Never judge a book by its cover, they say. And so it was with the mummy as we fondly call her and her husband.
It was no secret that mummy preferred the company of neighbours and spent more time in her little shop located within the compound than she did with her ailing husband who was virtually trapped in their home on the top floor of their house.
Their children who were British citizens had since returned, leaving Alhaji at the mercy of the many houses helps who never stayed too long for obvious reasons.
Many in the neighbourhood, therefore, felt genuinely sorry for him because of the shoddy treatment meted out to him by mummy. It was obvious that there was no love lost between them.
Unknown to us, mummy’s uncaring attitude was a result of many years of bottled up anger, humiliation, and loneliness. For these, she said she was not able to forgive her husband until the day he took his last breath.
A man must learn to balance his emotions, she would say, anytime she talks about her late husband. Her story:
“You young ones must be careful so you don’t become too overbearing and destroy your son’s home in the process. It is natural for anyone who has been at the centre of everything to feel hurt and jealous if she suddenly discovers that her status has changed.
But this is life and you must be grateful for the opportunity to be in that position. My mother-in-law was very close to my husband when he was young. As the story goes, they did everything together because he was her only son of four children in a polygamous marriage.
So, it was only natural that she had all her hopes on him. I did not really get to know her before our wedding because I was not a frequent guest at their home. My husband did all the pursuing and as soon as we got married, we travelled out of the country on the arrangement of my father.
It was there we gave birth to all our three children, the first, a girl was already in her teens when we returned. It was against my wishes but my husband could not bear the stories he was getting from his mother.
On our arrival, we discovered that my mother-in-law was truly living a very stressful life in Nigeria. After the death of her husband, she had been given only one room which she occupied while he was alive, the room was in fact my husband’s inheritance from his father being her only son.
The daughters were not given anything. Another reason for her condition was that none of her daughters seemed to have a peaceful, happy marriage. They were not financially buoyant as we often had to send money to them too.
The only one that appeared alright was too stingy and had issues with their mother. She never failed to tell people that her mother was a witch who wanted to control everyone.
Anyways, on our arrival, we did not like her condition and promptly decided to take her under our roof. The decision turned out to be my undoing because I was warned even by her daughter not to do so.
No sooner had mama settled in, that she began complaining about my cooking which she claimed was never peppery enough. If it was too thick today, it would be too salty tomorrow, and the day after, she might not feel like eating whatever meal I had prepared, even when we’d asked before preparing it.
That was not all, she always had an axe to grind with the children who did not understand her language, most times, accusing them of laughing at her or some other ridiculous claims.
She must always have something to complain about and at the end of the day, the children will be at loggerheads with their father. When her complaints about my cooking became unbearable, I suggested that she may start cooking her own meals since it was impossible to satisfy her.
This too turned out to be the final wrong move on my part and the main reason for the breakdown of communication between my husband and I. I am sorry to say that I never could bring myself to forgive him until his death, last year.
It started with occasional invitations that she had prepared his favourite childhood meal, and he should have a taste.
Sometimes, it was that she had prepared their native delicacy, or she had prepared a very peppery soup, like the one they had at so and so time and it would be good for his stomach than the memede I was giving him.
She would always try to recall old memories and the children and I would watch him lap it up like a dog. She lavished attention on him and held him to her apron string. My husband was never able to turn her down and it soon became a habit for him to eat from her pot, while the children and I ate from the same pot.
This was not all. When they finish eating at the table, my mother-in-law would never retire to her room until we do. She would sit down and listen to all we had to say about the day’s work, the children, our plan for the next day, you know, our little family talks.
Then she would make suggestions and her loving son would just accept it without asking for my opinion. His mother was the wisest woman on earth. Soon, I started leaving the sitting room for them to retire to my room after our meals. That was how I picked the habit of not watching television.
My companion was the transistor radio in my room. Till today, I am not a television lover at all. My husband and his mother would sometimes sit, discussing into the wee hours of the morning, especially on weekends.
Whenever I tell this story to people, they find it difficult to believe, but it is the truth. My mother-in-law and her son, my husband, shared a bed for two nights under our roof.
It is unbelievable, the height of everything, but that was exactly what happened. I am not saying they had sex oh, but they slept on the same bed. My husband had complained of severe backache. It wasn’t his first, but it was most severe such that he could not even stand up erect. His mother as usual dismissed the doctor’s medicines and as usual had all the answers to everything.
She told him after two days of treatment without much relief, that there was a traditional ritual she used to apply to such injuries for all her children when they were young. According to her, the therapy included body heat from one’s own mother.
Though where the mother is not available, the sister or wife could take her place, but it was always better with ones mother. By this time, I’d lost all interest in her antics and was immune to them.
Our neighbours used to refer to mama as my husband’s wife because most of them were aware of what was going on in our home, especially the fact that she cooked for her child.
Whenever he dared to eat our own food, she would complain that she could not eat alone and had not eaten since he left for the office in the morning. What was there to fight over?
* I knew I would outlive mama, no matter what she was up to.
* I’d never been a very romantic or sexy person. What I mean is, I was never into all these mushy- mushy clinging unto a man in the name of love. In fact, I did not enjoy intimacy at all, for me, it was just something one must do to have children and after my children came, I was more interested in raising them, especially as my husband had lost his mind. Perhaps above all, I was too hurt and humiliated to care. I can never forgive him for what he did to me.
Here was someone that I cared for, loved, and even put my money and sweat to ensure that he made something worthwhile out of our stay in England because he was not so brilliant. The only way he could repay the children and I was to collude with his mother against us.
Some people used to tell me that she had bewitched him, but I did not care for such talks. To me, my husband was just a weakling who could not stand up to his mother, nor live up to his responsibilities. Naturally, I was told and given several advice on how to deal with my mother-in-law, but I just never cared for my husband anymore to go to such length. I already accepted the fact that I was fighting a lost battle. I did not see myself winning mama, so I never tried.
To say that I was the happiest person on earth when she died is an understatement. I thought my enemy had finally dropped from the scene and I could pick back the pieces of my marriage. I killed a whole cow and with my friends and family took aso-ebi, my circle was the grandest at the party.
However, mama’s physical exit did not end my emotional trauma, she was always there, lurking in the shadows, in my mind, her prints were everywhere and I just could not forget all that they did to me. Whenever I turned to my husband or he to me, it was mama’s face I saw.
Whatever affection I had for my husband would just evaporate, I would see only an enemy. When he finally cleared his head enough to see that we had nothing to call a relationship again, he called his two surviving sisters, some relatives, and close friends to talk to and plead with me, but it was too late.
I could not forgive him again and that was how things were between us until his death. Whenever he was in the sitting room watching television, I would either be in my room doing whatever I felt like or outside within my shop with our tenants or a neighbour. I had nothing to share with him anymore.
Now at 64, I am a grandmother, two of my children are happily married and live abroad. Going back was their escape from their father and his mother. When I visit, I don’t interfere with their businesses and they also try to make my stay nice. I think wives and mothers-in-law must not stay under the same roof for too long.
That is the first step to solving this problem. It was practiced successfully in the olden days only because of the level of exposure and the fact that daughters-in-law were required to be docile and submit to the authority of their in-laws and husbands. Women had little or no say. But things have changed and it is better for a wise mother to know this.
Women should learn to put themselves in each of these roles and empathise with each other. The man belongs to the two of them, they need to be patient to get the best of him.
Hmmm! Do have a wonderful weekend and stay safe!!