“When the weight of the world is on my shoulders, I turn to my right and realize I’m not alone, because she’s helping me carry it. The stars are written in her eyes, sunlight in her smile, and I know for sure, when this barren earth falls behind me, she’ll be an angel waiting for me at heaven’s gate.” – Caroline Aung
On this windy, harmattan morning in the first week of January 1996, I was set to return to Lagos after spending the Christmas holiday in the village, as most Igbo people do. My then fiancé, now my lovely wife of twenty two years was to follow me to enable her sort out her NYSC postings, amongst others. After the blessings by my father (now late) and mother, Mama pulled me and my then fiancé aside, and in her soothing manner of speaking, proverbially admonished us that “the parcel which belongs to you and which you know you will eventually unwrap, you don’t have reason to be pinching it to know what is inside it.”
Disciplined, virtuous, full of purity and love, the above guidance on a life of sanctity largely defined our mother (now late), Justina Ihemegbulam Odibo (Nee Onwuchuruba), and how she, with our late father, Joseph Onwubiko Odibo, successfully raised us, seven children, such that with hearts full of thanksgiving and praise to GOD for her fulfilled life of 91 years, we are assured that heaven is rejoicing as our mother joins the church triumphant.
Like all dutiful mothers, Mama was a scrutinising admixture of patience, kindness, tolerance, understanding, discipline, industry, purity, and love. Mama strictly enforced discipline and duty in our home with pure, unvarnished love. Bringing up seven children, six boys and one girl, while juggling other responsibilities – wife, school teacher, chorister, aunt and in-law who welcomed all relatives to our home, was a handful. In those dark days of growing up in a rural setting lacking basic amenities, we were made to wake up virtually every morning as early as 4am to fetch water from the stream, about three-kilometre trek. Looking back, one thing that struck me was that Mama, whose room was next door to ours, in our Headmaster’s type three-bedroom bungalow, never ever roused us from sleep, violently or harshly, yet she achieved results. In her sweet and mellifluous voice, Mama woke us up by calling our pet names, many times over, occasionally bending over to caress and arouse us from sleep, but patient all through even if we were running late, and our neighbours and relatives were already running ahead of us to the stream because parents ensured we went to stream in the morning as a group, for security reasons. Mama’s justice dispensation and discipline were also quick and instant, as each of us received appropriate spanking whenever and wherever the offence was committed.
Mama, in her gentle demeanour and unassuming personality can depict a picture of total dependence, offering instead to be Papa’s silent helper, but in another breadth, a marvel of resourcefulness, who was seen but never heard. Yes, our mother was reputed in our entire community as that resourceful wife and school teacher who handed over her entire monthly salary to her husband, our father, to disburse as he deemed fit; a multi-tasking workaholic who understood early enough the principle and meaningfulness of multiple income stream. After school, in addition to her farm work, our mother also had a poultry and a pineapple orchard. She was also a retailer of kerosene, onions, etc, which my siblings and I attended to at our community market, “Ogwumabiri Obizi” daily after school, whilst still in primary, and on holidays while in secondary school.
As a woman who had a personal relationship with God, unceasing prayer and music were her major channels of connecting with her maker. Our mother had the angelic voice of a member of the celestial choir as she sang for us while we huddled beside her either during harmattan, or whilst waiting for dinner, or as part of our moonlight tales before bedtime. Music, traditional Catholic rhymes, was an integral part of our home while we grew up. We had our daily and compulsory rosary prayers which we ended with “Oh Lord save us this night” or “Abide with me” songs. Mama sang for us or taught us new songs while we awaited dinner, maybe so we don’t fall asleep before dinner; and we religiously tuned in to then Imo Broadcasting Service (IBS) for the 7.30pm Sunday rendition of songs by choirs of different churches. Overall, our home was filled with love which Mama used music to accentuate.
EWTN, the global Catholic TV Network, powerfully makes the case that beauty in the form of music attracts us and lifts us up. Music, according to this network founded by Mother Angelica (now late), a lover of music, has the power to change us for better or for worse in so far as it affects our souls in a deep way. Reverend Father Joseph Mary Wolfe then summed it that “music has a higher purpose. It is meant to assist us in lifting our mind and hearts to God by using sacred texts joined in music that has a sense of a sacred, of a transcendent that reaches above.” Our mother ensured this permeated our lives, which my siblings and I strive to live by in our different homes.
