Four years on, my brother sees our mother in dreamscapes while I make sense of a world without her by seeing her brushstrokes across the many changes to my waking life. We process the passing of those we love in different ways. In stages too, apparently: today is the first since she left that her birthday finds me in an absolutely glorious mood. More than mere brushstrokes, today I hear sounds too.
John Lennon – Imagine
I once asked Mom what her favorite song of all time was. This was a problem: Mom’s mind was full of things to do with bettering the lot of humanity, so she could be forgiven for not being particularly good at remembering songs and artist names. That said, the one song she remembered both by name and artist was ‘Imagine‘ by John Lennon. I can see the appeal.
Imagine is about a better world; one in which humanity has evolved past all the things that divide us. Lennon includes religion on this list and asks listeners to imagine there’s no heaven. This probably resonated with Mom a lot. She started her life as a devout Methodist who took Religious Studies in Sixth Form and spent weekends preaching to Cape Coast’s supposedly unconverted with Mrs. Garnett, the Wesley Girls High School headmistress who would change Mom’s life by putting her on a plane to London towards a nursing scholarship.
The deeper into faith Mom went, the more problems she had with how we become so focused on all the rules and regulations that supposedly govern entry into heaven that we forget to do what every religious figure ever has suggested we all do: love our fellow human beings, regardless of who they are, the same way we love ourselves.
Mom developed an understanding of the complexity, depth and ultimate beauty of Love, and lived it out in a life dedicated to putting others first. Both on a professional and personal level, she dedicated her entire life towards making this world better for other people, particularly the millions of girls affected by Female Genital Mutilation. She personally and professionally mentored many young women and girls; from her work colleagues to her hairdresser. She fought for better outcomes for her family and spent all of her money (including her pension) ensuring that my younger brother and I had better too. By the time she passed, heaven was no longer her concern. She made Love something that you live out.
I hope her spirit smiled when we had a Methodist choir sing Imagine at her funeral.
Julie Andrews – Climb Every Mountain (from The Sound of Music soundtrack)
“Climb every mountain,
Search high and low,
Follow every byway,
Every path you know.
Climb every mountain,
Ford every stream,
Follow every rainbow,
Till you find your dream.”
Kobina, let this guide you…
Trawling through my inbox for her words in the weeks after she left, I stumbled across these lyrics maybe three times. In hindsight, I can see how this advice shaped the trajectory of both my personal and professional lives.
It will be a sad day in my household the day we lose Julie Andrews.
Aretha Franklin – Respect
The other artist Mom mentioned by name and song was the (now) late, great Aretha Franklin. The Queen of Soul must have loomed a large transatlantic shadow over my Mom’s youth in Cape Coast & Takoradi. I can imagine them both – wherever they are – sharing a laugh and speculating over how many people like the song more than they actually apply its message.
My Fair Lady OST – The Rain in Spain
Mom had that Kofi Annan (RIP) thing going on where her accent was deliciously Ghanaian and yet – for want of a better word – more. I have a very specific memory of us walking down Brecknock Road on our way home. I’m laughing while Mom sang this to me to explain the importance of enunciation. I definitely have her to blame for the fact that when I’m in Ghana, people question my Ghanaianness even as my London friends giggle at how much more ‘African’ my accent has become since I moved home.
Vato Gonzalez feat. Foreign Beggars – Badman Riddim
I remember walking once with Mom into a shop when the radio presenter blaring over the store’s PA announced something along the lines of, “… and we’ll be back right after the break with music from Beyonce and the brand new top ten hit from Vato Gonzalez featuring Foreign Beggars. Don’t go anywhere!”
Mom and I looked at each other’s dropped jaws. It was weird hearing my brother’s group mentioned in the same breath as the Queen Bee.
I was eight the first time my younger brother told me he wanted to be a musician. Buying him instruments and paying for classes, Mom was largely supportive of my brother’s creative instincts but – sharing the fears of many a parent – she tried (and failed) to steer my brother towards any number of ‘fall back options’ (you know: the type that tend to become anything but fallbacks). I remember a few fights founded on this fear, but I also remember the pride Mom felt when he invited her to watch him perform at the Jazz Cafe and how hard she would later try to flog my brother’s underground brand of UK hip-hop music to her conservative African aunty friends.
Whitney Houston – I Wanna Dance with Somebody
My grandmother was possibly the biggest force in my mother’s life. I was a kid in London when Mom flew her over to help with my brother and I. This was Grandma’s favourite song from that time, and it is one that Mom, Ebow and I would remember her by.
Oliver Mtukudzi – Ndima Mdapedza
In her lifetime, Mom spent so much time travelling the world that she came to hate it. That said, I remember her returning from the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (where her book Cutting the Rose was named one of the top 100 African books of the 20th century) with a CD by the genius affectionately called Tuku. There were two songs in particular that she loved on there: Ndima Mdapedza was one of them, along with another song I cannot remember the title to which told a story of a little girl. One day, I hope to uncover which song that was.
Mafikizolo – Khona
Mom also brought back a Mafikizolo CD once, telling me that she loved the warmth of their sound. It may have been from the very same trip: her work often took her on tours across groups of countries at once. There is something to be said for music that speaks to you in spite of being sung in languages you don’t understand.
Mom’s beliefs would move far beyond those of her Methodist upbringing, but she always found Methodist hymns comforting. I once bought her a copy of the Methodist Hymn Book and I remember us talking about Sir Isaac Watts: a scientist whose creativity transcended anyone’s ideas of divisions between art and science or science and religion.
Dizzee Rascal – Bonkers
Mom spent her life in spaces where she pushed back against lots of things – patriarchy, ageism, prejudice, people with more education and privilege than actual African experience and perspectives, etc. There were even people who literally tried to have her sectioned at a point in her life.
Perhaps fittingly, this was the last song Mom would ever tell me was one of her favourites. Mom revelled in her mischief and she absolutely loved the words to the chorus, saying it described her to a fault:
Some people think I’m bonkers
But I just think I’m free
Man, I’m just livin’ my life
There’s nothin’ crazy about me
I will never get over the very idea of my prim-and-proper Mom singing Dizzee lyrics.
Happy 69th, Mom.