Monday, September 23, 2013

Hearts of Steel: Chapter Fourteen

“Stop that!” Mother slapped my hand away as I reached to pinch off one of the cakes that she’d left cooling. “Those are for the meeting.”

“I can’t help it, Mother. They smell sooo good.”

With my elbows on the counter, I stuck my face over the pan. The light steam rose, swirled around my face, and tickled my nostrils. Those cakes had my name all over them.

I cupped my hand to my ear. “What did you say, little cake? You say that you’re all alone? I’ll save you. I’ve got a special home for you right in the middle of my stomach. Plenty of room for you.” My fingers reached for a golden, sticky-sweet corner.

“Don’t even think about it,” Mother warned. Her back was turned to me, so it was a mystery how she knew what I was doing. One day, I was going to pull her hair back, search for the eyes in the back of her head, and poke them out. You’d think that after all these years; those eyes in the back of her head would need bifocals. But not today. They were as 
sharp as ever.

“But Mum. They’re calling my name. You always told me that it was rude not to answer when someone called.”

“You’d better stop snacking between meals, Priye. Here, this should hold you until Pamela and Ebere get here.” She tossed a cake to me. 

“It’s not the same,” I grumbled as I peeled off the produce sticker before biting into it.

“Maybe not. But it’s better for you.”

“Yummy.” I sighed and leaned on the counter again. “When are they supposed to be here?”


I waited a full minute before asking, “Are they here yet?”


Another minute ticked by. “Are they here yet?”

“No, Priye.”

This time, less than a minute before asking, “Are they here yet?”

Laughing as hard as I was at her expression, I barely missed the wooden spoon she swung at my head. 

I ducked, but she swung again.

“Girl, are you trying to work on my last nerve?”

“I have a lot of time to make up for,” I said. “Being away so much, I don’t get these rare opportunities to remind you why you and Daddy worked so hard to get me through school and out of the house.” I planted a wet, sloppy kiss on her cheek.

Mother made a grand display of wiping it off with a dish towel.

“You were just here last weekend for your grandparents’ anniversary. If I’d known you’d come back so soon, we would have worked triple jobs to get you into a school further away from home.”

“You know you miss me, Mum,” I said, wrapping my arms around her ample waist, rocking back and forth until she squawked.

“Of course I miss you. That’s why I asked you to help with the reunion planning. If me and your father couldn’t get you to come back on your own, maybe the power of the whole family behind us could get you to come back. So, why don’t you make sure that everything is set up in the family room before Pamela and Ebere get here?”

“Are you trying to get rid of me?” I asked in mock hurt.

“Now, whatever gave you that idea?” she asked as she shoved me toward the door.

“If you wanted to get rid of me, all you had to do was start talking about the weather.” I raised my eyebrows at her. I wanted her to know that I wasn’t fooled by their little tete-a-tete in the restaurant bathroom with Aunt Ebere, Aunt Pam, and Grandma.

Mother opened her mouth as if to protest. She knew better than to try to deny it since it was obvious that I was on to her. She didn’t get the chance to. The doorbell rang, saving her from trying to deny that they’d been talking about us cousins.

“Are they here yet?” I asked, barely managing to keep a straight face.

“No. It’s my great-grand mother. Of course it’s them.”

“It sure took them long enough. It isn’t as if you ladies don’t all live within a stone’s throw of Grandma’s.”

As I headed for the door, I asked, “Did you ever think about moving out of Lagos, Mum?”

“What for?” she asked, trailing behind me. “Everything I needed, ever wanted is right here.”

Shrugging, I tried to make her understand. “I don’t know, Travel, see the world, find out what life’s like outside the city limits. You and Aunt Ebere and Aunt Pamela were raised here. I’m sure you’ve seen everything there is to see. When you were old enough to be on your own, why didn’t you move away like me, Brenda and Joy?”

“When our wandering foot gets to itchin’, we pick up and go,” Mother said defensively. Me and your aunts and sometimes your grandparents get in the car and drive until the itch is satisfied.”

