Kofi likes to visit members of his extended family. And he likes to do so spontaneously. We live within fifteen minutes of about eight of his aunts/great aunts. And they love it when they get to catch up with the next generation. This is all very good except for one thing: he likes to take Dovene with him and he likes to grab the boy in whatever state he is in and off they go. When I am around for these spur-of-the-moment trips, I insist on changing Dovie’s clothes and making sure he looks nice. Kofi always grumbles about me wasting time and spoiling the fun. ‘He’s going to his grandmother’s house’ he says, ‘its his home. He doesn’t need to get dressed up.’
That’s what he thinks. Doesn’t he know that every woman is judged by her child’s appearance? If he leaves our home looking ragged and goes out with his Dad, people will snort at what an untidy, dirty woman his mother must be. There may be the casually critical comment. ‘Mammie really shouldn’t let him do that, you know’. If the people he has loved and looked up to all his life, think ill of the son he adores and takes pride in, it won’t be long before he starts, like them, to see how its my fault he is not what they expect him to be and soon that will become a source of tension between us.
Kofi doesn’t realize it, but even how he himself dresses reflects on my womanhood. Is his shirt crumpled? His shoes unpolished? That could only mean one of two things: his wife is a slob or the marriage is on the rocks. The number of times and places he and I have indulged in public displays of affection rule out B as the choice and make A the obvious answer.
It is rather a leap, this conclusion, and in my younger days, I argued the responsibility of the individual for his appearance and cleared the wife of any complicity in the event of her husband dressing poorly. These days, I can see how that theory came to be. I am not necessarily in agreement with it. But I do see the how of it.
Here’s a typical the-wife-who-cares-makes–an-input scenario: Kofi is going to a function. I am lying on the bed as he dresses. He goes to the wardrobe and picks out a pair of pants he wants to wear. He puts them on and goes back to pick a shirt. “Mmmm!” I say in tones of disappointed surprise, as he starts to pull it over his head. ‘Mmmm, this one dze, change it ai. These posh pants and this shirt… I beg’ He defends his choice and I respond, ‘ah well. As for me I don’t like it but if you do… ah. [shrug].Its your body to clothe as you please.’ He then wears the shirt a minute longer, turns around a time or two in the mirror and takes it off. ‘Yeaah. This one is nice’ I say admiringly, when he changes it.
I recollect an occasion my father wanted to go to a funeral in a black shirt. It was a nice black shirt, really quite posh. ‘Ah! A proper Ashanti man going to a funeral in a shirt? O no!! This one die…tsk tsk tsk’ my mother said. “The shirt won’t change my Ashantiness’, my father replied. ‘It may not change it, but does it reflect it? Why, are you not from the heart of Ashantiland? Ah!! Anyway, this is Accra, we are not too particular here. I suppose it won’t matter what you wear’ Daddy did not wear the shirt. ‘Your mother is doing ‘abeisem’ and won’t let me wear my new shirt’ he said grumpily to us as he left in his cloth. So I guess its not unreasonable to presume that the man’s wife’s tastes are skewed or she doesn’t give a toss, if he’s not looking good.
To save my reputation, I play ‘our mother killjoy’ and pause every impromptu outing to attire the young gentleman properly. I make a conscious effort for him not to look dressed up. I like to encourage them to think that they were just hanging out on the sofa, and out of the blue, Kofi shouted to me in the back, ‘baby, we’re going to drop in on grandma’ and off they went.
My mother liked frills, I did not. I recall feeling foolish at many a ‘casual dropping in’ that were made in frilly dresses no little girl wears at home-you know the kind with lace in front and puffed sleeves. I always felt it made it seem like the ‘casual’ visit was actually a really big deal to us and that we prepped for it, a thing which remains to date in my mind, uncool. I made a solemn oath to myself not to do that to my children. Of course with boys, that a breeze to achieve. T-shirt and a nice pair of jeans and its an impromptu visit.
Kofi has no reason to be nervous about how his son looks. He is with his family. I do. I am an in-law; a relatively new one at that. I am still on trial. My in-laws are very nice and obviously like me which makes it a whole lot easier. But I still put in quite a bit of effort. I feel I have to; to keep them impressed with me.
I sigh with relief at the end of every visit that went well. My son did not throw tantrums and make me look lax with discipline or break an expensive glass piece and embarrass me or refuse to be sociable and force me to make apologetic explanations. We have passed this test. I am still a good mother. For a little while- until the next test- I remain ‘that lovely girl’ their son married.
There being no rest for the wicked, I don’t get to relax when we go to my family. Here too I stand before the jury, albeit a more forgiving one. Am I really a daughter to be proud of? Or am I disgracing them before their in-laws? Am I passing on the values the family holds important or am I raising a brat? All these piercing questions will be answered by how my children look and how they behave. As I am of their flesh and blood, neither my mother’s eight siblings nor their partners, nor my father’s numerous cousins will hesitate to tell me precisely what they think of me and my brood.
Surprisingly- or perhaps not- this does not make it a strain on my nerves to visit them. After all what are they going to do? Ex-communicate me because my kids broke their rare 18th century Ashanti pot? They shouldn’t have invited me; they knew I had a baby, or they should have put it away. The worst they can do, really, is to cluck disapprovingly. While I try to impress them with my motherhood mastery, it is more to earn compliments than it is to prevent disapproval. Clucks are not exactly fearsome things.
I enjoy time spent with our families. I usually come away from these encounters with a warm flush inside. Its nice to be surrounded by your own people, to feel part of a unit bigger than ourselves and to be reminded that ours is just a small branch of a large, sturdy, tested tree. It is nice also that thus far our children always draw compliments for us both from my family and from Kofi’s. Even so, I am looking forward to the day when I no longer need to try, or when I don’t care to.