Children laugh at things they don't understand
When her great-grandmother dies, a young girl tries to reconcile her ideas about death with the realities of death.
"My great-grandmother died on a Monday. I know it was a Monday because the news came the night after a dubbed Mexican soap opera - which everybody from my mother to the house-help Rose talked about - aired on a local channel.
They say she went peacefully in her favourite chair. I imagine her in that overstuffed armchair, swathed in a colourful print wrapper with her long legs splayed like a boy’s. In my mind, I cannot still the gesticulating wind-mill of her arms, or shut her squinty eyes. I can hear the low lilt of her rapid Urhobo as if she is in the next room. Urhobo was as foreign to us as ‘adult’- that language our parents spoke in strange words and low voices. Still, my siblings and I were so enraptured by her active story-telling that we laughed loudly and uncertainly when she burst into sudden, raucous laughter. We laughed at things we didn’t understand.
When the news came, my siblings and I were seated in the living room playing. It was that time between home-work and play. The ‘phone rang shrilly and mummy pointed the remote control at the T.V to turn down the volume as she answered.
“Vwwoooom,” my three years old brother Roma droned, in the imitation of a motor car engine as he trailed his miniature sports car up mummy’s arm.
The phone was nestled between her chin and neck and she was speaking Urhobo. It had to be our Mama- our mummy’s mummy. I still found it funny when my mummy said ‘Mummy’. She was an adult! So I tittered as my sister Ese and I made our Barbies totter from their ‘house’ underneath a side table to the ‘mall’ at a neighbouring side table. Our dolls chatted idly about shoes and boyfriends in broad American accents picked up from satellite T.V shows aimed at teenagers.
Instead of bringing her face down to nuzzle Roma’s, mummy waved him away distractedly. Roma, unperturbed eased his car through the groove of her clavicle and began inching it up her neck, en route to her mouth.
“Oja! Hei!” my mother exclaimed, startling Roma.
His arm jerked and we heard the loud crack of chin connecting with sports car. Mummy cried out sharply then, tears coursed her face.
Having never seen our mother cry, Ese and I stood fearfully mouth agape. Our dolls stalled with arms held up stiffly in a cat-fight. Roma had recovered from the shock and was convinced our mother’s tears were part of a game. When any of us cried, mummy would crumple her face in and rub her eyes, pretending to cry. She described that we were initially startled. Adults crying did not fit into our schema! Then, we would laugh; children laugh at things they don’t understand. Ese and I knew from the tears coursing her face that it was not pretend crying, but three-year-old Roma was in hysterics.
Hoping to recreate the initial onslaught of tears, Roma swung his toy at our mother’s chin-swinging for all he was worth. Thankfully, she was quicker than him, seizing his toy from his unsuspecting grip and flinging it far across the room. It landed amongst the curtains.
Through her tears mummy screamed, “This child! Jovwo! E me-e?!” yanking his arm and pushing him towards us.
Ese and I ran to Roma just as his lower lip quivered. We bundled our wailing little brother out of the living room, to the T.V room. Roma could cry for Nigeria. He cried loudly whilst Ese and I tried our best to rock him between us. Just when we thought the wails were letting up, Roma would remember he was supposed to be crying and turn up the volume.
It couldn’t be Roma that had made our mummy cry, could it? Ese and I didn’t say our thoughts out loud. Something was very wrong. Mummies didn’t cry. Not really.
His cries rose as we heard our mother’s muted voice and then her footsteps fade.
Rose, came into the T.V room and sensing a fresh source of pity, Roma turned up the volume to an impossibly high decibel.
“What happened to my Roma?” she sang, “Did Turi beat you? Did Ese beat you?”
He shook his head though his tears.
Minutes later, enjoying Roma’s frustration, she pulled down her lower eyelids and stuck out her tongue at him, “Cry baby Roma! Mummy will not carry you!”
Roma’s wail turned from a droning whimper to an indignant roar.
Teasing, Rose sang, “Does Roma want sweet?”
The roar subsided almost instantly. Ese and I laughed with Rose.
“Oya, come. Mummy said I should buy sweet for you! ” Rose stretched out her arms.
Whimpering, Roma allowed himself to be picked up.
""Turi and Ese go and wear your slippers!” Rose
instructed. We did not need telling twice. It wasn’t everyday that mummy allowed us to visit the kiosk where the kindly malam was always inclined to give us more sweets than we paid for.
