Archives for posts with tag: grandfather

Ten years ago this week, I sat at my father’s bedside in his final days. In those last breathing moments, I did not know what I would remember of him. I just knew that something was happening in that bright, white, dreamlike hospital space. I know now that I was experiencing my father’s gradual transformation from fully alive and here and now, to being in remembrance. My grandfather was already there, in a place where earthly imperfection is gone and the godly goodness of what we choose to remember becomes our inheritance, our birthright.

We sat at the kitchen table,

preparing food and remembering

what we only knew from others:

Grandfather was a good man.

We remembered it in stories of

feeding the poor, of donating

blood, of building a school

and a temple. These things

we imagined, like scenes

from an old movie, playing

behind our eyes and

allowing us to see a truth

we wanted to hold, for

Grandfather, and also for us.

Remembering his godliness,

we remembered what we

could be. “Do this for

the remembrance of me,”

our priest says each Sunday.

But at the kitchen table,

we did the same, and sat

taller and made plans

and knew who we were.

Advertisements

I am interested in how memory and imagination intersect to weave a story. Just as my aunty remembered her father, now I remember mine and can feel his spirit presence in spaces he once occupied physically. I live in a house that has contained other people, their voices and movement. Even as memory fades and becomes disjointed, sometimes I still see a shadow standing at the kitchen counter, hear a familiar sound at the door. My imagination remembers deeply and I am grateful for its firm hold on a world that I have loved.

Outside, sunlight glinted on dark leaves

as we wound down the mountain road.

And on something else, too,

it seemed. Aunty said,

“Your grandfather traveled

up here all the time.” She

was speaking to my generation,

not to her own – her sisters

nodded in agreement – and

not to the great-grandchildren,

happily puckering lips around

straws, gulping cold, sweet drinks.

“He knew the hill tribe people here,

and helped them. The school he

built, it’s somewhere …”

Her voice trailed off and it was

clear she did not know exactly

where. She had entered the

world of imagination. I came

into that world, too, gazing into

the shadows and light dancing

through the trees as we

continued our descent into

the city below.

I favor second-hand and consignment shops, partly for the bargains, but also for the little bit of extra history clothing that has been worn by another human being holds. Even if I do not know the people or the stories, I like how clothes that others have lived in now fit me just right. I have some things of my father’s that still smell a little like him, even seven years later. And because of those leather jackets and wool sweaters, he is not quite gone. The grandfather I hardly knew becomes a little bit known to me when I slip on his old gray sweater. Just clothes, we might say, easily acquired and easily passed on. Or we appreciate the comfort of an old sweater on a chilly morning all the more.

 

I reach for it in the dark closet and imagine

you wore it on cool evenings, taking the dogs

out, and maybe mornings on your walks

to the temple.  You held the children, my

mother, wearing this, walking back and forth

in front of the house until she slept.

 

It holds these things now – the knit

stitches moved with you, expanding

with your presence, resting with you, too.

The fibers – might they hold bits of you,

skin cells, strands of hair, a scent I would

not recognize?  I slip it on, and step into

the cool morning.

So much of what I know of my family in Thailand has been told to me in stories. Every so often, a story is more alive with sounds and smells that I can imagine. In this story of my grandfather heading home at the end of his workday, it is the smell of jasmine rice (a scent I know well) and the plunk of a watermelon (imagine a heavy stone landing in water). And we all know the sight and taste of a perfectly sweet watermelon. These small sensory windows into a long ago time and a home I hardly know, connect me in the best possible way to my grandfather. Even now, 35 years after his death, we can share an experience across generations and place.

 

It was the end of an ordinary day,

the close announced with metal clacking

of the gate along its tracks, the click

of a key, pedaling away from the dark

shop.  First, a stop at the market to pick

up a watermelon for his family at home.

It was easy for him.  Long ago, he had

worked at a watermelon farm and

knew the color and heft of one that

was just right.  He pedaled home,

the melon in the basket in front,

moving through the traffic and

crowds of people also going home.

