I think my mother had always been a geek. She told me she'd insisted on starting school even when she wasn’t old enough to meet the criteria (her arm was unable to extend over her head to touch the opposite ear). Well, she fussed and pushed and would tag along when the older ones went to school. Eventually, her persistence paid off and she started school early! But it wasn't all about studying for her as she was quite the life of the party with several school children and many friends. I once stumbled on a newspaper clipping of her 18th birthday celebration that had made regional news!
After high school in Owo and a stint at a government job in Ibadan, she toed the line of her dear half-brothers and decided to study in Torino, Italy. Here, she learned to speak Italian fluently and she earned her first degree while exploring some parts of Europe. I've heard stories from multiple sources about how after her return, she joined the University College Hospital as a confident dietitian who held her own during professional communications within doctor-led multidisciplinary teams. And when the family moved to the US, she took on a doubletrack masters program while steadily working at two jobs and helping to raise a family!
She was relentless. She wouldn't mind seeking advice or running ideas by others but if she was convinced about something, she'd pursue it till there was physically nowhere else to go. And she was thorough. She had extra copies of every single thing...in case. If she had to do anything at all, it had to be done well. I could never understand, for instance, why items needed to be cleaned first before handing it over to the repairman. But she would insist. We also kept a mental stock of grocery items in the house so we never ran out unexpectedly. It later became my responsibility!
I'm grateful a dear cousin mentioned to me years ago that reading her books made him realise how high my mother's IQ must be. Suddenly, many of her quirks began to make more sense to me. Truly, my mother is one of the most intelligent people I have ever met with a drive that is hard to ignore. It even showed up in the way she walked. She was so fast that I was always running to catch up, particularly when I was much younger! My mom had experienced a lot of struggles but also overcame a lot. She was not perfect but she cared deeply and loved to give advice from a different perspective.
You could not shake her patriotism to Nigeria or Pan-African views. She could not imagine permanently residing in any place else. She had no other identity. She dreamt of nothing less than a better motherland and despite worsening situations, she held on. I used to think she was a hopeless idealist, but now, I realise she simply could not call any other place home so she had no choice but to keep doing whatever she could, regardless of how frustrating it was or how little difference it seemed to make in the long run. She was a quiet activist. That was her calling. That is what she lived and died for.
She was extremely witty and when she laughed, she heaved so hard and would often end up tearing up, face slightly reddened and struggling to breathe. And she had some really good original jokes that came out when you least expected it! She also had a natural keen sense of intuition and was a truly spiritual person and most importantly, a believer in Jesus Christ. Spirituality may be a buzzword now but there was a time when it was scoffed at in the world of psychology and mental health. It was however not so with logotherapy, which had always given the noetic dimension its key place without any religious bias. This was a major reason my mother embraced the field.
I particularly admired her ability to do the conventional in her unconventional way. She was an introvert who made the conscious decision to be present in other peoples' lives and connect in the way she chose to. I never understood it. I wonder why expend energy keeping in touch, when either party can simply reach out at any point they need to? I also had several mini-rants that I went on any time we broached the topic of ceremonial events. If you prefer your own company, why go through the hassle to attend events and spend money to make other people happy when you can just stay at home and chill? Why do people throw big parties when they don't know half the guests? Her responses were always along these lines: 'Ahn ahn. you cannot do that. It's not good, o. We are communal people'. And I'd simply roll my eyes as usual.
She worried about her students and how to help them love their courses so it wasn't just about passing and getting the degree. Her course materials were regularly updated and she went out of her way to make their learning more practical-oriented and engaging.
She was always curious. Her house is actually a library that she also happened to live in! Every corner has stacks of books and educational materials across wide topics. Some mothers litter their homes with clothes; mine left books on every possible surface, including her bed. She never took a day off learning! Never. She'd completely lose herself while reading and she often spent the entire day completing an online course or searching for new material. Neither did she ever take holidays! She could stop by and spend some time with family and friends but her main goal, whenever she traveled, was to attend a conference, conduct some research or pursue collaborations.
She did not own any makeup or use cosmetics beyond good ol' petroleum jelly, and she only wore her self-styled African fabric. Changing her car, getting a new house, jewelry or fashion were hardly ever considered. All she wanted was comfortable shoes to support her habit of walking instead of driving for short trips (for instance, on campus). Although these walks often went beyond 20 minutes, they helped keep her fit. She was also always on the lookout for a huge every-day handbag with enough layers to keep all her stuff organized. Her diet was simple and predictable but healthy. So all her funds basically went into research and helping others out.
