My mother was born beautiful, “Lord, God, beautiful!” as we like to say in my little corner of the south.
It’s funny, but I babysit a lot and all my little girls think their mothers are beautiful. They watch them get ready for parties, and for church, for high school reunions, and for work, with their heels, backless dresses, pearls, makeup, and perfume, and they think: my momma is so beautiful. They play with their Barbie dolls and think: this is what beautiful is, this is what beauty should look like.
Growing up, my momma was beautiful because she was home every single night, no matter what was going on with her job and in her life. In my eyes, her beauty was wrapped up in warm, sheltering yet revitalizing hugs; my favorite dishes cooked either on special occasions or as a surprise, just to make me smile; in her good night prayers and blessings sung over my sleeping body; and in her smiles, which shone luminescent as the moon and stars hung in the dark velvety blue of an African night sky. My mother was the most beautiful woman in the entire world. I was sure of it. Who else’s mom seemed to have arms that cradled like the Earth did when I accidentally fell asleep out in the Banana field on late Saturday afternoons, and what other mother’s caresses felt like the warming sun on her child’s cinnamon brown face? My mother’s beauty was an inheritance, one that she held for me, and one that she had gotten from her mother. Like her walk, her shape, her brain, and her soul, my mother’s beauty was generational: passed down from mother to daughter for as long as there were mothers and daughters in our family. All these women, and all of their bodies, their faces, and their spirits, were my inheritance, a wealth and a treasure more priceless and rare than the most precious of stones or the richest stack of dollar bills in Bill Gates’ bank account. My mother grounded me to the Earth, to my purpose on it, to my motherland, and to my freedom as a woman and a human being, just as her mother had grounded her and her mother, and her mother. My mother’s lips were a fount of wisdom, her words a balm containing understanding, advice, and offering friendship. When I looked into her eyes, I not only saw myself, reflected in her black pupils, but I also saw my hopeful future and I learned to grow from the hurtful past. With a resource as rich as this having created me within her womb, loving me within her heart, and protecting me within her earthly home, I wonder, daily, how is it I could have lost my way.
At a tender age, I launched an excavation of sorts, in an effort to uncover the real me. As I dug deeper and deeper into my heart and soul, I found new things to cherish and wonder about; new things to learn from. My mistake was discarding the pieces that were already there. Consequently, when I’d finally pulled back the entire curtain shielding my soul, I was more confused than ever.
I grew up in the South, loving Jesus and going to church often. I went Sundays, Wednesdays, and depending on the season or event, sometimes every single day of the week. I was involved in everything: youth group, choir, the nursery, and the children’s church. I read my bible religiously and prayed as often as I could. I loved standing inside the church, eyes closed, and arms uplifted, praising and worshiping God. It wasn’t just for show with me. It wasn’t just a ritual. I felt so close to God and closer to my own spirit, the true essence of my being. I loved feeling the resonance and echo of every other spirit that helped make up mine: my ancestors.
My mother loved reading; she loved stories and learning, so I loved stories and learning. My grandmother had determination and grit, she loved justice, so I loved justice and I became determined, my great-grandmother was compassionate, sentimental, and a lover of children, so I was beloved of all children and opened my heart to all the hurting and broken ones. My great, great-grandmother was a fighter and an ingenious thinker, so I opened up my mind and learned to fight for what I truly wanted. I used to have this image in my head of every DNA stand in my body, each stamped with the names and traits of all my grandmothers, and their grandmothers, of my mother and of all of my aunts, making me strong and alive. Forming me into the woman I am today. Somewhere along the way, I got confused. I got involved with women who didn’t know they had this power within them and who made me doubt that I still had this power. They started me down a path of forgetting.
