Olivia Mofus

My mother, despite her public classiness, often makes the same joke about giving us breast milk. Whenever we’d say something about the past, or act childishly affectionate towards her, she’d say, “Aww… do you want breast milk?” pushing a boob, heavy with age, towards our now-annoyed faces in the same raunchy manner – a grin feigning innocence. She has always been free with her body around her children. I’ve been assaulted by her loud farts in bed for so long the smell now passes over me like mist. She even set an early precedent for us when we were toddlers that closing the bathroom door in the house was an optional practice – but we all got slightly older and as though possessed by the same spirit, began closing and locking all sorts of doors with a fury inherent only to pre-teens. This spirit is yet to possess her mind. 

For a moment, I wondered what joke she’d use now that she didn’t have them anymore. She was diagnosed with a ductal carcinoma in the beginning of August, informed us of this in September, and got a double mastectomy one week later. She didn’t need to operate on both, but did so just to be safe, saying that she’ll never get married again and her breasts’ utility expired years ago. But her loss made me ponder the ones I still had. I hadn’t thought about my breasts since I was finally done developing them. I hated them at first – two mounds beckoning towards the end of my childhood, tormenting me with the chilling image of feeding my own child. Still, I could scarcely imagine my life without them. My stomach dropped at the thought of losing this flesh that said to myself and the world, “I am a woman.”

The ease at which she had them both carved from her body, like the rotted pit of a fruit, startled me. She asked me with suspicion if I was “invested in her breasts,” to which I said no. But the image of my mother without them painted a strange picture in my mind. Her body, warm, inviting, and which she owned completely, seemed frail and withdrawn. Another distant memory. 

She grew up in a Nigerian village in the aftermath of the civil war. Her father died from an illness she thinks was untreated prostate cancer and her mother died shortly thereafter while birthing her younger sister, who would also die of cancer many years later. Before that would happen, the two of them were orphans, picked up by their uncle who raised them to value education, independence, and honesty above all else. I wondered how she met her husband – a man who embodied everything she wasn’t. 

For lack of other family members, we grew up around our aunties instead – women who weren’t actually our aunts (I learned this a little too late in my development), but long-time friends of my mom. These were the aunties my father would forbid from entering our house. Auntie Anges was probably her closest friend. She was a little older, quieter, and a lot richer. Her husband sold cars in Nigeria and there, she would be called an “I just got back” – “I just got back from London,” “I just got back from Greece,” and so on. My siblings and I loved when she visited because she usually came with something. She used to give us orange-flavored chocolates in the shape of an orange that was enough for me to fall in love with the words, “Auntie Agnes is coming next week.” She always had the same pristine look composed of a slick-back bun, too red lipstick, perfect posture, and the faint smell of a perfume I was too middle-class to pronounce, let alone know. Sometimes she only responded to things with a “mhmm…”, chin slightly upturned, looking the other way with squinted eyes. It could feel posh at times, but I knew it was simply because she had nothing she wanted to say. 

My mother and Auntie Agnes were fiercely loyal to each other, acting more like sisters. I used to share a room with my mother, but was kicked out when Agnes visited so they could curl up next to each other. I learned later that she was one of the reasons we had anything to eat in the years after my parents split. They were friends for over 40 years and it was a relationship held firm by something I would never fully understand. 

Auntie Chinwe was almost the opposite of Agnes. My mom acted completely different when it was just Chinwe. Chinwe had colored, often unkempt hair, and was possibly the loudest person I knew. She and my mom would laugh together in a screech so piercing it made my stomach drop – louder than she’d laugh with any other person. Auntie Chinwe was that warm kind of person who hugged passionately, cried easily, and danced if she felt like it. She lived with us for a couple months when I was 10, and after she left, I sat alone on the stairs watching her cab drive away, accepting the fact that the hole she’d leave would not fill soon enough. 

Unlike Auntie Agnes, my mother, and all the other women in our non-blood family, Auntie Chinwe never married. I didn’t know if she had been close to it at some point in her life, and apparently my mother didn’t know either. It was simply one of those things no one thought to bring up in conversation. If for some reason it was, it hung thick like leather and lard in the air. An unmarried Nigerian woman in her 60s meant one of either three possibilities: she was gay, she had failed in her life, or some mixture of the two. As if by instinct, I would reprimand myself, for these are not things you should think about your family. Yet these were the thoughts, deeply seeded and ancient, that I had. That a single woman meant something hidden was rotted. That marriage was a goal of life. 

