What Happens When Cultures Collide?

A year after my father passed away from cancer my mother started to muse aloud about marriage and progeny. Not for herself though, for she was focused on finding a suitable woman for me, her beloved and only son.

Momma doesn’t want me to be left alone after she has passed on from this world — the prospect of her son being a single man after her death contributes to her sleepless nights. “My children are taking care of me and I am so grateful for the help,” she said one afternoon. “ I am retired and with no husband to share the rest of my life with. I don’t know what I would do without my children helping me.”

I approached her, put my hands on both of her shoulders and said, “You don’t have to be grateful for anything. We don’t mind helping you at all momma.”

Momma stepped forward, her eyes misty. “I want the same thing for you. I want my son and daughters to have good children who will take care of them when they get old.”

“I know momma,” I said. “You know that I’m working on that, right?”

“It’s getting late, my dear.”

While rolling my eyes I said, “Yes, I am aware of my advancing age.”

“And there is something else,” my mom said before pausing. “I want grandchildren.”

Love, marriage, and children are what I’ve wanted for some years now. Not for the same exact same reasons as my mother, though her motivations and my motivations eventually dovetail into the same potential outgrowth: happiness. Mom and I would both be happy if I was married with children.

A wife and child will provide me with an additional purpose for living, propelling me towards greater heights of economic and personal success. And I could build upon the foundation that my mother and father — both African immigrants — have created for me and my two siblings. It took a while for me to come around to this current way of thinking, that of being a person who is ready to take on more responsibility. My mother remains bullish and optimistic about my prospects for finding the love of my life. But I remain somewhat unsure if I can bring these dreams into fruition.

****

I gave up on living on my own more than thirteen years ago. It was just after I’d been confronted by armed police officers at my apartment complex. These offers slapped cuffs around my wrist, stuffed me into the back of the squad car, and drove me to the psychiatric wing of the Denver Health Hospital facility. Even in a compromised state, I was becoming aware of a tiring and disturbing pattern. I’d leave my parents’ house for my own apartment dwelling, lose my shit sometime after settling into my new digs, and then armed police officers arrive at my front door. I was doing the same thing over and over again, expecting the outcome to be different with each attempt. It was as if I was existing in an insane time loop, except that I was getting progressively older. So I retreated to my mother and father’s house in June, 2007. It was, without question, the smartest decision I’d made since becoming a young adult twelve years earlier — I moved back home at age thirty-one.

There were other harrowing incidents involving my health after I’d arrived home, though not as serious as when I was living on my own. Mom and Dad became more educated and vigilant after each breakdown, and I, knowing how much my adverse behavior affected my mother and father, came around to understanding that my parents were suffering with me. So I went back to regularly visiting a doctor and ingesting my psychotropic medications without fail.

Some years later, during the waning minutes of my dad’s funeral reception, I was approached by one of my father’s countrymen. He was a large, older man, dressed head to toe in black. He extended a hand to introduce himself, saying that he’d known my father since they were children growing up in Amaigbo, Nigeria. I extended my hand to accept his. The man insisted that he knew me, and thought that I should know him too: “I am your uncle,” he said, before referring to himself as Cletus.

I shook my head and said, “I should remember you, but I don’t. My mind is blank right now.”

“Well, you were very young the last time I saw you. A very little man,” he said.

“Again, I’m so sorry.”

“That’s okay,” he said, patting me on my shoulder. “Eze, Eze. You are a big man. How old are you?”

“I’m thirty-seven.”

“Are you married now?” he asked. Where is your wife?”

I smiled sheepishly at Cletus, felt the heat surge through my cheeks and forehead. “I don’t have one.”

“What?!” said a flabbergasted Uncle Cletus. “We’ll have to get to work on that afterwards.”

“Okay.”

“What about your mother? I understand that you staying with her and taking care of her?”

“I am. I have been for years now.”

“Good,” said Cletus. “Then you are doing what you are supposed to do. Following the culture.”

Other mourners would echo Cletus’ sentiments. And just like that, the reason for me to hang my head in shame became a reason for me to hold my head up high. I wasn’t just living with my mother, I was taking care of her too. And I was adhering to Nigerian cultural norms and fostering inclusion into a community.

Some six years after the funeral, I entered into a relationship with Sandra. I’d known Sandra for years before she put forth the idea we should become a couple. I enthusiastically replied “yes!” to her proposal. After Sandra and I had made it official, our mutual friends and her family members seemed to let out a huge sigh.

“Finally” is what Sandra’s brother had said. “What took you guys so long?”

I spent more than a decade cultivating a relationship with Sandra and have had to navigate being matched with female strangers by my mother, uncles, cousins and other members of the community. So, I was exhausted and done with searching for a mate. I was definitive as I relayed the news of my coupling with Sandra to my mother. “She is the one momma,” I said. “There cannot be and there is no one else. If it doesn’t work with her, then I don’t know if there is anyone else in the world that I can make it work with.”

“Okay,” said mom. “Let me take a few days to think about this.”

“Sure,” I replied. “But this it for sure. I don’t want anyone else.”

Eventually, my mother, knowing that there may not be very many options available for a forty-three year old man, offered her support.

Sandra is a white American who lives in the more affluent section of my home state. She also lives with her parents, but for reasons that were the opposite of mine, as her mom and dad were still alive to provide each other company.

