After her parents' divorce, it was Nadia Owusu's aunties who taught her the true meaning of family. Here she pays tribute to them...
In some of my most treasured childhood memories, my aunt Harriet is propped up on pillows beside me in bed, reading to me from picture books. She gives each character a clear and distinctive voice. She pauses to ask me what I think about the trouble Winnie the Pooh has got himself into, and laughs at my answers. I feel myself drifting into sweet, pleasant dreams.
When I was two and my sister Yasmeen was one, my mother left and my parents got divorced. At the time, we were living in Tanzania, where my Ghanaian father was
an official with a United Nations agency. My mother is Armenian-American and she returned to the US and quickly remarried, disappearing for most of my childhood. Although I can barely remember the time before my mother left, I always felt her absence. I would spend hours staring at photographs of her in an album. I would squeeze my eyes shut and try to imagine what she smelled like.
For months, my father tried to raise me and my sister on his own, but he travelled often for work and didn’t want to leave us with friends or nannies for long periods. So he sent us to live with Auntie Harriet (pictured above with Nadia), his eldest sister who he was very close to, in Hailsham, a small town near the south coast of England. There, she worked as a nurse, and was a single mother to our cousin Laura, who is two years older than me. Yasmeen and I would live with Auntie Harriet and Laura for two and a half years. My father’s other two sisters, my aunts Violet and Freda, also lived nearby.
I was very young when I arrived in Hailsham, so many of my memories are hazy, though I remember feelings of loss, confusion and longing. Where were my parents? Why had I been separated from them? Why was it always raining? At nursery school, I was reminded that my family life was different from many other children’s. It was my classmates’ mothers who dropped them off and picked them up. Perhaps in part to disguise this difference, Yasmeen and I began to call Auntie Harriet ‘Mummy’.
Auntie Harriet must have worked long shifts at the hospital, yet I never noticed. She was always there to plait our hair, make pancakes for breakfast and clap loudly at school concerts. There were long summer days at the beach, holding her hand, our feet in the cold sea. I was afraid of the waves, but with my hand in hers, my worries dissolved. I can still smell her home-made peanut soup – a Ghanaian dish that I now make when I need comfort.
The house was always full of strong, smart women. My grandmother came for long visits from Ghana, and my aunts Violet and Freda often took care of us. They’d cook jollof rice and fried plantain, and we’d dance to highlife music until we were breathless. When Yasmeen, Laura and I had chicken pox, my aunts cared for us, preparing oatmeal baths and distracting us with board games.
While people often think my defining story is that I grew up without my mother, the truth is that my aunts – and especially Auntie Harriet – mothered me. After all, what really makes a ‘mother’? I knew, without question, that these women loved me deeply, that I loved them, and that I wanted to be like them when I grew up – kind, assertive and open-hearted. They held me when I needed to be held.
When I was five, my father was transferred to the Rome office of the UN agency, and announced he was remarrying. Yasmeen and I moved to live with him and our stepmother in Italy and she soon gave birth to my half-brother. When we left, I stopped calling Auntie Harriet ‘Mummy’, but that is still how I think of her. Visiting her, as I do every two years or so, will always feel like going home.
When I was 13, my spirited, loving father died of cancer and I didn’t know how to keep living. Auntie Harriet flew to Rome straight away. ‘Things will get better,’ she’d say as I cried into her lap. ‘You have so many wonderful things ahead of you. We will get through this together.’ It was difficult to imagine anything would ever be wonderful again, but hearing those words from her made me believe they could be true.
Soon after, I moved to Uganda with my stepmother, until I left for university in New York aged 18, where I’ve remained ever since. Despite the distance, Auntie Harriet has always felt close. We speak on the phone a few times a month and text daily. I feel safer knowing that she’s just a phone call away.
Last summer, Auntie Harriet collapsed at home, and we learned that she would need emergency surgery due to complications from a hernia. When Laura called to tell me, I broke down. Alongside worrying about the surgery, I was concerned about her contracting Covid-19 in hospital, and terrified that something would go wrong and I wouldn’t be able to travel to be by her side. After a sleepless night, I was so relieved to learn the surgery had been successful.
When I told my American friends about my distress over Auntie Harriet’s illness, not all of them understood. They didn’t think an aunt was as close a connection as a mother, father or sibling. ‘Sorry,’ they’d say, and change the subject. It surprised me to learn that many of them never got to know their aunts and uncles or cousins beyond the occasional family reunion.
In Ghanaian culture, and so many other cultures around the world, children are encouraged to think of aunts, uncles and cousins as closely as they would their parents and siblings. Before he died, my father often told me that our tradition of extended families meant I would never be alone in the world. If I ever needed help, there were so many relatives I could call. He knew, without a doubt, that they would be there for me. And they always have been.
Families affected by divorce and death are often spoken of as being broken. But I don’t see myself as coming from a broken family. I see myself as coming from an expansive family with strong ties connecting us across distances. I have felt mothered, nourished and protected.
Though my family felt unconventional growing up, I’m proud and grateful for it now. I have many ‘mothers’, whose support, love and guidance have provided me with stability and the strength to get through difficult times.
When I was struggling with whether to reach out to my mother, AuntieHarriet encouraged me and supported me in doing so. In big, broad families like mine, we rally together, offering all kinds of support, whether financial or psychological.
That is one of the great advantages of these wide family nets. When it all falls apart, you are not left to figure out how to carry on alone. Someone, somewhere, will open their arms and bring you home.
Nadia's book Aftershocks: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Identity (Spectre) is out now.
This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of Red. Subscribe to Red now to get the magazine delivered to your door.
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