Guises of Love and Loneliness
Sable ate dry dog food only. Twice a day. Dog biscuits after her evening meal. Sometimes, I’d go to the butcher down the street to see if he had a bone. Just one bone. He knew the kind. A meaty, long fragment with a soft pink marrow — eight-inches or so. He’d offer more. I’d refuse and leave with my three hours of after-dinner peace wrapped up in paper. Mostly, it smelled of nothing. It was fresh. It had to be. As I cooked dinner, a lone bone would go onto the tray in the oven and roast on high heat until the marrow separated from the bone and cooked in the red juices oozing from it. On those nights, my black shaggy friend would sit by the kitchen door anxiously guarding her prize.
We had many of those days in the first two years after I rescued her from the shelter on Long Island – before she made that long journey in the belly of the plane to a new life with me in Kenya.
“You’ll lock that dog in the garage at night. Dogs don’t belong in houses.”
I didn’t argue with my mother’s traditional assumptions. I couldn’t care anymore that she’d never loved me. I didn’t have the words to express pain I was feeling, and feelings were something we never discussed. I had no patience for her thoughts or anything that came out of her mouth for that matter. Any attempt at arguing would have been one-sided because I would have been too annoyed to hear what she said. I resented that she could think that — let alone say it. Sable didn’t belong outside. My baby had always slept in a house, my house, beside a bed, my bed — or somewhere close.
Why did our love die? It’s because I was too young, I told myself. Too young to hold a job, too young to live on my own, too young to have my own home. I could have run away, but was too scared to run away. I hated it all, but most of all, I hated her. I hated that there were no signs of love in our relationship. I loved dad and dad loved me and I wasn’t sure about the rest. My brother would fill my hot water bottles when I was sick and then share books he loved and his crayons and paints with me. My gentle dad would read me stories and sing as we listened to tunes crackling over the transistor radio as we watched the sun go down. I felt safe and loved as I sang songs to his smiling, tired face.
Why did our love die? Maybe it never died. Maybe our love never was. Is there always love between a mother and child? Everyone says that there is, as though a mother’s love is innate, as though it flows naturally through the umbilical cord to pour an everlasting, undying two-way love into the mother-child relationship.
I felt very alone, a loneliness made worse by the taboo against not loving one’s mother. Only a fool would dare talk about such feelings because the backlash would be immense. A mother could not possibly not love her child and there was something seriously wrong with a child who didn’t love her mother. I felt coerced, pressured into ‘loving’ her. In public, I pretended I loved her. She was far more skilled at public displays of pretend love. I would stiffly hold her hand if she reached for mine. She would smile too broadly, and on good days, I was able to force a faint flicker of a smile in return. Privately I found myself crying for ‘no reason’. I raged inside because deep down I knew, and no one with their syrupy gushings about motherly love could convince me otherwise. I knew that I was the girl, perhaps the only girl, whose mother didn’t love her.
I had been introduced to her when I was around five years old. The introduction was formal. She smiled at me and we shook hands. I was told she was my mother. She was indeed my mother. A stranger from a past long forgotten who had spent a few years in England. She had burst aggressively back into my life and wanted me to be a girl – her definition of a girl – a ‘good’ African girl who spent hours cooking, cleaning house and being subservient to the men in our lives – men who had until she arrived treated me as special or equal. When I complained that I was expected to do all the chores when my brothers did none, she would shout at my father saying he had spoiled me while she’d gone. He looked calm but the almost daily shouting about me wore me down.
I had become my definition of a girl, a different type of African girl in a fast-changing country, a girl who liked books, bicycles, hockey, writing, dolls, athletics, making mud pots, and baking. A girl equal to my brothers. She was not the perfectly accepting, affectionate mother I had been watching with interest on shows like Leave it to Beaver on TV. Day after day, week after week, for year after year, she would sit in groups with my aunts venting her disappointment in omuhana – ‘the girl.’
My dad wanted me to be close to her like he was close to his mother, whom he had named me after.
“A girl needs her mother,” he’d softly tell no one in particular as he walked.
But how can one need what one fears. I didn’t need her. In fact, I hated her and didn’t want her in my life. What is hate? And is it really always the opposite of love?
What if hate is the urge to push away a danger to preserve one’s self as one simultaneously yearns for and needs that person who poses the danger. Leave me alone, get out of my life, stay away, stay far, far away and never come back…but don’t stay away because I desperately need you to come back and love me just the way I am. Perhaps I didn’t hate her. Perhaps what I hated was this quandary I found myself in. I couldn’t accept who she wanted me to be and she couldn’t accept who I was.
Why did any hope of love die? It’s because I felt trapped, I told myself. I wanted to run but had nowhere to run. Instead, I stayed and hurt her and she hurt me and I ignored her and she hurt me again and I wanted to run away even more. And somewhere in it all, love died because I could not run away.
