"So, Oma, your grandson will pick you up next month for Florence? Must be a beautiful city, I've never been there," I squealed upon seeing the invitation card embellished with golden floral pattern. The grandson of this old woman I called 'Grandma' or 'Oma' in Dutch despite not my biological grandmother–had to be because of my Asian root–surely was rich. A destination wedding, in this economy, in Florence? Everyone I knew in this city just felt content to register it in the city hall with borreltjes, a small friendly gathering, afterwards.
She smiled sadly. "Maybe not. I don't have any money to travel." She proceeded to arrange the milk and tea at the kitchenette then fixed a cuppa for me, not before my mind coming to a screeching halt.
My mouth, since long had lost its filter amidst the honest directness in this country, sent out words like venomous projectiles. I was generally on board with forwardness as it gave import to people’s time, no complicated mind games to guess at. A simpler way of life, saving energy. "But they invited. So, must have sent tickets to fly you?" Sometimes I hated my logic, or logic in general, as it pointed out people’s tomfoolery. Or in this grandson’s case, a penny-pinching antic.
A drop of sweat rolling down my temple, made a beeline for the jugular and was finally absorbed by my cashmere collar which now felt scratchy against the base of my neck. I should have known better that Holland’s weather was nothing like a groundhog day and more of a barmy fellow being in charge of today’s expected outfits. And today was apparently not a light sweater day, for this I blamed my weather app as I left my cotton shirt in favour of this birthday present I received earlier this year.
"It didn't come with the tickets. I have to procure them myself,” Oma replied airily, setting two cups atop their matching saucers. Wait, what?
"But, why? I thought they must have had provided them somehow." This grandson would be frowned upon in my extended family. But then again, perhaps I didn’t understand what I was doing, judging other people who clearly upheld different values and traditions with my worldview.
Same went for the cuppa. I never liked my tea with milk, this was an atrocity, didn’t know where this blasphemy came from. Oma, who had lived here far longer than I had, probably grew accustomed to it at some point and just shrugged at the idea of mixing them.
She finished with mine, so I helped move the cup and the saucer to the kitchen table we were supposed to enjoy the afternoon at. Too hot to sit outside on the patio, it was not even windy at all. Scorching, my mind supplied excessively. I was torn between sipping piping hot beverages or standing in a long line outside the Wall’s ice cream parlour just at the corner. But then the topic pressed on. So hard to draw a general standard and this difference confused me.
"It's not my place to ask."
"And it's not my place to meddle with your family business, either, but it's etiquette, no?" I should have had learned to keep my mouth shut because my words sounded like gasoline to fire. But she lived alone, modestly. So I had to come to the conclusion that made me hate myself even more. My eyelids shut as if to appreciate the peppermint freshness of the tea. Hot water and sharp mint blended beautifully in the cup, and somehow it didn’t aggravate my summer irritation.
She opened the refrigerator, her forehead frowned, her hand rummaging a stack of plastic containers before realisation dawned in her face. “I should have made the pudding yesterday, but I forgot. Ah, old mind, old mind.”
“Come, Oma, we can make it tonight after the 6 pm news.” I didn’t know why I slowly incorporated this into my life as if making it a tradition. Watching evening news with Oma gave me a sense of orderly life, veiling the feeling of it slowly falling apart when I was continually dismissed from a series of jobs due to my inability to focus.
Steady was never an option, perhaps that explained my pettiness towards this grandson who seemed to have it all put together. Charles, I glanced at the name again.
“Am I jealous just because they found their happily ever after and I don’t?” I murmured more to myself just before I enjoyed the tea, my breath pushing a ripple in my teacup as I spoke.
Spoon clunk at her saucer when she finished stirring the sugars. “There, there, everyone walks at their own pace. Some have it fast, some slow. No one is better than the other as there is no outward competition. We’re winning if we’re better than we were yesterday.”
“But I’m lonely, Oma,” I whined. “I thought I was living my best life renting a flat for myself, so unlike sharing a place with a roommate as when I was in uni. Then I worked, albeit, you know. . . I’m considering freelancing now just because. It’s a lonely morning I see every day and cold night to end it, not that my heater is broken or something. What’s the point of living like this, just keeping to get by month by month without a sense of purpose?”
She chuckled. This was what I liked when talking to her, I needed her pure wisdom. I needed someone spelling out meaningful life lessons to stave off my spiralling. Winter was the worst while summer didn’t fare better despite the overall cheerful mood in the city.
“It’s always better to wait for the right anything, isn’t it? Rather than get stuck with the consequences of your bad decision for the rest of your life?”
She solemnly lifted her cup, the milky brown liquid swirling inside when she sipped and I sank to the depth of my rumination by the weight of her words.
Oma fled here in her thirties–like almost half a century ago–when her marriage sunk due to her husband’s infidelity. Compared with me who came here as a student few years ago, our circumstances necessitated different baselines. However, we had our own dreams and goalposts set anew in this new land. And for this similar glimpse of new hope, we bonded in our meetings, commonality above individual struggles.
But the young and green stayed that way, didn’t they? The old and wise kept spinning tales of lessons learned in a hard way, and yet younger people kept getting married, breeding, failing, getting divorced, and so on like Ouroboros’ circle.