“There’s so much more out there,” I protested. “Places you cant get to in a day or a weekend drive.”

“Yes, there’s more out there,” Mother echoed. “And they’re standing on the front porch waiting to be let in. Don’t keep your aunts waiting, Priye. Besides, didn’t you ever see that movie The Wizard of Oz?”

“Ooh, I’m telling Aunt Ebere and Aunt Pamela that you’ve called them wicked witches!” I said, deliberately misunderstanding her.

“I did not! You stop playing around and open that door.” I flung the door open and welcomed my aunts’ warm greeting with open arms and kisses of affection. Brenda stood behind them, grinning at me and waving one of Jack’s autographed T-shirts in my face. I reached for it, but she held it high out of my reach.

“Where’s Joy?” I asked, trying to hide the disappointment in my voice. I was hoping to see her before taking off again for Ghana.

“She couldn’t make it for this meeting.” Brenda told me. “She said that she’d try to be here for the next one. She didn’t say much, you know how Joy is, but I think she’s not doing well.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” I murmured.

“Come on in, ladies.” Mother said, ushering Brenda and my aunts inside. “Let’s not put Joy’s business out in the street. Priye, make sure that you call Joy and see if she needs anything, or if there’s anything we can do to help out.”

“Yes, Mum. But you know how she is. So independent. Miss Carry-the-world-on-her-shoulders.”

“Just like your mother,” Aunt Ebere remarked. “She’d work herself to death before accepting charity.”

“It’s a crying shame that she had to work herself sick.” Aunt Pam added. “She wouldn’t have to work so hard if Joy’s no-good father would lift a finger to help.”

“How do you know he is no good?” Brenda asked, breaking the cardinal rule of interrupting their conversation. You never did that. Not only was it considered rude, but you didn’t find out any good gossip that way.

“Had to be a no-good.” Aunt Pam went on, “Otherwise, he’d be there to help out.”

“If help comes from you and Brenda, it won’t be so hard for her to accept,” Mother said, quickly changing the subject.

“Come on in, ladies,” Mother said. “We’re meeting in the family living room soon.”

Aunt Pam sniffed the air. “Doris, I know that isn’t your world-famous, pound-adding, make-you-want-to-reach-around-and-slap-your-mother cake I smell baking in there.”

“It sure is.” Mother laughed. “You’d better be glad that you showed up when you did, Pammie. Priye was just about to eat it all.”

“Not all,” I contradicted. “Just most of it.”

“Go into the family room. I’ll be back in a minute with the cake and tea.”

“Need some help in the kitchen. Aunt Doris?” Brenda called out.

“Suck-up,” I muttered out of the corner of my mouth. She smirked at me as she took a seat.

“No, I’ve got it, honey. But thanks for offering.”

Mother returned, setting down a silver platter with a carafe of tea and the plates and cups, silver server, cream, and sugar bowls.

“Why don’t you give me that cake recipe, Doris?” Aunt Ebere asked, reaching for the wedge-shaped dessert server.
“I thought I gave you the recipe already.”

“You must have left out an ingredient or instruction or something. It didn’t come out quite right.” Aunt Ebere complained.

“Tell the truth and shame the devil, Ebere. It came out like a brick. I broke a cap biting into it.” Aunt Pam insisted.

“Sat in the dentist’s office for thirty minutes in agony while I waited to be treated.”

Mother glared at Aunt Pam. “Be nice, Pammie. Not in front of the girls.”

“Oh, don’t mind us,” Brenda said, scooting to the edge of her seat and leaning forward into the conversation. “This is just getting good.”

“You certainly are getting mean in your old age, Pammie,” Aunt Ebere said, pouring herself a cup of tea.

“I am not getting mean. Doris was always the mean one. It wouldn’t surprise me if she made a switch in the recipe on purpose to keep the secret. Something like two cups of plaster instead of flour. Yes, that would be just like her.”

“I was not the mean one,” Mother protested, stirring cream into her tea and taking a sip.

