Ijay and Julius Okeke’s church wedding concluded two-and-a-half decades ago in a Catholic cathedral in Surulere so resonant that the priest’s voice bounced discordantly off the stained glass windows. Kneeling before the altar in her Diana-inspired gown and tiara, Ijay had wondered if God’s voice sounded the same when He spoke through thunder on Mount Sinai. At least, that’s what Ijay said fifteen years later when Chisom asked what was going through her mind in a particular wedding photo. Chisom was curious. Chisom had always been curious, pulling apart toys, and putting together puzzle pieces, and pulling photo albums off shelves left dusty in the basement to study and contextualize. Ijay did not tell Chisom that her traditional wedding was put on hold when immigration visas came in the mail. She did not tell her that the hold had prolonged because life swallows time, because Chisom came, and Kambili came, and Ugo came, because vision grew blurry and knees grew weak with both stress and age, and later became never. Or perhaps Ijay did not tell Chisom because Chisom was asking about a church wedding in a once-bright photo gone sepia and didn’t even know what a traditional wedding was.
Yet, last year, after Chisom told her parents that her boyfriend, Rutherford St. Claire, proposed, and they made all the right sounds over the phone—Chukwu alụka, Congratulobia, Ị nwaka!—Chisom said, “Mommy, Daddy, I want a traditional wedding. Can we make that happen? I really, really want to do it.”
Chisom was marrying a man with a last name for a first name and a girl’s name for a last name. Her husband-to-be was a Haitian-American adopted by oyibos. Like her siblings, Chisom could not speak Igbo, had visited Nigeria thrice, ate eba with a fork, and responded, “Uh, gooood?” to Kedu? And she wanted a traditional wedding. Something in Ijay’s heart soared, something that told her that her failings as a mother were not as plenti plenti as she imagined, and could in fact be tempered, countervailed.
Ijay said, “Okay. It will happen.”
There is an unspoken rule that the child of a couple that has not celebrated a traditional wedding in full cannot celebrate one of their own. So Mama and Papa Chisom are doing their winecarrying ceremony, at last; they are moving on from the Imego fulfilled 25 years ago to the Igba nkwu. Ijay looks over the crowd gathered in her family compound from the upstairs bathroom window. Behind the bathroom door, her older sister is yelling, “Me osi so! Haba, are you still touching up your powder?”
25 years ago, in this very compound, when Julius had better knees and Ijay had sharper eyes, the Okekes had delivered, amongst other things, six kegs of palm wine, four crates of bottled soft drinks, glossy Ichafu scarves, industrial-sized bags of rice, and a male and female goat. Julius had shown Ijay the Edoji Uruagu bride price list over Point And Kill, and she had shrieked with laughter at the length. “That much? I’m worth that much?” Ijay had watched from the bathroom window then too, as she would 25 years later, as Julius and his uncles unloaded the boxy rented lorry parked by the gate. As the Okekes worked, they sang and danced along to the highlife songs Ijay’s father loaded into the cassette player. Even from a distance, Ijay saw the lean muscles in Julius’s forearms straining with exertion and she thought about the last time he held her. A week after Julius proposed, they had decided to visit Ogbunike cave and Ijay had stopped before the 100-step descent to the cave entrance. The journey had not yet begun, and she was paralyzed at the thought of falling. Julius held her then, his familiar fingers wandering over her soft stomach, and whispered, “Tell me, and we’ll turn back,” and his weight behind her gave her the strength to step forward, again and again, until they stood before the eroded mouth of the cave, surrounded by lush rainforest. Then thunder had erupted from the reddening sky, and they raced back up the worn steps, laughing, soliloquizing, and calling out to Amadioha for mercy.
Before Ijay could duck, Julius had looked up at her in the window, like he had known she was watching all along, and kept looking.
He was beautiful.
Julius was unable to grow a beard, chicken-legged, missing one premolar tooth, greying at twenty four, and beautiful. He winked and jogged to the lorry to unload the last crate. In the parlour, after Naira amounts had been negotiated and before Ijay’s maternal grandfather began speaking in proverbs, Ijay’s father asked, “Ijeoma, is this what you want? If it is not what you want, gwa anyi. And you go your separate ways.”
Ijay needs thick glasses to pick out faces now. Chisom, Kambili, and Ugo are sitting under a thatch canopy. Chisom’s inquisitiveness has followed her all the way through a doctorate degree and Ugo, the baby of the family, has channeled his video game obsession into a career in video game development. Kambili—who is vlogging for her Youtube channel, her arm arched at a practiced angle—is the most like Ijay, boisterous and vain. Kambili’s curiosities typically centred on herself, and she spent time asking questions like, “Why is it ‘Mama and Papa Chisom’ and not ‘Mama and Papa Kambili?’” Ijay tries to find Julius in the crowd, but he is hidden among aunties and uncles and godparents and classmates and unaffiliated locals attending for the sake of filling their stomachs. It doesn’t matter—she trusts her feet to guide her to her husband. Ijay turns to the bathroom mirror and takes off her glasses. Her eyes are her best feature, after all, and she wants Julius to see them, even if that means struggling to see him. Ijay could find her sweetheart blindfolded. She told him so on the flights from Calgary to Lagos, and the flight from Lagos to Asaba, and the drive from Asaba to Nnewwi.