Not surprisingly, beyond other liturgical activities such as being a lector, and altar dresser (Mama’s attention to details was par excellence. Iron her dress, even the multi-coloured and she will spot the creases), Mama was a key chorister. From her ancestral Enyiogugu Mbaise, she belonged to the choir of Saint Charles Catholic Church, which for a very long time was the largest parish in the entire Mbaise, while the choir, even till date is reputed to be the best choral group in the entire Ahiara Diocese, Mbaise. Upon her marriage to our father she also joined the choir of our local church, Saint Benedict’s Catholic Church, Alpha, Obizi, until old age.
Mama, fondly called “Miss” by our late father’s younger relatives, and “Ndaa Justy” by her younger ancestral relatives, had the fascinating ability to be almost everywhere at once, and she alone could somehow squeeze an enormous amount of living into an average day, from waking up early to prepare seven kids for school, prepare her school notes, managing kids in school, back from school to continue chores, go to her farms, check her poultry, attend to church activities, then back for night activities of dinner, folklore, rosary prayer, preparing for next day. It was an endless stream of demanding activities and engagements. But in all of these she still radiated her ever pleasant demeanour
Mama from our primary school days immersed us deep into learning and doing virtually all chores by ourselves that at some point in my secondary school days Mama stopped having house helps in a bid to ensure we did everything, including cooking! Yes, cooking by six boys, because our only sister was still an infant. (I didn’t turn out a good cook though. Some of my siblings did) My mother stood her grounds despite our late father’s contrary view that household chores will distract us from reading our books. Looking back, Mama was right. She hardly misjudged.
Our mother was a complex person who quietly, but affectionately, loved her family with all of her heart. We learned so much about this unrestrained love for family from her. What can more powerfully tell the story of Mama’s love for her ancestral and husband’s families than the openness with which she welcomed and housed all in our home. Practically all of our mother’s half-brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces lived with us between 1963, when she wedded our father, and the eighty’s. Same also for my late father’s family. Immediately the civil war broke out in 1967 up till 1971, my late father’s brothers and their families lived in our house.
Through this magnanimity of our late mother, a sword pierced her soul, but like Mother Mary, whose footsteps she followed, “she bore it in her heart” with all equanimity. This explains why our late mother’s obsequies’ theme is the statement of faith by Elizabeth, the cousin of Mother Mary, during the Visitation, in Luke’s gospel chapter one verse forty five that “Blessed are you who believed that the Lord’s word would come true!” Abiding faith in God despite the vicissitudes of life defined our mother’s disposition to life. In God’s will lay her peace.
So as my siblings and I, together with our lovely spouses and Mama’s grandchildren say a final goodbye on Friday, February 4, 2022, to our mother, Justina Ihemegbulam Odibo (Nee Onwuchuruba) who passed on, Saturday, December 18, 2021, at the ripe age of 91 we truly know she will always be with us. She is the reason we have such a good value of life, because as the solid rock behind our late father, Joseph Onwubiko Odibo, who passed on fourteen years ago, she did a fantastic job of loving and raising us.
But then again, even having passed this road before, losing Papa on December 24, 2007, I do not know anything in particular to do to overcome Mama’s transition except to continue to live by the values she and Papa inculcated in us; to always remember the fond memories; all the story and singing times; the days when as boys, Mama will serve us our favourite meal of “rice and beans” in a big tray; the days of joyfully marching about six kilometres to and fro to Sunday Mass at Umuoma Onicha with her watching our back; how she dutifully prepared us for the sacraments of first holy communion and confirmation; how we journeyed on occasions with her to Aboh Mbaise Secondary school (about 10 kilometres’ walk) for May 27, Children’s Day, and October, I, Independence Day March Past. The memories are endless. I certainly haven’t processed the pain, and I doubt I ever fully will. I guess it’s all bubbling just beneath my skin.
But from the experience of Papa’s death I have learnt that grief is neither linear nor logical, so the memories of our dear mother that we cherish and hold on to, the values she imbibed in us, the friends we keep, but above all, the abundant grace of God will be sufficient enough to enrich our lives in the physical absence of ‘Justee’. (The loving pet- name our late father called her)
Fare thee well Mama.
* Mr. Odibo is a Marketing and Communications Practitioner