Settling him on her hip, Rose led us out of the house. Outside, the muted juddering of the generator grew louder.
The security guards, in loose kaftans were entertaining similarly dressed friends. They spoke in Hausa above the din of the generator and orchestra of horns in the streets beyond.
“Madam Rose,” one of them called out as Rose strode from the front door to the gates, hand in hand.
“Uncle Musa!” she joked back, “Please come and open the gate.”
They joked some more in pidgin-English that mummy spanked me for speaking before Musa eased open the gate with a creak.
Soon, we were making the short trip down the street to the kiosk. Rose shepherded us, stopping to trade friendly insults with the gate-men and help at other houses in our estate.
“My friends!” the malam greeted from the kiosk window. We returned his greeting with toothy smiles and bright eyes. Ese, Roma and I were mesmerised by the sweets suspended from the top and sides of the window. More boiled sweets in colourful, shiny wraps teased us from inside clear glass jars.
Wide-eyed, Roma grabbed at some sweets hanging just above his head and everyone laughed when he missed.
Rose bought ten sweets, haggling with the malam to bring the price down, “Aboki, how much last?” she repeated several times. This was one of the constructs Ese and I would later repeat in our recreation of a market scene and have to write, ‘I will not speak bad English’ on two sides of A4 paper each as punishment for.
Just as we were leaving, the malam called me, “Big girl, let me dash you something. Share it with your sister and brother.”
Trying not to show that I had anticipated the gift of more sweets, I reached out my left hand to take the sweets from him.
“Come on Turi, use your right hand!” Rose gently slapped my hand away, “You don’t use the hand that you use in the toilet to take something from your elders. It’s an insult!”
“Ah-ahn, leave her!” the malam came to my defence.
Heat rising about my face, I took the sweets from him with my other hand and muttered, “Thank you.”
We were soon in the living room, eating sweets and watching cartoons until the channel closed for the day. Then Rose herded us upstairs for our baths.
Ese, and I played in our bubble bath, dipping our chins into the perfumed water, emerging with puffy, bath-foam beards.
“See my bie-bie!” Ese laughed.
“Beard!” I corrected her.
“Fada Christmas!” Roma pointed at our beards, in peals of laughter.
How easy children forget.
In our pyjamas, we played with our toys in the T.V room waiting for our daddy to get home. Yes, daddy would tell us why mummy was crying. We saw our parents as some kind of gods. Our mummy had shaken this belief and we needed our daddy to reaffirm it.
Soon enough the gates creaked open. We cocked our ears to listen for the sound of the engine. We knew the difference between the sounds of our parent’s engines and would be able to tell if it was daddy returning or a guest.
The smooth purr of this engine meant it was daddy’s car. We ran through the backdoor out to the car park and took turns in jumping on him with shouts of, “Daddy!”
Once he had got his breath back, carrying Roma he asked us about school and home-work. We jockeyed to be the first to tell him about the strange events of the day. Roma, uninhibited by the absence of tact that comes incrementally with age, got there first.
“Mummy cwied,” Roma supplied.
“Why was mummy crying?” Ese asked.
“Something very sad happened,” he said gravely, “Let’s go and cheer her up!”
We followed daddy to their room. He pressed his index finger to his lips in a motion for us to be quiet.
Mummy was lying down on her side of the bed, with the covers drawn up.
“Honey?” he called.
She lifted off the covers.
Daddy went to her and they hugged each other. Normally, there would have been embarrassed laughter. We laughed when our parents displayed any signs of affection, but we never asked each other why we laughed. The white’s of her eyes were red and she didn’t see us cowering in the background.
Before we could stop him Roma stepped forward and said, “Mummy, I’m sowwy,”
Mummy’s bloodshot eyes clocked us, “It’s okay Roma, it’s not your fault. I just had some bad news.”
She broke out of daddy’s embrace to pat the bed, “Come ‘Ro. Come all of you; I want to hug my babies!”
Ese and I went gingerly and Roma bounded forward. We got in the bed with mummy and daddy like we did every Saturday morning when we woke up early to watch the children’s programmes.
“You know my Nene?” mummy asked tearfully.
“Mama’s mummy,” I supplied.
“Yes,” mummy sniffled, “Well, my Nene has gone to Heaven.”
Ese and I had heard about death. Jesus died once every year and rose again and everyone danced in church. We knew Jesus-we talked to him every morning and every night, but we hadn’t seen him before like mummy’s Nene. We’d only seen him in pictures.
