I was talking to my cousin recently about spanking. She has two children, one planned and the other a blessed surprise. My cousin and I share a lot of things in common, one of the biggest, growing up as a child raising children. We spend a lot talking about what works and what doesn’t and trading anecdotal stories. Her children, my nephew and niece have big parts of their childhoods filled with my hands and face, smiling and scolding, and bathing with cold water and changing diapers so when the older boy misbehaves she likes to send him to me for spanking. She personally hates spanking them, though sometimes she is driven by desperation into reaching for a guava branch or a hairbrush. We were talking about spanking and then she asked me about my childhood which he was absent for most of and if I remembered my mother’s legendary whippings. I laughed and told her that the funny thing was that I didn’t remember any time when I was unjustly spanked, and that I was sure it had something to do with why I was so well adjusted. We both laughed about it and the conversation flowed into something else, how to deal with nappy rash, I think. But even as I defended my mother’s actions to my aunt, I felt something ring false about them. It wasn’t about the things I said, everything I said was true, the hollowness ringed in the spaces between the things I did say. Like my mother I have found that I lie best by omission.
What I didn’t say was that a part of me was convinced that like my cousin, most of my mother’s whippings were driven by fury and frustration and desperation. I didn’t tell her about how the promise of the whippings terrified me more than the whippings themselves. I didn’t tell her any of this because somehow the process of growing up had changed me and my mother, and this change worked like tectonics, slowly changing the facts of my childhood, solidifying the shifty shale of the person I thought my mother was then into a hybrid of who I knew she was now. The epiphanies I had had about her, the truths I had discovered that she had hidden to shield us away from the horrific things that lurked just outside of our comprehension, things that could take sleep away from a child and line their brows with worry softened the sharp angles of my prejudices against her. My brothers and I weren’t the easiest children to raise. Neither were my sisters who were teenagers by the time we were old enough to require my mother’s attention in ways other than baths and feedings. She had two distinct clans, each with needs as different as night and day. She had raised my sisters before us but trying to raise three boys the way you raised three girls nearly a decade before was like trying to raise fish in a chicken coop. I remember clearly one of the fights my sisters had with my mother. I call them fights even though my mother would have remembered them as whippings. Because I could remember peeking out into the big square kitchen where their fights usually happened, my eyes trained on my sister’s tight fists held strongly at her sides while my mother railed and sent flailing backhands flying. She stood there, all the retaliations that were boiling inside her held in check by some supernatural force while my mother grew even more heated at her thin lipped silence. I remember my mother after a particular episode, shoulders trembling as she called her a sadist, because she stood there, doing and saying nothing in response to my mother’s screaming and flailing. I remember being grateful that my sister had persevered. It was the 90’s and I had lost a few friends from being sent to the village because they didn’t understand the sacrifice their parents were making keeping them while Abacha terrorized everyone. While sometimes I was certain that my mother would never do that; that night I didn’t know what the woman screaming curses in the kitchen was capable of.
The whippings didn’t happen enough to be common place, but it was a threat that was always there. But it was a threat that lived not only in my house but the houses of all the kids that lived on my street. So we spent as much time as we could away, a swarm of locusts that alighted on each house, stripped it of food and moved on. In the safety of that many children, your individual sins could be hidden. When our football broke someone’s window, it was our football not mine. When we stayed out past dark, it was everyone that stayed out not just one child. So when we got whipped we took comfort in the fact that the whipping was communal, no one person was suffering alone. But every now and then, the crime would be committed before I could escape into the swarm and the threat of punishment would hang over my head all day, torturing me through school and after when my mother would come pick me and my brother up in her mint coloured Peugeot 403. We would ride silently in the backseat wondering if anyone had told her yet. Her silence was ambiguous, and her face was unreadable, lined with the concentration of driving. I would get home and rush off to the room I shared with my brothers and while I was chucking off my sandals and socks, pluck hairs from eyelids before slicking them with sweat and grinding them into my hair, something children in my school swore by. If you did it with enough conviction your mother would forget that you were to be whipped, it almost never worked. She would ask us to close our eyes and raise our hands in the corridor and then she would call my sisters, each standing beside the child she’d specially raised to get canes for us or hold us in place. Then the cane would fall, on hands and arms and buttocks and the back of legs while we howled.
Then something happened when I was eight. The children in the house next to us, belonging to an army man, his wife who seemed crazy to us and their posse of teenage daughters and four sons took us in. They had two children my age who had been our friends for a few years, Jehnum who was eight and Jerry who was 10 and wiser than anyone I knew whom my twin and I divided between ourselves the way we always shared things and squirreled them away, the concept of sharing never crossing our fiercely independent minds. Jehnum was athletic and had a bloodlust for small animals and took my twin, Jerry was mine. He liked books in a way I envied and I drew with such ease it angered him and we went spent afternoons together under his mother’s bed eating bolls of fura we’d stolen from where it was drying on their balcony and reading He Came To Set The Captives Free by some American evangelist, a book that terrified me so much I still have nightmares about it today. Jerry always seemed delicate, like he could break if you shouldered him too hard. He was the first person I was really close to who was on the tottering on the brink of death. So when the lights in their house came on at 3am one night and we woke and watched through the window as their car lit up the street as it drove out, I knew it was Jerry. He didn’t come back. I remember wearing a black shirt to the wake keeping they held in their living room, the funeral had been quick and quiet. Something changed in most of the parents on our street that day, it was as if they realised how close they all were from burying a child. There were a few more whippings after that but none of them had the fury of before.
But the terror was already there and it stayed for a long time, moulding how I approached my mother. It also moulded what I expected of her, which wasn’t very much. I instead turned to my elder sisters as go-betweens even though she had finally dropped the whip and taken up verbal lashings in front of my teenage friends instead, which made me beg terribly for the days when her hands flailed at us and her lips stayed shut. Jerry’s death affected me too. It made me complacent. It gave me nightmares and turned my thoughts towards death. My first short stories were about two children going out to a river or a playground and only one coming back. But back then telling the people older than you that the death of one of the children on your street had dislodged something inside you was the kind of conversation that would have gotten ignored or worse gotten you flogged. I think it affected my mother too, not longer after that a shaky truce happened between her and my sisters.
I’m not sure how they stand against each other, the mother of my childhood and my mother now. They have enough similarities to be siblings but they are completely different people. I wonder which one of them is a construction and which is real, or if both are real, co-existing inside her, hiding behind her smile which comes out now far more often than I remember it as a child. A part of me questions which of them I love more, the one of my childhood whom I loved because I thought she was infallible, or the one I love now because of her flaws. A part of me is tempted to be politically correct and whitewash the past, glaze the unsavoury bits so no one sees the cracks underneath, but I don’t want any more forged memories of her. I wonder if I’m allowed to love both, if holding on to the shadowy version of her from my childhood is somehow betraying the fleshed out her I know now. I don’t know the answers, but I know I’m capable of loving all the versions of her.