“Once I was young and agile but now, not that much so.
It baffles me and I wonder: Where did it all go?
Time has flown, though you never see it fly,
Its wings are a woven mass of weeks and years gone by.
Who can unravel the ‘times and seasons’ mystery,
Or keep up with life’s steadily moving gallery?
Where the impetuous youngster evolves into a mature mind,
Leaving the folly and innocence of childhood behind.
Where was I when ‘How much longer?’ turned to ‘At last!’
When the present overtook the future and became my past?
I’ve reached a milestone that once seemed an eternity away
And I’m headed for another that draws closer with each passing day.
The gap between then and now is an archive of yester years
Memories of the good old days - of joys, hopes and fears
And though it hasn’t all turned out exactly as I planned
I’m wiser; I’m grateful to still be in this land.
So what’s to be done in the face of this present hour?
Oh, to make the most of life while it’s still a blooming flower.
Who better to guide than the Author of human destiny?
To work closely with Him would make it less a mystery.”
The new town was a sleepy one by Stella’s observation. She came to this conclusion within a few weeks after the family of five had settled in. The boys were enrolled in a new school and Edwin’s personal assistant helped to secure a nanny to help with the chores. The small and quiet city was a different ball game from the busy commercial hub where they were coming from.
‘The people here are introverted and laid back,’ Stella remarked to Edwin. ‘Maybe a little backward.’
Her husband disagreed. ‘We are here too, aren’t we?’
Stella sniggered. ‘Well we’re probably the best thing that has happened to this place,’ she commented. ‘I’ve scoured the area and there’s just not that much activity.’
‘That might have been true until recently,’ he replied. ‘Of late, there’s been quite a huge influx of people. It’s a young town with emerging opportunities.’
He could more readily identify with that fact than she, having become busier than she had ever known him to be. With various field projects to handle, Stella’s husband was rapidly establishing himself as a creative designer in his new ventures and was becoming quite the ‘big man’. At first, it threw his wife off guard to see the respect accorded him, as she became acquainted with his circle. She initially was not sure what to make of the reverential way people addressed the man, with whom she was all too familiar. This was her everyday Edwin. She knew him as a struggling fashion designer, with his hard yielding efforts to make ends meet. His new status would take some getting used to. Mr. Aigbe did say that his work ethics through the years would someday yield its fruit. Remembering the advice of the older couple who they had left behind in their former city of residence, Stella mentally repositioned her husband accordingly and cheered him on. The pride in her voice was unmistakable whenever she bragged of his progress to her sons, saying: ‘That is your father.’
She, on her part, anticipated what a challenge it would be, finding her footing in this vicinity. She was a stranger here, with no acquaintances. Still, she wasted no time in occupying her new territory. Edwin stepped out of her way as she worked on their home, setting potted plants in the front yard, rearranging furnishings and gracing the walls with framed photos. No room escaped her notice and when she was through, every area from the front door to the back of the kitchen held a distinctive pleasantness which only a woman’s touch could bring.
She was pleasantly surprised when her husband took notice. Back in the days, around when their first son was born, he barely noticed her daily domestic upkeep. At those times Stella would sulk over such nonchalance. When that did not yield any results, she would throw some nagging into the mix about how unappreciative he was of her efforts. At a point, she even settled for commending herself on her own labors when he was not forthcoming with the much deserved praise. Somewhere in her diary, she wrote how she wished she could discover more far reaching ways of drawing his attention to what needed noticing. But these days, he was paying attention. Indeed, Edwin seemed to have grown on many fronts. He complimented her more on her homely handiwork, and even offered some assistance here and there. He seemed to be reading her mind. With their marriage in its tenth year, Stella noted with fascination how unusually well informed he was of things which she had not informed him about. She wondered if it was by some deep spiritual insight that he was able to read her so well - until one day, she stumbled on him going through her journal. She walked into the room one evening and there he was, devouring its pages!
‘What are you doing?’ She demanded.
‘I was curious,’ he admitted candidly, as though that was enough justification.
Snatching her little book away, Stella glared at him. ‘How long has this been going on?’ She wanted to know as though he and her journal had been involved in some sort of secret affair. ‘Do you often read my diary?’
Edwin rolled his eyes in recollection. ‘Only a few times.’
