I remember the first time I met her. Heart racing, I steadied myself by tightly clasping the yellow roses I had picked out for her. It was an exceptionally chilly autumn day in October and I was on a trip back home to Geneva, a city vibrant because of its diverse and ever-evolving cultural narratives. I grew up in technicolor, surrounded by friends and families from every corner of the world. Despite having that experience in my back pocket, the stakes felt higher before this meeting.
In hindsight, a part of me had known that it would change the course of my life. Had I imagined to what extent? No. But, I had an inkling. She knew who I was but we had never met. She had asked to meet me. Something I had wanted but never mustered the courage to initiate.
As I entered the apartment, one I had frequented before but for other reasons, I looked down at myself one last time to make sure I was presentable.
I was welcomed by a commanding, “Bonjour!”
Before we had even reached the third bise, I was enveloped in her arms. I sensed myself ease up and melt into her strong embrace, like cocoa butter on dewy skin after a hot bath. I couldn’t help but break out into a smile and return the greeting.
I don’t remember much else from that first meeting but what I do remember is that we spent that evening talking non-stop like old friends reuniting after a lifetime apart. We were enamored by each other, consumed and fascinated by each other’s presence.
This was my then boyfriend’s mother, Edwige, or as I know her, maman.
Whilst most of us assess Blindian relationships through the traditional lens of romance, there are multiple variations of how Blindian love translates. Our relationship holds immeasurable weight in who I am.
We tend to have an infatuation with love that is lost or love that once was. Love lost ends up blanketing love gained. The reality is that love never reduces itself to play by the rules of gain and loss. Yet we attribute this to love more often than not. Although her son and I eventually parted ways, she and I maintained our bond regardless of how life decided to dance with time.
God really took his sweet time when he made mothers. But African mothers? They’re a different creed. They are notoriously known for their subzero tolerance to bullshit. They smell it miles away. Just like how I can smell maman’s charred but perfectly caramelized plantains, specifically made for me, the moment I enter her building.
Maman is a Saxwe woman from the village of Lobogo, Benin near the border with Togo. She speaks 6 languages and counting, mostly African. She has a strong presence. The type that would make people think twice about what they want to say and if they really want to say it. When she laughs, she ignites a joy that I can’t associate with anything else. It echoes till you hear it vibrate inside your chest. She delivers cheeky one-liners, packed with punch, that leave you in stitches. Her spirit, like the embers of a fire, glows with power. Always radiating warmth.
During my relationship, like many in Blindian dynamics, I lived in an isolation that would put our recent isolations to shame. Choosing to be with someone was unacceptable. Choosing to be with someone who didn’t fit the description of the type of person I should be with meant a non-negotiable rejection. From friends and family to that girl on the bus to that uncle at the corner shop, everyone had an opinion. Who knew rejection could be served so many ways?
Ambushed by biases, I wasn’t quite sure how to figure out my present without a support system. I lived a lonely existence and I didn’t know how lonely I was until I sat down and wrote this. Maman saw that. Without saying so much as a word, maman took me in and decided to love me. And boy, did I need that love. All I wanted was love.
My own relationship with my mother had been turbulent throughout my life. We’re too similar. When we loved, we loved to the point of suffocation but when we fought, we waged war recklessly with complete disregard to how prepared our armies were. My mama, a superwoman in her own regard, could not decipher how to deal with me: as a teenager who had decided to a) date and b) date outside of my culture, religion, and race.
We seemed to be stuck at those two things, frozen in time. So, the conversation never evolved past that. I strongly believe she had a deep-rooted fear that she would be held accountable for my actions and choices. A common theme amongst South Asian mothers. If the child does wrong, the natural and usual culprit is the mother. There must have been a lesson missed in how she raised him/her. Because my choices were so far removed from anything she had ever known, she interacted with me from a place of denial, dismissal, and discipline. She didn’t want to hear about it, talk about it or know about it. And in all fairness, I didn’t want to either. I was scared that would mean an extra serving of rejection. Sautéed this time.
After many conversations with my own mama, I realize now that she had neither the awareness nor the understanding to know how to support me. A part of her thought this was my revolt. Fair. Being the youngest usually falls in the territory of rebellion. She, herself, didn’t have a support system in place to help her understand. As a Pakistani woman, who had moved abroad, she was tasked with the responsibility of raising all four of us to be good humans, good children, good siblings, good students, good Pakistanis, good Muslims (and she busted her behind to do that consistently, day in, day out). That’s a lot of balls dodged, that’s a lot of alertness and that’s operating on fight mode for a really long time. Then I enter, stage right, and decide to venture into uncharted territory. She wanted to protect me, and herself. She had lived her own life knowing how relentless our communities can be in judging anyone who chooses to sway to their own heartbeat over someone else’s.
The ebbs and flows of any relationship are challenging, with some harder to navigate than others. In my early 20s, I had very few people I shared my life with, yet, I had many friends. I saw, around me, that judgment was easier to share than kindness. My exterior was bullet-proof but my interior had bullet wounds that were still bleeding.
Maman created a shelter, one that I was yearning for.
We had an unspoken agreement of being truthful to each other - no matter what. I struggled because I had my own reservations with mother figures. She never enforced conditions on the love we were cultivating. I shared everything with her: my darkest fears and my deepest desires. Some of it had to do with her son but most of it had to do with me. Whenever I was with her, the expectations of being a daughter were silenced. It forced me to show up as myself, more and more, even if I was a work in progress.
She respected who I was. Worlds apart but at the core, we recognized ourselves in each other. She didn’t know much about Islam but she asked questions. Her willingness to learn, even if she didn’t fully understand, meant the world to me. With time, I’d notice subtle variations. She started making sure that she cooked something that I would be able to eat. I appreciated that. It taught me that we can co-exist if we are gentler towards our differences.
We developed a rhythm. I would go see her every time I was home from university. I’d always take her something, mostly my baking creations, because you don’t go to someone’s house empty-handed, as my own mama had taught me. We’d spend our time talking about family drama, watching African TV shows, packed with overexaggerated theatrics, and cooking in the kitchen. She held my hand and guided me to the places that scared me the most and in moments of defeat, she’d cradle me like a baby when I cried my sorrows out. What I adore the most about her is that she never shied away from telling it how it is. She always stood her ground. And when it was time to leave, my hands were always full with leftovers or clothes she’d brought back for me from Benin.
Our conversations today are more of an inquisition from my side. I’m curious to know more about her: her life as a younger woman in Benin, her family, her health, her marriage and her life decisions. I want to freefall into her abundant knowledge, as big as her heart. Whilst we’re away from each other, she shares memes of all kinds, usually biblical, and voice notes that end in her French accent telling me, “I love you my baby. Bisous bisous.”
I’m not a mother yet but it doesn’t take a lot to look at the many amazing mothers around me to know that it’s a tough gig. Hardly something you can research or do a crash course in. You learn on the job. Mothers will fall short but we don’t show enough compassion to look past that. That in itself can be lonely.
I’m grateful to maman for her love, wisdom, and unwavering faith in me. I’m thankful that through her I have a deeper compassion for my own mother. My relationship with her has elevated to a similar realm.
I’m grateful to my mama for making me her mirror. For taking the many hits, so I could be free to seek knowledge from people and places far beyond our imaginations. Lessons that she wasn’t able to learn because they were outside her grasp. For instilling in me the desire to go find them for both of us. And then, being open to learning them from me.
Having a mother is a blessing, having two is a miracle.