I became an Auntie on Gorgie Road by Clementine E. Burnley
My excuse for forgetting birthdays has always been that I’m busy. In the world before, I travel for work. I live between several countries, am part of several extended families on three continents. I remember the A5 format menu plan sellotaped to the wall in my mother’s kitchen. She ran her busy constituency office from the cane chairs arranged on the front verandah of our house, but the menu plan was the core structure by which she organised our lives. I came to believe when I’d learned every dish on that list my mother’s work on earth would be done. So naturally I refused to learn how to cook.
Early on this year I convert to the religion of the bullet journal. The website I look at promises me the planning method will take me ‘from passenger to pilot of my life.’ I look at various fancy planners but I decide to make my own out of old Filofaxes and notebooks. When it is complete with self-care, gratitude sections and To Do pages I am ready to track the past, order the present, and design my future.
I draw a smily sun and and add a question mark. Each entry is a fragile bridgehead between now and an unknown place.
My last actual visit to Limbé is in January. I pencil in regular trips home in the year planner section of my bullet journal. I write ‘Home’ in the row reserved for April, June and October. I draw a smiley sun and add a question mark. Each entry is a fragile bridgehead between now and an
My mother lives with her younger sister Esi in the house where I grew up, where with the lights off I can tell the wall colours and where every object is located. Auntie Esi sleeps in my sister’s pastel green bedroom. My old bedroom is pastel blue. No matter how often they repaint our bedrooms my parents never seem to change the colours. For years I share the blue bedroom with my cousin Ayisatu, who is Auntie Esi’s daughter. In my family it’s impossible to be alone.
By March my mother has been unwell for months. She has a burning sensation in her toes. On the small screen of my phone I watch Auntie Esi rub her feet. My sister Alice does their manicures and pedicures when she visits, or they go to a beauty parlour in town. Sometimes their nails are painted in the same bold colours.
For some time I have been aware of a vague need to pass something of my childhood on. There never seems to be time. My stories confuse the young people.
For some time I have been aware of a vague need to pass something of my childhood on. There never seems to be time. I say my father is one of thirteen children. My mother is one of nine. There are Alices, Esis, Annas and Ayisatus, in all generations.
“How do you tell them apart?”
I get out the family albums.
I say we got used to calling everyone we met Uncle and Auntie because they were bound to take offence if we did not.
They would snap, “Me not you blood but me still you auntie, you hear me?”
We heard them. They dispensed a fast and generous form of justice when we didn’t obey. We didn’t enjoy it when they gave our ears a hard tug just to reinforce the point. If we called someone auntie and were mistaken, then the extra respect didn’t hurt.
So as soon as we saw the silhouette of a person who might be an aunt or uncle we chorused
The young people think that’s ridiculous.
“You didn’t call Childline?”
It is a good time to pass on some of what I know.
It is not possible to understand my mother without her sisters. They are the Martin girls. There is a nurse, a doctor, a politician, an administrator, a chef, and an ordained pastor.
When I try to choose which story to tell the young people about my mother, whom they do not know well, part of the difficulty with the story I want to tell is that I cannot tell it about my mother alone. It is not possible to understand my mother without her sisters. They are the Martin girls. There is a nurse, a doctor, a politician, an administrator, a chef, and an ordained pastor. My young people have trouble keeping the stories straight.
I remember the anticipation which fills the moment before I raise the napkin. That feeling is more of a thrill than the actual contents of the basket.
Uncles and aunties visit each other for no reason at all. Aunties bring woven baskets in which treats nestled under a starched napkin. It is the job of whichever child is around to listen out for a knock at the door, and take charge of the basket, show the auntie to a seat in the living room before dashing off to fetch a parent. I remember the anticipation which fills the moment before I raise the napkin. That feeling is more of a thrill than the actual contents of the basket. I don’t care for moist banana bread, or rice bread which I find too dry. My favourite is Auntie Doctor’s basket with its steamed moin-moin dumplings, or fried akara bean puddings.
And then suddenly the borders close. My twelve-month plan with pencilled in flights and smiley suns become obsolete. My mother can no longer use a phone so the technology doesn’t help. I feel a strong longing for the strict certainties my faraway childhood provides. In order to pass on what I know I feel I have to live it properly first. It makes little sense because one of the things I left behind on purpose was my mother’s life of duty and service.
I go to the African and Asian grocers on Gorgie Road. I do not know how to choose West African ingredients but I don’t admit that. We look at powdered taro root, tender waterleaf, and wiry strands of eru, all ingredients which for a long time I think of a symbol of oppression. Of course I know the brands. There’s Olu Olu yam flour, Ghana Taste garri, palm oil, dried crayfish, pungent dawadawa. But I don’t know them that intuitive way a proper West African housewife would.
None of us have cooked ‘home’ food on a regular basis. But the world is ending and we have gone back to the things our mothers tried to teach us before they gave up on our home training. We smile and at the same time we acknowledge the same truth. We have never made our mothers recipes properly. Maybe this is the time to try.
When two women my age enter the store, we greet each other naturally so I see we were trained in the same ways. I do not introduce myself. It is enough to know one is Nigerian, and one Ghanaian, and it turns out our mothers use the same ingredients in ways that vary a little. We trade methods. None of us have cooked
These days everything reminds me of my mother. When I ask for pepper stones the shopkeeper recognises my description of a large flat mother stone and a rounded daughter stone.
“Get a stick blender,” she says. “Much easier.”
I say goodbye to the women in the shop and we leave.
It is April. We turn an unheated hallway into a larder and settle down to a daily routine of work and study, punctuated by sit down meals. First, we try to make fufu. The instruction on the box looks simple enough. Add water, heat, while stirring. The young people turn the pot until the spoon sticks. The fufu sets like cement and the mixture begins to burn. Then they shout for me. We all inspect the result.
One morning the young people hand me a pink greeting card. It says I have been preparing for a pandemic all their lives. They are a little off in their conclusion. I am late to the wisdom of ancestors who feed families of ten and more. It is their grandmother and her sisters who keep inventory over a larder stocked with staple ingredients. All the women in my family have a chest freezer filled with chunks of hot smoked meats, ziplock bags with bonga biting their own tails, kilo-tins of chopped tomatoes, glass jars filled with meal made from taro root.
I think what if this is all there is. This is what makes up my mind. I will stay here in the vicinity of Gorgie Road where I can recreate my past from new ingredients. From my own childhood, I know family is better shared, and little to do with having the same DNA.
The week my middle one leaves she plans a menu. She makes a list of West African dishes. She chooses Ghana dahl, Bambara stew, and Egusi soup, which she calls curry. It’s secured by a fridge magnet. When we move I give away the fridge but I save the menu. It’s both the past of my family and its future.
Clementine E. Burnley is a migrant mother, writer, and facilitator. She’s been a finalist in several short fiction competitions and was selected for the Purple Hibiscus Trust Workshop in Lagos, Nigeria in 2018. Her work appears or is forthcoming in the National Flash Fiction Anthology 2020, Emma Press’ Anthology of Britain, Ink, Sweat and Tears, and Barren Magazine.
Photo: Anna Deacon Photography