“Yes, you were. You were the mean one. I was the gifted one. Pam was the smart one,” Aunt Ebere insisted.

“I thought I was the gifted one,” Aunt Pam sounded wounded.

“You’re both wrong. I was the smart one and the gifted one,” Mother corrected them all.

“Nooo,” Aunt Pam said adamantly. “I was. And I was Aunt Rosa’s favorite, too. She told me so.”

I bit into my cake to keep from laughing out loud. Aunt Rosa had a pretty good scam working. As long as we were all her favorites, we would all bend over backward trying to please her.

“Are we ready to start?” Mother asked. “Let’s join hands and bow our heads. Ebere, would you lead us in prayer?”

I clasped hands with Brenda on one side and Aunt Pam on the other. We all had our heads bowed dutifully, but not before I sneaked a peek at everyone’s solemn expressions. All kidding was aside now. As soon as the last echoes faded from the “amen” in unison, I knew the banter would return – the rapid-fire jabs and sibling one-upmanship. If ever I’d wondered where I’d gotten my acerbic tongue, the doubts were erased in the presence of my aunts. My wit had been carefully honed by these three Johnson sisters.

But for now, there was no sarcasm, no silliness. Giving thanks was serious business. And this sprawling family had much to be thankful for. We had all gone our separate ways – some paths keeping us closer to home than others. But one thing was certain. My aunts and uncles had done their share to make certain that my path was always a secure one,

As I grew older and ventured out on my own, I experimented. I tried their collective patience. But when I fell, someone was always there to help set me on my feet again. Sometimes with a gentle nudge in the right direction; sometimes with a figurative kick to the seat of the pants to get me going.

As Aunt Ebere continued to pray, punctuated with a fervent “yes, Lord,” or “help us, Lord” from Mother and Aunt Pam, I felt a shiver run through me. Brenda squeezed my hand. She must have felt it, too. She turned her head toward me and smiled. I could have sworn that there were tears in her eyes.

I wouldn’t be surprised. A lump that had nothing to do with the cake formed in my throat as well. Something about my aunt’s voice brought to mind a flood of memories. And I wondered. . .how many times had my family prayed that same prayer of guidance over us?

Late at night, when we were all tucked safely in our beds or going about our day-to-day business, how many times had their prayers gone up to cover us? How many disasters had we averted due to their diligence?

The love that spanned generations was evident in my aunt’s plea for continued strength and guidance. I used to wonder where it all came from – the patience, the wisdom, the humour it took to raise us.

This third generation of the Johnson children certainly did our best to try to use it all up. If we’d truly known that their strength was divinely derived, I don’t think we would have tried so hard to irk them. Backed by legions of warrior angels, our mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, cousins and extended family kept us on the straight and narrow – sometimes dragging us kicking and screaming, but inching along just the same.

“Amen.” I echoed at the close of Aunt Ebere’s prayer.

“Priye.” Mother’s voice was oddly subdued and a little trembly. “Read back the minutes from the last meeting.”

I nodded, because I didn’t trust my own voice yet. Placed my laptop on my lap.

“Okay, let me see. Old business meeting notes. We settled on how many committees we’re going to create to help with the planning. Seven committees in all including budget and finance, correspondence, family history, food, programs, reunion site hospitality, and transportation.”

“You missed one,” Mother noted. “Remember, Uncle Eddie suggested we create a first-aid committee.”

“I might have know that Scrape-a-day would suggest something like that.” Aunt Pam said, reaching for another slice of cake.

"Scrape-a-day?" Brenda and I questioned in unison.

"That's what we used to call your Uncle Eddie from the time he was about seven years old. He couldn't get through the day without falling down, bumping into something, or otherwise injuring himself."

"Okay, adding first-aid committee to the list." My fingers flew over the keyboard. "We also roughed out a budget and mailed out reunion questionnaire surveys."

"I've already started to receive some responses back." Aunt Ebere pulled out an expanding file folder. "Out of three hundred surveys that we sent out, we've gotten sixty or so back."

