I HAD BEEN awake for an hour brooding over the breaking day, wishing the darkness would stay a little longer before the lights crept up. It was Sunday morning and I had no excuse to hurry out of the house like on other days claiming I needed to be in the office early. I dreaded what lay ahead. On this day each week, all members of my household gathered round the dining table for breakfast. This was a good thing except that, this time, my mother would join us at table as well.
Earlier in the week my wife, Tomi, had had another rough argument with my mom who had declared that our children manifested horrid traits because of their mother’s uncivilized background. Worried about their upbringing, her visits, she said, were aimed at weaning her grandchildren off these ugly qualities and impacting them with proper culture. My wife erupted, spewing garbage with a thundering voice; she threw objects at her mother-in-law and threatened to make her life miserable every moment she spent with us. Fortunately, our children did not witness these exchanges.
These declarations from both Tomi and my mom bothered me a lot. By the next day when I arrived at work, I still bore the crushing weight of my troubles on my sagging shoulders. One of my colleagues came into the general office and, observing that I held my head in both hands, walked over to my workspace.
“Wale, is it that woman again?” Bern, a Cameroonian, pronounced my name with a misplaced stress.
I grunted. “What are you talking about?” I said, looking around the open office and hoping no one was listening.
“Nice try. It’s only what, 8:17am on Wednesday morning, and you look spent already.”
“I’m fine. I’m just tired…”
“…from doing what? Running a marathon all night?” she interjected.
“Nothing is wrong with me,” I said, standing up to shepherd her toward the door and out of the room.
When we got to the corridor, she said, “I’ve told you many times, give me your house address and let me come and shake her up a bit for you. With the way things now look, I should probably find my way without your help.”
I had never discussed my home affairs with Bern but she liked to imagine that my wife was the source of my unhappiness.
“Bern, she’s my wife and I love her.”
“Haven’t you heard? Love is overrated. Let me ask you: How does it feel to give gold to somebody and get sand in return?”
She patted me on the shoulder and gave me a wink before walking away. As she backed away, she stuck the tip of her tongue slightly out and upwards in that seductive way of hers that’s so inviting.
Bern thought Tomi didn’t deserve me; now and then, she would throw me variants of her gold-sand philosophical lines as reminders. I had pondered Bern’s question many times and wondered whether my wife thought that way about me too. Humility may not necessarily be my forte; still, I made honest efforts to realize the dreams I had for my home, willingly accepting to bear the cost of fulfilling those wishes.
The pressure of work and the sunny presence of many colleagues created the diversion I needed to wade through the week, returning home late at night and escaping to bed in peace. Last night, as on previous days, I got back at a time when I knew for certain my household would have retired to bed, but how wrong I was.
“Wale, sit down. We must talk.”
“Mom, are you okay? Why are you still up?” She sat alone in the near-darkness of the living room.
“I cannot condone your wife’s disrespect anymore. Can you believe she called me an old hag, that little girl? What impudence! She dares to wash her dirty mouth on me as if we are co-wives!”
“Mommy, I’m so, so sorry,” I said. Dropping my voice a notch and feigning annoyance, I added, “I’ll talk to her this very night and make sure this doesn’t happen again.” I definitely had no such intention; moreover, my wife would have long gone to bed.
“It’s you! You pamper her and now she’s so spoilt,” my mother said in Yoruba.
“I’m sorry mom. I promise it won’t happen again,” I repeated several times until she calmed down enough to be ushered back to the guest room. At the door, she stopped.
“Can you believe I’ve been using this bedspread for the past five days? Is it not due to be changed?”
“Don’t worry, mom, I’ll get fresh sheets and pillow cases immediately.”
When she had settled down, I picked up my briefcase and went upstairs hoping to shower and get right into bed. At the bedroom door I stopped. In the subdued light in the room, I could see my wife still awake and propped up against the headboard, cradling a pillow.
“Hey Tomi, are you okay?” I asked, noticing her puffy eyes. She had been crying.
“Your mom,” she whimpered, “I’ve had enough of her. She has to leave.”
Though tired, I had to endure another twenty minutes of complaining and sobbing and nose-blowing. Finally, she succumbed to my petting and lay down to sleep.
Tomi and I had been married for five years. At the outset, things went well between us. Even though we had little time left for ourselves after we’d worked all week and spent most of the weekends visiting a lot of people, we still enjoyed life and were quite content. Our parents lived in the same city as us and we called on them regularly. When Tomi was pregnant, mom treated her like porcelain and warned me to drive carefully so she didn’t ‘break’. Knowing what I’d heard on the subject of mothers-in-law, I thought myself lucky to have a mother who loved her daughter-in-law so much.
I cut down on my outings and got back home in good time to Tomi. In our first year of marriage, we often stayed longer at the dinner table in the evenings to talk about the day, but I soon realized how poorly my wife did at making light conversation with me. While she could talk nonstop until I got fed up and distracted her with the suggestion that we’d better clean the dishes before it got too late, I could hardly edge in two or three sentences before she interrupted again with a totally unrelated topic.