It all started for me at a very young age, and with a girl named Edna. I was a very sweet, shy, pleasant, and quiet child who also just happened to be manipulative, controlling, and devilish. I didn’t know how to reconcile my apparent contradictory selves, as the gifts from my female ancestors were obviously presenting themselves in ways I was too young yet to control or even understand. My parents saw me as their shy, adorable, lovely little angel but that image just didn’t gel with the toddler who removed her Sunday dress in the middle of the front pew at church because she didn’t like dresses, and hadn’t she screamed, shouted, and stamped her foot about it just that morning while Nanny Kristy was getting her dressed? And what about the sweet little one who just happened to rule all the other neighborhood children with her little iron fist? Yes, I was a tiny despotic terror and although a part of me does feel shame for being such an Angelica (Rugrats reference, by the way), most of me, to this day, is filled with awe and admiration for the gutsy, take charge, little bitch I was back in my formative years. I never felt the overwhelming need I do now, to be nice, polite, or diplomatic when it came down to the really important things. There were just too many things I wanted out of life and I was determined not to let anyone or anything stand in my way. I was bossy, sometimes downright mean, and I refused to share my toys with people I didn’t like or respect. Like little Benji, who allowed himself to be chased down, sat on, and kissed by every 4-year-old girl in Pre-K but refused to stand up to Timothy who stole all the girls’ reward candy. A knight in shining armor he was not! So why should I share my new and beautiful tricycle with him? This was a mystery no adult could solve for me no matter all their platitudes about treating others as I wanted to be treated. All I knew was that Timothy was stealing our candy, and Benji, our anointed champion was laughing and looking the other way. I was also smart, learning to read at the tender age of 2 ½ and so I devoured every picture book in sight. When I got bored with that, I wrote my own. I picked flowers for my Nanny Kristy every morning and watched over my 1-year-old little brother like a hawk. I cared and was caring but just as easily, my love and devotion could be turned to intense dislike if not downright hatred, and a need to teach a very severe and not soon-forgotten lesson.
My swiftly changing day-and-night attitude often meant I was at war with myself. I wanted to love my neighbor as I was taught in Sunday school, and I wanted to adhere to the golden rule and be that sweet, shy, angel my parents saw me as but sometimes, I just couldn’t. Sometimes I had to yell and scream about what I wanted because the adults just weren’t listening. I needed to push kids on the playground because didn’t they understand that this was mine? And that I didn’t have much, to begin with? I needed to fight to keep everything I already had! I simply just had to be manipulative and conniving to get my way because other people were too slow to act and too stupid to piece it all together! They clearly needed my help! I was a little 4-year-old perfectionist. My mother and father were the absolute best at everything and I had to be too. I had to have the best grades, and the best, newest, and coolest toys. I had to wear the most stylish clothes and speak the most correctly. I had to master as many languages as I could and I simply just had to train my little two-year-old brother to be the very best of companions and confidantes. It was me against the whole entire world (with a few select and worthy opponents and allies being exempt of course) and I simply just had to win.
So little Edna was the queen of her little four-year-old social circle and I was the queen of mine. I didn’t really mind Edna. We knew each other vaguely and didn’t interfere with one another because we lived in different neighborhoods and although we attended the same Nursery school, I never had a reason to focus much on Edna, until the day she messed with the wrong queen’s best friend. My best friend Ene to be precise. Ene and I had been best friends for as long as my memories can recall and my parents tell me they can’t even remember when we started playing together. Ene and I were complete opposites. She was painfully shy, timid, overly sensitive, and very, very thin. She cried at the drop of a hat and loved everyone. She spoke with a slight lisp, not having mastered some of her rolling and harder-sounding consonants. She was like a little ethereal fairy, always wearing dresses and floating about with a dreamy smile on her face and an open heart. She was lovely and I loved her fiercely. I protected her even more. She was harmless and easily hurt, so when Edna focused in on her, my ire was up and I was determined to take the little bitch down.
The problem began with a Barbie lunch box.
It was beautiful and every four-year-old girl’s dream: electric pink with a bright yellow handle and a picture of the dashing yellow-haired Barbie on the front and her name scrawled in bright blue cursive on the bottom of her busy frame. It was the mother of all lunchboxes and only the most privileged of little girls were seen carrying one. Ene was the first one of us girls to acquire one as her father was in some sort of trade and she was often among the first to be seen with any trend. She carried it proudly into the school that fateful day, the item contrasting sharply with her checkered purple and white knee-length dress uniform, her patterned dark sweater, which was slightly too big for her and hung off one shoulder (very chic), and her white frilled ankle socks and brown leather Mary Jane sandals. It was Hamatan (Nigerian cold season which compares to North America’s early 50-degree fall weather), and all of us girls were wearing sweaters, some more fashionably chic than others, and all of us were in awe of that fabulous lunch box. I saw it, and quickly decided I wanted one just like it, only I would get my Daddy to see if I couldn’t have my name scrawled in pretty blue cursive on the bottom and not that pale yellow-haired woman’s.
