Towards the end of 2020, my husband and I spent what felt like hours going over Covid-19 protocols. We were about to host a couple we’d been friends with for about a decade and it still seemed unreal that this was happening months after we’d gotten married, and they’d had a baby. In no pre-pandemic iteration of how we’d imagined our lives did any of us think we would not all be part of the celebrations that accompanied both events.
I was excited to see the new baby. Yet it was impossible to squelch the sense that we might all be endangering ourselves by spending the better part of a day together. It was the first time Emmanuel and I would be meeting up with friends at all since we got married. Until then, we’d avoided large gatherings and limited our outings to grocery shopping and drives to pick up orders from restaurants even when dining-in options became available. Though I was worried, this visit felt earned, a reprieve from nearly a year of social distancing from anyone who was not family. When our friends pulled up in front of our house, I still had not resolved the new existential question of 2020 – to touch or not to touch?
My favourite children’s game is still Suwe. You begin by drawing a rectangle in the sand, then you bifurcate it into twelve boxes – six to the right and six to the left. Top that diagram at one end with a semi-circle and you have a game board. Progress involves dropping a pebble into the right box each time and hopping on one leg to pick it up. Joy is in the loamy sand that stains your hands as you draw the lines. Exhilaration suffuses those minutes of being with all the other children you high five or jostle into as you wait your turn. You cannot play Suwe alone.
My family lived in a neighbourhood where play dates featured teddy bears and Lego, blonde dolls and electric cars. Any attempt to draw lines in the sand would ruin the lawns. So, I only got to play Suwe when I visited my maternal grandparents, Moomi and Baami. They lived upstairs in a two-storey home that had been built decades before I was born. Their tenants, two families who had young children my age, lived in the rooms downstairs.
While at my grandparents, I spent hours playing Suwe with several children in the neighbourhood. Delighting in quibbles about whose pebble had grazed a line, thereby disqualifying a throw. I played game after game until Moomi called me in for lunch and I went in reluctantly, dragging my feet on the wooden staircase, sliding my sand-stained hands over the banister to feel for splinters in the wood. I left my hands dirty knowing Moomi would send me back downstairs to wash them in the backyard. Instead of washing up, I would sneak to the front of the house for a couple more turns. My shoulder to another child’s, one hand clutching a pebble it would soon let go, I was keenly aware of how my momentary disobedience and the cheers and moans of disappointment around me all added up to something beyond joy or exhilaration. Years later, I would think of those as my first moments of abandon.
We shouldn’t have worried so much about how our friends might interpret our decision to wear masks throughout the visit. They kept theirs on throughout their stay even though we did not ask them to, and their caution made us feel less inhospitable.
Their baby, G, was born in the early days of the pandemic. Lagos was still in lockdown, and friends like Emmanuel and I attended his christening over Zoom. Now that he was crawling, his parents’ concerns extended beyond the usual doubts I’d previously heard from other friends who had just welcomed children. G’s parents worried that his childhood would be refracted through the limits the pandemic was placing on social interactions. The world as he knew it until then consisted only of his parents. This trip to our place was his first out of their house since he was born and he clung to his mother throughout the visit. While his parents wondered if he might have trouble playing with other children when the pandemic eased enough for that to be possible, he studied my face with a mix of fascination and suspicion. What would it mean if he never met another baby before becoming a toddler, and his earliest memories involved his family self-isolating? What if he learnt to say mask before mama?
I used to think my first memory was of being carried by my father. He had just arrived from a trip, and I’d run to greet him at the door. I must have been four. He dropped his bags as I approached then lifted me higher and higher, above his head, towards the ceiling or the sky. These days, I’m no longer sure if he was still outside when he picked me up or he’d stepped over the threshold and come into the house. It is one of those memories I’ve returned to several times, examining them from every angle, hoping to imprint them in my mind so they would never blur. And yet, some of these memories have begun to fade at the edges, like photographs exposed too often to the glare of the sun. For instance, while my father did once return from a trip and lift me high above his head, could it really be the first thing I remember? I’m almost convinced that I repositioned these moments only in retrospect. Giving it primacy when it became clear that memories of my father would be limited. It seems more likely that my first recollections are the ones that involve my mother.
Here’s another memory. This one sharpened by repeated returns or my awareness of its finitude in the moment of its formation. I’m a few months from turning six and I’m standing before my father’s open casket. What I remember is not the confusion that had upended the days leading up to the funeral, or the sadness that would suffuse the years after. I remember most of all that I wanted to touch his face. I longed to play with his moustache as I had done so many times before. I might have stood there for a minute or five before being herded to my seat by my mother. At no point did I try to act on my desire and touch him one last time. I understood that it would be dramatic, draw more attention or even be declared forbidden. Separation meant the severance of all physical contact. This cessation of touch was love stymied. Instead of flowing towards my father, it was dammed in me, swirling and swirling with no outlet.