A few years ago, my mother and I were driving on our way to the mall on the north side of the city. I sat in the passenger’s seat next to her since she never liked to sit alone. Spring was all around us. The trees and foliage on the roadside were lush with life, so green that I had forgotten how colorful they could get, as I did every year. Spring was in us, too. That time of the year meant school would end soon, and the feeling must have rushed into us like a shot of crisp air, morning dew, and nothing to do but muse on the unsure feeling that something good was on the horizon. I was particularly playful that day, making all sorts of faces and voices at my mother, squeezing her free hand, and giving her one or two gentle kisses on her cheek. It was a fleeting moment where, when you look at someone, some force swells within you that must be channeled up and out towards that person. 

At the red light, she smiled at me and held my cheeks in her hands.

“When are you going to get a boyfriend?” she asked me. “You’re so affectionate. I want you to have somebody.” 

I wondered why she would wish that for me. 

She was born luckier than most. Her uncle was progressive by today’s standards. She was taught to be independent, educated, and discerning. In spite of everything, it was all seemingly wasted on my father. Her life in Nigeria, her friends, sanity, safety, all of it gone when she moved to this country for him. After everything, here she was telling me to follow in her footsteps. To cut myself in half so that my bleeding heart might catch someone’s eye. I would become annoyed with her contradictions for femininity. Be independent, but you must marry. Educate yourself, but you must cook and clean for your husband. Discern, but mind the ticking clock. 

This was a difficult task, but perhaps doing the impossible was where the wife’s value came from. A woman was worth little and a wife much more. She was once a woman with no need for a husband. At some point her own words caught up to her, as if they were not bound by time nor place, floating like dandelions in space for generations. Should they find a woman, they anchored themselves in her ears dragging her body, perhaps slightly afloat, back down to earth. A reminder. Remember where you came from. Eve was born from Adam’s rib. 

My father was a man in every sense of the word. He was 6 ‘5, muscular, and spoke few words. When he was angry, though, his demeanor changed drastically. He no longer was the person I’d beg to carry me on his shoulders. For the little time we’d spend together, I was terrified of him and I believe he preferred it this way. With my mother, I could speak comfortably, joke with her, and challenge whatever she said. But I would do no such thing with my father. He had a presence that made me sit upright and listen. He was a man who instilled the fear of a god. 

When I was younger, I remember him reminiscing about his own father and the rest of his family. They were all scared of him too, running to their rooms at the sign of his coming home. My father recounted this story once, and it was the first time I thought he would cry. He smiled, looking up as if forbidding a tear from sliding down his cheek, which he must have done successfully, for he quickly went back to normal and never mentioned it again. 

Loving men, I was told, was the foundation of being a woman. But how could someone fall for such a brutalist man? And how, of all people, did my mother? I wouldn’t grow up with him. My mother’s circumstances in America quickly lit a fire under her. She separated from my father, went back to school, and later surrounded us with the women that made up her support group. In each of them, I saw a different piece of my mother. With Agnes, her elegance and class was always on display. And with Auntie Chinwe was my mother’s love of life and feeding off other people. She would befriend many other women, and they all meant something different to her. It seemed a beautiful thing, that I could befriend my mother’s friends of that generation and love them as they were. 

My father is frail now. He feels shorter than he once was and walks in his house with a slight limp. Orange containers decorate the table, and when he speaks, slow and rummaging for words, he smiles blankly and looks only to the ceiling. His masculinity did not afford him the friendship my mother enjoyed. Most everything he does, he does alone. I visit him sometimes and while I’m there, he rants endlessly about all sorts of things, about a woman’s place and how he might consider taking my mother back if she asked him. Still, I feel something for him. I couldn’t blame him alone for the man he became, but I wasn’t sure if I could forgive the father he was. I felt like cleaning for him, bringing him food, and listening to the things he said. I wasn’t sure if it was love or pity, but I felt a bit like a woman around him. His definition of what a woman was, that is. I suppose it is in me somewhere deep. Waiting, it emerges like a tiger in the grass with all the pomp and pounce of a cub hearing the sound of its parents nearby. It emerges, but only for him. 

My mom has great friends. I hear their muffled voices in the background of our phone calls. They come in one-by-one, like a daily procession. I heard Auntie Chinwe once, crying in what I could only guess was our living room. They’ve known each other for over 40 years and she still cries for her. Auntie Agnes visited too, and as always took my place in my mother’s bed. I heard my mom’s real estate agent turned close friend laughing in the kitchen, dutifully asking me how school is going. I heard my mom’s colleague, the one who cares a whole lot about everyone in her life, so much that it makes my mom uncomfortable at times. They come in shifts, one after the other, to take care of her while she recovers. We were on the phone a couple of weeks ago when she began to make the same joke again. 

“Do you want… oh, I guess I can’t do that anymore.” 

It was a very sad thing to hear, but as if she said nothing important at all, she continued on. That compelled me to do the same. 

Olivia Mofus is a second year Weinberg student from Yonkers New York pursuing majors in Computer Science and, hopefully, Creative Writing.