‘That’s not fair,’ she snapped. ‘And you know it!’
When he confessed that he had gone through much of the old one and had recently started on the leather bound one, Stella almost flipped. Her books were sacrosanct and Edwin had no right to intrude. As she thought about the depths of their content, she winced uncomfortably. There were things in there about how they handled financial issues, raising the children and even their intimacy behind closed doors. Her face grew cloudy at the invasion of her secret space. In irritation, she threatened to tear the book to pieces to stop him from ever gaining access to it again. But such a drastic move would be more a loss to her than a deterrent to him.
‘This is tantamount to spying,’ she accused.
‘It’s the closest thing to understanding you,’ was his defense
‘You shouldn’t! Not without my consent.’
He didn’t argue about that. ‘Well in all fairness, I left my fingerprints behind, so you would know I’ve been there.’
‘What do you mean? What fingerprints?’
‘Flip to the back of your book,’ he replied. ‘And you’ll see.’
Stella had not noticed before now, that he had been filling up the back pages with notes of his own. Though he was not as proficient as she was, his ‘love letters’, all addressed to his ’Dear Stella,’ included many musings. Some were pleasant, but he also had his fair share of frustrations and had penned them down in response to a few of hers. It never occurred to her to check the opposite side and would probably not have found him there, until their jottings met up somewhere in the middle. Though it was refreshing to see records of some of their best family moments, there were many thoughts that needed to be laid bare on the table and hammered out. When Edwin reached out his hand to flip to the most intense notes; Stella almost yanked the journal away, not sure how she felt about sharing the pages with him. Pouting, she looked around. Their home was way too small to hide the book such that Edwin would not be able to find it; and it would be ridiculous to keep it anywhere else. She abashedly remembered how more willing she had been to share the thoughts she put on paper with Mrs. Aigbe than with him – although in all fairness, she had been planning to, but had put it off again and again. Still, he could have gotten her permission first before tunneling through her soul. So much for privacy, she thought to herself. With an unusually slow gentleness, she released the book into his hands. She was unimpressed at his less than remorseful look, as he eagerly took it from her. She also noted that - blaming it on his eagerness to understand her better - he hadn’t promised not to go reading it in the future.
The annual couple’s ball was scheduled to hold in two weeks and Stella was extremely excited. It would be her first grand event in this new town. The timing was perfect. Had they relocated here later than they did, she would have missed it. Highly expectant, she marked off the days leading to the occasion, going on and on about it to Edwin in pretty much the same way her sons would fuss over an upcoming birthday or special holiday. When the much anticipated evening arrived, she wrote in her diary:
We’ve looked forward to it for a long time. I’m particularly excited and have put together every last detail towards this evening; even what I want us to wear. The clothes have been ironed and laid out ready, but Edwin came in a moment ago and picked a different attire for himself - not at all what I had in mind.
‘But that’s the same thing you wore to your mother’s birthday celebration the weekend before we moved!’ I protested vehemently.
He nodded and responded casually. ‘Yes, but this is a different crowd.’
How strange! Just when I think I’m getting to understand him better, he goes and proves me wrong. I can’t get over the fact that he is losing his flair for fashion, after all his years of experience as a designer. Nothing I say will change his mind. This alone has threatened to ruin the entire evening.
But what Edwin chose to or not to wear for the occasion would prove less disruptive to his wife’s mood than what - or rather, who - they met there. Little did Stella anticipate the level of self awareness which her soon to be acquaintances would awaken in her.
They were the second couple to arrive. The couple who got there before them were young - so strikingly young in fact, that Stella was not sure if they were already married or about to be, or maybe even just university sweethearts. As Ossai and Samo glided over to say hello, Stella assessed them quickly. If she was asked to guess the lady’s age; going by her face and figure, she would have put her in her late teens. The young man, on whose arm she leaned, did not help matters. He was chubby, with a round face that almost made him look like a teddy bear. When he addressed Edwin by his first name, Stella almost had a fit. The use of ‘uncle’ in addressing her husband would have been more appropriate, she thought indignantly to herself. Though Edwin seemed not to mind, Stella was clearly irked by this behavior. Casting Ossai a silent reprimanding look that said, He’s not your mate, she turned away to await the arrival of others who were more within her age bracket and with whom she could develop a circle of friends.