After we discussed several possibilities about what effects being born during a pandemic might have on Baby G later in life, we all concluded that he would be fine. Children were resilient, he’d be part of a generation that would grow up under similar circumstances, the world would hopefully return to some kind of normalcy soon. We proffered reasons that could comfort us in the face of the unknowns and when we were satisfied, the conversation turned from our friends to my husband and me.
We’d begun 2020 assuming that G’s parents would be in our wedding party, but the nature and scale of our plans changed once the pandemic began. We’d split the ceremonies in two, holding the first with forty guests in 2020 and postponing the larger one that would have over four hundred guests in attendance until regulations allowed for that. Now, G’s parents were curious about how we’d managed extended family expectations in relation to the first ceremony where only immediate family members were present. There had been no Zoom attendance option and all G’s parents had seen of it was via a five-minute video recap of the ceremony.
Memories of my father often return unbidden, startling me with their sudden appearance. When loss cannot be resolved, mercy is in the moments you can anticipate, where you have a sense of control. As though you have conjured ghosts in an attempt at communion. Like when you are about to get married and you want to steel yourself ahead. Anticipate the ache of a father’s absence, consider what to slot in the blank space, how to keep your gaze from the void.
When the pandemic began, I was thinking a lot about my father. In the months before my wedding, my immediate family had to decide how we would navigate the process with his extended family. I found myself in a series of tangled interactions that would not have ensued if he were still alive. He would have been able to decipher the labyrinthine workings of the polygamous family he had been born into with more ease. It did not help that I was not in Nigeria during this time. I was in Norwich on a writing fellowship, two flights away from my family, alone in a city that was slowly shutting down around me. This was to be my second extended stay in the city.
My first time in Norwich was as a postgraduate student at the University of East Anglia. I arrived recently bereaved. My paternal grandmother, a cloth merchant with a gold tooth that shone when she smiled, had died a few days before I left Nigeria. Like most people, I called her Alhaja because she had been on pilgrimage to Mecca. Whenever she was visiting my family, Alhaja would spread out her prayer mat five times daily and face Mecca to pray. On one occasion in my childhood, I was so enthralled by her rhythm that I stood beside her and mimicked her motions. Delighted, she pronounced that unlike my father who was a Christian like his father, I would follow her into Islam.
In line with Muslim tradition, Alhaja was buried on the day she died. Fiddau prayers were scheduled forty days after. This larger celebration of her life would involve everyone who was a relative of hers. Beginning my M.A. studies meant I would not be a part of it. Interactions with that side of the family had been limited to non-existent in the years since my father died. Celebrating the matriarch’s life might have been my opportunity to reconnect. Missing the ceremony felt like a new kind of loss. Somehow, my long-dead father was moving further away, beyond the realm of even tangential touch. A new city is its own kind of deprivation and being so far from home at that time heightened my sense of being adrift from a section of my ancestry. I did not know anyone well enough yet to ask them for the comforting hug I needed, but I had graduate work and a baggy novel to trim down. Something to slot in a blank space. How I keep my gaze from the void.
In the lead-up to my wedding, I was back in Norwich again. And though I had friends in the city, meeting up already felt like a risky venture. It was late February of 2020 and the infection clusters were already showing up in the United Kingdom. Every morning, I checked a website to see if a Covid-19 case had been recorded in Norfolk county. I worried about my fiancé who was travelling with another writer to four countries on a work assignment. Like many, I began opening doors with my elbow. Staying away from people already felt essential, even though I wished I could grab a coffee with someone just so the interaction would end with a hug. I avoided lifts and took the stairs. Sometimes I felt like a body floating alone through time, divesting myself as much as I could from space.
I thought often of my other grandmother, Moomi, who was now my only surviving grandparent. She still lived in the same house I’d played Suwe in as child. When I visited now, I gripped the banister whenever I walked up the stairs even though I did not need it for support. Two decades and more after my father’s death, Moomi’s house was now the only place I could go knowing my father had also walked in the same space. I often thought of him when I touched the banister, reaching for a memory that was not mine but wholly his and lost to me – all the times he had gone up that same staircase and gripped for the banister if only momentarily. In lieu of touching him, I had learnt to settle for placing my hands where his had once been.
Baby G’s mother also lost her father when she was a child and I’ve often felt an affinity for her because of this. She always seemed to understand things I could not bear to articulate. And so, although I chose not to go into details about the complexities of preparing for the ceremonies without my father as a buffer during interactions with his family, she understood how grief was refreshed in the face of joy.
I focused my response to G’s parents about managing extended family expectations on the day I introduced Emmanuel to Moomi. Just under a week before the wedding, I took my then fiancé to Moomi’s home. I was thrilled about the visit, sure she would be glad to meet him. Yet, as with many things in 2020, excitement could not remain unmetered. Already in her eighties, Moomi was more vulnerable to Covid-19. In another country, she would probably have been advised to stay shielded after lockdowns were lifted but I knew she had gone back to running her business as soon as that was possible. As we approached her, I worried about whether to hug her until she took the decision out of my hands and she threw her arms around me. I held my breath and embraced her with abandon. Later that afternoon, as she led my fiancé and me up the stairs for refreshments, I ran my palm over the banister all the way up.