When I was born, my mother sought to give me a name that represented something beautiful and unique. She named me Poppy. She shouldn’t have. As a result of her creativity, I’ve had to endure such jibes as ‘Poppy, who’s your pop?’ ‘He must be a stray dog.’
Sometimes I want to wear a sign on myself that says, ‘My name is Poppy, not puppy.’ Maybe I should have done that in primary school. It may have stopped other pupils from pouring their leftover lunches on my desk. One of my friends suggested that I switch to my Igbo name instead, but that’s even worse. Nwabuife, child is something. What kind of person names their child that? I can’t even shorten it to look cute- Nwabu, Buife, BuBu. When I asked my Mom why she gave me the name, she said, ‘You’re a child. You won’t understand.’
My family lives in Ikeja, Lagos. After I attended JS1 in Lagos, my parents sent me down to Enugu to continue secondary school. Mom didn’t tell me why I was moved because ‘I’m a child, I won’t understand.’ I had to stay with her cousin, Aunty Obioma.
When I arrived at Aunty Obioma’s house, her daughter Deka was excited to see me. She kept gushing about how I’d grown so big and how many years it had been since she last saw me. When she realised that I didn’t even remember who she was, she exclaimed,
‘Poppy Nwabuife Nwafor! Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten me.’
I assumed it was a slip of tongue but when she called me by my full name again, I had to correct her.
‘My surname isn’t Nwafor, it’s Okeke.’
‘Your surname is Nwafor.’
‘No, it’s Okeke.’
Deka laughed. ‘Don’t tell me you’ve also forgotten your surname.’
I was annoyed. She had spent a greater part of the evening trying to convince me that I’d previously lived with them for three years. She’d even taken me to the neighbours’ house. A bunch of strangers that claimed to have driven me to school a number of times.
‘Were you kidnapped by aliens and brainwashed? How can you have forgotten everything, including your own surname?’
‘I did not forget my surname!’
Who was she to tell me what my name was? I was angry and unhappy at that moment. I’d been whisked away from my life and friends and family, without any explanation, to a town that did not have a beach, a shopping mall, a cinema or an amusement park. I’d spent the whole evening with strangers claiming to have been a part of my life, and now she was trying to tell me I’d gotten my own surname wrong.
She was going through a box of old books. We were in a little room full of old things in cartons and bags. She called it ‘The box room’. Dust swirled around and made me sneeze. She brought me here because she wanted to show me some of the things I’d used the last time I was here. I wasn’t really interested. I just wanted to go lie down and gossip with my friends on phone. I missed them, I missed my life.
‘Proof of your old life.’ Deka was smiling. She held some exercise books wrapped in brown paper.
‘Take a close look Miss- Okeke.’
The books all had the same name on them ‘Poppy Nwafor.’ I leafed through them and saw notes made in a more childish version of my handwriting. Where had that name come from? It was not Mom’s maiden name, it was not even Deka’s surname. I was very sure it wasn’t my surname. Every member of my family went by ‘Okeke’- Mom, Dad and my younger brother and sisters.
Deka was obviously satisfied by my confusion. She had a smirk on her face.
‘My job here is done.’
Later, on the phone with Mom, I asked, ‘Mom, who is Poppy Nwafor?’
‘Poppy Nwafor?’ She laughed, ‘I don’t know, why would you ask such a question?’
‘Because I saw books with ‘Poppy Nwafor’ written on them.’
That laugh again, ‘Maybe you have a namesake.’
‘Mom I’m not stupid. Tell me the truth.’
‘You’re still a child, Poppy, If I told you the truth, you wouldn’t understand.’
Back in the box room, I dug through Poppy Nwafor’s things. A pink gown, little plastic slippers, a half burnt towel with Minnie Mouse on it, a pink tiara, a book of nursery rhymes crayoned all over, a Barbie diary and a handful of photographs.
I sat down on a box and went through the photos. Most of them were pictures of me as a baby, with my mum, with uncles and aunts and some people I didn’t recognise. Wedding pictures. My parent’s wedding. What was I doing at my parent’s wedding?
There was a picture of me and Grandma. Mom’s mother. I missed Grandma too. She was always very fond of me. She used to call me Nwabuife. She savoured the name. Once, both of us were watching a movie about a pregnant girl that wanted to have an abortion but was stopped by her Mom, Grandma cried at the end of the movie.
‘Every child is something. Nwabuife.’ She had said.
Now, her words had a new meaning. My name had a new meaning.
‘You were wrong Mom.’ I whispered to the swirling dust, ‘I understand.’
Maybe I wasn’t a child anymore.