My mother would sit in the same chair every day and eat the same food – ugali, beef stew and vegetables. Some days there’d be delicious dark green leafy vegetables she’d grown in the garden. Most days it was cabbage bought from the corner kiosk. Day after day. This was how she liked it, this was how she’d grown up, this was how she now lived. My father was the same. Not particular about what he ate as long as he ate.
No one ate in the dining room anymore. We served ourselves and sat in our separate corners. I used to envy my brother who was free to live his life as he wished without expectations or responsibility. Though he, like my other brothers, never did any chores around the house, no one ever said anything bad about him. Just over a year older than me, he had been forgotten in my shadow. My father showered praise and love on me as my mother put all her energy into trying to mould me into the girl she wanted me to be. On the outskirts of the battlefield looking in, my brother had his own very different story of pain. At mealtimes, my brother would quietly come and serve himself and then go and eat in his room while I sat on the porch outside.
My mother sat in her favourite soft maroon armchair. My father sat in a matching chair beside hers. She would scoop a soft mushy piece of white ugali into her hand, squish it into a small, firm round ball, dip it into the thick brown gravy on her plate, then pick up pieces of meat and vegetables before slowly lifting the lot into her mouth. Sable liked her performance best – her eyes would move up and down, then up again – eying every movement of hand and mouth until my mother wiped the last bit of gravy clean from the plate and the show was over.
“Sable’s a person in a dog’s body,” my mother would say. “The only thing she can’t do is speak.”
I’d heard that said at the vet’s office. I’d heard that said too many times from friends and neighbours. I’d felt that way myself. My mother and I had hardly talked in over twenty years. I had found a good job in Nairobi and got myself a very small but comfortable place to live. When I visited my father once or twice a week, I didn’t look much at my mother. I only visited because my father lived there. I’d gone abroad and studied in the United States. Now, back in my country, my father was proud of me, my friends were proud of me, many relatives were proud of me, my workmates were proud of me, and I was proud of myself.
Sable watched my mother eat ugali. She started feeding Sable ugali and gravy from her plate after lunch. When Sable and I would visit unexpectedly and gravy was in short supply, my mother started hiding a small amount for their new after-lunch ritual. The grown-ups could do with less gravy – her new baby had to be fed.
My mother would mould five to ten pieces of ugali into round balls with a little meat inside each, dip them into gravy and hand feed the balls one by one into Sable’s mouth. She learned how to pat Sable’s head, then her back, and finally her stomach. Not the long smooth, firm, massaging pats Sable was accustomed to getting, but clumsier, short strokes. I saw a softer, warmer side of my mother – a side that I could relate to. We started talking – but only about Sable.
“Why didn’t you bring Sable? I saved some meat for her.”
She sounded disappointed. Was there a gentleness and kindness in her voice? Had my mother changed? Every time I would tell people they had changed, they’d tell me I had changed. She didn’t look so big and scary anymore now that I’d grown. An animal cornered and trapped attacks with blind aggression to preserve itself. What one sees when one is defensive and afraid can be very different from what one sees from a safer place. With much of the family now gone, I saw my mother watch the caring love between my dad and I and between Sable and I. She sat with quiet, pained eyes. Yet when she reached out to me, my instinct was to protect myself from a woman who had only caused me pain. I was still fighting the danger I had felt since childhood – this time verbally to defend myself and keep her at a harmless distance.
Why was I still fighting?
My recent social work schooling has made me revisit many stories of my life and see them through the lens of the society in which we live. I can now see that the struggles between my mother and I were larger than both of us. They were about gender norms filtering into our relationship. As a young girl trying to break free, I was not the only victim of those norms. Regardless of which side my mother took, she would have been cast as the proverbial ‘bad mother’ – either by me or by relatives, neighbours, and friends who would have considered her an inept mother because she didn’t raise a subservient daughter.
“My dear M
How are you? We are okay.
M please come and see me you helped me very much during the funeral. Your late father and I have been proud of you as you have been always helpful and most trusting to us. Your advice has always been helpful and correct. I miss Sable so bring her when you come. Lots of love. Your mum”
Sable is fourteen now. Sable has ehrlichia – a blood disease. She’s had six lives. A lucky “7” is marked in white fur on her chest. I want my friend to stay, but she can go too if she must – her job has been done. She has friends on the other side – I have asked them to take care of her.
I’m spoiling her now – her remaining time whether she survives or not will not be grim – though I may feel grim when she’s gone. Her big brown eyes stare at me. In their stillness, I see the loving playfulness that coaxed my mother and I into caring for her with food. She would reward us with a warm love that would soften and ultimately bond all three of us. My mother will miss Sable too.