My grandmother sits in her wheelchair, eyes on the TV. She sees moving images but does not understand them. She rocks back and forth, frail hands clutching armrests. She calls out random words to Warina who comforts her with random words in return. Now and then, when I sneak home to see her, she does not recognise me. She has aged more years than I’ve been gone. Has time sped up since I left?
Three years since I moved out from my mother’s flat. But perhaps “moved”, is not an accurate term. It’s not like I packed all my belongings into cardboard boxes, sealed them with tape and stacked them in a van. No. I carried things out bit by bit, a few items each day, in plastic bags. Each day, I placed them into my new house until there was nothing left to carry.
And then, without a word, I just never came back.
Anything that I could not lug myself, I found a way to do without. Items prioritise themselves quickly when you have limited resources and only one pair of hands.
Six-years-old. My grandmother would carry my school-bag while she waited with me for the school-bus. Rats inhabited the drain nearby. As a child, I thought it was always the same rat. I used to wait eagerly for it to come out. I called it Rodney. My grandmother, or Nana, as I called her, was disgusted at the idea that I would name a rat.
Nana can’t carry anything now, not even what’s left of her own weight. She wears diapers, and calls Warina Mother. She shouts it loudly so that it can be heard throughout the flat. She shouts it during breakfast, from the dining room that links all our bedroom doors. She shouts it, rocking back and forth, pushing away the food any of us try to feed her.
They say that when a child is born, the parent looks after it and that when the parent
grows old, the child returns the favour. “Asian values” positions this as an obligation and instead of an act of love. It is my duty to forever bear the burden of someone else’s choice?
I was born an only child. My parents split while my mother was pregnant and my father committed suicide nine years later. I’d never met him and it was unfelt loss as my mother lay crying in my arms. All I knew of him was what I’d find combing through my mother’s drawers years later: Divorce papers denoting adultery, photos he’d taken of her on their honeymoon, a scrapbook she had made for him as a teenager.
I am making my parents sound almost human. Perhaps they were, once. My father sailed the seas for work and my mother put pen to paper. My Scorpio parents who made me, the Pisces; twin fish swimming in circles and never stopping.
When my mother grew tired of dealing with life, she too killed herself, in order to get re- born. This involved joining a Neo-Pentecostal church, much to my grandmother’s Roman Catholic despair. There was war everyday over whether the statue of the Infant Jesus was a dirty idol or an emblem of faith. My mother always won because we all lived under her roof. That we lived under her roof would in fact dictate a number of tyrannies that would soon define puberty. Even though we lived in flat, and did not actually have a roof.
So it was decided unilaterally that the Infant Jesus was a dirty idol and my grandmother would weep as she put the statue back into the cupboard. She did this so that my mother would stop shouting and I would stop crying. And then, each of us to our own retreats: Mother in the room with her Bible, me in my room with my colour pencils, Nana in the kitchen, over the stove.
When I think of Nana, I think of food. Why is it that we so often associate cooking with our grandmothers? I remember with clarity her shepherd’s pie, her spaghetti, her devil’s curry. I think about the hours I would spend in the kitchen, watching her go about making magic of raw ingredients. All good smells lead back to her.
Thirteen-years-old. I shunned cooking as a symbol of backwardness. I was going to be a liberated woman who was not tied to her stove. I spent a large portion of my teenhood proud of the fact that I could not boil an egg. I thought this made me a modern woman. I loved it that people were appalled.
An empty bank account, rented house and stolen pot later, I faced the stove without a choice. How could I have known that cooking would be the final act that liberated me?
Over the course of two decades, meals with my family got worse and worse. When my grandmother lost everything that helped her make sense of the world, my mother, felt compelled to compensate for the silence that befell the table. She chattered endlessly of her successes, her clients and her virtues. And after each proclamation, thanks to God. To this day, I find it difficult talking about myself and the life I have made. I would readily choose the sound of cutlery clicking its tongue against plates over having to deal with her voice in my throat.
It was a matter of time before my grandmother grew too deaf to hear her and I just learned to eat fast and leave. Three generations of women at one table, all held together by blood and excuses and this metaphorical roof above our heads. Dinner after dinner, day after day, year after year. I broke the thread. Pulled it so tight it burst. Or rather, the thread tied itself too tight around me and I, I burst.
I remember the day I knew I would eventually be leaving.
Seventeen-years-old. In the hospital. Nana had suffered a stroke and I was by her bed. She was semi-conscious, drugged, unable to speak, half her face unable to emote. Suddenly, phantoms of people I’d known from church. Moving in a mass, they descended upon her bed. She could not have known what was going on. Thank God, they repeated, that she was alive. Praise God, they said, for sparing her. They began to pray. The sound rose.
I dragged my mother to a corner.
I’m going to leave, I said, if they didn’t. They were causing a ruckus, voices inflated with ego, not spirit. People were staring and I was gigantic with rage. The nurse was at a loss and did not know what to do. Nana was distressed.
Or maybe it was I who was distressed. Twelve-years-old again. Grabbed and pulled into my bedroom. The glazed look in my grandmother’s eyes and she sat at the dining table. She’d crushed a framed image of The Last Supper with a hammer they had given her. Mother telling me that Nana had been saved, before they started shouting at me, pulling at my clothes, telling me that demons possessed my body and that they had to be cast out.
Unnatural tendencies, they told my mother. They spoke the word lesbian as if it was dirty. And then, my room stripped bare of belongings, and put to flames upon our stove. I snarled and struggled and screamed but they annulled my rage: All resistance was the devil and nothing was mine.
Have these people not known anger? It is not of the devil. I possess it; it does not possess me. If there is only one thing left I own, it is this. It sits at the core of whom I am and you will never cast it out.
In the hospital ward, I felt something in me die. My mother and I, standing at arm’s length, glaring at each other. Last chance, I thought. I would have forgiven her everything had she picked me. Would have forgiven her for choosing so many times, book over blood, dogma over daughter.
Choose me. I belong to you. I am more than the myth of some made-up story. I am flesh. I am blood. I am yours. Choose me.
When I look at my grandmother, I wonder whether any part of her remembers me. Any part that might still be tied to long lost games of snakes and ladders, story-telling and holy communion. When I look at my grandmother, I wonder whether she has an answer for the time between waiting for schoolbuses and waiting for me; the only daughter of her only daughter who left one day and just never came home.