You see, none of us knew who this Barbie woman was, nor did we care, and yet, we all highly coveted this lunch box which was emblazoned with her image.
I remember that when I finally did get the lunch box, my Nanny Kristy, who was extraordinary at everything, scraped off some of the images and repainted Barbie with brown skin, dark hair, and with my name scrawled across the bottom, but in black ink, not blue. Apparently, Kristy’s miracle-working powers only went so far! Anyway, my lunch box was the best for having been so customized.
But the day in question belonged to Ene, the first girl to even own one.
While I was simultaneously happy for and in awe of my usually trend-ignorant friend, that day, little Edna was furious. She was the one who usually had the first of anything important.
And so Edna hatched a plan.
Right before lunch, we had recess, with all the children leaving the classroom and going outside to play. Our teachers, for we had two: the kind, soft-voiced, and dark-faced Mr. Suleman and his young excitable assistant Ms. Agnes, usually left the classroom as well, going to sit with the other Nursery teachers who all sat on the side of the playground on a bench, where they watched us play as they gossiped. I ran back into the classroom to grab my jump rope from my cubby so we girls could play with it and I saw Edna go into the classroom some minutes after I’d retrieved the rope but I didn’t pay her any mind. You see, in order to go into the classroom, which was off-limits at recess, you had to find your teacher, and ask his/her permission to leave the playground. You also had to tell the teacher why you needed to return. These were very strict rules and had to be followed no matter what the circumstances. I’d gone to ask my teachers to retrieve the jump rope and they’d given their permission. Whatever Edna needed from the classroom, I was sure she’d gone through the proper avenues to get it.
The shit hit the fan after recess when we all returned to the classroom to grab our lunch boxes for lunch. Ene’s lunch box was found on the floor, broken into pieces, her lunch a mashed mess all over the floor. Her gentle heart broke and she cried a veritable river. I was incensed and so was Mr. Suleman. He was so angry, his assistant, Ms. Agnes, spoke for him instead. She patiently but firmly demanded that the perpetrator identify himself or herself immediately and own up to the crime. Nobody spoke. We all stood in a circle around the crime scene, CSI style, and several of us looked around suspiciously at the others, wondering whose face hid such a sinister and cruel heart. In my head and heart, I vowed revenge for my friend, which is why it took me a while to register that Edna was slowly and hesitantly raising her hand, a fearful look in her eyes.
Suddenly, I remembered in HD TV clarity the moment I saw Edna furtively entering the classroom.
‘That wicked girl!’ I thought furiously. ‘She has to pay for this!’
I was shocked at the deviousness and cruel heartedness of this act, especially against one such as Ene, who would never harm a fly and demanded that our teachers open the window to let them out instead of swatting them with rolled-up stacks of our old graded papers.
Then, Edna spoke, and the bottom fell out of my young world.
“Teacher, I can tell you who did this, but I am afraid for her. Ochuole was the only one to go into the classroom. The box was fine before recess. Now it is broken. And she was the only one to go back inside.”
She looked at me, and her eyes flashed triumph and assurance. I felt ill and it took me a moment to react. It was a moment too long and it decided my fate.
I cried out, “Teacher! She’s lying! She also went inside the classroom. I would never do this sort of thing!”
I looked at the faces of all my classmates: the boys looked admiring and the girls looked disgusted and appalled. I knew then that I’d lost my crown to the lying Edna. This was made especially clear when Edna refuted,
“I did not go into the classroom!” She looked horrified at such a suggestion.
And the teachers backed up her claim with,
“She never asked our permission to go back inside, Ochuole. Only you did!”
I was doomed.
I was deemed scum and I lost all of my friends and all of my power in that one moment. In one fell swoop, Edna had acquired it all. Only Ene, my best friend, my ‘sista’, stood by me. She refused to believe I would do such a thing. I’d protected her in the past far too many times for her to forget. I was too loyal and she knew my soul almost as well as I knew hers. I could be very bad, but I was never disloyal. She knew this.
The next day, Edna showed up to school with The Lunchbox. She paraded it around, proud as a peacock, now that she was the only one who had one. As I continued with school the rest of the week, I was ostracized by my former friends and classmates, despite Ene’s protestations and her stalwart defense of my innocence. By week’s end, I’d decided that enough was enough! Ene and I put our heads together and cooked up a scheme good enough to bring little miss Edna down for good. This plan did not go into full effect until a week later, because Edna began hiding her lunch box before recess, fearful of retaliation. You see, her family wasn’t that privileged and those lunch boxes were expensive.
