Remembering My Angel

Nine years ago I went with a friend to Akropong to visit his family house. It was an impressive building that towered over all the other single story slate-roofed houses in the area. It was his grandmother’s residence and was a queen mother to the town. She had passed away earlier in the year.

He showed me around the house before finally stopping in the back yard where a beautiful gazebo had been erected. There was a marble tomb set directly in the center of it – his grandmother’s final resting place. I looked at my friend and felt torrents of pity for him. His eyes were fixed on the cold stone vault and they had begun to mist. He placed his palm on his heart to steady himself. After a while he was able to tear himself away from the spot and carry on the tour, even though the pain of her passing was still very palpable.

At the time my own grandmother was very much alive, and lived a few towns over in the same mountain range. I didn’t go and visit her that day, but now I wished I had. I always took it for granted that she would always be around. I should have taken every opportunity to spend as much time with her as I could. I could only guess what kind of pain my friend was suffering through at the time, but I didn’t want to empathize with him. I couldn’t put myself emotionally in that position of loss.

Instead, Fate put me there whether I wanted to go or not. She died 5 years later.

I’ve written about my grandmother’s passing before, but this week there is something different about her memory that I’m experiencing this week. My thoughts of her are far more visceral, and they are all centered on love.

If there was one thing I could bet money and my very life on, it would be that my grandmother loved me unconditionally and unreservedly. I don’t know if it’s a Ghanaian trait or just one peculiar to my family, but we rarely uttered  the phrase “I love you” to one another. Instead, we would try to demonstrate that love in various ways (if walking by your sibling and farting can be classified as a demonstration of love). My grandmother demonstrated it with the great care that she showed us at every opportunity. No attention to detail was spared. There were never lumps in our fufu and she always took the bones out of our fish. As we got older and more self-sufficient, she demonstrated her love by ‘advising’ us before she left after her visits. I used to roll my eyes as a teenager in those times, but I recognize what a wonderful tradition it was. She always told us to study hard and choose our friends carefully.

“And don’t do anything to disgrace my name,” she used to say to me directly. “You know you are my namesake.”

I was named Abena Owusua in her honor.

Feigning contriteness, I always nodded respectfully, thinking back to several things I might have done that week alone to ‘disgrace her name’.  It didn’t matter. She was never disappointed in me; even when I had committed the most unspeakable act imaginable: I’d had a baby out of wedlock.

I still have the letter she wrote to me.

My dearest Abena,

I hear you are having a baby. For the first 3 months you will feel very sick, and then you will feel better. You might also experience some pains in your left side…

I braced myself, but it never came. There was no word or reproach or reprimand; just that loving, sage advice she always had handy.

abenas Of all of her grandchildren, I’m the child who looks most like my grandmother, and that has always been a great source of pride for me. She was stunning in my eyes. My sister is the one who’s most like her in word and deed though. They are both patient, artistic and constant. You won’t find a more dependable person than my sister, and that’s a trait she inherited from my grandmother.

I don’t remember the date my grandmother died, but I do remember the day. It was cold and overcast and I was at the gas station when I got the call from my father to say she had finally slipped away after suffering a head injury. He waited for me to break down and cry so that he could tell me not to. I told him I was alright. I hung up with him whispering my goodbyes, drove home, went up to my room, put my face in a pillow and screamed until I was done.

Unlike my friend, I can’t tell you where my grandmother’s final resting place is. I sent money to pay for the funeral, but I couldn’t afford to attend it myself. Even if I could, I don’t think I really wanted to. I didn’t (and never will) want my last memories of my grandmother to be of her holed up in a box in the ground. I want to remember her swathed in her favorite blue and white cloth, looking at the sky and predicting rain. That was the last conversation we had when I left her house all those years ao.

Every so often, when I was a really little girl, she would grin broadly and spontaneously warble the refrain to Miriam Makeba’s Malaika to me. “I love you my angel”, the song says.

I wish I had told her that she was my sweet angel, too.