My mother would usually lament her fears at having failed us. We, her loving children always felt the need to reassure her that ‘No, you didn’t fail us’. Though Nolwazi, my sister went through a period where she questioned my mother’s parenting skills, she was the best mother; not that we had anyone to compare her with. We just knew she was the best because we had been with her through it all. We once lived next door to these underprivileged kids when we were younger, and they always told us how lucky we were to have our own mother who could afford us. Back then I didn’t know of the harsh realities of standing in long queues for government grants or spending the whole day hoping to get help at the clinic. Everything called public was in a state of collapsing to a point where you didn’t know if you were in a hospital or a toilet because they all looked the same.
Those kids knew, and their faces were so transparent to just how unkind life had been to them. You could see sickness woven in their skins and the way they carried themselves and the poverty was evident in the brand of petroleum jelly they used. Their hair was different, and they smelled like the politics so active in their homes, but children are children and we were so sure we were just alike. When we went to visit them, we would eat what they ate and where we saw grey lines of a hard life we were too young to fully comprehend it. Our home had this type of warmth just for our skins and hearts but with its fair share of problems. When we played house on the streets we took our impressions and dreams of home with us and we would return home sure that one day we would have ourselves those lives or maybe better. You just never know that life has its own plans for you.
My mother’s chest was a heaving mess of secrets and it would sometimes give out. The women always feel responsible when the men don’t stay because their children‘s eyes tell tales of broken homes. She can’t even bring a lover home to try again at the failed attempt at love because she is raising kids. What if even this lover gets into a routine and right when she is sure they are a family he also leaves? Nolwazi and I didn’t see it until a relative pointed it that we had different fathers. Then it stuck out in everything we did, and Mom could only ask ‘Who told you that you are different?’ Even the fights we had as siblings became too much for her. Maybe she thought we hated each other for being different. There are secrets that are kept to keep the peace because children need to do a lot of growing up before they are aware of the broken state of things and how it can’t be fixed. The first being human error, that which your parents try to beat out of you as a kid. You break so many branches getting sticks for beatings until you outgrow the beatings. You learn to have manners, speak when spoken to, sit with your legs closed and your back straight etc. You are like a flower budding on the tree with broken branches because the reality of the black family is that it is sometimes built on rocky foundations.
Maybe our parents fail us, the one for leaving and the other for overcompensating. We feel it all our lives but have no words for what we are feeling. Black kids don’t have the liberty to express feelings until later in life. Black children grow up being thought not to cry for ‘nothing’. Your cries cause elders distress and when you cry you better be crying for a reason. How dare you feel abandoned when you grew up more privileged than most kids your age? It can’t be abandonment because someone was always there sweating and hoping you never feel like that. If you insist you still feel like that than your mother feels like she failed you. To her you become just like your father because he too was never satisfied which is why he left. You display a lot of your father’s characteristics and aren’t even aware of it just that she tries to change them or bring attention to them. Experience brings so much to our attention and age clears our eyes of all innocence. Somewhere in life you find it necessary to familiarise yourself with foreign concepts like father because one day you want to have kids. You become intrigued by this word that riles your mother up every time it is mentioned in relation to how she raised you.
I had no memory of my father; only stories people told me. Everyone had a memory of him but me. I was too young when I met him briefly, so I’m told. The next time I was at his funeral, it hit me that I was one parent away from being an orphan. When that happens you kind of hear the twigs snapping and your roots being snipped away but can’t stop it. I met his other children who were grief stricken because to them he was a dad. This man was a family man and they cried for him because that day they lost a part of themselves.
The same loss I had carried in me all my life and felt the need to go and bury it on that day. The reality was that I didn’t know a part of myself and I would have to rely on the stories people told me. I realised then how important obituaries are. We are our father’s children, the clan names one should give praise to are their father’s. Children who grew up with good fathers are grounded because they are in sync with their father’s beliefs and moral standing. They know his mannerism and the way he fills the house when he is home. The way he smells without fragrances and how his voice fills the corners of the house. The way he calls his children’s names with emotion and authority centres them. He calls them into being more than just names. Yet some children will tell you their fathers were home all their lives, but they never really knew them.
Parents fail us when they take parenting as a duty and not as second nature. I was always aware of the way my mom did all the smallest things and it filled me with love. I loved the way she dressed and how she carried a shadow of dreams she didn’t quite get to in time. I loved the way she smelled, it said she was here and when she left her fragrances lingered in the house ‘til she returned. What I was not aware of was that she was under a lot of strain from a young age and that breeds what people call the bitter black woman. Who stays to love the black woman but her children? Maybe a few men who like the sound and warmth of home stay and dare to love their women. Many men want perfect lovers and women who bend to norms like the fact that men have needs that can’t be satisfied by one woman.