And so Edna was foolishly enjoying her reign, smugly thinking she was untouchable due to her lie and because her lunch box was cleverly hidden. Meanwhile, Ene and I prepared to put my ingenious plan into action. After a week of careful observation and deductive reasoning, we finally discovered that Edna hid her precious lunch box behind the teacher’s desk every morning. She must have been arriving at school at an earlier time each day in order to hide the box and avoid detection from me or Ene. But as there was no way on Earth, Heaven, or hell that we were going to let evil Edna get away with her schemes, we were okay with waiting for a time when we could be sure our plan would not fail. After all, Ene and I watched a lot of James Bond and Indiana Jones movies.
We knew exactly what to do and how to do it.
It was recess again, it was the end of the week, and Ene approached the teachers, asking dear Mr. Suleman if she could perhaps return to the classroom to retrieve the jump rope. Although it was mine, I was no longer allowed into the classroom during recess or without the accompaniment of our teachers, no matter what the circumstances. Because of this, Ene was given permission without obstacle, and she made her way back into the classroom.
You see, she was on a mission, and she was to execute part one of the plan: making the way clear for me to go in and steal the lunch box.
Much as Edna had done, I was able to sneak into the classroom undetected, where Ene had retrieved the lunch box for me from where it was hidden under Mr.Suleman’s desk. I then rushed out of the classroom, holding the lunch box high above my head crying out,
“You cannot have it back!”
Ene was close on my heels, running after me and crying,
“Ochuole, I cannot let you destroy her lunch box! It’s not the right thing!”
Of course, we immediately gained the attention of all the children playing outside as well as the teachers. I was headed straight for part two of the plan and no one was going to stop me! You see, there is an old well, dead center in the middle of the playground. The teachers watch us to make sure no one falls down it, but well used to wells, (Get it? Oh, how I love a good pun!) African children are not that stupid. Usually. There had been a boy, whose name I cannot recall, who’d fallen down the well in the past, never to be seen or heard from again. He was more than a few years ahead of me in school so his accident was merely a legend, and was passed down from generation to generation as a warning to be careful around the old well. It was useless as it had run dry long ago, but it seemed bottomless as one of our favorite games at recess, was to throw rocks down the well to hear them hit bottom. They never hit the bottom; at least, not while we were standing there, for 10 minutes at least, listening for the sound of ‘bottom’. So, thus the name ‘The Bottomless Well’ was given as the well’s end had not yet been proven to us. The beginning though was a stone and mud 3-foot protrusion with a large gaping hole at the top.
I reached the well without incident and stretched out my hand holding the lunch box over the gaping hole, using my other hand to grip the side and keep my balance. The opening of the well was not as precarious as one might think. There was an actual ledge on the immediate inner lip. One would actually have to climb over the opening, disregard, or trip off the ledge, in order to fall down into the well, so I felt quite safe.
At this point, all the other children had stopped their play and had run over to gather in a crowd around the front face of the well. The teachers were also running over to crowd behind them, all entreating me in shouts and pleas not to do it!
There we all were, I was standing on the far right side of the well, body leaning against its stone and mud-made side, and my arm outstretched, the precious lunchbox dangling precariously from my fingers over the open hole beginning of The Bottomless Well. The crowd of onlookers containing students and teachers alike were all crowded in close at the front face of the well, watching with bated breath and or emitting loud shouts. Ene soon reached the well, at a full run and out of breath. She then leaned in from her side; the far left side of the well reached out her hand and grabbed a hold of the lunch box. We began a tug of war over that gaping black hole of the opening, both of us with one hand on each side of the pretty yellow plastic handle. It was a wonder the handle did not snap off and the lunchbox did not immediately fall into the great abyss below, never to be seen or paraded about selfishly again.
Ene cried out,
“I believe you Ochuole! I know you were not the one to break my box! Please just put it back!”
My response was,
“No! Nobody else believes me! I’m telling the truth!”
Enter a frantic Edna, pushing her way to the front of the crowd, breathing hard and leaning against the front face of the well, in between Ene and me. She looked frantic and near tears. She begged me,
“Please don’t throw it down the well! Please! My daddy bought it for me!” As she pleaded, I finally tugged the handle out from Ene’s ‘firm’ grip (excellent staging, wouldn’t you say?) and I proceed to then shake the box dangerously over the opening. I looked Edna dead in the eye, and said low enough for only the three of us to hear,
“I saw you enter the classroom that day. I know you did it. Say ‘I’m sorry’ to Ene and I’ll give you back your box.”
