Photo by Leeca Desforges
My Mama mandated Grandma Olachi attend catechism classes on Tuesdays and Fridays to prepare the older woman for heaven. It was the latest in a series of orders Mama gave that nobody dared question. With only a Standard Three education from Unubi Central School, Mama dispensed orders with Ivy-League confidence. Nevertheless, people said she was fortunate, as she was the only woman in the entire village to have attained such an academic feat, to have broken the slate and pen. Other women had stopped, out of academic difficulty and frustration, at Standard One or Two, or at nothing.
That Mama gave the order to Grandma did not surprise me. She drank the church the way she drank water. She tied her Morning Mass white scarf in the evening as though she could turn night into morning, as if she could not wait for morning to come. She carried a handbag wrapped in a blue and white sticker with the words "The Catholic Prayer Ministry of the Holy Spirit," a caricature of a white dove turned upside down at the center.
To her the Pope was equal to Jesus and God, possessing the same authority. I knew this the day I pointed a finger at the photograph of John Paul II on the wall and she gave me a serious wound on my neck.
"Obi, you bastard goat, has the devil occupied your brain? You don't point at God that way," she shouted at me, furiously.
"Sorry, Ma," I yelped.
"You'd better be sorry for yourself," she said. "From today henceforth, whenever you want to point at that picture, you must fold your fingers, or I will have them chopped for you like the vegetables in my soup pot. Do you hear me, I na-nu? That picture is your savior. Our savior. Worship it."
When my sister Chizoba announced her plans to marry a Methodist, my mother refused to be part of it, and indeed, it was our stubborn Chizoba who led us to realize reverend fathers wore trousers beneath their flowing cassocks, and it was she who incited Mama's Catholicity to slate Grandma Olachi for baptism.
My sister's decision to marry a Methodist ran contrary to Mama's position as chairperson of the Catholic Women Organisation in Unubi. It was such a disgusting act, Mama said, a sin bound for purgatory and, ultimately, hell. I knew she wanted to avoid suspension from Holy Communion, suspension from the front seat, suspension from leadership, suspension from the archdeaconry—an embarrassment par excellence! Mama had once sent another woman's name to Father Raphael because that woman's daughter, too, had agreed to marry a Presbyterian, and the Reverend Father had starved the woman of Holy Communion for six months.
Mama banished Chizoba from home for taking this anti-Pope decision, for bringing shame on her person, position and power. Chizoba went to stay at Grandma's house.
Grandma sat my sister down to admonish her—not for going against Mama's wishes, but on the rigors of marriage.
Grandma gesticulated as she spoke, her hands a patchwork of arthritic nerves. "My granddaughter, marriage is not the kind of dance a woman does holding her breasts tightly with her palms," Grandma said. "It is the dance you do leaving your breasts dangling for your husband. I tell you, it is a difficult dance."
"Thank you, nne," Chizoba said, smiling, feeling her bulging breasts to ensure they were still there, as if she did not understand the roundabout manner in which Grandma often made her point.
I was there at Grandma's house that afternoon to deliver a message from Father Raphael to Chizoba. Mama should have come herself, but she refused because she said Grandma was kissing local demons and feeding idols. Associating with this behavior would present a serious obstacle to her making heaven.
"Chizoba, Father Raphael wants to see you urgently at the parish tomorrow," I said.
"Why does he want to see me?" she asked, widening her eyes.
"I don't know," I replied.
"Obi, you mean fada wants to see Chizoba," Grandma said, as if she had not heard me well the first time, or perhaps to confirm I had not lied.
"Yes," I answered.
Grandma spat three times, each time ending it with tufiakwa, God forbid.
"Abominations must follow those who commit abominations," Grandma said.
"Why do you say so, Grandma?" I asked, surprised.
She smiled in a bitter way, hissed, shook her head, and said, "My grandson, that fada refused to conduct the final funeral rites for your father because of one thousand naira the poor man owed the parish."