Even when I’d had an unpleasant day that I eagerly wanted to talk about, she hardly listened. Instead, she would leave her seat several times either to put away a random piece of paper or scan the items in the fridge or straighten the curtains or kill a passing ant, sometimes wandering far away from where we sat and leaving me talking to the air. Frustrated, I concluded that she cared little or not at all about my opinions in a discussion and slowly lost my appetite for conversing with her.
Things got worse during her maternity; by the time the babies started coming, I had lost her attention completely. All things revolved around her and our two children, Tolu and Tade. In fact, their ‘T’ names had been Tomi’s idea intended as an endearing commonality for the three of them.
As our children grew, my faults increased as well. Not one day passed that Tomi did not have a reason to nag. It was either that I didn’t spend enough time with her and the children or had forgotten the birthday of some relative or had erred in some way too significant to be ignored.
“Wale, you haven’t called my parents this week!” I’d only just come back home one evening to this address.
“Oh no! I completely forgot. I’ll call them in the office tomorrow.”
I kept my promise but had inadvertently incurred the wrath of my wife anyway. For the next four days, she was moody around the house and would not tell me what I’d done wrong although I suspected it had to do with my sin of waiting until reminded to call my parents-in-law.
With the numerous brushoffs I suffered, I couldn’t predict the pattern anymore. At such times, nothing I did or said helped. Until her mood recalibrated, we remained strangers living in the same house.
A busy woman, Tomi’s mother occasionally visited us. Whenever she came, mother and daughter liked to talk late into the night, completely ignoring me. On such occasions, I would rummage in the kitchen to scrape up something for my dinner. Later when I’d understood the pattern, I would eat out before heading home whenever my mother-in-law visited.
My wife worked as a homeroom teacher at a private elementary school in the city. The first day at work following her second maternity leave must have been quite stressful for Tomi because I found her on the phone with her mother when I arrived at home by evening.
“Mom, I can’t go on like this,” she said, sobbing. “It’s just so hard combining work with caring for Tade and Tolu.”
Her mother tried to pacify her but Tomi refused to be appeased. Our children attended the same school where she worked. Thinking that other people looked after them during school hours, I could not understand Tomi’s stress over this matter. But I kept my thoughts to myself and tried to show some care.
“Don’t you think a house help…,” I attempted but she shut me up angrily. The first time I had suggested we look for a live-in helper, Tomi would have none of it. I didn’t know what else to do to alleviate her suffering, and for being foolish enough to raise the topic of a helper once more, I received Tomi’s cold shoulder for a time, time, and half a time as due punishment.
My predicament had worsened when my mother ignored her motherly role to Tomi after her delivery. Yoruba women habitually spent time with their daughters-in-law who had recently had babies. During these times, mothers-in-law relieved the new mothers of such duties as bathing and backing the baby, as well as washing the clothes of both baby and mother. It was a heavy but time-honoured responsibility that mothers-in-law shouldered.
The two times Tomi gave birth, my mother visited us sparingly. On both occasions of childbirth, Tomi’s mother, despite her pressing business demands and tight travelling schedule, managed to throw in a few days here and there until my wife could continue without assistance.
Only early this year, when Tolu and Tade had conveniently clocked four and two respectively did it occur to my mother to start visiting more frequently. She would show up at our house without notice and that usually upset a lot of things. One day, I decided to address the matter.
“You really expect me to call you before I visit?” she asked, affecting a British accent. “It will never happen, my dear, it won’t.” Mom had studied in the UK and continued to live there for sixteen more years post-graduation. She and dad had married and remained abroad for some time before returning to Nigeria.
“But mom, all I’m asking for is a phone call just so we are prepared.”
“Prepared for what? I do not ask for a palatial welcome, my dear.” Apparently, one of the few things she had not unlearned about her native culture, despite sojourning in the UK, was the tendency to barge into people’s homes in the name of paying a visit.
“Mama, you see … Tomi …”
“No, no! Don’t even go there at all! It’s not because of you or your wife that I visit. I love stopping by to see my grandchildren. Abi I shouldn’t come to see them?”
Abi, a Yoruba word for or, held a strong meaning. Mom’s question came across with a subtle finality intended to shut me up or dare me to accept the alternative she had suggested.
“No, mama, you are welcome anytime. The children are always happy to see you; it’s only that …” Before I could finish speaking, mom had already stormed back into the guest room. That evening, obviously still annoyed, she refused to have dinner with us.
When my mother stopped by at our house, it was not because she made a stopover on her way from Church or the shopping mall. She came with her bags packed and stayed for at least one week at a time to ‘greet’ Tolu and Tade who were half the time at school anyway.
Tomi and my mom could never cohabit. They argued all the time. Understandably, my wife could not forget that her mother-in-law had abandoned her when it mattered most; still, I advocated forgiveness and asked her to move past those times. But that only got me into more trouble.
Besides, my mother felt too proud to get off her high horse and seek ways of winning Tomi to her side. Instead, she stomped around the house in her costume of mischief, speaking with a British accent intended to define her classiness.
