tagNon-EroticWhen I Grow Old

When I Grow Old


Today I found a grey eye lash.

No crisis, no world changing event, just a single, tiny lash devoid of colour. I guess that means I'm getting old. Not that getting old ever held any fear for me. Somehow, I always imagined that I would one day wake up and feel old *and* grown up. Almost like a magical graduation ceremony had taken place during the night and the next morning, I would awaken. Older, wiser and with my own certificate of adultness no doubt. I also assumed it would coincide with a new found maturity, a pension, a mortgage, an understanding partner, 2.5 children and a preference for serious news rather than cartoons.

It seems someone forgot to mention to the academy that I'm way past graduation. I mean, I'm ready for it. My model of old age was created very suddenly at 7. "When I grow old, I want to be just like great grandma". At 7, being old represented a delicious freedom, no more cooking lessons "because a woman has to know how to cook" and no more being bossed around. I would be just like great grandma and make my own rules. Oh yes, old age would be a golden time of being as mean, ornery and wacky as I liked and people would either excuse my behaviour on grounds of senility or be too afraid to offend me.

Just like great grandma. If there is one trait that binds the women in my family, it's the sense of duty. One must do one's duty at all times, never complain or shirk them. Women are the glue that holds the family together, so every visit to the old country was accompanied by a visit to great grandma. My mother's mother's mother presided over a small community near Ugehele. The trip out there was long, even from the already middle of nowhere town we flew into on tiny passenger crafts. Thoughts of Narnia and other fantastical places would fill my mind as we drove my uncle's huge Mercedes through the dirt tracks. The ears of maize seemed to press against the window trying to get in.

Sometimes we'd catch a glimpse of the occasional Hare or huge African Porcupines as we eased our way towards the hamlet. Just like stepping through the wardrobe door, the maize would part with a flourish and admit us into her presence. Less than 50 houses clustered around the clearance and hers was the most central. Calling them houses was probably an exaggeration, they were more like caravan sized mud domes, reddish brown earth huts that were lovely and cool inside on a hot day. The bead curtain would part and she would stride out in all her glory. Despite her age, she was strong, spry and for 5ft nothing, she seemed to fill the space.

Everything was different here. She wore cowries, beads and a long piece of printed cloth wrapped around her waist. Her semi-nudity should have been shocking, where else would one encounter a woman of her advanced age naked from waist up? Her breasts were flattened and empty and seemed to blend in with the rest of her. Maybe this was why no-one felt awkward or stared at her chest? Or maybe we all recognised that this was our way. Before Christianity and modesty were forced on us, this was our way. She would sit grandly on a large carved chair and we would approach, genuflect, greeting her in the traditional language. We may not have been able to speak more than a few words of our language, but by God we would know enough to greet, be acknowledged and present the obligatory Gin and Kola nut.

Once the children had properly greeted her, we would be let loose to play. The contrast between us fully clothed in ruffled skirts and blouses and the semi-naked children running around with just beads around their hips always tickled me. Part of me knew this was how we were, before we learned to be ashamed. No-one stared as children, teenaged girls and unwed women went about their day all but naked except for their beads. Each strand of beads told the story that they had survived yet another rainy season. They were the survivors of malaria, dysentery and typhoid fever. The only nod to modesty the coming of age loincloth worn by boys whose voices had broken and faces scarred with small, deep marks to show there were now men of the tribe.

It may have been a man's world, with each man taking as many wives as he could, but my great grandma ruled over it with an iron fist. Flurries of activity would spring up towards lunch time. The women of the hamlet scurrying in their tightly tied lappa's with babies strapped to their backs, trying to out cook each other. Even the Chief kowtowed to her, and let her have the first cut of the meal. At the time, I didn't realise just how much power over the community this simple act bestowed. Usually I was too busy wondering when we'd eat. Like a pack, everyone had their place, and gradually the meal would be distributed to all on aluminum plates and plantain leaves. Your plate was your place, only great grandma and guests had "proper" plates.

Every visit ended the same way; we'd drive away close to nightfall, the maize closing behind us like a curtain. I never knew she was aware of me as anything more than one of over a hundred great grandchildren until one visit. A boy grabbed my pretty new bag and ran off with it, he was bigger than me and my brothers were no help. My temper was always fabulously hot and famously short, I'm sure my brothers waited for the inevitable tantrum, tears and trailing off to mother to fix it. Instead I walked up to him and demanded my bag back in the same tone I'd heard great grandma use when she was displeased. The look on his face was priceless as he handed it over and ran for the cover of maize. I remember the swell of pleasure at getting my own way and the toothless grin of my great grandmother watching from across the clearing.

When I grow old, I want to be just like great grandma...

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