"Sixty responses back already. That's not bad. Up from last year. Remember how we had to beg and plead to get those surveys back?" Mother reminded them.

"Almost everyone is up on e-mail now," Brenda said. "When we put pictures from our last reunion out on that Web page that Uncle Boma created, that generated a lot of excitement."

"I'll send out another e-mail in a week or so to remind everyone to get those surveys back so we can really make some headway in the planning." Aunt Pam made a note to herself and I added that information to the action items section of the meeting notes.

"Last but certainly not least of old business, Aunt Pam, Aunt Ebere, and Mother opened the checking account at First Bank so we can start to deposit funds. We can add N2,500,000 raised at the auction last week."

That drew a round of applause from all of us.

"Thanks to a certain Mr. Deneen." Brenda said, holding up the shirt she'd bought. "That was very nice of him to volunteer his . . .uh. . .services."

"Yes. Yes, it was," I said stiffly.

"I hope you thanked the nice man for his effort, Priye."

Aunt Pam teased. "Because of him, we have enough to start this reunion planning off right. You know how our parents hate for us to beg for money. Now, we don't have to beg as long or for as much."

I cleared my throat delicately. "If I run into him again, I'll be sure to pass along your sentiments."

"If?" Brenda picked up on my uncertainty. "What do you mean, if?"

"It means if. As in maybe. As in I don't know."

"You're joking, right, Priye? You must have plans to see him again." Brenda grabbed my hand and squeezed.

"Why are you making such a big deal out of this? I didn't have plans to meet him the first time. Or the second time. That was all your doing," I said, pinning each aunt with a stare. "You are the ones who set me up."

"Are you complaining?" Aunt Ebere wanted to know. "Because if you are, I know a couple of your cousins who'd jump at the chance at being set up with such a fine figure of a man."

"She's not complaining," Brenda said, throwing the T-shirt at me. "She's just mad because she didn't think of the idea herself."

"Stop teasing Priye." Mother came to my defense. "She has a lot on her mind these days, without us meddling."

"Meddling?" Aunt Ebere and Aunt Pam protested. They looked at her as if she'd turned traitor.

"Hmmmph. Nobody mentioned meddling when a certain someone introduced that sweet little girl from the hospital to Dad's brother's wife's youngest cousin. I won't mention any names." Aunt Pam pursed her lips and stared directly at Mother.

"Her name was Linda," Mother said cooly. "Did you know that she's already expecting? They say it's going to be twins."

"I should have known. I've been dreaming about schools of fish lately." Aunt Ebere insisted.

I covered my eyes with my hands. My family. Had to love them.

That's how it went for the entire meeting - the back-and-forth teasing. And somehow, in the midst of it all, we moved the family reunion planning just a bit further along.

By the end of the meeting, I was exhausted. My typing fingers had blisters on top of blisters. When I remarked on that to Brenda, she huffed, then rolled her eyes to me. I recognized that look. She wasn't teasing anymore. There was something on her mind.

"What?" I mouthed to her, shrugging.

"Nothing," she replied in a tone that I knew meant anything but that. Something in her voice caught my mother's attention. She looked questioningly at us.

"Let me take care of these for you, Aunt Doris," Brenda said quickly and gathered up the desert dishes.

"Thank you, sweetie," Mother said. She glanced over at me, not-so-subtly tilting her head to indicate that I should follow Brenda. I gathered the tea cups.

"All right, Bren," I challenged as soon as we were out of hearing. "What's up?"

"I told you. Nothing's the matter."

"I don't believe you."

She whirled around to face me. Her mouth was a tight line. "And I don't believe you, Priye!"

"What did I do?" I exclaimed. My mind raced back over the events of the meeting, trying to figure out what I could have said or done to make her angry with me. I know that I'd grabbed the last piece of cake, but she'd insisted that I take it.

"Nothing," she repeated.

"I swear, Bren, if you say that one more time, you're going to be wearing the last of this tea." I warned.

She shook her head, her face an odd mixture of humour and disapproval. Carefully, she set the dishes into the sink. I moved next to her, wrapping my arm around her shoulder.

