She wept with Chioma too, the young woman who kept house for Mama. Three or four neighbours came in, wept too. Mama had been dearly loved. She’d been ‘mama’ to many. She’d been mama, a second mother, to Kristi.

Her parents came, stayed and then left. Kristi attended to what needed to be attended to. Levi was just too broken, too torn by grief. An only child who’d known only his mother since his father had died before his tenth birthday would be.

“You will take care of him, won’t you?” Tekena was set to leave. He’d been there all day. Had been at the hospital with Levi.

“I will.” There was such calm in his eyes, beneath the shadow of grief. He was always a man in control, Kristi thought. “How’s your wife?”

“Ima’s great. Travelled home to see her parents. Should be due back tomorrow.” He took her hand, held it tenderly. “Thank you for being here, Kristi. Thank you for pitching in like this.”

“She was also my mother. Gosh, I can’t believe it’s ‘was’ now.” She exhaled, shook her head. “How does death come so swiftly? Out of nowhere?”

“I can’t explain it. It’s the most staggering thing.” Tekena squeezed her hand. “You two take care of each other. Call me, whatever the time, should you two need anything. All right?”

“I will, if we need anything. Thank you, Tekena.” She gave him a quick hug, then stepped back. “Drive safe.”

“I will.”

After he left, she went to Chioma’s room. She was a third cousin of Levi’s and had been staying with Mama for close to eight years now.

“Aunty Kristi, maybe if I had gone to wake her up earlier, she wouldn’t have died.”

“Oh, Chioma, this is not your fault.” Kristi lowered on the bed, took the forlorn figure in her arms. “You couldn’t have stopped this. No one could. It was a sudden heart attack.” Levi had told her. “She was probably gone long before day break.” Probably.

“How can Mama just go like that? She was so young.”

She was… had been sixty-five her last birthday, five months ago. “Only God knows why and how, Chi. We can’t understand it. Not now. Maybe not ever.” She lifted the plate of yam pepper soup she’d rustled up. “Here. Try to eat. Even if it’s just a little. Then get some sleep, okay?”

“Okay, Aunty.” Chioma took the plate, sniffled. “Thank you.”

Kristi nodded, left her and went into Mama’s room.

Levi was on the floor covered with synthetic rug, Mama’s diary clutched in between his hands and his eyes staring out the drawn patterned curtains.

“I’ve not opened it. I’ve not dared to. She used to bark out a reproof, the rare times she’d bellow, if you so much as came near it.” Levi shifted his gaze to her, blinked. “Has Tekena gone home?”

“Yes, he has.” She said and shivered at the tug of familiar scents and feelings.

She’d been inside this room countless times. Mama had loved fine things and she’d had a good eye for them. Her bedroom was tastefully feminine—that was how Kristi always saw it. A fine mix of soft shades and warm tones that soothed you. Framed paintings on the walls – six of them. And Kristi knew each one. Beautiful crystal chandelier. Large bed with bold floral pattern sheets over it. Mama never used anything but floral cotton sheets on her bed. Two foot stools. A half-length mirror on top the desk where she had bits and pieces. Then the massive dark oak wardrobe. Mama’s pride and joy — the wardrobe, not the clothes inside.

She was here. She would always be a part of this room, of this house, of their lives, Kristi thought and allowed that to soothe her.

“Good.” Levi nodded, looked down at the diary. “What do you think she wrote inside?”

“Private thoughts.” That had been Mama’s answer when she’d succumbed to curiosity and asked two years ago. “She had a lot of thoughts, a lot of opinions, and she said her mind without mincing words.”

“Yes, she would call you a fool if you acted like one and wouldn’t blink at using that term.” Levi moistened his dry lips, blinked some more to keep back the pinch of tears. There were times it was hard to remember you were a man. “I can’t believe she’s gone, Kristi. Just like that. I saw her only four days ago.”

He remembered the visit. Remembered for some weird reason the bone she’d given to Frodo. The puppy still had it and chewed relentlessly on it every damn minute.

“She looked well. There was nothing wrong with her. Nothing I could see. I called her the next day.” Like he’d promised he would. They’d chatted for seven or eight minutes. Too short, he thought now. “Nothing was off about her. So, how can she be gone without a warning?”

“I don’t know.” Because she saw the tears in his eyes, hers too filled. “I can’t believe it myself.”

“She was everything. She was the one constant thing in my life that never changed. After my dad passed, it was just she and I, and she did everything for me. Was there for me in every way.” Levi swallowed the hot ball in his throat. “I never much wondered why she never remarried. Maybe because I was selfish and liked having her all to myself. Maybe because she always looked content and didn’t seem to want another kind of life apart from the one we had together.”