"One thousand naira!" Chizoba and I chorused.
"Yes my grandchildren, umu m," Grandma answered. "This happened 18 years ago. Both of you were little children then. Chizoba was probably three years plus. And Obi was just a year old."
"So who later conducted the...?" Chizoba asked.
"Ohooo, having waited for the fada who failed to come, your father's kinsmen opened the ground and dumped the poor man's corpse in there, after they had sung a brief aliloya. So that stupid fada is still there. Abominations must follow him," Grandma said, with bitterness.
"Then I won't go to see him," Chizoba said.
"I don't think it was Father Raphael who did it," I said. "You know Father Fortunatus had left before Father Raphael came."
"Both of them are the same," Grandma snapped. "Fada is fada."
"I will never go to see him," Chizoba repeated, her face gloomy, almost crying. Maybe she was thinking of our father, whose face she was never privileged to see, or she was just sad out of unknown nostalgia. I wondered, too, whether she had just caught a feeling she never had, a feeling of love for our father.
"No, my granddaughter, go and see the fada," Grandma said without any sense of contradiction. "It is not for us to punish those who offend us. Punishment is divine."
Sometimes, I felt Grandma should be ordained a reverend sister, though I knew Mama would not agree. Grandma's devilish name, Olachi, was not acceptable for the kingdom of heaven. Only illiterate persons possessed by untutored demons bore such a local name, so far as Mama was concerned.
"If I must go, then Obi must come with me," Chizoba said.
"I will," I said.
The next day, Chizoba and I were at the parish office at St. Paul's to see Father Raphael, my mind filled with expectations. Smelling of incense, the office that usually had many people visiting was empty except for a man making confessions behind the curtains. We sat on one of the wooden benches arranged in five rows, nudging one another, waiting for Father Raphael to come.
"Father, forgive me," the man behind the curtains said, his voice deep. "I have committed that same sin I have always committed. I am helpless. Please Father, help me."
I wondered if the priest had so memorized the sin, the sinner did not have to mention it again during confession. I wondered what sin it was that had become so like a recurring decimal, the sinner could not help but continue to commit it.
I wanted Father Raphael to say the man did not deserve forgiveness anymore, having repeated his sins so many times, but instead he said, "You're forgiven. Go and sin no more."
The man came out of the curtains and left, his face suspicious. Perhaps he thought we had heard his confessions. When Father Raphael came out, we stood up and greeted him. He crossed our faces to bless us.
"Chizoba, I don't like what I've heard about you," Father Raphael said as he sat on a bench, facing us.
"What did you hear?" Chizoba asked.
"That you want to throw your mother's Catholic prestige to the dogs."
"I don't understand what you're saying, Father," Chizoba said.
"You want to marry a non-catholic despite the achievement and position of your mother in this parish."
Chizoba remained silent, staring at her feet, apparently ensuring none of her ten toes was missing. Something was ominous. I sensed the silence would be broken in a bad way.
"Father, could you please show me your penis?" Chizoba asked, looking straight into his face.
"Show you what?" he shouted.
"You heard me right, Father. Show me your penis."
"That's impossible. I cannot do that!"
"Father, will you marry me?" she asked.
Father Raphael sprang up, grabbed a bottle of holy water on a table nearby, and began to sprinkle the holy liquid on her, chanting incantations in Latin. Some of the water touched me. I wondered whether Holy Spirit had appeared to make her ask such questions. Chizoba was always tough and stubborn, her decisions irreversible.
"I can't marry you. I am an ordained priest," he said after he had returned the bottle to its place and taken his seat.
"If you won't let me see your penis and marry me, please let me marry the man I love."
"But it's very wrong to marry an unbeliever."
"My husband is a Christian, not an unbeliever."
"But he's not Catholic."
"I don't care about what he is, or what he's not."