Mom was a walking bag of amazing ideas in an environment that had neither the will nor the commitment to solve its own issues. She had so many books to write, so many studies to carry out. She wanted to help teenagers and young adults prevent/overcome drug abuse. She wanted to offer counselling for breast cancer patients and survivors. She had enormous dreams. And to be honest, she supported mine as well. In 2014, she contributed to and attended the TV gameshow pilot I'd created and produced, even though it didn't work out as I envisioned. And recently when I shared a medium-term goal of mine shyly, her encouragement was unequivocal!
I remember being embarrassed when my mother would wear matching outfits with me and take me everywhere with her, including visits to her (mostly older) friends! While she taught me how to do chores, she virtually allowed me the freedom to determine when and how to get them done. I was also permitted to do as many kitchen experiments as possible. During my teenage angst phase, our typical arguments would almost lead to us accusing each other of using specific defense mechanisms. I cringe when I remember screaming something like 'you're projecting your own feelings unto me' and she could yell back 'what kind of rationalization is that?'. Lol. Conversely, whenever I described how I had handled an issue, she could remark, 'That is dereflection. You're already a logotherapist'. We had so many private jokes!
My mom was the only 'fitfam' parent I knew back then and it was so annoying that I could only take water to school with a snack! Soda could only be consumed on occasion and we had low-sugar, low-fat home-baked treats. Well, I did not mind that protein needed to be substantial for us growing kids/adolescents and we always ate fresh vegetables. However, fruits were the only acceptable dessert or snack. She would also patiently explain how chemical relaxers could be harmful to kids in primary or early secondary school and the effect of tight heavy braids, their tender scalps or hairlines. Obviously, I was not pleased because I had the toughest hair texture and my scalp hurt so bad each time my hair got touched. Well, I don't regret waiting till I was more mature to straighten my own hair, then i did texturizers before going all out with relaxers. And, guess who is currently all natural?! I also recall how her telling me not to touch railings or bannisters, especially during visits to UCH, made it all too tempting. Which kid likes to get lectured about germs all the time and told to wash their hands frequently? lol. When it's cold, she would emphasize the need to protect key parts of the body (she still gave me this warning recently). I imagine I'm going to still keep hearing your voice reminding me to behave myself at all times.
I was her personal assistant, proposal writer, professional editor and driver for her work in UI and her private practice (which I doubt she ever made any money from). These roles gave me excellent planning, budgeting and project management skills that I still utilize at work and in life. I recall my first experience with research at around age 11 when I helped her administer logotest based questionnaires to UI students and then coded them by hand toward her PhD. The holiday job was to help draft proposals, edit and send her correspondences and proofread papers. She usually paid me and would often borrow some back, because she'd insisted 'I was richer than her'. Haha.
Sometimes, my mother had two separate rules for the same thing: For instance, I could give/collect stuff from her stuff using my left hand at home. She wouldwoulld'd however remind me not to do so 'outside', especially with money at the market or in public transport because it's a huge no-no in Yoruba culture.
When she visited close friends or traveled, she would eat whatever was put before her and she taught me to do the same. 'When we get back home,' she'd say 'you can eat whatever you want'. She honored her culture. She was never intimidated by anyone’s wealth or position. She was unabashed and would write letters or proposals and insist on a meeting with any ambassador, governor, executive she felt could assist with her work. And even if she didn’t get the collaboration she wanted, she'd simply shrug it off until the next time. She related respectfully with everyone, even when many would not expect her to, based on her 'status'. You would never hear her say 'do you know who I am'? Rather, she'd gladly wait her turn, just like everyone else. She also hardly ever called in favors or demanded preferential treatment. Of course, she was naturally respected so people often offered to help.
Another hilarious thing about my mother is she's the worst liar ever! Her nostrils would twitch uncontrollably when she tried so we always caught her. She was so determined and could not be swayed from her personal values or convictions. It's difficult to come to terms with the fact that someone so strong and hardy in every way you can think of would pass away so suddenly. And a tiny part of me still wonders if she has gone to confront death and would bulldoze her way back to tell the story and so we can all share a good laugh!
Thank you, mom, for being phenomenal. No one fully understands what happens in the afterlife but I take great comfort in knowing that your being absent from this world means you are present with the Lord. And this is enough for me.
Dr. Olatunde Asagba (Daughter)