He spun into the next part

of the day, maybe thinking about

the work day behind, the home

life in front, or the places off to

the side that pulled at him, too –

his temple, the hill tribe people

he had come to know, the poor

to whom he offered food on

Tuesdays.  On those days, he

was sure to offer sweets, which

gave such pleasure, and he knew

fed the place in our spirits

that needed beauty.  He was

close to home now.  First, the dogs

knew, waking from naps, stretching,

ready to play.  The noises the

children made grew louder,

some laughter, and some arguing,

too.  Even the jasmine rice on

the stove knew it was time to be

ready, releasing its fragrance

into the air.  And how do I

know, so many years later,

imagining this ordinary day?

I hear the plunk of the

watermelon he dropped into

the cool depth of the well in

back.  His youngest boy would

fish it out with a bucket after dinner.

It would be cut wide open on the table.

It would not be disappointing.

It would be red, glowing,

its juices spilling out, its

black seeds punctuating the

flesh in a steady line.

“Plunk!” went the melon.

The noise from the house

stopped for a moment.  His

family knew, with that familiar

sound, that their father was home.

The story I heard was of my uncle’s wedding day. My mother, then a little girl, was excited to be going, riding the train to the nearby town, wearing her white dress. When she dropped a heavy pail of water on her foot, and cried in pain, my grandfather came to help her. Her foot was red and swollen, threatening to ruin her day. She was too slow to walk, so Grandfather put her on his bicycle handlebars and rode to the train station, just in time. I was not there, of course, but the stories my mother and others tell of Grandfather have a mythical feeling to them. His otherness in the world comes through in so many ways — his dark Indian skin in a light brown country, his kindness to fellow outsiders, his small but significant heroics. I did not know him long enough or well enough to say I loved my grandfather. But I can say I love who he has become to me and my family.

At the train station, it was just another morning:

the sunlight cut through the cool air,

swirling into a glowing haze.

A train was preparing to depart –

inside, people were finding seats and

stowing bags.  A few stragglers were

hurrying to board.  Then, out of

a warm beam of sunlight, a man

appeared, running the length

of the platform.  He was darker than

most others, and he wore a white

suit that glowed in the light.  In

his arms, he carried a little girl,

also dressed in white.  As the train

began to move – the sound of metal

on metal tracks, the smell of oil –

the man ran faster, so that he

was a blur of brilliant white,

and reached one hand for the

handle on the side of an open door.

He jumped on board, one foot, one hand,

and “thump!” both feet

landed inside the train car.

The passengers looked up, unable

to keep from noticing the glowing

man and the girl who had arrived.

My grandfather Motiram settled in Chiang Mai, working first at a watermelon farm and saving his earnings to purchase the beginnings of his small business in textiles. He started very small, and took his bolts of fabric to communities that were not used to commerce and opportunity coming to them. The people of the hill tribes around Chiang Mai became his loyal customers and also his friends. I believe they — Motiram and the hill tribe people — must have shared an understanding of what it meant to be outsiders, immigrants, people in search of community and home.

 

His idea came in a flash,

the momentary blindness that

comes from looking at the sun,

even just for seconds.  When

the spots of light floated away,

he saw what he could do.

His investment:  three bolts

of cloth, one under each arm,

one tied to his back, and a

shiny pair of scissors, hung

by a string from his waist,

catching the sunlight as they

swung back and forth.

 

When they saw him coming,

leaning into the hill, arms

full, something shiny

dangling along, they

were curious.  And when they

understood that he had

brought this cloth to sell,

they were surprised.  He was

not asking for anything –

no food, no shelter for sleep,

no favors at all.  He was

bringing something.  No

one did this.