The artwork on the parlour walls are the same ones that hung when Ijay’s father asked, “Is this what you want?”: an Adamma masquerade painted in waxy reds, yellows, and greens; a portrait of Ijay’s father in an isiagu-patterned suit; and a skinny Igbo maiden with exposed breasts carrying a chunky baby on her back. Ijay’s father pushes open the front door. The harmattan haze is thick, and the humidity is thicker. Ijay steps outside. The soil in the East is red, and maybe this is why the earth is so fertile. Anambra heals, and mends, and grows the most impossible of crops.
When Ijay was nineteen years old, she was sure that multiple divorces and hard-fought settlements were in her future. She had heard of too many battered wives, and illicit lovers, and suppressed dreams, and surprise polygamists, and joyless partnerships to believe her fate wasn’t tied to one of these scenarios. Or maybe she would die during childbirth like her mother. Unlike her father, she was sure her husband would remarry. Yes, he would remarry a girl younger than her, more compliant, less taxing, so Ijay had to look good in her wedding photos. That way, when her children looked through photo albums, they would remember her as confidently breathtaking instead of less pretty and less worthy than Step Mummy #1. When Ijay iterated her visions to Jideofor—her distant cousin, childhood playmate, and the only man in her life that she felt could deem her ideas palatable—he sighed, “Eziokwu.” True.
When Ijay met Julius in the Nnamdi Azikiwe Library at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, she was not looking for a husband. They were reading the same novel—Buchi Emecheta’s The Bride Price—and when Julius asked her what she was thinking, she told him that it was sickening that Buchi’s husband had burned the first draft and that more women ought to embrace divorce. Julius had agreed. He often wished his mother had the means to leave his drunkard father, who he’d recently caught beating her. Ijay had told him that his mother’s community was a means and surely his mother had a family compound she could return to, and the librarian had asked them to leave and they had apologized, then continued the conversation in hushed tones. And nearly every week, they met up in the library and whispered about Julius’s mother, and how she could leave, and where she could go but, before they could set any plan in motion, Julius’s father died. Ijay was convinced they would have nothing else to talk about. But then they started talking about each other and, the more Ijay learned about Julius Okeke, the more she felt he would make a good first husband. The husband you put your hopes and dreams in because you trust and believe in him, the one who crushes them unexpectedly and leaves you hollow and rigid enough to seek out a second whom you do not love.
In the beginning, Ijay waited for a moment of doubt, a moment that would justify walking away, but it never came. By the time Julius proposed, she had stopped holding her breath. By the time they landed in Toronto Pearson Airport with five suitcases, two Ghana Must Gos, and a certainty in their new uncertainty, she could not imagine making the journey with anyone else. Both had scored 79 points across the 100-point Federal Skilled Worker grid and, with two stamped landed immigrant papers tucked into Ijay’s carry-on bag, they had begun their life in Canada. Jideofor called often, to make sure Ijay was settling in, to make sure Ijay had what she wanted. “And what happened to Step Mummy #1?” Jideofor once asked, and Ijay answered, “Eh. Ask me again next week, it depends on if he’s really forgotten my birthday or is putting on an act to frustrate me.”
Wine in hand, and trailed by her band of aunties and nieces, Ijay dances through the crowd in search of her husband. She is sure that her glands have been colonized by the Canadian cold as she finds herself sweating abnormally as she traverses the compound, squinting through dust and sunlight. Backed by the live band, Ijay moves her hips as much as she can without spilling the wine and summons Julius’s smiling face in her mind’s eye.
Ijay has never fallen out of love. She has fallen prey to anger, and jealousy, and irritation, but she has never fallen out of love. The truth is that, kneeling in that Catholic cathedral in Surulere in her glittering wedding gown and angling her chin so that her neck looked longer in the photos, the priest’s thunderous voice was a fleeting thought in her mind. What she was really thinking about, deeply, seriously, was how strange it was that she had no doubts. Julius, kneeling beside her, had leaned over and whispered, “The man sounds like thunder,” and she had laughed, forgetting about her chin, and this was the photo that Chisom had pointed out. “What was going through your mind, Mommy?” This is what I want. This is exactly what I want.
The world is a blurry mess of dust and sweat and light and exhilaration, but Ijay is confident she could find Julius anywhere.
She kneels and Kambili exclaims, “What? She gave the wine to the wrong—does this make me a bastard child?”
Ijay can see the shock on Julius’s face three seats away as Jideofor leans forward to receive the wine. Then she swats Jideofor’s hand away, scolding, “I bu onye ara. Reaching wasn’t part of it.” With a flourish, Ijay rises and strolls towards Julius, taking her time to kneel in front of him and murmuring, as quietly as they spoke in Nnamdi Azikiwe Library, “That serves you right for keeping me waiting for 25 years. Now you’re stuck with me—drink your wine, eh?” and Julius laughs, so hard she spies his missing tooth, and drinks.
Njideka Chinwe Harris-Eze
Benedict Onyeka Harris-Eze
Umeasiegbu, Rems N. “The Way We Lived.” Heinemann Educational Books, 1969, pp. 13-15.
Eneogwe, Rosemary. “The Process of Igba Nkwu Nwanyi in Igbo Culture.” Umu Igbo Unite, 2018. https://umuigbounite.com/2018/12/05/the-process-of-igba-nkwu-nwanyi-in-igbo-culture/