“I’m sorry, I. . . I didn’t mean to remind you of. . .”
She smiled, half-hidden by the teacup. From the corners of her eyes stretched crow’s feet when she grinned, and on her lean but sagging neck wrinkles etched. Wisdom permeated from the words she spoke and her body witnessed how harsh a heartbreak could be.
Then the main door cracked open. Elsje, an elderly lady living upstairs coming in from wherever she went, not sparing a glance at us despite Oma’s flat door was blatantly open. Elsje’s light taps heard ascending the stairs, followed by a muffled jangling of her keys upon her stopping.
“She’s still giving you a hard time for the night toilet breaks?” I asked askance, partly to steer the previous topic into a tangent–Elsje arrived at a good time when our conversation became awkward. The compound Oma living in was a housing complex for elderly ladies, situated just behind the Great Church where Oma used to work as a chef for the priests there a few months into her arrival in Den Haag. From another visit, I learned that the church–along with her pensions–helped her to find a place in her known neighbourhood. More than ten houses here, and with two storeys each, it meant there were more than twenty elderly ladies in this compound, including Elsje. A lovely fountain erected in the middle garden, giving all the surrounding houses a pretty view when the inhabitants of the compound sitting at their connected front patios. Summer was actually the right time to socialise, but then again the recent heatwave did not provide us highly-sought opportunities to chinwag.
Oma waved her hand. “It’s fine. She has her own way of thinking and I’m not challenging her on that.” Oma ever said about Elsje’s complaints of her flushing the toilet at the middle of the night, saying it woke her up and did not let her back to her much-deserved slumber due to her insomnia problem. The solution: Oma passed water at a pail that she emptied to the toilet in the morning.
She raised the television remote to turn it on. A news opening jingle that sounded so familiar triggered my Pavlovian response of a rumbling stomach, so I sauntered to prepare the dinner and more tea. I spooned the fried rice we made earlier into two plates and heated them up in the microwave. As the low buzzing sound of the microwave plate rotating almost defeated by the voice of the news anchors delivering the updates, she stated,
"He has found someone. He's happy. It's not about me. It's about them.”
If Oma say so, I replied. But the words never left my mouth. Perhaps, I pursued this case more as a red herring from my real situation. Sad, lonely, and unworthy so that hot days irritated me even more. Summer was supposed to be jolly for everyone, but for me, heatwave specially came to the party.
The gentle ‘ding’ sound broke my reverie that I didn’t realise until I was neck-deep in the whys of her case. The news was about a person found dead on the dune of Scheveningen, probably of alcohol poisoning.
“Charles, your grandson,” I immediately corrected myself, never met him in my life, “does he contact you outside of this invitation? Calling you, perhaps.”
“He didn’t. And that’s not a problem.”
Ah, so the invitation was more of an ‘fyi’ type of communication, then. Just-so-you-know-I’m-getting-married was hanging heavily on each golden stroke of the font.
We finished dinner in comfortable tranquillity while I occasionally quipped at the news. “She did not change her hair colour, it’s probably the lighting in the studio. We saw her a lot reporting from the field these days,” she responded to my tattle about the news anchor’s looks.
By the time the news ended, so did our meal. A lot of mistakes were as forgivable as the food residues at the dishes washable to eventually look like a new set. And every time they were clean again, a new journey might start.
The thought of making a pudding together was quickly forgotten as Oma walked out to sit at her porch. She nested on a synthetic rattan couch with a vinyl-covered pillow, while I took a similar chair next to her.
“Next week I’m gonna bring ice cream. Sweltering here, to see it’s already 7.”
“Sure, try the tiramisu one on your way back from the station.”
A pregnant silence ensued, too thick to cut with a knife. “I don’t work in Delft any more, Oma. Just part-timing in a printing firm here near Dr Anton Philipszaal. So no trips by Intercity.” Intercity is high-speed trains operating in The Netherlands, stopping only at big-city stations.
She nodded and I gazed upward, the sound of retiring birds filling the air. They had home, a place somewhere to return to despite probably half an earth’s circumference annual migration. I had a flat to come back to–dared not say ‘home’–from the ten-kilometre daily commute. They travelled in flocks and had family, I had Oma.
As I wandered too deep in thoughts, she produced her jar of stroopwafels. The caramel sweet smell was intoxicating.
I tried to consider my next words, but she said sooner. "It's a grand wedding. You recognise his fiancee's last name, right? Probably the reception itself costs them a fortune. How selfish I am to ask them for tickets."
I learned a lot from her on every visiting day. Maybe it was at the best interest for everyone to keep it that way. There were mechanisms of their family that I didn’t understand, neither did I my luck at work.
“Good luck with your new job. New workplace, new spirit. It’s closer to your home, right?”
I couldn’t ascertain whether she talked about my place or hers. Bashful laughter, too late for me to stop it, tumbled from my lips.
As the sun furthered its westward journey, she waved to my soggy stroopwafel resting atop my cup. The tea steam wafted upwards moistening it. "Eat. Rustig aan." She let slip the phrase, asking me to put the topic to rest. And as any grandchild in the presence of a doting grandmother, I ate. Somehow, the heat didn’t sear any longer.