“Coming mummy,” we chorused, washing and dunking water on each others’ backs, splashing water at each other, always careful to avoid the elaborate hairdos that sat on our heads – shuku, hair braided to the centre of the head and held down, sewn with an intricate cord of natural locks, forming a huge, complicated twisted plait. That was what we got not jerry curl, perming, gel pack, Bob Marley or curl activator. Just weaving. And not Ghana braids: we didn’t have that then. Or thread – tie-tie or water-water. We were church people. But for Christmas we didn’t get thread. Most times, my mother would wash our hair, soften it with conditioner, straighten it with an iron (stretching) comb roasted over a hot fire and used to comb the hair with lots of grease. Then she would pack the hair ‘one’ or style it with hair pins.
We filed out solemnly towards the sound of my mother’s voice. We found her standing by a suitcase – a suitcase which should have been covered with dust – still beaming, pleased with herself. All kinds of emotions played across her features, anticipation, delight, expectation, and yes, anxiety; would we like our things? Would they fit?
We arrived, naked, dripping water, and she chased, us back to wipe and cream our bodies, she almost hopping from foot to foot, the glow on her face lighting up her features like an inner lamp, light dancing in her eyes, her whole being suffused with heat, barely able to contain herself.
We went back to our room, wiped our bodies, stamped cream on our flesh and returned where she still stood – or tried to – by the box, throbbing and pulsating like a donor heart readied for transplantation.
With a flourish, my mother flung the lid of the box open and we craned our necks to see, but she shooed us away, across from her, right across the bed that ran like a river between us and asked us to stand still and be quiet.
She then proceeded to bring out the stuff from the box, beginning with the smallest or least important items. We already had our favourite colours so there was no need for squabbling. She handed each of us panties, then stockings, and socks and boy pants for my brother.
A brief dramatic pause filled with uncertainty followed, when we were supposed to be wondering whether that was all we were getting. She would frown to heighten the tension, sigh, mumble how she and our father had worked so hard to get us the little they could and how we should be grateful for what we did get.
We nodded solemnly, five little brats, four of whom had slight headaches and staring eyes from the hair pulled so sternly from their foreheads, and one boy with a sharp new haircut.
When the tension had played out long enough, my mother continued to hand out items stingily, still happy, still chirping, holding back, teasing, taunting, eliciting gratitude until we thought we would drown in all the effusiveness and lecturing.
We were grateful. Geddit!
We were excited too, just not about the same things she was excited about. Our excitement lay beyond those walls, right through the living room and into the kitchen from where the most glorious smells known to (wo)man were being emitted in wafts and wafts. Our mouths watered.
We were also enchanted by the cries of other children outside, throwing knock out, trying out and comparing their toy glasses and wristwatches and balloons, already blowing their banana balloon to see who made the longest one and their whistle and feather balloon for the loudest noise when the air left it. Soon they would set out to watch masquerades and we wanted to be with them.
With our looks, we urged my mother to hurry.
She interpreted our looks to mean delight and anticipation. Thus encouraged, she finally, dramatically unveiled the pièce(s) de résistance, our dresses, followed very closely by our shoes. We oohed and aahed; we tried them on, struck poses and thanked her in a demonstrative and extravagant fashion. We hugged her and kissed her with slobbering kisses. We ran off and showed ourselves off to our father, who advised us in stern tones to take off the clothes before eating.
We could not bear to be parted from our new clothes, so my father advised us to tie a sheet above our chests as we ate. He then gave us the kind of money we saw only once a year – clean, crisp mints. This money meant more to us than any dirty, wrinkled amount twenty times its value. Several times a year, we washed and ironed money but never quite got this result.
This was also the only time in the whole year when money was ours to do with as we pleased. Every other money we got in the year, even dash money was to be handed over to my mother and woe betide who ever didn’t.
As we filed out of our father’s room and were safe from the eyes of our parents, we high-fived each other, giggled and winked.
We were good children. We had been brought up to be sensitive, conscientious and kind.
If we weren’t, we could have told my mother that we had been pulling out that box and trying on our Christmas ‘surprises’ since October.