As a schoolboy, I wondered if my classmates had stashed away their grandparents in their cupboards like stationery. Some, having played truant, showed up next morning presenting long faces and the alibi that one or the other grandparent had died. They’d usually be in cheery spirits by lunchtime and back to full-blown rowdiness by close of play. One hookey specialist apparently didn’t keep count, until our mathematics teacher gently reminded him that he had already buried seven grandparents that year. Without batting an eyelid, my classmate said, “Sir, those were my great-grandparents. Now, only my grandparents are remaining.”
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When I related the incident to my own grandmother a few years ago, it had her in splits. She dug me in the ribs and asked, “Did you ever make up stories like that about me?” Truthfully, I swore that I’d never used my loved ones as collateral for any of my inglorious escapades. And not for lack of imagination.
Muthassi, my maternal grandmother, was my guardian angel, my cheerleader, and my rock. Though osteoarthritis robbed her of mobility in her old age, it could never dim her lust for life or her wicked sense of humour. Neither could it diminish her inexhaustible affection for not only her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but the multitudes of friends and relatives that her world encompassed.
When we lost Muthassi last month, I wasn’t prepared for the magnitude of sorrow that followed. A grown man’s grief is an unwieldy thing, one that is easier to endure when dissolved in the collective mourning of a family wake. Ghosts haunted me in my solitude. Churned up from some long-locked Pandora’s Box, what stung most were the signatures of newly inflicted loss — a joke that I could no longer share, a family picture that would no longer include her, the touch of her frail hand upon my cheek, and the mock-frown that followed when she discovered I was unshaven…
One of my earliest memories is of watching a plump hen and her brood pecking at food in the courtyard of Muthassi’s ancestral home. I must have been about three, safely bundled in her arms, marvelling at how the chicks disappeared under their mother’s wings when a raptor cast an ominous shadow across the yard. I associated that snapshot of early childhood with Muthassi — it came to symbolise unconditional love, shelter and nourishment.
She was fearless. As a young woman alone at home, she had fiercely fought off a burglar. She survived life-threatening electrocution. On a dare, she implored a doctor to show her the inside of a hospital morgue — at night.
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With a healthy appetite for ribald jokes, she never hesitated to offer sex education tips, much to my wife’s embarrassment when we were newly married. Yet, when it came to providing moral support, the universe sought her out. Muthassi had arguably assisted with more deliveries than any midwife.
She salted away keepsakes in a little bag under her pillow — old letters, birthday cards, a copy of my first bylined article. She was thrifty and practical, reusing and recycling before it became a fad. In her gifted hands, sheets of paper turned into origami creatures. She fashioned toys from coconut shells. She had a safety pin for every unexpected wardrobe malfunction. Despite her frugality, she was ever generous of heart. She needed money for only two things: to pay off her debts to god, and to buy us birthday gifts.
I could always count on her to bail me out of trouble, but at times her bias got ridiculously out of hand. When I flunked math with four marks out of hundred, she became my defense attorney. “Next time, just you watch,” Muthassi thundered at my tormentors, “he’ll score double!”
Most of all, Muthassi taught me to love birds. Pointing to a myna or a parakeet as she fed me breakfast, she’d weave the bird into a story. My mouth stuffed with food, my eyes glazed with wonder, I’d listen with rapt attention as she begged the bird’s spirit to give her little grandson some sane advice that would make him grow up into a good man, wise and compassionate.
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For years her letters would include, in addition to the gazette of births and deaths and comings of age, stories of birds in her backyard. As the years went by, an acquired scientific temper replaced some of the magic and mystery of my childhood birdwatching adventures, but we always made time to talk about birds.
The weekend after her death, I mourned Muthassi by walking among the birds she had taught me to love. I chanced upon a Spotted Dove, a bird she had adored, pouring out its melancholy song. I took comfort as a sorrowing child would, sensing in the deep, resonant notes Muthassi’s blessing for the kind of man she wanted me to be.