I have a deep and personal reverence for intergenerational relationships. The benefit that is drawn from the mentoring of a young person by a loving, older relative (in this story, a grandmother) is often nourishing and reciprocal.
Growing up I had only one living grandparent, my maternal granny. My friends had grandmothers who cooked up treats for them. Mine was a no-nonsense undertaker who took corners in her green Mini on two wheels and roared out for her grandchildren (and everyone else for that matter) in a voice like thunder.
She was feared and revered by most – including her grandchildren. Fast forward to my adulthood, and our relationship softened and sweetened. To me, she was now a pillar of strength and fortitude, a well of wisdom and kindness.
What would it have been like to have experienced this tender side of my grandmother back when I was a child, I wondered? This led me to write about 12-year-old Ato whose father died tragically when he was a baby. Ato has grown up with his mother. Her suspicion and mistrust of his paternal grandmother, Nana, have built an invisible barrier between him and his older relative. Then Ato’s mother is forced to send him over to Nana for weekends.
Ato has fears of today; Nana harbours regrets of the past. Both have hopes for the future. Together on her mysterious old porch sofa, there is an opportunity: for the boy to draw courage from his grandmother, and for her to make fresh choices with her grandson. Her longing, and his trust, form a bridge of restoration to a future where love and forgiveness disperse the shadows of the past.
Extract from Chapter 4:
Here, Ato is driven over to his grandmother Nana’s home by his reluctant mother, for his first visit in many years.
After about half an hour, they turned onto a wide, quiet street. There were no street hawkers here. TAMARIND RIDGE VILLE, a large sign at the corner of the road announced. This was Nana’s side of town. Ato stared. Wavy palm trees on either side of the road bowed to homes with sweeping balconies that made them look like castles. Electrical wiring stretched along the tops of most walls. Electrical wiring meant rich people with expensive stuff they wanted to protect from thieves. Left turn. Right. Another left turn. The houses were painted in soft blues and pinks and peaches, unlike in his community where every home was a dull white or fading yellow colour.
Tat-tat-tat. Mum’s fingertips fluttered again over her wheel like nervous rose petals. She slowed to a stop alongside a butter-yellow wall with a riot of peach, white and purple bougainvillea blossoms twisting along the top of it. He peeked through the diamond-shaped gaps in the stone wall. It was just as he remembered—a huge leafy garden. Nana’s house sat in the middle like a sweet candy home on a green carpet, surrounded by magic wood. His mother turned to him with her engine still running.
“Ato”—her tone had shifted from cross to nervous—“Listen to me: Don’t sit on her porch sofa. Please. And don’t tell her I told you that.”
He stared at her.
“Promise me,” she urged.
Be careful of that porch sofa, the Prophet had said. History repeats itself.
“I . . .” he began, but the small blue side gate was already swinging open. Nana swirled out like a joyful yellow and green bird of paradise. She must have been waiting. Her skirt reminded him of old and new mango leaves.
“Ato!” She hopped across the narrow concrete pavement and opened his car door. Her arms enveloped him when he stepped out. She was smiling, kissing his cheeks and forehead. His head had inched past her ear now, he realised. The familiar smell of shea butter and talcum powder wafted delicately to him. It was a smell he loved.
I’m scared. Why had his mother said that so often to the Prophet? And why did the Prophet keep telling Mum to be careful?
His mother switched off her engine and stepped out of the car. She brushed a twitching hand down her skirt and began to tell Nana about his homework and class tests and bedtime. But Nana had already slung his weekend bag over her square shoulder and was pulling him toward her gate.
“Mina.” The smile faded from Nana’s face. There was something in her voice—almost sadness. “Let’s stick with our plan.”
And she whisked Ato through the gate. It clanged shut like a jail door. His mother was left outside, by the open door of her car.
Ato had heard the plan: Mum would bring him to Nana’s on Friday after school. On Sunday after lunch, Nana would take him back home. He could do his homework at home: Nana’s time with him was not for homework.
Nana skipped ahead, up the stairs to the wide rectangular front porch of her home. He hung back, beside the gate.
“Nana, Mum is still outside.”
“She won’t be there forever,” Nana called back lightly. “Stretch your legs in the garden and then come see your room.” She disappeared behind the screen door, taking his bag inside.
He looked up at the porch. A lush green creeper dotted with cup-shaped lavender flowers wound through a wooden lattice that framed the space. Red clay pots squatted along the porch walls, each sprouting plants with zigzag-edged leaves, furry red leaves and pointed needle leaves. And there it was. At the far end of the porch. The sofa.
It was a lumpy three-seater covered in scratchy-looking orange fabric. It had been patched in a few places and was stained in several more. It looked like it had been rescued from a sofa orphanage. What happened after a person sat on it? Did Mum and the Prophet think it was bewitched? Two cane chairs with green cushions were set opposite it, across a porch table. Hopefully, it would be safe to sit on them.
His mother hadn’t moved. He would have heard her clattery engine above the evening conversations of people walking back from work on the street outside. Why had she brought him here if she was too scared to leave him? He fleetingly considered going back out to her.
Your father would have been so disappointed . . .
He changed his mind and turned to Nana’s garden, which sprawled out to the right of the porch. Red hibiscuses grew along the creamy wall. Their long orange stalks, dusted with yellow pollen, hung out from the heart of the frilly petals. Vegetables grew along the side of the house, near the back wall. He recognised tomatoes, okra, peppers and lettuce. But the real magic rose ahead of him: he counted—one, two, three, four, five, six spreading trees. They grew way above the roof of the house. Back home, four big hops would take him from their front door to their wooden gate. They didn’t have a lawn; Mum couldn’t afford a gardener.
The trees silently beckoned him. He stepped along the paving stones that wound an S-shaped path to the garden. The leafy branches allowed the setting sun to speckle the ground with bronze light. He walked past, rubbing his palm on the rough trunk mango tree, an avocado.
And then he saw it. Another couple of steps and he would have trod on it—a green tarpaulin rectangle spread out on the ground underneath a neem tree. A pyramid of loose earth rose beside it. He leaned forward, lifted the edge of the tarpaulin . . . and felt his heart stop. A hole in the ground—deep and rectangular. Freshly dug.
It looked like a grave.
Crossing the Stream is the first of a two-part middle-grade series forthcoming July 2023 from Cassava Republic Press.
About the Author
- Elizabeth-Irene Baitie is the director of a medical laboratory. She holds an MSc in Clinical Biochemistry with Molecular Biology from the University of Surrey, UK. “Working in a lab is about running tests and making discoveries,” she says. “Life is like that. You don’t realise who you are until you’re tested.” Her stories for children and young adults simultaneously tug at and thrill the heart. Her first children’s book, A Saint in Brown Sandals, won the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa. Subsequent young adult novels— The Twelfth Heart, The Dorm Challenge, Rattling in the Closet, and The Lion’s Whisper— were awarded the Burt Award for African Young Adult Literature. She has had seven novels published to date and lives in vibrant Accra with her husband. They are parents to three largely grown-up children.
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