The only time the two ever got along was when they sat together in the living room and said amen while viewing the program of our church’s general overseer on TV. My family attended a different branch of the church than my parents and parents-in-law; regardless, Tomi and my mom tacitly called a truce whenever the general overseer came on air as though doing otherwise would betray them to the man of God.
Before I learned my lesson, I always tried to play judge between my mother and my wife. I apportioned blame accordingly thinking to douse the tension thereby. In time, however, I realized how counterproductive my efforts were. The warring women paid selective attention while I spoke, allowing my words to vanish into nothingness like mist while choosing to do their hearts’ bidding.
Bern had been the first to explain this characteristic to me when a difference in professional opinions caused a strain in the friendship between two of our female co-workers. One day, things had broken down into a shouting match right in the office and the bank manager did his best to broker peace amongst them.
“Wale, you need to be a woman to understand it. Those two women can never work together again,” Bern had said.
“I think they are fine now as you can see.”
But true to Bern’s word, the cold war continued to simmer under the surface and even brewed over once or twice more until the ladies were posted out to different branches of the bank.
“You know, Wale, you don’t play the judge with women. When two fighting women complain to you, each of them expects to hear you speak in her favour, not accuse her of wrongdoing.”
That made no sense at all and my frustration seethed to the surface.
“Women don’t readily accept blame. You must remember that, Wale.”
A few times, especially when I was having a bad day, I’d caught myself fantasizing about Bern and her leers. Bright and friendly and beautiful, she seemed so perfect, like an angel God had sent to deliver me from the misery of my life. But then, I was married—for better for worse, till death…
I’d remained faithful in marriage to Tomi not only because of our marital vows, but also because of something else that permanently rang in my memory and taught me to be careful around ladies. It had made me refrain from making advances at Bern, so far.
A young unmarried colleague once told me to mind my business and never compliment her on things that should be the preserve of her husband. At the time, I’d recently graduated from university and worked part-time as a teacher in a private school.
“Good morning; I like your hair,” I had said to her as I walked past where she stood idly, probably waiting for the principal. Tired of using the trite greeting line “Good morning, how are you?” like everyone else,I thought to spice it up a bit. It must have been the wrong way to address a lady because she just lashed out at me!
“Don’t ever admire my hair or anything else about me! It is meant for my husband!”
The retort made me blanch and I immediately broke into a sweat despite the cool morning breeze. Embarrassed, I walked away with a parched tongue. Later, when I had gained my composure back, I made a mental vow never again to compliment, or be too familiar with, a lady.
Still, I enjoyed Bern’s teasing looks and her company. Whenever I saw her, my desires fired up and my marital allegiance got tangled. She and I were getting really close but I held back, even though torturously, from making assumptions about her. My resilience, however, wore thinner each time and I grew desperate.
On evenings that I went out to drink with friends, I’d had the strong urge to end up at Bern’s doorstep and wake up the next morning in her arms, while blaming the mistake on my drunken state. Bern was the nouveau belle. Her caressing smile, like the morning sun, warmed my oft cold and aching heart. Now, at my most vulnerable, her provocative image lingered in my head, teasing me with gold nuggets.
THE PREDAWN DARKNESS of the morning finally lifted and the day broke. We all gathered for breakfast and as my mother took her seat, I regarded her closely. She still looked beautiful but her unrepentant bossing around had robbed her of that gracefulness I used to know.
Right after we said grace, my mother suddenly remembered something she had forgotten to tell me the previous night after I’d changed her bedclothes.
“Can you imagine that your wife hides the children from me these days?” Earlier in our marriage, my mother had loved to refer to my wife by name. These days, it was just ‘your wife’ or ‘that little girl’.
“Mommy, don’t talk like that! After all, here you are surrounded by your grandchildren.”
“Oh, I’m lying? You’re saying my mouth smells, abi?”
“Mommy!” I cautioned, aware that Tolu and Tade were watching.
She turned to Tomi and said in her mischievous accent, “It’s not your fault. It’s my son who gives you permission to insult me. And I don’t even know why I’m at table with your type anyway!”
My wife flew into a rage. She ranted on unendingly in front of the kids, showing no remorse for insulting an elderly person, a taboo among the Yorubas. I knew it was hopeless trying to stop her. As I looked on, I realized that Tomi’s graceless manners belittled her great looks which no longer impressed me. Nowadays, I considered her beauty a mere façade—the deceptive craftwork of nature skilfully hiding dark personality flaws from sight.
The argument brought to an end what should have been a happy Sunday breakfast. Soon, we were all on our way to church where we behaved decorously in front of the other people before returning again to our tormented home and frustrated lives.
The day wore on and by evening, my wife was alone in the kitchen getting supper ready. “Hey,” I said as I wandered into the kitchen intending to keep her company.
“Get out!” she screamed, lunging at me with the knife she had been dicing onions with. I jumped back and out the kitchen door but not without noticing her red-rimmed eyes and dripping nostrils. Had she been crying again or was it the onions?
 Variant of a quote by Laetitia Nsoh, a 2017 graduate of the American Christian Academy, Ibadan. Her original quote was: “How does it feel when you give gold to the rich and sand to the poor?”