"No, don't try to make up with me," she said, hitching her shoulder to move me aside. "I'm mad at you."


"Because of what you're doing to Jack?"

"And that is?" I prompted.

Brenda formed her lips to say "nothing" but changed her mind. "What did he do to make you want to blow him off?"

Now it was my turn to say the favourite word for the afternoon. "Nothing," I murmured.

Brenda stifled a giggle. "Then what you're doing doesn't make any sense. You should count your blessings, girl. Without even trying, you've managed to find a man like Jack. A man any girl would kill for. Why are you passing up on a perfectly good man?"

"Of course you would say that. You've only seen what you've wanted to see. You've only seen him at his best - charming, handsome, and generous."

"Have you seen him any other way?" Brenda asked. "Has he ever been anything but the perfect gentleman to you?"

"No. . ." I admitted slowly.

"So, what's the problem?"

She had a point. The longer that I thought about it, the more I realized that's all he'd ever shown me, as well. He wanted me, was giving me his best. And until he showed me otherwise, I should take it. Take a chance. 

"I should call him," I murmured.

"You've got that right," Brenda urged. She reached for the wall phone and extended the phone to me. "What's the number? I'll dial it myself before you chicken out." Her finger was poised over the buttons.

"He's probably not home," I said, making up an excuse.

"Then leave a message. I'll bet you he'll call back."

"I can't call him. What if Mum or the aunts walk in?"

"I'll keep watch on the door. You're running out of excuses, Priye. Keep jacking around and you'll lose that man. No pun intended."

"All right, all right." I gave in.

So, even though I had misgivings I called him - with Brenda standing right there, staring me dead in my mouth.

I kept it vague, loose, giving him an out if he wanted one. When he'd told me that he couldn't meet this weekend, I had the sinking fear that maybe Brenda was right. Maybe I'd played it too cool and lost my opportunity.

Then again, maybe not.

He had other commitments this weekend that he couldn't get out of. But he'd sounded so pleased that I'd called.

"What about next weekend, Priye?"

"Can't," I said. "I won't be in town then. Work stuff. You know how it is."

I was spending an awful lot of time and money flying home every other weekend to help my family plan this reunion. I suppose I could have handled it over the phone to try to save money. But this was an opportunity that wouldn't come my way again for a while. Next year, someone else would be picked to serve on the reunion committee.

Though this opportunity was costing me. My work was starting to suffer, not to mention my bank account - even though reunion funds took care of half the tab for my travel expenses. One of the perks of being the chairperson of the fund-raising committee.

I'd used my share of reunion funds, but I was also spending a lot of time helping to generate funds, too - organizing familly fund-raisers, soliciting donations from private companies, stuff like that. If I wanted to hit my own company up, I'd better show my face around there. I hadn't spent the extra time in the office like I needed in order to stay ahead of the pack.

"What about the week after that?" Brenda suggested excitedly, not ready to give up on us just yet. I clamped my hand over the phone, but Jack had heard her and started laughing.

"Is that Brenda?" He asked.

"Yes," I admitted. "She's here."

"I'll tell you what, Priye. I've got a game in a couple of weeks. I can get you some tickets. As many as you want for you and your family. We can hook up after the game. How does that sound?"

"Works for me," I told him. A stadium full of screaming fans wasn't exactly what I had in mind; but if that was the best he could do on short notice, I wouldn't turn it down. Besides, a lot could happen in a couple of weeks. Maybe something else would come up before then. We could still meet and I wouldn't have to go to the game.

"All right. See you in a couple of weeks."

"Bye, Jack."

"And, Priye?"


"I'm glad you called."

"So am I, Jack. So am I."

An awkward silence filled the line, as if he wasn't quite ready to hang up; but I could hear my mum and aunts stirring, their voices growing louder.

"Bye," I said quickly. Then hung up the phone. "Happy now?" I addressed Brenda.

She squeezed me tight. "Now that's the Priye that I know and love! And it's not about my being happy. Not this time. This is about your love and your happiness!"

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