Today, I would like to remember my maternal grandmother, Madam T.E. Obiora.We spent holidays with her at Number 9 Egbuna Street, Onitsha growing up, all of us grandchildren raising hell – quietly. She was not big on noise. Or going downstairs and talking to the neighbours, divulging all her business. She had hearing like a bat! Even when you thought she was sleeping just the creak of the door would have her shouting ‘Onye n’aga ebe ahu?’ – ‘Who goes there?’ in a very awake voice. I think my mother got her catlike sleeping reflexes from her.
My grandmother and I really started getting close when I was an adult and especially after I left Nigeria for the UK. I used to call her for a chat and even though she was never ever frail up until the day she died, I was no longer scared of her.
She had all her teeth; white and solid like ivory walls. I think they remained that way because she always brushed her teeth with an atu – a chewing stick first, rinsed and then used that old timey Close-Up toothpaste that left you with the inability to taste anything for a good few hours. My grandmother was very very clean. Clean to the point of freakishness. If you coughed while you were cooking, you could be sure she was going to eat fruits and nuts the whole day.
This is the last photograph I took of her. It was taken in 2008 on our way to my father’s village for my elder sister’s Igba Nkwu Nwanyi traditional wedding ceremony. By the time I got married the next year, she was dead. The story was that she received news that her last living relative had died, went into a coma and slipped away ten days later. She was 91.
My grandmother was strong and stubborn. She bore all five of her sons first and sent them off to fight in the war, whilst looking after two young daughters. She was enterprising; in peacetime she owned and operated a bakery (with vans and whatnot) and during the war she ‘cooked’ soap and ran a mini-restaurant from a mud stall in Neni. She was one of the people who still operated traditional finishing schools for young girls/new brides before they went off to live with their husbands.
Mama Onitsha as we called her was a staunch catholic, a fierce mother and grandmother. She carried a lot of guilt for the sins of her ancestors and her children within her, like a good catholic should. She could sit and worry at something for hours, mulling it over, turning it this way and that. Her sighs would shake her shoulders. I think I got that part from her. And we all think it is what killed her.
My grandmother was a wonderful storyteller; she filled our ears with folk tales and fables. But it wasn’t until the year before she died did I get the story of what had been bothering her all her life, what she felt she had to atone for.
Today I celebrate my ancestresses through her; my paternal grandmother Ogbueshi Felicia Mgbeke O Emelumadu and my great-grandmother Nne Irugbo, my other great-grandmother Nne Okereke and all others unknown to me. I pour out wine for you today and leave a morsel in your memory.
P.S: I am still open to communication if you guys want to hang out while I am sleeping. And Mama, yes. I got your message.