At that moment, Mama walked into the parish office. I guessed she had heard Chizoba's angry voice. The two of them said nothing to each other. I greeted Mama, but her response was cold. She sat on a bench, far from us, her white scarf almost covering her forehead and her eyes. I suspected she had come to make confessions for unwillingly allowing her daughter to marry a non-Catholic, or she had come to confess the recurring sin she committed regularly with the catechist at night inside her bedroom, a man who had divorced his wife for Mama's happiness.
Father Raphael grew more furious with Chizoba and her stubborn responses to his questions.
"Madam Rosemary," Father Raphael called.
"Yes, Father," Mama answered, her voice low, the voice of one who had a burden but was helpless, as helpless as the man who had committed the habitual sin.
"Rosemary David," he called her again.
I did not know Mama had dropped her surname, Njoku, and put in its place David, a foreign name acceptable to Father Raphael. I started to suspect she would soon force me to change mine to Obi David from Obi Njoku.
"Yes, Father," Mama answered.
"Please, you have to do something before this embarrassment gets worse. How can a child baptized and confirmed in Catholic Church be so unruly?"
He spoke so angrily to Mama, I noticed his unkempt beard; it was angry, too. I knew from the way the whiskers straightened up like dark needles under his jaw. His British-accented English seemed to come from a mouth of needles, not from his real mouth, and his bushy hair made his head look bigger than it was. It crossed my mind he might have refused to cut his hair for fear it would make him appear weak and unholy.
"Forgive me, Father. I will do something urgently," Mama said.
"You had better, because you know the implications. Your enviable position in this parish is at stake. Your honor will be affected in many negative ways. Take my word for it. I mean everything will be affected."
Mama shivered on the bench.
"Father, I will definitely do something drastic before the Pope comes visiting next month."
"What are you going to do? Tell me exactly what you're going to do. Your only daughter is going to marry an unbeliever, and you've kept quiet all this while," Father Raphael fumed.
"I didn't keep quiet, Father, but the girl is very stubborn. I will do something to compensate for this."
"And what is it?"
"I will convert my own mother, Chizoba's grandmother."
Grandma, a Catholic? I wondered. This would be like forcing her to use a baby nappy at eighty, like feeding a dog with green grasses.
Chizoba whispered to me she was going to spend the weekend in her fiancé's house. Then she left me in the parish office, but I didn't hang around for long, either.
That night I was sleeping on a mat, dreaming about the Pope's impending visit to Nigeria, dreaming about Grandma on the right hand of Jesus like a repented devil, when Mama barged in, disturbing my sleep and dragging Grandma alongside her. I got up quickly. Grandma was gasping, looking more vulnerable than usual with her arthritic nerves and wrinkled skin. Mama shoved her down on a seat.
"Now listen to me," Mama said. "God is coming to visit Nigeria next month, and I must prepare you to meet him."
Grandma shook her head. "My own God is not a traveler. He's the Almighty God and always here and everywhere with me."
"I am sick and tired of this idol-feeding thing."
I opened my mouth, alarmed. My own mother calling her own mother a thing.
"Grandma is not a thing; she's human," I said.
Mama slapped my cheek and flung her handbag at me. Grandma reclined on the seat. She had been over-powered.
"From today, your name has ceased to be Olachi," Mama said. "Olachi is devilish. Father Raphael has picked a heavenly name for you. Your name is now Jessica."
"Jesi gini, Jesi, what? What's wrong with Olachi? It has meaning," Grandma said. "It means gold of God, gold of God."
As Grandma stressed her name a few more times, I looked at her skin. It had a golden color. I imagined how radiant her skin must have been when she was young. How much her husband, my Grandpa, must have loved her beautiful skin. If she was a devil, Mama was a devil, too, I thought. And I must be a devil, because a devil could not have given birth to angels, the same way the mango tree in front of our house would never bear apples. I imagined Chizoba giving birth to little devils, too.
