Growing up, Christmas was one of the most exciting times for me and many other village children. For many, it was the only time of the year they got new clothes and shoes or slippers a.k.a rubber flip flops sold by Igbo traders in Uromi market.
For my siblings and I, my mother was Christmas. Without her, our childhood celebration would have been yokeless egg. There are many highlights of my childhood Christmas under the tutelage of my mother, one of the memorable ones was going to the market with her for Christmas shopping.
The journey from our village to Uromi market to shop for Christmas clothes cannot be properly described by any word in the English language. Even as an adult, I still haven’t experienced the swelling of heart and flurries of butterflies that occupied my inner self when that day for shopping arrived. Mind you, I got new clothes almost all year round; from my elder brother’s hand-me-downs to my uncle, Inspector Ephraim’s, constant supply from the city, but there was something about the term “Christmas Clothes”. It was like military ceremonial uniform, with a red feather sprouting from a young cadet’s beret.
Under normal circumstances, my mother would not take me to Uromi market because I was a liability and nuisance rolled together like a soggy shawarma. If I was not hungry within two seconds of leaving the house, I would be sleepy and cranky. If not that, I would be making unrealistic requests like asking her to buy me every Made in Aba toy in the stalls. The Chinese had nothing on us back then. Everything coming from China today came from Aba – an eastern city in this our country called Nigeria.
So the only time my mother would tolerate me and my excesses was during Christmas shopping. I remember quite clearly the very first of such trips. We boarded a Peugeot 404 pickup, which was what most market women used from my village to the mega city of Uromi, more popularly called “Garage” to those familiar with that part of Esanland. I was busting from the seams with excitement and was the envy of other kids who saw me going to a big market with my mom. We soon got there and another world embraced me. Markets anywhere on the Africa continent have the colour intensity of an Ablade Glover painting meets Pollock’s splurges. I was starry eyed, looking at the beehive of activities of Christmas commerce. We went to an Igbo man’s children clothing store. As soon as I entered the store, I went for the brightest and yellowest already made you’d ever seen in your life. In retrospect, I looked like a construction worker dressed in full reflector. But that was Christmas – village dressing was for flamboyance and peacockery. I cannot remember for the life of me how much mom paid for the trouser and jacket-like shirt, but off we went to Bata shoe shop along Mission road.
Christmas was for the unusual, pleasant scent and Bata leather aroma was a blooming field of wild flowers. I was high on that store’s scent like a Fela shrine boy. What was funny was that I went for a shoe type called ‘Cortina’, not knowing it was traditionally school footwear. I was only 7, what did I know? I would later rectify that. When I turned 12, that last innocent year before teenagehood, which comes with its type of drunkenness and madness that makes you dump your mother and start thinking of marrying the first girl your heart left your immature-corn-stalk strength ribcages for. When I turned 12, without my mother’s guidance in Uromi market I went and bought platform shoes, fashionable but unrealistic. And unrealistic is the train all youths board to adulthood, some never get off that train. I will describe for you some other time how one walks with 5 inches high platform shoes on a rough village road or bush path. Not only did I look like a reed-like masquerade on stilts, I also walked like a drunk cheap harlot.
Coming back to going to market with my mother, the event was pleasantry. It was ceremonious. After shopping for shoes it was time to visit the barbing salon. The barber whom we grew up to know as “Sunday ehBarber” was from my village who had a barbing salon in Uromi town, near the old Mobil filling station. Sunday ehBaber was the finest barber on earth then, a man whose look reminded me in later years of Sammy Davies Jr, they shared the same size, look, humour, sarcasm and boisterous laughter. Sunday ehBarber cuts your hair with a stick of Gold Leaf cigarette dangling precariously from his angular lips. He could talk, laugh, cut your hair and still have that cigarette wafting gentle smoke to the ceiling. A wooden board with different hairstyles drawn by an unknown artist, rested against the corner. While waiting for my turn, I studied the artwork and later copied it in my drawing book back in the village. When it was my turn, I chose the most stylish but did not mean that was the style I got. The signpost with some crazy unachievable hairstyle was just to show that it was a barber’s shop, it did not mean the style you chose was the style you got. Sunday ehBarber had his own style and style was the man. The sound of his scissors was like Thelonious Monk on piano, it had outwardly rhythm that sent me to sleep. His barbing chair, a leather/metal chair construction resting on a rotating, old Peugeot tyre rim was very comfortable, he gently arranged my sleeping head and gave me a Christmas cut. I got a short mohawk aka ukpetoabhiabaleh, making me look like a palace Benin High Chief in the making.
Another interesting thing was that Sunday ehBarber knew my father very well, so he never accepted payment from my mother after cutting my hair. He cut my hair for free till I got into secondary school.
My mother usually would go shopping for other Christmas stuff – raw rice, live guinea fowls, fresh tomatoes and onions and tomapep and Maggi cubes and thyme and curry, things that gave Christmas morning heavenly scent. She would also buy “buns” which were normally wrapped in old odd fix aka coupon paper for my father. She knew the snack her lovely husband enjoyed most besides his best food of roasted yam.
When she returned to pick me from Sunday ehBarber’s shop, she would come with cooked rice and stew wrapped in fresh leaves for me to eat before we start the journey back home. By then I would be worn out and tired due to overexcitement. I would rest my head on mother’s beautiful black shoulder with her motherly scent knocking me out to lala land. Falling asleep did not mean I was not clutching my box of new Bata shoes.
Waiting for Christmas morning to arrive was akin to a pregnant woman’s first days of her ninth month. And Christmas morning never failed to deliver in Ekpobhia Ayegbeni Ehikhamenor’s kitchen. By 7am the whole compound would already be engulfed with the scent of frying onions and tomatoes and other numerous ingredients. A huge pot of rice would be exuberating on the fire, with its steam mixing with the harsh harmattan wind. By 8am all cooking was done, Christmas rice eaten and she would heat up some water because of harmattan cold and give me a serious Christmas washing with Sunlight soap. And who said Nku cream was only for ladies? She would dab my neck with Saturday Night talcum powder and get me dressed in my new Christmas attire.
She would then begin to hail me, calling me great names – descendant of great ancestors, the grandson of Chief Agbadamu; the great man who spreads money and yam in his barn. My mother’s oriki for me would rival that for any first class Oba in Yorubaland. My head would swell and I would be taller than the palm trees in my grandfather’s plantation, ready to sweep the world with my grandness while riding on her words of encouragement. She would then give me names of relatives to visit and those not to bother with.
I would step out the door and first make the rounds within my grandfather’s compound, visiting his four remaining wives starting from my grandmother’s flat. They would also sing praises of how good my outfit looked. One of the grandmas who was blind would pray for me and off I would go to the outside world with other kids to visit distant relatives.
By around 3pm, Christmas would be ebbing so would the excitement and it would be time to return home with wild stories and monetary gifts. Shoes dusty, Christmas clothes turning from yellow to red, mother would be waiting outside for my return. She had an invisible timer and if I didn’t return at an expected time, she was sure to come looking for me. She always looked out for me, that woman.
This is the second Christmas without my mother. She’s moved on to greater heights and this time last year was her funeral ceremony. The fireplace has grown cold, leaving embers of memories. I miss her physical presence, but her Christmas lives in me and will always do through the excitement of my own children opening gift boxes we ordered online from faceless humans. Cycle of life, they call it.