You passed away in September last year. You left this world a few weeks short of your 98th birthday, in desperately poor health, and I never knew until it was all over. Because you hated fuss. Knowing you will never read this, I can write what’s on my mind.
First, I miss you desperately, more in death than I ever did in life. And do you know why? Because now, as my uncle Abiodun and I and dad cleaned up your house, sort through your papers and put together pieces of the puzzle that made your life, I begin to feel as though I know you a great deal more about what made you thick. It is clear to me that you made up for your sporadic and broken education of the 1920s with a lifelong, voracious appetite for knowledge, facts, details, history, chemistry, language, medicine and much more. I know this now because you left behind so many scraps of paper and backs of envelopes with your discoveries written on them in pencil, in your large, clear, loopy handwriting. Another thing I have learned from those pieces of paper is the deep love you had for your children, and the devotion with which you nursed them. That love is evidenced also by the dozens of photos of them you have placed all over your house (in your cupboard, underneath your clothing and even the bed. This morning I shed a few more tears for you with the discovery of a piece of paper on which you had written that you had to stop visiting your children years ago when you could no longer use your leg well! And you drew a little cartoon of a woman in her prime performing a few dance steps. How desperately I wanted you back at that moment, just so I could tease you about that!
I wish I had known you became a cultural dancer late in life – I would have loved to see you dance, and I promise I would never have attempted to teach you, unless you asked me about something in particular.
I think it was 3 years ago that I last saw you, and that was at your junior Wife’s funeral. 3 years is a long time to keep your distance from a grandson who so earnestly wanted you to be part of our family, to know my wife whom you always pray to know before you die, and to know your great grandchildren birthed by me; mad with their questions and their sticky fingers and their noise. Now I have read your jottings about your many serious ailments and seen some of your medical papers and dates of your hospital visits, I do understand why you kept me at arm’s length. Dad visited you occasionally, by appointment until you found it too difficult. Then you and he spoke on the phone until that became too difficult. Finally you corresponded by mail. You remained a letter-writer until the end. He brought you news of us and our family, photos and stories, and when I wrote to you, you politely wrote back. You were certainly telling the truth when you wrote to Dad that he, my mum and I must sort things out after your passing, and warned us that you never threw anything away. My goodness, you were right! As we work our way around your house, making sense of the things you left behind, we have already discarded loads of things that should never have been kept. With your innate sense of order, you kept every business paper for decades, all meticulously filed. And yet you kept every plastic container, carefully washed and stacked in various cupboards in the house. You kept every letter, greeting card and postcard you ever received. And the junk, my goodness! Chipped cups, lids without containers, dried-up pens, and glasses and coffee mugs with assorted bits and pieces in them, and dozens of hats!
Fortunately you kept many things that belonged to the family – especially my beloved grandpa (your husband. I have found some of those things in your house, and I will treasure them. I can understand how a child raised in genteel poverty through a depression and a war complete with rationing, should have a subconscious drive to buy up and hoard certain things. With my mother it was clothes and electronics, and for you it was plates and basins of the past. I shouldn’t laugh, but truly it is amazing to see a shelf full of packets of brands that vanished from the market decades ago, and then find a whole lot more above the ceiling of your room.
When I was 13 you became my mother, father and all that I ever knew. Took me in, washed my laundries, cooked for me, payed my school and lesson tuition and even sticked out your neck for me in dangerous times, and yet you were still a shadow in my life. I spent those years with you and never got to know you at all. And 12 years later, nothing has changed. How I envy your neighbours who knew you so well, who have told us how they swapped jokes with you and shared stories of their lives and learned about yours. How I envy the couple you befriended at the next building, who took you shopping every week and knew you so well. I hope to meet them one again. So now, my dear grandma, I can only wish you may rest in peace, reunited with your sisters and brothers and parents, and your dear husband. Now you’re in a better place, unencumbered by a broken body, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you are looking down at me as I write this, wondering why I would bother.
Because with your stubborn independent streak, you never wanted to be a bother to anyone, ever.
I can promise you, this letter is a labour of love, which I write because I know you will never read it.