Sandra is anxious to move out of her parents’ house, and hoped that we could build our own home together. And I knew that her sister’s life as a newlywed made Sandra covet that life even more, which made me anxious because I knew that I may not be able to afford her that exact kind of life. During a Zoom call, I asked Sandra what she thought about possibly cohabitating with my mother in the same house.

“Uh, well, Eze” said Sandra, sighing. “I’ve always thought about having you all to myself.”

“Yeah, I’ve thought about that too,” I said. “Just the two of us would be the ideal situation. And you’re completely in the right to expect that. The thing is that now I am bound by a sort of duty.”

“We’ve got time to think about it,” she said, waving a hand to dismiss the flicker of discord.

Maybe if I was twenty-three again, we’d have a lot of time to think about it. But I was six months away from turning forty-four.

“Sure,” I said. “We can think about it.”

That Zoom Call was the beginning of the end of our relationship.

Sandra’s ancestors had immigrated to the New World from Germany during the pre-revolutionary period. Her family has been able to establish roots and history in the United States over a period of centuries. Sandra’s family subscribes to a distinct American culture, one in which people aspire to a rugged and conservative individualism. I am the son of immigrants, born two generations removed from a civil war that forced my mother and father to flee their country of birth. And though I’m a native born citizen of these United States of America, I belong to community of hundreds of Nigerians in Colorado, and this group of dual citizens are intent on preserving, and then expanding their native culture. It’s just like Roger, the head of Denver based Amaigbo (Amaigbo it a city in Nigeria) Town Union said at my father’s funeral reception: “You belong to us and we belong to you.”

My mother promptly informed her nephews of the disagreement over the “living situation”, as she called it. Of course her nephews were shocked by Sandra’s reluctance to accept the idea I had proposed to her. I discussed Sandra’s reluctance with my sisters, who expressed their alarm: “I don’t want my mother on the streets,” said middle sister. “I know that you love her and she loves you,” said baby sister. “But she’s making a bad first impression on this family.”

I know. It’s kind of a harsh assessment of the woman I wanted to marry. Still, I knew that my family was critical because they loved my mother deeply, and because she is looked upon with high regard by everyone in our wider union.

A few weeks after I’d talked to Sandra about what might be required of her, mom and I were in agreement: The “community”, as we call it, encompassing my immediate family and the Nigerians who live in Colorado, Massachusetts, Maryland, Missouri, Kansas, Texas, and Atlanta would not tolerate me leaving my mother, who is widowed, retired, and receiving fixed income.

“I know what’s going to happen,” I said to mom. “People are going to be really, really angry. I don’t want that type of cloud hanging over the relationship. Maybe, when I was twenty-three and daddy was alive, then I could have been okay with people being upset with my decision. I would have shrugged and done what I wanted to do. But not now. I’m too old and settled, and I like that we’re all getting along.”

“You’re right,” she said. “But I still want to you to happy. And your sisters want your happiness too. Sandra seems like a very nice woman. And she has been a good friend to you for years. If you want to be with her, then we can figure something out. I think I’d be fine if you moved on.”

“Yeah, and baby sister has offered to come live with you in case I do move. But I’m not really good with my entire family upending their lives for me. Baby sister would have to sell her house and move. Or you might have to sell the house if baby sister can’t leave her place in New York. I’m not comfortable with that.”

“So what do you want to do then, my dear?” asked my mother.

“I gonna try to talk to her some more. She didn’t sound like she was completely against the idea. I did sense some hesitation.”

“Yes. Trying to talking to her again. Remember to be clear with her.”

Sandra would use our Zoom sessions to reiterate her stance, one from which she would not equivocate. “If we are going to continue with this relationship,” she said. “Then I going to have to insist on this condition. At least for the first few years we would need time to create a dynamic as a couple. It’s very important.”

I relayed Sandra’s condition to my mother, who regaled her nephews of Sandra’s conditions for moving forward . One of her nephews is a catholic priest name Peter. After cancer took my father from us, Peter was one of the few people who offered us unwavering support when there was a dispute over where to bury my father’s body. Mom told me that Peter wept during one of their phone calls. “I live in Texas,” he said. Who will notify me if anything happens to you if Eze is not there?!”

Soon after becoming aware of Peter’s extreme upset I did what I always do near the denouement of a relationship: ask for advice from friends and family. I was told different things by an assorted number of people. For a while I couldn’t decide on what best to do. Of course I loved Sandra, for she wanted the same things that I did and I wanted to make her happy. But I love my family too, and at age forty-four, my life is becoming permanently enmeshed in a culture that requires commitment to what can be termed as a somewhat unorthodox lifestyle for an American born male. After agonizing for weeks over the best path forward for everyone involved, I came to a decision: I’d choose the certainty and stability that accompanies being on good terms with my people.

I didn’t know how I was going to tell Sandra that we should end our relationship.

Sandra, sensing my conflicting emotions at the end of summer, stepped in to deliver the inevitable. She ended the relationship through a letter, insisting that the letter was the only way she could end things without dissolving into a puddle of tears. As I read the letter, I was overcome with a sense of loss and relief. Loss because my chance at love had evaporated. Relief because I wasn’t going to inconvenience my family — I’d been the source of so much strife in the past — with a decision I’d made. Sandra insisted that we could become friends after we’ve had time to process our failure, to which I replied “yes” in a long-winded response.

The sundering of my romantic relationship with Sandra has not adversely impacted my relationship with my family, culture, and community. In fact, our bonds have become even more tight knit as the months have passed. And if there is another woman for me on the horizon, then I hope that she will be more accepting of a family and cultural dynamic that is unlikely to change.

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