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IOWA Magazine | 03-04-2021

Nonfiction Essay: Dressed Up

An ocean away from family during the pandemic, a University of Iowa adjunct professor of creative writing thinks of her Nigerian father and his impeccable fashion sense.
Andy Dahl PHOTO COURTESY ESTHER IFESINACHI OKONKWO The author's father with her youngest sibling

I am an anxious person. At my own convenience, I anticipate disaster and push myself to all the places that grief can take me. There, I learn that there's a cruelty to the suddenness of grief, that one can simply go mad—that the fibers in your body, the neurons in your brain, can all—suddenly, and all together—fail you. I know this, without even having experienced the loss of a loved one, because I watched my father grieve three siblings, and have read obsessively about grief and dying in preparation for the day that I, too, will have to face this inevitability. So I anticipate my greatest fear—the day I'll get the call informing me of my father's death.


My father and I have been away from each other for most of my adult life: different cities, different states, and now different continents, hence the certainty that the news of his demise will come to me through a phone call. When I picture myself after the call, I see a flailing, dissolving person. Prone to nihilistic thoughts, I imagine that I'll ponder endlessly about life and its meaninglessness and walk around for days, weeks, and months even, with a measured madness—humming, nothing matters, nothing matters. Following that will be the most difficult yet clear-headed days, when I'll take account of my father's life.

I had always seen my father's life through a lens of only suffering and hardship. I'd held on tightly to the hope that I could someday fix this, that one day I could give him an easier, well-oiled life—one that is filled with all the fine accoutrements that money can buy. So it was most painful when I imagined him dying before I could give him this dreamed-up good life, but that was before the onset of COVID-19 and all its attendant challenges. In a snap of a finger, the sterile monotony of my father's post-retirement life, which I'd feared would be the death of him, became the de facto way of living, as governments around the world instituted stay-at-home orders in a desperate bid to contain the spread of the virus.

As the world struggled to adjust to the new order, my father, long accustomed to this kind of isolated living, became enlivened. He began sending my sisters and I pictures of himself all dressed up on WhatsApp. In some of them, all he manages to capture are his shiny forehead and calm, bleary eyes. In the better ones, he wears loose, plain T-shirts paired with black tailored pants. Some days he has jewelry on: a long chain necklace, an old leather wristwatch, and a large statement ring. And other times he wears just a baseball hat. This new style, unlike his old one, is strictly minimalist. It is obvious he is chasing boyishness. His hair is now dyed a pure black and its edges are carved sharply.


This virtual ritual of sending my sisters and I pictures is reminiscent of my early teen years when, before heading out to work, my father would come into the room my two sisters and I shared to show us his outfit. He would spread his arms wide apart, like a model showcasing a dress, take a step or two backwards, and ask, "How do I look? Am I looking sharp?" We would giggle and say, "Daddy, you look fine." It was usually around 6 a.m, just before we were fully awake and ready for the day's activities. I loved how my father loved himself in those moments. I loved the delight he took in posing for my sisters and I. He would sometimes prance in in a crisply ironed Ankara tunic and pants paired with either burnished red leather shoes or brown-soled, white suede lace-up shoes. Other times, he wore too-large white or dark blue suits—but rarely black, because to him, they were too ordinary and common and everyone owned them. On some days, he would pair a crew-neck T-shirt with black jeans and casual sneakers to match, just like the laid-back outfits he prefers now. He would then top it up with a baseball hat, always a baseball hat. On those days, he walked with a youthful bounce, his skin wrinkled and burned from the array of cheap, bleaching face creams that lined his bedside table. Over the years, it became obvious that he bought these face creams with little regard for the chemicals in them. All he saw was the promise held in their names: Fair & Lovely, Caro White, Carrot Glow. So seeing him revive this ritual amid the pandemic, albeit in a different manner, with all of us in different countries and cities, connected only by mobile phones, afforded me an opportunity to reconsider my perceptions of his life.


The course of my father's life is not a special one in Nigeria. A 2019 report by the National Bureau of Statistics—the official government agency tasked with overseeing and publishing statistics in Nigeria—shows that 40 percent of the Nigerian population lives below the poverty line of 137,430 naira ($381.75) per year. However, the report doesn't take into account those who live slightly above the poverty line—a category under which my family belongs.

As the breadwinner and head of our family, my father mostly bore the brunt of Nigeria's failed economy, having worked at the National Electric Power Authority for thirty years with meager salary and little to no promotion (because he lacked a university degree), before retiring as a junior assistant. I watched his heart break again and again every four years when he had to take the required promotion exams that he never quite passed. A promotion would have meant he could pay our school fees on time. It would have meant occupying a position that did not require carrying ladders from one electric pole to another, cutting power lines connected to buildings whose owners defaulted on electricity bills. It would have meant reasonable work hours that wouldn't have required leaving home too early and returning after dark. It would have meant being able to afford a car and avoid going to his workplace in those awful, yellow, always too cramped, and always too hot buses that are a Lagos staple, and which, late at night, became targets for armed robbers on the highway. A few times, he was a victim of these robberies.

I was eleven when one night, my father returned home from work with a bloody face and bruised arms, and all he said before locking himself in the bedroom he shared with my mother was, "I was robbed and pushed off the bus." Pushed like a sack of nothing.