 

The villagers ran for

their money.  Hidden

away, buried in the dirt,

rarely used.  They gathered

around the man.  As he cut

the fabric with a zip of his

scissors, the women’s eyes

sparkled with the vision of

children darting about, bright

clothes swirling, of husbands

in fresh shirts, even of themselves

draped in flowing color.

I am interested in the idea of inheritance — gifts from those who have left our earthly world. They might be material, but could also be intangible. The inheritance of language, names, physical features, mannerisms, all matter as much, or more than, money and things. My grandfather did leave things, but the inheritance I have and most love from him are the stories my family shares. This is my memory of the things — the money is gone, but the story remains.

 

The evening dragged on.  The lawyer

and my two uncles sat in the

living room, talking quietly.

For the daughters and children

of daughters, the talk hardly mattered,

and we sat around the table

eating longan fruit.

Sticky juice ran down our arms

and brown skins spilled over the

edges of the bowl.  Grandfather

was a Hindu.  We knew

everything would go to the sons.

 

“Slap!”  Papers

thrown angrily on the table.

An uncle’s loud voice,

our silence, another uncle’s voice.

The nervous lawyer, speaking

softly but too quickly.

“They are arguing about money,”

my aunty said.  The words

ran, fast, climbing higher, until they

started to descend, breathing

slowed, and the uncles

sat down again.

 

And then, as if from a dream,

someone threw handfuls of

money into the air.  Money from

Grandfather, I suppose.  Screaming with

excitement, we jumped up to catch

the money as it came down.  Colorful Thai

bills floated above us, suspended in the air

a moment or two.  Breath held, silence,

eyes focused on the soft flutter of

reds, greens, blues – nothing but

paper, but everything we had

at that moment – that seemed to rise

higher before dancing down.

Sound returned, arms reached

high, children crouched low,

crawling between the legs of

adults, reaching for our inheritance.

 

This memory of my grandfather — my only one — is among my first and most vivid memories. From it, I have been able to construct an image of him that matches the stories I have been told. I am very aware of how difficult it is to discern the truth from images and stories, but this is what I have. So I hold it close.

In my memory, the room is dark,

but sunlight filters in from somewhere above,

casting a dusty light.

A red carpeted path divides the room.

On either side are tall stacks of

paper, boxes, and bolts of cloth.

My grandfather sits at the end,

behind an enormous desk.

Dark skin, heavy eyebrows,

thick hair in streaks of

gray and white and black,

and light clothing that glows

in the dark room, against dark skin.

He is large, a giant.

I have only this one memory.

Lack of memory is nothing, weightless.

But this one pebble I hold tight.

I am afraid of losing it.

As I follow the long red path,

I feel small, but sure.  I have

done this before.  I am not

afraid of the light at the end.

When I finally arrive,

he lifts me onto his lap.

He takes the tin from behind.

It was the tin I wanted.

He opens it, the sugar smell

cuts through the dust, and

he offers me a biscuit.

I was four years old.

I have often thought that one reason for religion and spirituality is to grapple with the mystery of those no longer with us. How do we explain the power those we loved have over our lives, even after they are gone from the earth? Their presence continues on in some way, guiding us in how we, the still living, carry out our lives. My human, mortal self longs to understand the world the dead inhabit, and for a deeper connection to the world they left behind.

 

The day Grandfather died, he came to life for me,

woke up from murky memory, grew colorful in

stories.  The world – it grew larger, too, drawing

me deeper in and around it, connecting me

to the rhythm of life, not just mine, but others,

family, living and dead.  It was as if Grandfather’s

matter was reaching out to me, holding me closer

to the earth.  I have not been to the Ganges,

where his ashes float with those of others in my

family I have never known.  When I do, I will ask a

pundit waiting on the banks of the river to look

in his book, and find record of all the names of

my family brought to the river.  All

mixed in there, in the silt at the bottom, at the

muddy banks, flowing in the currents are the

dusty remains of my family.  I will cup that water

in my hands and feel the flow of relation running

through my fingers, and know them as my own.