This is how I remember it. This is the image of my grandmother that sticks; that Christmas of 2005, the Christmas before she died.You can read the discussion on Mama Efon's Last One on Naija Stories.
She is sitting at the dining table, in her customary chair. She has a bowl of Bournvita in front of her. Yes. A bowl. Apparently, this is how she likes to drink her Bournvita. Lots and lots of it in a large blue plastic bowl, a souvenir from somebody’s wedding. So-and-so weds so-and-so courtesy so-and-so’s family. I am surprised at the Bournvita because this is the first time I have seen Mama drink it. Cocoa beverages weren’t her thing. My grandfather? Yes. Definitely. But not her.
My grandma, Mama Efon, is at the dining table with a bowl of Bournvita. She also has a big packet of cream crackers and she is eating the crackers with the Bournvita. There is a method to her eating. She takes a cracker, stabs the milky surface of the Bournvita with it about two or three times, swirls the beverage around with it till the cracker is soaked, and then she takes it out and eats it.
I am watching her intently. She doesn’t know but I am. There is such a beautiful domestic simplicity to what she is doing. She is eating her little meal quietly, but with fierceness. Cracker in hand, stabbing, stabbing, swirling, swirling, and the Bournvita-drenched cracker is devoured.
I am surprised. I have never seen her eat this sort of thing before. Bournvita and cream crackers? My grandma? No. Mama that doesn’t even eat rice, I’m thinking. She thinks rice is bird-food. Mama is a cold eba with hot okro woman. She’s an iyan with efo elegusi and eran igbe woman. She’s an amala with ewedu and goat-meat woman. Or at the very least an ewa woman. Spicy ewa-riro with boiled corn in it. Sweet and crunchy. Heavy food. Hard-working food. Not rice. Not biscuits and tea. No. Not Mama Efon.
I am delighted by the novelty of my grandmother consuming crackers and Bournvita. I am delighted because I just ate jollof rice and dodo and two very large pieces of chicken and my tummy is tight and taut like the surface of a drum. I am delighted because my mother and her sisters and my cousins are all around, walking about, running around, talking, laughing and noisily being a family. I am delighted.
And all the while Mama Efon is dying. All the while her lungs are filling up with mucus and her blood pressure is shooting up and I am so blissfully unaware. No idea.
Mama Efon. My mother’s mother. Growing up in the 90s, Christmases were always Efon. For me and all the cousins on my mother’s side, Christmas was always in Efon-Alaaye, Ekiti State, at the home of our maternal grandparents. Every December, we were there. Foregone conclusion.
It is a pristine place. Efon-Alaaye, small picturesque town, surrounded by beautiful, rolling green hills. One vegetation-covered hill runs after another all over Efon. Because of these hills and the trees all over them, the town seems to be constantly cloaked in light white mist. The effect is especially pronounced in the mornings. To see Efon on a cold morning, to breathe the clean, clean air and look down at all the old houses from the top of a hill is to be very close to heaven.
This is where we spent our Christmases.
However, if Efon provided the serene physical body for our Christmas holidays, Mama Efon, our grandmother provided its joyful soul. It was her cooking that characterized Christmas. Christmas was all about Mama.
She was an early riser. When we were younger, she’d wake us up every morning, at about 7am. In the dreadfully cold harmattan, she would line us up, naked, in the backyard. She would bathe each person, very thoroughly, not minding your conspicuous shivering. When she was done bathing you, she would take your toothbrush, grip your head with the force of a clamp and scrub your teeth with superhuman vigour. After a Mama Efon bath, your skin was clean but raw, and your teeth were gleaming but aching. And during the day, all the meals were spectacular. Mama could go to the market five times a day, just to make sure the food came out right.
But Mama Efon of that 2005 Christmas was a tired old grandma. We had all grown up and a lot was happening. There were many issues. Mama’s worry piled up. She was only 72, but her body could not take the pressure. She began to get sick.
Death was there, that 2005 Christmas Day, as I watched her eat the crackers and Bournvita. It was there, waiting for 2006.
On March 22, 2006, during the census, my grandma died. She’d had a stroke a few weeks before and she was getting better, but she died. I saw her body in the mortuary in Efon a few days after and I couldn’t, didn’t, refused to believe that it was her. She had always been timeless in my mind. Unkillable. Unable to die.
My mother had not shed a tear when she was given the news. And as she told family, friends, acquaintances, she’d been quite composed. But at the mortuary that day, her tears were copious, and her wailing was loud and desperate. I had never seen my mother cry like that.
I looked at Mama Efon’s body and it felt wrong, to see her, naked on a slab. I remembered all the baths, all the teeth brushings, all the hugs and compliments and ‘o kare omo mi’s, all the meals she’d cooked. I remembered the crackers and Bournvita, how pleasantly surprised I’d been to watch her eat ‘bird-food’.
This is the image I held on to. I never looked at the body again. Not even at the lying-in-state. No.
I remember Mama at the dining table, devouring cream crackers and Bournvita, on Christmas Day 2005.
For a lot of us, the last memory we have of our loved ones is of a Christmas spent together. Mine was in 2010 when I spent some time with my family in Nigeria. Christmas back in naija is so strongly linked to travels to visit parents, grandparents and the extended family. It is probably the only time we see them for the whole year, or more.
What has been your own experience?