And though she would later become friends with an older-looking couple, it was impossible to ignore the younger category - the likes of the first - that formed the critical mass of that evening’s gathering. The more Stella resolved not to take notice of them, the more they invaded her space. Arriving in their pairs, they filled the room with a commanding presence and forced her to pay attention to them. If the occasion was a theatrical performance, they were the star actors. The ladies spoke with a speech that was so refined, it did not seem real. Their African accents were mingled with some sort of cockney-like intonation. It was not clear where they picked up their tongue twisting pronunciations, for certainly not all of them had left the shores of the country. In sharp contrast, the guys reveled in their adeptness at Pidgin English as they hailed and jabbed fun at each other, in a typical buddy-like manner.
Who were these kids? Stella wondered with haughty fascination as she observed them from the corner of her eye - and where were their chaperones? Even more amazing to her were the ladies’ attires and frugal use of fabric in making them. Perhaps Stella would have mortified her pride a bit, if only for the opportunity to style each one of them. Already, pictures of different designs of dresses that would fit their varying frames were forming in her mind. Even as her imagination worked, it dawned on her that the town she had once termed ‘sleepy’ had suddenly woken up. So this was what Edwin meant when he talked about the influx of a younger breed. One could not say for sure what was attracting them here. With all the energy they exuded, it was difficult to think of them as pushovers. Yet possibly, like Stella’s family, they too were moving to wider pastures as the big cities became overcrowded.
It was equally not clear where they had been hiding all the while, but only when Stella grew bored with despising the youthfulness in the room, did it occur to her that this town had always been awake. She had accused its residents of being too laid back, only to realize now that it was she who had been out of circulation. Of a truth, she would remain that way if she did not loosen up that evening. After unsuccessfully trying to get her to mingle with the crowd, Edwin remarked that she seemed not be enjoying herself. Tugging uneasily at his sleeve, she admitted to feeling out of place.
‘Is it just me?’ she whispered. ‘Or do you also feel like we dropped from a different planet and landed among aliens?’
He shook his head. ‘The awkwardness exists only in your mind. No one else seems to feel that way.’ He assured her that everyone there was well above the age limit at which they could be classified as adults. ‘If you are not convinced,’ he added. ‘Try interacting with them.’
Certainly Stella couldn’t be thinking of leaving early, not after looking forward to this occasion for so long. As a remedy for her unease, Edwin suggested meeting the early comers again and quickly too, before the evening ended and she found herself just as isolated as she had been when it begun. Stella obliged. Putting on a bit of humility, she sought out her first acquaintance. Samo was quite willing to forgive her for her initial snobbery, if at all she had noticed it. Yet as they were reintroduced, Stella all of a sudden, could not help feeling way past her prime.
The impression would remain with her long after they left the couple’s ball. Over the next few days, Stella battled an inner conflict. The years were rolling by. She was well in her forties and already headed for her fifties. But was age really the defining factor and what was the cut off mark at which one could be considered to be past her youth? Indeed seniority was quite relative. There were many ahead of her and much more were coming behind. In the eyes of elders like the Aigbes, she was still young but when measured against Samo and most of those whom she had just met, she would be termed elderly.
Perhaps she could hold off on this ageing scare till she reached menopause when she officially lost her natural ability to bear a child. Or maybe she should start being aware right away; now that, even though technically she still could, she had stopped bearing children because her body just could not handle it like before.
Or was it the changes in her physical attributes that defined the ageing process? And by how much did they have to change? Stella spent the next couple of weeks obsessing over her looks. Not many would understand her disquiet. With a doting husband and three adorable sons - what else could she ask for? But if this was what they called midlife crisis, then she was swimming in the deep end.
Edwin had fallen asleep in their sons’ room that night. When Stella peeped in, she found Joboy straddled across his father’s waist and his brothers, with their legs on the walls and arms spread everywhere - all of them snoring loudly. Lifting the younger two boys, she laid them carefully on their separate bunks and shifted the oldest one in a more comfortable position beside his dad. Then switching off the lights, she shut the door quietly and tiptoed away. Within the solitude of the master bedroom, Stella stood in front of the mirror. The image that stared back at her starkly echoed her many changing features.
