Every time I visit you, which is roughly once a year, I notice, the sharp edges of the glass, cemented on top of the high compound wall have become fewer and grown smoother.
The iron gate, on the threshold of which we grandchildren sat on those summer evenings, as you called out to the passing ice apple vendor and peeled the juicy delicate fruits on which we pounced and suckled like piglets, could use a coat of paint.
There is still that pomegranate tree with its gnarly branches, guava with its mottled leaves, and bushes of plantains with their brown peeling skin in your garden. But the snap beans, brinjals, and your little herb patch are lost to time and neglect.
This is one of those rare times I am visiting you without Ma. You don’t yet know I am standing in front of your verandah that has a criss-cross wooden grill. There is a muffled sound of television coming out of your tenant’s door. I slide my hand inside the grill door, unchain it, walk on the red oxide floor to the front door, and ring the bell.
You take your time. Your tenant peeps out from the adjacent door, grins, walks up, and pounds on your door. I hear a shuffle roll closer and a creak swinging the door open. You stand there, taking a moment to register my face before your half-teethed mouth opens wide in joy, and your 4-stone nose ring shimmers in dim light. I hug your fragile form and plant a kiss on your silver hair.
You sprint with a burst of energy that worries me; it is as if my touch has fuelled you with vibrant youthfulness. You scold me for not visiting you often, urge me to sit on the cane chair, and scoop me a bowl of boiled salted peanuts from your copper pan. I peel the shells and munch on the mushy nuts as you peel my years and take me back to my childhood.
You let us play hide and seek in the laundry closet under the staircase and scribble with the stencils from Grandpa’s office supplies that lay in the attic. Never once did you show the scars of being a young widow with children to bring up, or the strain of tending to your summer visiting grandchildren. All I remember of my visits with Ma are those delicious meals you cooked, which always had something from your garden, and the raucous laughter you let out as we children begged you to continue telling us ghost stories, lying on the living room floor on makeshift beds and gazing at the stars through the skylight tiles. At times you told stories of Grandpa’s adventures, how he built this house for you and how this house stood strong by you after he had passed. I thought you were the bravest person on earth then. I still think you are.
You don’t talk much about how your children have grown busy in their own lives and why they don’t visit you often. Instead, you talk about the times when those black and white framed pictures hung in a line on the wall were taken, how a few faces from them have faded from the face of this earth and how your time too will come one day. I feel like clasping your hands and telling you not yet, but pick up a broom and clear the cobwebs dangling from the ceiling.
I want to ask “Why don’t you get someone to help you?” But I already know the answer. The last one pushed you back on your bed and stole petty cash from your trunk. I want to ask “Why don’t you stay with one of your children?” but I’m scared of the answer you might give.
You protest as I change your sheets, arrange your wardrobe and stock your supplies. You mutter you are not an invalid. But I see the floor is not as clean as it used to be and the dishes don’t sparkle as much. I look for ways to set things up without offending you. I am filled with equal measures of admiration and anger at your unbending will.
I need to be back home before your great-grandson returns from school. Maybe I should visit you more often, with him. He remembers you giving him a bouncing ball and a dinosaur the last time we gave a surprise visit years ago. You always have something to offer to anyone who visits you, even though you know those visits are rare.
I retie the mosquito net that is sagging on your bed and smoothen its wrinkles at the base. I wish I could smoothen the wrinkles on your face, sit close to the stove as you cook lentils and sprinkle a handful of herbs in it, and set the pendulum of the grandfather clock to swing. But I have to get back home.
You have already put together a gift hamper in an old shopping bag to send me home with. A boxful of boiled salted peanuts, a shiny silk blouse material, and a hand trowel; the trowel which you allowed me to work with my tiny hands in your precious herb garden and showed me how to wipe clean afterwards with coconut oil.
You wicked woman, you knew this would kill me with guilt, but still chose to give this! Maybe you know in your heart that your grandchildren must carry a piece of you within them. Not just the shape of your nose, the skin tone, or the thick mane, but a part of your beating heart.
I hug you, fight my tears, and ask you not to tire yourself by coming out to the gate to wave goodbye. You don’t ask when will I visit again. I step out of the verandah, wave goodbye, appeal to the peeping tenant to keep an eye on you and walk through the garden on my way out.
Tears roll down my cheeks as I pass through the gate. I must bring your great-grandson on my next visit, maybe with a handful of homegrown herbs.