I skip ahead a decade or so, and imagine my life at 40. I am a late bloomer and so this may come to me later in life, but sooner than expected I suppose, so if I am being generous then I will say two decades. Two decades from now, if I get married, (and the chances aren’t looking too good), my husband might possibly go through a midlife crisis. To begin, what on earth is that about? What is a midlife crisis? This is my initial response, and I am tempted to make a flippant remark about the whole thing and put it down to the whole man flu thing and say, “those people are so weak, they really can’t be depended on for anything”. However, after being told that I don’t trust men (possibly true), I would like to be perceived as compassionate and understanding, and so I will try to engage with the whole thing.
So then, from what I see, at a time when a man should be leaning back, easing into life and getting ready to get to know his wife again, to wash his hands of his children, send them off to uni and be free, he all of a sudden gets this spurt of energy combined with Dawson’s Creek type angst which drives him to re-live all those years in his late teens and early twenties when he chased girls who were out of his league, and generally made an ass of himself. This time though, he has the money to persuade these women that he is a viable option, at least for a while. Alright, but why?
The fear of death? Erm… okay? Doing silly things makes you feel more alive? Okay, if you insist, but why this, why the young women and fast cars? Why not climb Everest, why not take go for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Why not do something that the whole family can come and watch you fail at, like pottery? Why not go zorbing and take your wife along? Perhaps this tendency towards younger women is fuelled by the desire to be seen as a virile man? Erm, well your virility is what made those kids eating up my food in the kitchen and taking great big chunks out of my healthy bank account with their demands for diapers, bicycles and clothes. Three of them dear, I think we can all agree on your virility. Perhaps it is the desire to be seen as attractive by young women? This is where I lose all sympathy, faced with the more ridiculous examples of this desire, from the Minister who was caught out sending pictures of himself to a much younger woman, to the countless men who marry much younger women to sustain them in their twilight years.
I read Mariama Ba’s “So long a letter,” during my early teens and the sense of sadness of a woman faced with losing her husband to an infant has never left me. I reread it a couple of years back and some details came into focus. Most importantly, the infant in question was in fact her daughter’s best friend, a girl of 19 from a poor family, whose parents saw an opportunity and took it. Looked at this way, how did Mawdo Ba, the husband feel when he saw his in-laws, people of a similar age, essentially sell their daughter so that they, through her, could have an easier life? How many young women who end up with ridiculously older men make this choice, and should those men who exploit this lack be held to account? If, in the event of a midlife crisis, my husband runs off with a younger woman who at least is established, and of an age to know who she is as a person, e.g. if we are 60 and she is 40, then I will assume that perhaps it really is love. 20 years, when you are both really grown up is nothing in my view, but for a man of 50 plus, to take up with a 19 year old is a cruel vanity. It hits everyone, his children, faced with a step mother who is perhaps too young for them to even play with, for the wife, cast aside for firmer breasts and an in depth knowledge of Snapchat and Instagram, for the young girl herself, forced to “interact” with a 50 something old body, that might not be in a great state, and for the man himself, who is at once envied and a laughing stock.
Mawdo Ba’s decision to marry a girl young enough to literally be his daughter has no dignity, for anyone. Additionally, it robs him and his longsuffering wife, of the possibility of a friendship, at a time when they need it the most. It must be difficult to grow old alone, especially at an age when you were preparing yourself to be with someone. To grow old alone, without ever having known companionship must be different because you develop coping mechanisms. However, to raise a family, and then watch it torn to shreds by the actions of some avaricious toddler and a thirsty old man with more money than sense, is a real shame.
So long a letter remains one of the defining books of my youth, beautifully written and heart rending. It’s a testament to the strength of a woman, writing her pain and leaving it on the page, and facing life head on, even when stripped of her dignity and her worth. I do not think I would have the same courage if faced with the same fate. I certainly wouldn’t be writing letters, although, on second thoughts, perhaps I would.
Very long letters. From prison.