“She was content. She was happy with her life.” Her only disappointment, and she’d told Kristi this, was she and Levi being separated. “She was happy generally as a woman.”

It sort of soothed Levi to hear her say that. “She was a strong woman. One of the strongest I ever knew. She started the restaurant as a small canteen with just three tables. I’d help out after school and weekends, but she did the bulk of the work. She worked at it until it grew and became this known place.”

“She told me you named the restaurant.” Since they were both sounding less choked, Kristi poured glasses of pineapple juice and handed him one.

“Ah, yes. I never told you about that myself?” She shook her head and Levi frowned slightly before taking a sip of the juice. “Didn’t know I never told you. Anyway, she asked me for a name, Mama’s Kitchen leapt to my mind, I said it and it stuck.”

“She liked the name. She liked the simplicity of it. She liked that you chose it.” Mama had told her that with beaming pride first day they both met. “She liked… no, she loved the restaurant. It wasn’t just business. It was home. It was her life.” She looked at him. “But best of all, she loved you. You were her greatest pride and joy.”

Levi nodded. He knew that. “She loved you too. You were her favourite daughter-in-law.”

“I was her only daughter-in-law.” Kristi’s mouth curved with a small smile.

“Which made you even more of a favourite.” Levi shot her a quick grin and then he sobered up. “Thank you for being here with me, Kristi.”

“Where else would I be, Levi?” She met his eyes. “She was my mother too.”

Levi nodded, slipped his hand into hers and squeezed. There was so much to do. But he would do them later. They would do them later, together. For now, he took solace in her presence.

 

Mama was buried three weeks later, taken back home to Enugu and laid to rest among her people.

A week after the funeral, Levi called her and invited her to the reading of Mama’s will.

It didn’t surprise Kristi that the dear woman had written a will, she’d been one organised lady and very much the modern woman. But it surprised her to hear from Levi that the lawyer had insisted on her presence at the reading of the will.

They all gathered in her living room—Levi, Chioma, Uncle Joe, Mama’s only brother, and herself. And of course, the lawyer—Kingston Akalue, Barrister. They were all familiar with him. He’d been more of Mama’s friend than just her lawyer.

The reading of the will started with the dispensing of Mama’s jewellery collection, gold and silver, which she’d left to her five nieces and her daughter-in-law, Kristi Azuike. A vintage diamond gemmed broach she’d left to Uncle Joe’s wife, Amaka Onah, and ‘because she’d dearly loved that broach.’

Her Toyota Camry 2006 model, she left her only brother, Joseph Onah, ‘because only he would cherish and drive that car as gently as she would.’

“And I sure will.” Uncle Joe chuckled.

For Chioma, she should be provided a job at the restaurant and a room at the restaurant’s boys’ quarter. Kristi should see to it.

The house went to Levi Azuike, her only child. It was his home and so, his right.

And then, came the bestowing of the restaurant. Kingston Akalue paused here and looked first at Levi and then at Kristi before he lowered his gaze again and went on reading.

The restaurant, Mama’s Kitchen, went to Levi and Kristi Azuike. They were both now joint owners and equal partners of the restaurant.

“What?” Levi blurted out beside Kristi. “We are separated. I mean, everybody knows we are separated.”

“Yes. But the restaurant now belong to you both—equally.” Kingston Akalue added, shuffled through his papers. “And there’s a stipulation added just two days before, ah, she passed. Neither of you can give up or sell out your half share of the restaurant either to the other or to another party. The restaurant can only be transferred to a child, or children, conceived between you.”

“Seriously?”

And the bemused shock that rang in Levi’s voice shook Kristi and followed her back home.

“Why would she do this?” She asked her mother after recounting the details of the will.

“Possibly because she thought of you as her own daughter.” Her mother said gently. “You two were quite close and shared a deep love for that restaurant.”

“But Levi and I are separated.” She hadn’t been offended when Levi had pointed it out. It was simply the fact.

“She knew that.” Joyce Nnadi looked at her daughter’s bewildered face and nodded. “But you two are still husband and wife.”

But for how much longer? “What will happen now?” Kristi wondered aloud.

“Both of you will manage the restaurant together. It’s what she will expect; what she wanted.”

She and Levi run Mama’s Kitchen together?

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While we are getting ready for the #2 story of the Workplace Romance Trilogy, enjoy the #1 story, ALL BUSINESS, right HERE