Yesterday, May 28, marked the 17th anniversary of my father's death. Papa was named Christopher Chidebe Ndibe, and was called C.C. by his friends. His wife – Mama to their five children – called him, more simply and affectionately, C. Mama's name is Elizabeth, and Papa called her E.
When we were children, my four siblings and I would occasionally entertain ourselves by referring to our parents as "C na E" – C and E. Of course, we indulged in this nomenclatural pleasure only behind our parents' back, out of their hearing. Ours was a world, and a time, when children did not openly mimic any adult's idiosyncrasies or enjoy "senior" jokes – much less retail their parents' affectionate gestures.
Even so, we – my siblings and I as well as our cousins and closest friends – could not help ourselves. The illicit, secretive pleasure of calling our parents C na E had a captivating hold on us. For us, the conjoined identifier served mostly as a noun, but frequently as a verb; it was all a matter of circumstance and tone.
If we were doing nothing more deplorable than standing about telling stories or killing time and one of us saw Papa and Mama at a distance, he or she would say, in a calm, steady voice, "C na E." In that event, it was a mere announcement of the couple's looming presence. Other times, the first person to spy our parents would mutter "C na E" in an alarmed tone, teeth gritted, eyes widened in terror, face dramatically contorted. Often, this signaled that we were up to no good, engaged in the frivolities of youth. It could mean that, under peer pressure, I had accepted a cigarette and helped myself to a few puffs that triggered a paroxysm of coughing when, ineptly, I attempted to inhale. It could mean that I (or one of my siblings or friends) was "tuning" a girl, promising her all the love in the world – and more. It could mean that my coterie and I dawdled, that we whiled away some of the idle time on our hands, pining for some excitement that was there, just around the corner or not, feeling larger than life, casting poses, fondling cans of beer. My parents could never stand their children or even other youngsters just standing around, doing nothing; they had a horror of idleness. Mama, a school teacher, would always intone, "An idle mind is the devil's workshop." They'd order us to pick a book to read, or to head off to any field and kick a football.
When "C na E" was said calmly, it meant that the speaker simply wanted the rest of us to look, to behold the extraordinary couple. But when spoken with a tinge of urgency, accompanied by gestures of roiled unease, it was a code that transmitted any of several commands. If we had cigarettes in our hands, it was a cue to flick the damn thing away, or to drop it to the ground and use your shoes to mash it up. If you had a can of beer in your hand, it was a warning to slip it into your pocket or pass it to a friend who would then – as we said in those days – scram. If you were "gisting" a girl – a capital sin in the eyes of our devoutly Catholic parents – you had to make a hasty, embarrassed retreat. If you didn't, C na E would order you to go home immediately – and then lecture your would-be paramour, there and then, on the uses of chastity.
It's never easy to sustain a claim of uniqueness, but I doubt that God made many copies like our parents, "C na E." Papa was 38 years old when he entertained the idea of marrying the 33-year-old Elizabeth Odikpo, a school teacher from Onitsha, one of the largest commercial centers in all of Africa. Our father's relatives were dismayed. There were several counts against Papa's intended bride. There was the stereotype – still popular even today – that the women of Onitsha were brash, "too modern" in their outlook, and with an exaggerated sense of their place in a world that men (then and now) believed was theirs. To marry a woman from Onitsha approached the disaster of wedding a white woman who, in popular lore, would neither cook nor clean and would often upbraid a husband with the terse, "Don't be silly!" To worsen matters, our mother was a teacher at a time when the most desirable brides were home-bound. But the greatest impediment was our mother's age. At 33, she was considered too old, her womb too weak to bear children. And this was a society where marriage was (and for most, is) often reduced to a mechanism for bringing children into the world.
Papa dismissed his relatives' concerns by proclaiming that this was the woman he loved. He also threatened to approach her family alone, if it came to that. In Europe or America, that would be normal: boy falls in love with girl, gets down on one knee and professes, she cries or giggles (or both) and mutters yes – and a marriage is in the works. It wasn't that easy for my father; he lived in a society where marriage, in its deepest sense, is a social compact, where the bride's and the groom's families do not only have a say, but often can make or mar. In such a society, a man would make a scandalous sight if he straggled to a woman's homestead alone to tell her stunned relatives that he desired her for a wife. Our father's threat to go it alone forced his relatives' hands.
The rest is a long, rich history, so let me quickly note a few highlights. C na E went ahead to have five children, four sons and a daughter. Through sheer hard work, uncommon sacrifice and dedication, they ensured that we all received excellent education.
But their soundest gifts to us – and to the many youngsters who admired this "odd," intriguing couple – were an infectious sense of love and a strong moral bequest. Until Papa died seventeen years ago at 75, he and his beloved E cut the portrait of charmed, youthful lovers. In a community where men and women, husbands and wives, tread different tracks, C na E took seriously the Christian mystery that two persons become one in marriage. They used the same chewing stick each morning and each night to clean their teeth. Each morning, they'd wake up at 5:30 a.m., lead us in prayer, take a (cold) bath together, and attend morning mass at 6:30. Unless they couldn't help it, they ate together, went to places together, held hands whenever they walked, and kissed often.
On one occasion, I overheard a man tell my father, "C.C., there's something I am going to tell you, but you're not to tell it to anybody. Not even your wife." Papa responded, "Then don't tell me because there's nothing I won't tell my wife."
That kind of commitment and loyalty has shaped my life – and that of my siblings. Thanks to our parents' marvelous precepts and magnificent example, we, their children, are wonderfully close, our occasional gatherings marked by much humor and laughter. Of course, our favorite stories are reminiscences of that remarkable duo – C na E – who brought us into the world and shepherded us.
From all accounts, our paternal grandparents were extremely close to each other, models for the kind of affectionate relationship that our own parents had. Sadly, both grandparents died years before any of us was born – and within a year of each other. Given that history of back-to-back deaths, my siblings and I were gripped by anxiety when father, C, passed away in 1995, seventeen years ago. Would his wife, E, follow suit the following year?
On April 18, Mama – E to her late husband, but also called Ngalakwesili (deserving of pride) – celebrated her 87th birthday. Thank God, her voice and body remain vibrant. Her presence vitally reminds me of that noble, genial man she called C; his physical absence, on the other hand, forewarns of a time when she, too, won't be here. For now, they are etched in my heart and memory, in my siblings' hearts and memories, in the hearts and memories of the many, many people they touched, whom they allowed to touch them.
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