Grey hairs? Those were hereditary. The fact that she had had them for so long did not make it any more comforting, but she had learnt to live with them. There was a time when she waged war on those non-compliant strands whenever she discovered them. The short sharp pain that made her wince as she yanked them out of her scalp, was a slight inconvenience compared to the satisfaction of looking flawless. Then she noticed that for every strand of grey hair she pulled out, at least two more sprang up in its place. So eventually, she left them alone. She had contemplated trying the native lali which her mother used when Stella was a child, to dye the silvery notes in her black mass of hair to a beautiful velvety red. Some of her old friends had even opted for the more refined highlights which were available these days. But Stella was yet to decide whether to follow that route. She moved on with her checklist.
Wrinkled skin? She had managed to keep her skin supple, thanks to those specially formulated facial creams and body lotions which she invested heavily in. That, coupled with her daily routine of eight glasses of clean water and the various self concocted recipes of fresh vegetable and fruits smoothies, kept the wrinkles at bay. Yet looking closely, there was no doubt that her skin had seen much smoother days.
Flabby tummy? Well, that was a big issue and there was no denying the stretch marks either. However, it was to be expected. Even a strict exercise regime could barely hold all that flabbiness in line. But having three boys was no joke and here, she could cut herself some slack. She had always struggled to keep up with her exercise routine anyway. Yet she secretly wished that her belly did not look as if her youngest son was still in there.
By the time she was done assessing herself from head to toe, Stella was more aware than ever of her body flaws and had reignited the ageing scare. Minutes later, when Edwin entered the room, he met her looking depressed.
‘I thought you were asleep,’ she said.
‘Just lightly,’ he replied. ‘I heard you when you came in.’
He stood behind her and for a while, they both stared silently at their reflections while Stella tried to read the expression on her husband’s face.
‘You think I’ve grown fat, don’t you?’ she asked eventually.
‘I think you should watch your weight,’ he replied truthfully. ‘Shed a bit of it and you’ll be just fine.’
‘And what does just fine mean?’ Just fine was not good enough. It sounded too mediocre. A few years ago, he would have called her a bombshell. ‘Just say it. I’m not as pretty as I once was.’
Edwin looked amused. ‘All I’m saying,’ he ventured. ‘Is that some regular exercise would help you to age gracefully.’
‘Ah! There you go,’ she spun around. ‘So you agree that I’m ageing.’ Visibly upset, she stepped away from the mirror. ‘I’m not sure I like it. Old age may have looked good on Edede or even Mrs. Aigbe, but it will not look good on me. It may sound ridiculous, but a part of me wants to keep looking as young and beautiful as I used to be.’
Edwin was pensive for a moment and Stella sighed, feeling sure he was wishing the same thing.
‘I like this Stella better,’ he said decisively. ‘Our younger selves were naïve and impulsive. To remain that way, even if it were possible would be most unpalatable.’
He noted that their seemingly deteriorating physical features were no match for the increasingly stable characters which had been developing over the years. Stella relaxed a little. His words brought to mind one of her favorite verses of scripture: though the outward man is wasting away, the inward man is being renewed every day.
‘Nothing beats that meek and calm spirit which I’ve come to love so much in you,’ Edwin continued. ‘Still if it is any consolation, I don’t mind the make-up either. Goodness knows you need it, especially at a time like this.’
She gave him a playful jab in his side and laughed as he bawled in mock pain. Straightening up, he kissed her and told her she was beautiful. He said it so sincerely, that she had no choice but to believe him. She wished he would tell her so more often and made a mental note to put that in her diary.
‘I wouldn’t trade the experience of growing old with you for a perpetually flawless appearance,’ he said. ‘Imagine having no memories to treasure, no experiences to reflect on and no stories to pass down.’
Stella laughed out loud mostly at herself, loving what she was hearing. Edwin’s affirmation gladdened her heart. It was the joker in this mirror-image game of hers, bringing more satisfaction than she would have felt had she gotten a perfect score in her ‘state of my youthfulness’ test. She slept soundly that night, with her head nestled comfortably on her husband’s chest as they drifted off to the steady ticking on the wall. There was no stopping the hands of the clock, but that night it only served as a reminder to the budding couple that they were, after all, part of the human race and no one was expected to stand still.