"You don't bear such a name in this day and age," Mama said. Grandma looked surprised, her bright, tiny eyes sunken inside their sockets. "Starting from next week, you must begin to attend catechism classes every Tuesday and Friday in preparation for your baptism, so as to meet with God when he comes. If you refuse, I will no longer buy clothes and wrappers for you, and no more drugs for your arthritis."
"What is katakilizim?" Grandma asked.
"It's not katakilizim, but catechism," Mama answered, mimicking the way Father Raphael pronounced the word with British-styled inflection. "It is a class where questions about God and heaven are asked and answered."
Someone called out in greeting from outside the house. I recognized the catechist's voice. Mama recognized his voice, too, and ran outside to attend to him. I knew she went to tell him to come around some other night because of Grandma being there.
"My grandson, what is bawtizim?" Grandma asked.
"It's not bawtizim, Grandma; it's baptism," I said. "It is a form of ritual in which they drown your head in the Ugwa-na-uku River for three minutes. If you survive it, you're on your way to heaven."
"Do they kill goats during the ceremony?"
"Sometimes they do and cook the meat for children to eat."
"Then it's the same thing as the Agwu ceremony."
"These church people and their antics. Jecita. Katakilizim. bawtizim." Grandma's tongue was uncomfortable with the new English words she had learned.
The first day Grandma attended the catechism class filled with only children, news came she had slept throughout the session. She did not even know when her new name was called as the catechist took the roll. She would have forgotten the name even if she had been awake. Mama was happy though. She would lobby the catechist to recommend Grandma for baptism even if she did not pass the catechism. Grandma was getting to know God and Pope and Jesus and Mary. I wondered whether it was not the same God who had sustained her life from childhood until she was eighty years old.
Mama bought a white gown and a white scarf to match. Grandma would wear them on the day of her baptism. She had never worn a gown before, but Mama forced her to test it. Grandma slid it on, and it was oversized. She looked like an angel inside hell, an angel without a portfolio. The gown did not fit her, just as Jessica did not fit her tongue. It did not matter; she would go to heaven with an oversized gown. She had tested it. She smiled at me, and I smiled back. Mama smiled, too, because she had succeeded in her conversion project. She had converted the devil.
Mama broke into her favorite song, "Jerusalem, my happy home," singing without melody. When I was a child, she told me Jerusalem was in heaven, not on earth, and when she died, her soul would occupy Jerusalem's portion of heaven. I used to wonder how a black woman would become a landlord in the portion of heaven meant for the Jews until my Geography teacher proved her wrong by showing me Jerusalem on the map of Israel. I was disappointed with Mama because I did not see any reason why she would want her soul to reside in Israel where there was fighting and bombing and killing of innocent souls.
The next day was Sunday, the day of baptism. Mama had woken up and gone for the six o'clock Mass. She would wait there for the nine o'clock Mass; it was then Grandma would be baptized. She expected both Grandma and me in the church. Grandma complained of severe headache and pains in her legs, so I went ahead to Mass alone, after I had reminded her of how mad Mama would be if she didn't come in time for the baptism.
"Jessica David," Father Raphael called out after the nine o'clock Mass.
The whole church was silent.
"Jessica David," Father Raphael called again.
Mama rose from the front seat, turned around, and surveyed the entire church. I knew she expected to see Grandma in an oversized white garment flowing to the altar to meet Jesus, to meet Father Raphael. But it was clear Grandma had not arrived on time for baptism. I saw what I had feared on Mama's face. I knew she could do anything, split herself into two and split Grandma, to avoid this embarrassment.
"Obi," someone whispered to me where I sat in the pew.
I turned around. It was Okechukwu, one of our neighbors. "What is it?" I asked.
"Get your mother and come with me quickly. Something is wrong."
Okechukwu dragged Mama and me to the path leading to the church. Grandma was there on the ground. She had slumped and died, struggling on her own with her painful bones and her arthritis, to get to church, to be baptized, in order to see God.
"Oh, Virgin Mary," Mama screamed. "My mother has not done her baptism."
She wailed as grief and rain hung heavy in the face of the sky.