Often, I catch my mother looking at me, lips slightly turned down and her eyes colored with resignation and I know she’s only holding herself from saying out loud.
“What am I going to do with this one?”
My relationship with her has always felt like being trapped in a bus headed to nowhere. We took off from the bus park of Near-Indifference, where I felt for the most part like an afterthought; I was the middle child that stopped her from completely focusing on her treasured son; the one she also had to attend to before getting to my fragile younger sister who required every second of attention she wasn’t doting on my brother. Our bus took off from that park, drove aimlessly for most of my childhood till it stopped in my teens at Discovery station.
This was the period my mother realized I was an actual breathing human being, who had somehow managed to go unnoticed all these years. I had slipped through the cracks, not learning any of the skills good and well trained women are supposed to have at the ready. This came as a surprise to me too, I had struggled so long for her attention than when I finally had it, it came with none of the joy I had anticipated. This discovery was brought on by several kitchen mishaps that still make me smile and shake my head whenever I remember, and it led to her vowing to make me into a model African woman, whether I liked it or not.
So you can imagine the number of towns and bus stops our relationship struggled through – the constant screaming and fights, the silent treatment and the tears, the uncountable beatings and the days I just travelled far away in my head. If this phase of our relationship had a signature scent, it would the constant smell of burning food that coated my dresses and singed my hair as the kitchen constantly rejected my inadequate sacrifice of love and devotion.
I think my sisters – especially my immediate younger sister – still resents me a little for my seeming refusal to be domesticated. If only they knew how hard I tried, oh I did! I wrote down steps to and how to-s in different jotters around the house. I resolved over and over again to be better, to do better, to prove my worth and make my mother proud. But the harder I aimed, the farther the basket drifted. The kitchen was and still is to me, another name on the long list of things I tried and failed at, it also has this honorary spot on the list of ‘people’ that simply refused my advances of friendship.
When I was eighteen, I declared to my entire family one Sunday on the drive back from church that my education in the kitchen was over, I had learned how to prepare decent stew and really good bean porridge, that was enough for me to survive on. I was simply done. I remember my dad smiling at me through the rearview mirror. The smile he sent my way was like a pat on the head, a conspiratorial handshake.
My older sister laughed and said “I pity you.”
My mother, she let my words hang in the hair and chuckled mirthlessly.
“My daughter,” she said, with a tiredness that frightened me, “The life of a woman is in the kitchen, she never finishes learning how to cook.”
That led us to another phase in our relationship, we dropped our weapons and waved white flags. Emptied our mouths of the daggers they hid and tried to hold hearts.
This was the place of talking and bargaining, attempts at listening with the aim to understand. Her desire to understand me not only helped me understand her, it also went a long way in opening my eyes to this person I was becoming without my permission.
It wasn’t always peaceful here; sometimes peaceful negotiations failed and we retreated back to the weapons we hid, sharpened our tongues and drew blood. There were also times we aimed them at ourselves, but for the most part, it is peaceful.
The strangest thing happened here; my mother and I became friends, even as she kept trying to domesticate and make a good woman out of me.
She has finally stopped trying. I don’t know how or when this happened, I came home one weekend and found my mother not minding that I sat on the deep freezer tapping at my phone or reading a novel while she and my sisters cooked. This same mother that once threw my novel into a pot of boiling water and threatened to make me eat it. Now I sleep till 9am, roll out of bed and head straight to the kitchen serve a bowl of food I contributed in no way to and stumble back to my room, still drunk on sleep. I lift spoon after spoon to my mouth, my eyes darting repeatedly to the door as I half wait for this tornado that raised me to bring down my door, lift me with my ears and ask me what I am doing on the bed while my slaves are slaving away in the kitchen.
But it doesn’t happen, not anymore.
At times, I wonder if I imagined those other phases, but the look she gives me every now and then tells me I did not. She is only just resigned now, maybe because I wore her out. Or because she realized that this one is a lost cause. Could this be her caring enough to accept and love me the way I am?
I miss it. I feel a funny type of longing for that spell in our relationship that I hated then but now feels like a time when she cared enough to not accept the person I tried to tell her I was, when she fought, loved, begged and blackmailed me to be different, to be better. I wish I befriended the kitchen and familiarized myself with the spices and aromas, the heat and the clanging of pots. I wish I did all that and more for her sake, and also for mine.
I hate to think I disappointed her enough to give up on me.