Posted by : VANITY Blog Thursday, 21 August 2014

Photo by: John Ward


It was less than eight hours since we arrived in the small town I grew up in. It almost felt funny but I was not allowed to laugh. After years of living abroad, we came back home because my grandmother passed away. And she was lying in a coffin merely five meters away from where I was sitting. Her casket was in the center of the living room, on the same spot where the long couch used to be. It was surrounded by white flowers and white candles and white curtains that only made the soft yellow paint enraged. My cousins were sitting beside her casket. They were talking about their fond memories of her. Perhaps it was the jetlag after eighteen hours of plane ride and another three-hour drive from the city to our small town, or maybe it was the fact that I was away for a long time that made me indifferent of those memories of her that they were reminiscing. Yet, as I looked at my grandmother’s photograph that was sitting on top of her coffin, with her sullen eyes, thin lined lips, furrowed brows and looking more annoyed than usual, the person they were talking about was definitely not the grandmother who, when I was in second grade, told me to punch the boy who called me fat. If she was there, we would have laughed at it together, all while she took a hit on her cigar, coughed and then spat on the nearest, most appropriate spot.

As they all walked down the memory lane, I excused myself and searched for my mom. She was in the room trying to get some sleep. But really, she was crying. I told her I was going to my grandmother’s house, not the one lying inside the coffin, but the one who gave birth to my father. She called the driver and asked him to take me there. The driver and I bonded over a thick blanket of silence. He was probably the same age as my father but he got that serious look on his face that was almost intimidating. He was wearing the same uniform that the drivers before him had, a black khaki pants and a polo shirt. Somehow it made me feel uncomfortable. It had been a long time since I had someone take me to places, let alone call me “ma’am”. He looked on the road ahead of us and I looked just outside the window. As we passed by the elementary school that my brother and I went to, I noticed that the gates and the walls were artistically painted with children’s bright and shiny faces. Before that, it was just red that screamed murder. Few minutes later, we arrived in my grandmother’s house. The driver told me that he would just come back to pick me up. He waited until I reached the front walkway before he reversed and vanished. I walked the rest of the steps leading to the stairs to my grandmother’s front door. Suddenly, I was twelve years old again, transported back in time to where the rest of my childhood was spent.

It was the house that my grandfather did not build. It was made out of cement and gravel and glass and hardwood. It is masculine and feminine all at the same time. The windows did not have curtains, it was always open. The doors, despite its many locks, never seemed to close. The house was naked out of colours. Unlike the house on my other side of the family, with its grandeur, proud, and brandishing features, the house of my father’s side was solid, unassuming and humble. It was both welcoming and intimidating. It was a house of endless contradiction. But mostly, it was the house that my grandmother strengthened.

At the end of the stairs from the front walkway was an ample sized balcony. It was situated with a garden set and pots of plants lined along the balcony’s edge. Those pots of plants had been there for as long as I can remember. The only difference at that moment was that, they no longer carry the exuberance of sunlight’s love and tender care. Also, there were two rocking chairs angled from one another. The frames of both rocking chairs were made out of oak and the only difference between the two was their bodies. One was constructed out of hand-woven rattan while the other one was re-built and re-furbished with bamboo sticks aligned together as support. The latter was etched with a butterfly. I was not quite sure what it signifies. Out of old habits, I opened the door without knocking. It was not locked but my grandmother was nowhere in sight.

Everything was still the same and all was placed at the exact same spot I remembered. I peeked into the glass cabinet underneath the television case. Our photos were still displayed. They were lined up according to age, from the eldest grandchild to the youngest ones. There were nineteen of us and mine was right in the middle. I did not recognize myself though, but it looked too familiar – sullen eyes, thin lined lips, furrowed brows and already annoyed at the early age of three. I looked up from the photos to the wall and a set of eyes looked back at me. It was a picture of Sacred Heart of Jesus covering the entire panel on the wall. He had his one hand over his heart and the other was raised like a student shyly wanting to get the teacher’s attention. He was judging me. I dodged out of the room avoiding another eye contact.

My grandmother was still nowhere to be found, I checked in the first room on the left side of the hallway. The old bed lying in the middle of the room was no longer there. In fact, there was nothing else in that room except for the diplomas hanging on the wall. It was engraved in a wooden frame, like a plaque of appreciation. There were eight of those, one for each child that my grandmother has. I did not check the door across that empty room for I was sure it was the room of my grandmother’s nursemaid and we were never allowed in that room. The last room left was the master’s bedroom, but mostly it was what we called “everyone else’s room” for it was the room where the kids hung out and stayed whenever we were in that house. The room was still the same. The old television was still lying at the foot of the bed. The photo of my grandfather’s parents was hanging on the wall. Beside it was my grandfather in his glorious days. He was wearing his police uniform and stood like the decorated officer that he was. His face was unrecognizable, though. It was faded by time or maybe, I just knew him with his fragments -devoid of emotional connection and familial recognition and no more connected than blood relation. I have accumulated a fair amount of memories from that room. It was the room my cousins and I played wrestling, it was the room where my older cousins shared the stories of their first kiss, it was the room where we had our first drink, it was the room where we all cried, and it was the room where  my grandfather died. Just thinking about it made me cringe a little bit. I left the room without looking back. I walked down the hallway to the kitchen but still, my grandmother was nowhere to be found. I have loved my grandmother’s kitchen until I was forced to wash the dishes. My father’s family, despite having nursemaids, were firm believers of putting their children in labour. I was one of their first recruits. The plastic chairs were stacked up against the wall; the old wooden table was still covered with a dilapidated mantle with its design faded through time. I have had countless meals with the entire family on that table. My grandmother had a proper dinner table with a glass surface and hand-carved chairs but it was only used for special guests. Yet, in her household, there was no such thing as guests. As I examined the room, I realized that it had shrunk. I could easily reach the top of the cupboard, turn on the faucet without having to tip-toe and I could reach the window pane in front of the sink without going over the counter. And as soon as I opened the window, I found my grandmother.

She was sitting under the mango tree and was feeding the neighbour’s chickens. I knew fairly well that the chickens belonged to the neighbours because my grandmother spent most of her time in the city. I walked down the staircase and went directly to where she was sitting. She saw me and a smile etched on her face. I stopped on my track and looked at her for the first time after a long time. She was beautiful. She was the same woman who survived the death of her husband and eldest daughter within the span of five months. She was the same woman who fought with her children’s battle against cancer. I hugged her and she hugged me back. I sat beside her and she gave me rice grains to feed the neighbours’ chickens. I looked at her again, her eyes were shining and her lips hid a smile. The lines on her face that aged through time was even more noticeable but the woman that she used to be was still carved on the outlines of her face, on the rough surface of her hands and in the depth of her warm embrace. She was the house that got me strengthened through time.

An hour later, the driver arrived. He said it was time to go home. I looked at the house and to my grandmother and I could not imagine one without the other. The word ‘home’ echoed into my ears and I thought about my grandmother, the one who passed away, and I could not imagine one without the other. I thought about the chapel at the bend of the road, the murdered gates and walls of my elementary school, the photograph on top of her casket, and my cousins with their memories of her, and those white flowers and white candles and white curtains. It was almost funny but I was not allowed to laugh. After all, my home was not there anymore.

- Janine

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