Edna, of course, immediately apologized to Ene, only low enough for the three of us to hear of course. In the background, the teachers and students were shouting,
Students: “What are you doing eh? Give her back her box!”
Teachers: “Give her the box back! You will feel the rod today!”
I ignored them all and focused my gaze on Edna. I moved the hand holding the lunch box slowly towards her, and then suddenly, I pretended to drop it, ‘catching’ it in the knick of time.
That part was a bit of improvisation and not part of the original plan. Ene’s face showed true shock and horror as I’m sure she thought, at that moment, I’d lost my grip on the lunch box. To this day, I’m not sure how I managed to pull that off!
The crowd gasped and screamed respectively, their demands growing louder in reality, but I was so focused on Edna, it was all a dim roar in my consciousness. Edna’s face reflected fear and extreme anxiety. She was now sobbing hysterically.
“You said you would give it back to me!” Her voice was little girl shrill, her eyes panicked.
“I’ve changed my mind,” I responded, my voice calm yet hard. I continued to hold her gaze steady, forcing my heart to harden against her obvious misery.
“Now, I want you to tell the story of how you entered the classroom and mashed Ene’s box. To everybody.” I was grinning now, knowing I had her trapped.
“What?!” Her voice escaped her in a breathy whisper, despair weaved through that one syllable.
“Go ahead and tell the story. They all want to hear it!”
I made sure to speak clearly, the crowd now leaning in to hear what we were discussing between us. I raised my head to look around and raised my voice to address the crowd,
“Do you all want to hear the story? Edna is going to tell you the truth!”
A moment of complete silence and expectancy overcame the group as I continued to gently shake the dangling lunchbox in a bid to hurry a confession out of Edna. Ene chose that quiet moment to add her two cents. In her soft voice, she asked,
“Do you want your box back?”
Although her question was quietly voiced, it was already so silent among the group that everyone heard and wondered. The teachers finally intervened.
“What is the problem, Edna? Talk now or you will all feel the rod today!”
In a quiet defeated voice, Edna finally confessed to breaking Ene’s lunch box.
She admitted to sneaking into the classroom without permission.
She cried and begged forgiveness.
She said she was sorry for blaming the crime on me.
She vowed to replace Ene’s destroyed box.
Then she asked if she could please have her lunch box back.
I dropped her lunch box.
To this very day, I do not know if I did it on purpose, or if I was just so caught up in the moment, and feeling so triumphant and justified, that my grip loosened and it slipped out of my fingers for real.
All I remember is Edna’s anguished cry.
I plead the slippage story and got off scot free, along with an apology from my teachers and my classmates.
I finally had my power back.
I was queen again.
Why did I feel so bad?
Edna was so distraught, she had to go home early. When she returned to school the next day, it was a quieter, much more restrained version of Edna. She rarely smiled or laughed. She was colorless and completely defeated. I gloried in her defeat, but a small nagging voice in my heart mourned over the way things had been handled.
The now dethroned Edna had few friends and was branded a liar and deceiver.
None of the other girls trusted or respected her anymore.
It took Edna a long time to get over losing that lunch box. It certainly didn’t help matters when a week after the incident, I came to school with my customized and upgraded version of the box, and incidentally, Ene also arrived with a new lunchbox of the same coveted style.
In my heart, as I watched Edna play and eat and color by herself for many months after the incident, I realized that despite the fact that I’d used all the super DNA powers and gifts I’d inherited: my love of justice, my determination, my ingeniousness, my manipulative powers, and my compassion (for Ene) to solve this problem, somehow I knew that my female ancestors would not have done what I’d done.
Hell, I knew my mother would not have made the same choices.
And it was then that I realized, while my actions were not those that my beautiful female forbearers and my mother would have sanctioned, they had worked, and they had worked brilliantly.
I would continue on this path because it produced quick and permanent results. But these results destroyed people.
My mother’s ultimate gift was building people up and giving to them. Did she not build me up and give to me every day? I was taking away in order to add to myself, no matter how selfless my motives were.
I was starting down a path that would leave me lost and broken, and it was only the beginning.