days to spend alone. I cooked and cleaned to keep her satisfied, but also came home late a few times because there was some concert or the other or I was having fries or ice-cream with the girls.  The justification was in the fact that I still went to church, was not having sex, still felt no curiosity in taking alcohol and that I was being responsible even while mum was away. Sometimes she would call with the flu and I would run home and clean house and serve her hot dinners in bed. We would still differ about my curfew and how many calls of hers I had missed and how I spent or saved my money. I built a string bring wall about myself and she watched as it went up, brick by brick. Sometimes she could get through to me, but less and less each time. She would quarrel and I would be quiet until the storm had passed. I met a guy, she didn’t quite like him and I knew her reasons were good, but I decided (in spite of the break-ups in between) that I liked this guy enough to stay. She still disapproves. I still feel bad. He’s still around.

Grandma and I became friends. She lay out her marriage and motherhood before me like a book and read through the pages with me. I felt sorry, angry, sad, curious, but at last I started to feel. Grandpa had been one of those people who believed in God, but would not go to church. To this day. I meet people who attribute their well-being, careers and positions in society to him; partly why I am so proud of my family name – who doesn’t want a legacy like that? I guess Gran is more supportive of my relationship and choices because she has been there. And I mean that in the greatest humility. Where we are now, I still admire my mother. And I love her a great deal. Some days of the week I wish she was stationed in Italy so I would only see her over the holidays, but I do miss her when we’re apart for long. Sometimes. Some trust issues still linger with Gran, but I have accepted her without conditions, just as she has accepted me. I think life is short and we can do better with an amicable relationship than a sour one.

While I wish I was a little more different from but also a little more alike with my mother, I have also grown to understand that we are both unique individuals with great qualities and the most common denominator of all humans – we all bleed. So while I plan to go about my plans for an income generating activity and applying to study abroad and rekindling my faith fire on a clean slate; while I start trusting more and more of myself with my grandmother and learning from her and planning to bring my man home for his first formal introduction, I want still want to become everything and nothing like the women in my life. I’m really looking forward to how it will all play out, eventually.


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