In my teenage years, my father bought most of his clothing from a man who had the agility and relentless energy of Igbo traders, and caused even the most resistant window-shopper to succumb to purchase. This man sold secondhand clothes, which he called "first grade." It was from his array of clothes, all carefully washed and ironed and hung on racks, in that shop that smelled intensely of chemicals, that my father selected most of his wardrobe. Within the store, the possibility of discovery was endless. My father could find a jacket made from thick, durable fabric, a slightly faded designer T-shirt, and a finely stitched silk tie with a well-lined tip. In that store, if he searched and searched, he could circumvent what he couldn't in real life, and find something of quality.

Fashion has always been as much about seeking as it has been about finding for my father. Through clothes, he found a way of creating joy for himself—even if momentary. For a long time, I failed to see this. Instead, I was blindsided by his suffering. I measured his entire life based on the sorrow he'd lived through.


My father was the happiest when he arranged his clothes on Saturday evenings. He'd wash them with richly fragrant Lux soaps and hang them on laundry lines to dry when the sun shone the brightest. I still recall the yellow wall on which his mahogany clothing rack hung. It was a towering figure, that rack. Even my father, who stood at six-feet-two inches, had to stretch on the tip of his toes to reach it. As a child, I marveled at how high it stood, like many of the things that I'd been taught were holy: God and the angels, and the cross, which hung so high on the walls of our church.

On the days he arranged the rack, I sat by and watched keenly. The T-shirts and polos came first, then the button-down shirts, followed by his Ankara up and down—crisply starched and ironed. What came after those were his "chief clothes"—all made from a traditional Igbo fabric called Isi Agu. His suits and trousers and jeans leisurely occupied the end of the rack. If he saw lint, he immediately dusted it off. If he caught a wrinkle, he straightened it out. He sang as he did this, his voice hoarse yet gentle with satisfaction.

My father's "chief clothes" were his favorite. Their fabrics were velvety black and maculated with the golden-colored prints of a roaring lion's head. He had them in knee-length, tunic-like shirts and paired them with plain black pants as most Igbo men do. He liked to wear his Isi Agu attire to wedding ceremonies. He accessorized them with red coral neck beads, a red hat, and a hand fan wrapped in sun-dried sheepskin. In his Isi Agu, he walked with a majestic mien which quickly vanished at the sight of a friend or relative, because he is a man easily overcome by joy. He would exchange the ebullient Igbo Three, a traditional greeting that begins with the back of the hands meeting twice, and ending with a firm handshake. My father would swell with pride as his friends hailed him: "Dike!" "Akuluno!" "Agu!"


I do not know if my father would have revived this tradition of showcasing his outfit to my sisters and I if the pandemic hadn't happened. When the coronavirus cases in Nigeria began going up, I was worried about him. This worry was exacerbated by his age—he is in his late sixties—and by the deplorable state of Nigeria's healthcare system. I called him every day to ensure he was washing his hands properly, using hand sanitizer, and wearing a mask.

I'd left home when I was sixteen for my undergraduate studies in a university an eight-hours' drive away from home, and after graduation, moved to a farther state for the compulsory, one-year-long national youth service and eventually the United States for graduate school. In all those years, we'd never spoken as often as we did during the early months of this pandemic. Though still brief, the calls were frequent, and the pictures that followed abundant.


The pictures of my father—all smiling and all dressed up—during a pandemic, with nowhere to go, reminded me of a black and white photo of him as a teenage boy. He had walked into the studio for a portrait with his friends, dressed in a silky brown shirt and flare pants, even with the knowledge that he would later go home to a relative who starved and worked him to his bones. In a way, the story of the picture is a metaphor for my father's life. It not only shows his lifelong love for fashion, it also depicts his relentless pursuit of joy.


I've begun asking myself why I'd steadfastly held onto an aspect of my father's life—the dark, gloomy, and joyless—at the expense of the happy one he continues to weave to this day. Why did it take me this long to find comfort in the ways he's chosen to make himself happy?

Perhaps it's much easier to lean into one-dimensional narratives of people, to see one thing only, to create binaries—suffering or happiness, pain or joy, life or death. Perhaps I completely gave in to the bitterness that gathered inside of me over the years as I watched him toil to make ends meet.

My father was robbed of a better life by fate, but that's not all. He is also a man who carefully adorns his body, who takes delight in selecting an outfit for an occasion, who, after staring in the mirror and finding the reflection he sees beautiful, walks around with a sprightly gait.


When the call I dread eventually comes, I'll remember my father as the man who crafts joy with clothes, who says to anyone who dares to comment negatively on his appearance, "You know I know fashion more than you, abi?" And by God he does, he does know fashion.


Esther Ifesinachi Okonkwo PHOTO COURTESY ESTHER IFESINACHI OKONKWO

Esther Ifesinachi Okonkwo (20MFA) is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her works have appeared in Isele Magazine, Catapult, and Guernica. She is a 2021 recipient of the Elizabeth George Foundation Grant, and currently teaches creative writing as an adjunct professor at the University of Iowa. This essay was first published in Guernica magazine.

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