The year was 1983. I had just turned 8. I was still learning how to read and write and being dyslexic meant I was slower than the rest of the class. My father bought me a dictionary to help me with spelling and the meanings of words. Although, I think it was also to give him a break from answering my endless questions about things I was being taught at school. Mother was not interested; her hands were full from looking after my 3 other siblings. So my questions were either met with “go and ask your father” or “that’s a stupid question, go and make yourself useful”.
My father was teaching me how to spell my Christian name, Patricia. Try as I might, I could not pronounce it. But my father said it was important to know how to spell it. Then he bought me books and I wanted to write my name in them. Usually he did this in his stylish, calligraphic handwriting, using his special ink pen. I loved my father’s handwriting. It looked very beautiful and intelligent. I thought if I could learn to write like my father, I would become as intelligent and clever as he was. I asked him to teach me how to write like him.
“Papa how are you able to write like you do?” I asked one day.
“Because my teacher taught me to,” he replied patiently.
“Can you teach me how to write like you do?” I asked again to which my father laughed.
“She’s asking a stupid question again, why on earth do you want to write like a man?” interrupted my mother.
“Because it’s beautiful,” I answered defiantly.
“Well you shouldn’t. Men write sloppy, women should write straight and neat,” mother insisted.
“To write like I do, you need to hold your pen between your first and middle finger supported by your thumb, like this.”
“Don’t encourage her, she’s not a boy,” my mother was not giving up on her position.
“It’s only handwriting, it doesn’t change her gender.”
He was obviously pleased that I wanted to be more like him. A small triumph for competing parents, no doubt supported by the fact that I worshipped my father. To me, my mother was just jealous of the fact that I was close to my father and that I wanted to be more like him than her. Talk about inverted Oedipus Complex, Sigmund Freud would have been proud. I started to write like my father and to this day I have handwriting that is sloppy and slanty. Not as pretty as my father’s handwriting but I got my way, supported by my father. The first of many rebellious acts completed.
One day my father bought me a story book and I wanted to write my full name on the inside cover to prevent it being stolen by other kids. I had a middle name given to me by my father which I disliked. It was an African name, “Ugboga”, which literally means “visitor”. According to my father, the first child he had with my mother died aged 6 months. This taught him that the life and death of his children were beyond his control. He chose to name me “visitor” as a mental preparation for anything that might happen to me which he had no control over. I loved my father dearly but I disagreed with him on this. He wanted me to write this name in my new book, but I had other ideas. I preferred the name my great grandmother gave me, “Onyeche”, which, translated, roughly means “the ambitious one”.
“Papa, I prefer my other middle name. After all I am still here,” I reasoned.
“It’s not in your birth certificate,” he told me in a matter of fact way.
“But I don’t like it,” I protested.
“You don’t have to. I am called by the name my parents gave me, I didn’t have to like it.”
“But why can’t I change it if I don’t like it?”
“Because in life you play the cards you’re dealt, and children must bear the name given them by their parents.”
“So it’s going to be my name now it’s written in my birth certificate?”
“Absolutely,” replied my dad, glad to hear the end of the conversation.
The rebel in me had hatched a grand plan, and nothing in heaven or on earth was going to stop me.
That evening, whilst my father was watching television, I sneaked into the cupboard where my dad kept all our birth certificates. My heart was thumping in my chest as I frantically searched for the big brown envelope. I knew it was there because when my little brother was born I saw my father put his birth certificate in there. After what seemed like an eternity I found the envelope. Then I heard footsteps. It was father coming to fetch his glasses.
“What are you doing in here?” he asked as he grabbed his glasses and dashed out of the bedroom.
“I was looking for something,” I answered. I dropped to my knees to pretend I was looking for something. Father sighed, walked out and left me to it. He had no time to get into an argument with me. After he left I pulled out my birth certificate and took it to a small corner of the bedroom next to the wardrobe where no one could spot me. I got my biro pen out and wrote my favourite middle name over my father’s favourite middle name. I smiled, pleased with myself. It looked messy but for me, my destiny was rewritten. I am not going to die like father believes and, most importantly, it’s no longer in my birth certificate.
I just hope he never finds out...