When I was growing up, my parents took teaching jobs in a remote town in
Nanay, as we called my grandmother, did not hug or kiss children. Her tongue was sharp and her words make the heart bleed. She was a tyrant, but she was there. We saw our parents only a few times a year, but as early as I could remember, Nanay had always been a part of my life. I believed grandmothers lived forever.
She taught me many lessons, though I often ignored them. “When you get married, get custom-made furniture to give dignity to your house, never those bought in stores,” she once declared. To my nine-year-old ears, it didn’t make much sense.
Nanay urged me never to accept second-best. For her, “good enough” was never enough, from the grades you bring home from school to the service you receive in fast-food restaurants. She taught me that my happiness comes first, because in the end you will be alone, and if you die sad you only have yourself to blame.
Still, she had her weaknesses. When we were little she adopted orphaned cats that slept on the sofa with her and left so much hair on the beds they made me sneeze. The cats defecated inside the house and it stank to high heavens, but Nanay did not have the heart to punish them.
It was a different story with her grandchildren. When we displeased her, she threatened to die and haunt us. My grandfather was a submissive, quiet man who never interfered when Nanay spewed the curses that would befall us if we did not behave. As a result, I never feared anything like ghosts or vampires because I lived with the “Real Thing” and she could terrorise both young children and old men.
When I was 13, Nanay sent me to
Nanay died last year after suffering a stroke. She was 83. After the funeral, I went to our old house and helped sort through her possessions. My grandmother had kept so many things from my childhood: the kitten-pattern shorts I sewed as a high school project that I could not wear because they were too tight; the cross-stitched “Home Sweet Home” wall décor I made in Primary Five that she had framed; the letters I wrote home in my high school and university years, either asking for more rice or thanking her for sending fruit. Photos of her grandchildren were on display in the living room.
Nanay’s room looked the same. She was fond of umbrellas, and there were four new ones hanging behind the door. She liked to take apart old dresses and put the pieces back together in different outfits, mixing and matching sleeves, collars, belts, appliqués and skirts. In her closet I found scraps of Spanish lace and embroidered collars, waiting for her patient hands to turn them into some fashion statement, along with towels individually wrapped in plastic, reserved for when guests would arrive.
I came across an old set of white crocheted curtains that she had made. I hadn’t seen them in years, after my grandmother gave in to the modern times and ordered curtains made of yellow-gold satin and cream lace. It was delicate, and in places the crochet had unravelled. As I admired the hard work in the pattern, I realised I could repair the piece – using the crochet skills Nanay had taught me – and turn it into a tablecloth.
When I visited her grave, I was filled with sorrow as I reflected on all the birthdays I had allowed to pass. I thought about all the stories she never got a chance to tell me, about her life, about the girl she once had been, about the town I left behind. It occurred to me that perhaps she did not know how to tell me because I did not know how to ask.
Although I vowed never to be like her, I too married a quiet man who doesn’t like to fight. My seven-year-old daughter Elize can be silenced with one look from me, and I am notorious for terrorising call centre agents, customer service staff and beauticians.
And now I see Elize, so attached to my mother-in-law that she asks if she could live in her grandmother’s house. When at bedtime Elize asks for a nightlight and a little gas lamp, her grandmother obliges. Her grandmother cuts her hair, allows her to play in the sand and shows her how to save money for a new doll. Tyrant or not, there are things that only grandmothers can teach.
When the crocheted curtain-turned-tablecloth is complete, I will try something else. Maybe I will cook sweetened sticky rice or make a patchwork blanket from scrap cloth. The way Nanay taught me, the way I remember. I was right all along. Grandmothers live forever. They are in their granddaughters’ hearts.
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