“When is she coming back?” Ese asked.
Mummy hugged us tighter and cried a bit.
“When someone goes to Heaven they don’t come back. You won’t see them for a very, very long time,” daddy tried to explain.
“How long?” I asked.
“Well by God’s grace when you are very old,” mummy was too upset so daddy had taken over answering.
“How did your Nene die?” I asked.
“She was sleeping,” daddy answered.
Roma was distracted by then and busied himself playing with mummy’s arm.
“How come she died when she was sleeping?” I grilled.
“She was very, very old,” daddy was patient.
“Jesus wasn’t old. Did Jesus come back because he was young?”
Even mummy smiled through her tears, “No Jesus came back because God brought him back.”
“Should we ask God to bring her back?” I asked seriously, already scrambling to my knees.
Mummy was wiping her tears now, “No sweetie. We can thank God for keeping her alive for so long and we can celebrate her life.”
That night, all the rules were suspended. Mummy didn’t go over our home-work as usual, we ate dinner in the living room instead of the table and we didn’t have to go to bed at our bed-time. I feel guilty that I had felt a little excited about staying up later than usual.
I couldn’t stop the excitement from swelling when mummy came in her smart work clothes to pick us up early from school to travel home from Lagos to Warri, where the funeral was going to be held. I peered through the glass louvres all day, looking beyond the playground to the school gates, waiting for my mother’s car to draw up at the gates. My teachers did not rap my desk sharply to get my attention. They asked me if I was alright all day.
Our parents had prepared us for the funeral as best as they could, answering questions about what happened to your body when you died. Still, we were kept out of the way almost throughout the ‘celebration’. We were left at our grandmother’s house everyday with Rose, our cousins and their own house-helps while our parents went out in their co-ordinated traditional clothing and came back with cups, buckets and plastic fans emblazoned with a grainy sticker with mummy’s Nene’s face on it.
Mummy and daddy let Ese and I come to her house to pay our ‘last respects’. We wore clothes made out of a material with mummy’s Nene’s face stretched across it.
The front of her house was crowded. The adjoining door to her shop was boarded up and someone had cleared the gravel that has sat oustide the house for years. A path was made for us to stream into the house where mummy and daddy explained Nene’s body would be ‘lying-in-state’. By the time we made it through the mourning crowds, Nene’s face was sticking to our backs and fine, red dust coated our patent shoes.
It was cool and silent inside the house. Our aunties and uncles filed through with our cousins. The adults wore sunglasses to hide their bloodshot eyes. It didn’t hide when their shoulders shook with sobs.
The house seemed unchanged except mummy’s Nene was not cooing, “Do omome! Ah, omome do!” as we entered. I could hear the ceiling fan whirring in the room beyond her living room. The overstuffed chairs were still in their places, with lace doilies and pictures crammed unto the sagging wooden surfaces. The unframed pictures of Jesus on the wall were still curling at the edges from age. There was still an overpowering smell that came from the round, white camphor balls that were tucked discreetly into corners of the room living room.
Smack in the middle of the room, where sweating bottles of soft drinks and biscuits from mummy’s Nene’s shop would normally be arranged for us, a dark wooden box lay open. The inside of the lid was coated in frills and lace. I made a note to ask mummy why the inside needed to have pretty frills if her Nene wasn’t going to see it.
Just ahead of me, mummy stopped, choked back tears and placed flowers in her Nene’s arms. Then, I could see inside the box. The skin was impossibly dark against the white dress they put the body in. This face was much fatter than mummy’s Nene’s. There were drops of water on her, as if she had just been taken out of the fridge like one of the sweating bottles of soft drink from mummy’s Nene’s shop. This wasn’t Nene, I was sure of it! Everyone had made a mistake.
Mummy’s Nene was just beyond the curtain leading to her bedroom. If I inclined my head just so, I could feel the dryness of her palm as she turned me around slowly to see how much I had grown. I could catch in the middle of the whirl of Urhobo, the English phrases, “beautiful girl” and “my daughter”. This stranger in the box wasn’t Nene.
In the middle of my great-grandmother’s oddly silent living room, I felt laughter bubble up inside me. Then it burst."
Claim: Originally written by Nigerian Fiction Member 18 - RookieBee (Rukky Brume)
Nigerian Fiction Title 10