Family drama is best served with a side (or five) of humour: Ali Bryan's novel centres on Figg-matriarch June whose dreams of retirement are dashed when the youngest of her three children unexpectedly becomes a father. With a newborn baby at home and apron string attachment at an all-time high, it looks like plans are about to change for the whole family.
“As you know,” Randy said, trying to make eye contact with his sons sitting across from him, “today is Mother’s Day.” He paused. “Tom, put your phone away.”
Tom moved his phone to the side, flipping it face down. He crossed his arms. “You’re not going to give one of your speeches, are you?”
“Would you let me speak?” he said, but June, too, was hoping he would not. He was too fragile for speeches, especially in public. Randy took a deep breath. “We are gathered here today to celebrate your mother.”
Vanessa jumped all over this. “Sounds like a eulogy.”
“Let me finish,” Randy sighed. June observed the fish in the tank plastered against the back wall. She felt like climbing inside and drowning herself.
“What I mean, is that today is Mother’s Day and we are here to celebrate that.”
“Yes, Dad,” Derek said, “we all know it’s Mother’s Day.”
“Here, Mom,” Tom said, pulling a card from a pocket inside his leather jacket. June ran her finger over the embossed Carlton Cards above the envelope’s seal and then ripped it open with a chopstick. The card was covered in sunflowers. It was blank inside but for Tom’s message. No matter where you came from, I’m happy that I came from you.
“What a lovely card, Tom,” she said.
Vanessa promptly produced her own. “The gift is from all of us,” she said, passing a flat box wrapped in crepe paper. June untied the raffia bow and opened the box as a server set down plates of spring rolls. June waited until everyone had taken a spring roll before pulling out The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Playing the Ukulele: Everything You Need to Start Strumming and Picking Today.
“Wow, this is really thoughtful.” June flipped through the book. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” She closed it.
In this new memoir, celebrated academic Njoki Wane shares her journey from her parents' small coffee farm in Kenya where she worked with her mother in the fields to her current job as a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Njoki explores her African identity and how her upbringing and solid relationship with her mother helped her succeed as a woman of colour and in her scholarly work in Black feminism.
My mother was as close to me as she ever had been. I could see the warmth in her eyes as she took my palm and ran her fingers over the lines and then down my fingers. When she looked back up at me, she smiled and said, “My Njoki, touch my hands.”
She held out her hands, palms up in offering and I took the opportunity to really examine each ridge and plane. Her hands were rough from working the fields and tending our home. There were calluses on her fingers, some blisters on her palms in various stages of healing and faint burns from working the fires over the years. They were a woman’s hands, I decided; a woman who worked hard for her family and her village. I have to pause again to calm myself down – I still remember that moment. I can still see my mother – I wrap my hands together, they are soft and tears flow as I remember my mother’s hands. And in particular when she said, “What do you feel?”
“Your hands are rough from work, Mama. They are very rough, Mama . . . you should oil your hands.”
“Yes, yes. They are rough from work; hard work and long days. This is my path, my destiny.”
I nodded, understanding as much as I could. My mother’s hands were evidence of the life she had chosen and the path that was offered to her. They represented everything she was: strong and skilled, rough but capable.
“Now, Njoki, touch your hands. What do you feel?”
I already knew the answer to this, but I did as I was told, anyway. My hands were smooth, long-fingered and nimble. There was none of the strength my mother’s hands had and I knew they were certainly less skilled. I spent most of my time reading books, playing with my dear friend Patricia and causing all the mischief children were meant to cause.
“Mama, my hands are smooth. I’ve done no work like you.”
“You are right. My hands are not meant to be your hands, little Njoki. My path has taken me to the fields and the fire. Yours will take you to books and school. That is what I want for you. I do this now so you won’t have to cultivate under the hot sun or go in search of firewood. You are meant for more than this.” Mother ran her fingers on a page of my book and said to me, “Do you see these little figures all over the page? Master them . . . they are your hoes. If you know them well, they will provide for you. They will not let you down. They do not have seasons like we have here . . . rain season, dry season . . . mmm but you need to prepare and plan just like the way I do for my shamba – my family plot – and be committed and focused.”
Though Mother spoke the words softly, the reverence in her voice made the meaning sit heavy in my belly. I had told Patricia so many times that I wanted to be a professor when I grew up. I really didn’t know what that meant, but I was certain I wanted it. Now, hearing my mother wanted these things for me was like hearing a prophecy told. My mother wanted this for me. I had never seen something she had ordered fail to happen, so it must be my path.
A smile broke across my face in understanding. I told myself, I must study. I must read and I must never stop learning. This was my path.
Mother said, “Now, go sit under that shade tree and read. When it is time to eat, I will join you and you will read to me from your book. Remember where we left off before. I want to know what happens next.”
Part ode, part prayer, and part manifesto, Matronalia interlaces ancestral legacies and personal tribulations to reveal what often remains unsaid from mother to daughter. The energy, intelligence and grace of the language and imagination is itself antidote to the dilemmas and shame they explore. Matronalia is, in essence, a confession that evolves into a love poem.
I have to brace myself for holding you. This is part of the pathology. Involuntary flinching
When you have this disease, understand it is progressive,
I wasn’t this bad when you were little. Calcification was
minor — hardly noticeable even, just a slight tremor of the
heart, a hardening that no one could see, and possibly that you couldn’t feel.
Now that you are taller than me, now that you need me more,
in those seconds before you rest your head on my raven
shoulder and lean your weight on these hollow bones, before
you wrap your engulfing arms around me, I leave my body.
I’ve tried to plant my feet. I’ve tried to breathe into remaining,
but I vault. I morph. The extra ribs splinter across my guts like ice fractures.
It sounds like when a hapless bird is startled. It sounds like a
cacophony of hurried wings. And I imagine, while you hang there, it must be like hugging an unfinished sculpture.
I watch you calculate the ease with which I hold your brother.
This ossification of my heart is my own fault. I see my Medusa reflection. I do it to myself.
Baby girl, you’d need to be a jackhammer to pulverize this.
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