An Ode To My Grandmother

2 April 2018
Ode by Poorniima Shanmugam featured

There’s not much I know about my grandmother. I know she likes bread with her coffee. I know she’s never gone to school and I know her hair is grey—it has to be—but monthly trips to the hair salon mean I’ve only ever seen her raven-haired. I know she licks her finger before she turns a newspaper page, always on the obituary for reasons she’s never mentioned. I know I love her but that doesn’t make the finger-licking thing any less gross. From ages four to eight, I was under the care of my paternal grandparents. My grandfather was the strict, overbearing, colder companion to my grandmother’s gentle warmth, and as a result I always felt closer to her.

The sight of my grandmother’s face takes me back to a time that I hold very close to my heart. Pulling apart freshly baked bread and dipping it in coffee for her, Milo for me. Warm afternoon sun seeping through cracks of window where the curtains didn’t reach. The greasy kitchen where she’d always be, on a wooden stool, filleting fish or chopping garlic or peeling oranges. I can still hear her voice calling me home for dinner after I’d spent too much time with the children next door. I remember quiet nights watching TV at my grandparents’ house with my grandfather giving me sips of wine, claiming it was good for the heart, and my grandmother, sat on the floor, flipping through the newspaper.

When I turned nine, my mother quit her job to take care of me, and my grandmother and I began to drift apart. I only saw her on birthdays and important holidays. In the spaces between our occasional encounters, I grew into somebody wildly different from the child I once was. My movements smaller, my limbs bigger, the language that tied us together sounding more like marbles in my mouth. She’s a story I used to read as a child, but when I try to tell it now the words don’t come as easily. I wish I had at least tried to salvage all that I could of our relationship, but the truth is that I made no such attempt. Now the only time we meet is Chinese New Year and it’s an awkward affair. I never know what to say to her, with my clunky Mandarin and inability to properly express emotion. She’s as warm to me as ever but I never know how to return the affection. Sometimes after our phone calls, all stiff laughter and more telephone static than words, I wish I had asked more than, “How are you doing?” and, “What’s the weather like?” Over soapy dishes and leftovers, I ask her about life growing up in Sungai Petani, but she tells me to leave the dish-washing to her instead.

Here is what I think: there are stories that are meant to be lost. She keeps the burn mark on her wrist a secret and doesn’t talk about her childhood. So I’ll remember her through my father’s words, the scraps of her life shared around the dinner table, passed along like nothing important. I keep them in a box for days when the afternoon Melbourne light creeps through the gaps between the shades, making me think of her. She’s the taste of warm bread dipped in instant coffee, the voice I hear just before it gets dark outside. My grandmother doesn’t know how to read but she can make loh bak well enough to put someone out of business. Her food tells me how lucky I am that I can speak my languages better than I can cook.

“You have an honest face,” she says to me. “Your arms are strong and beautiful. Do well in school. Come home when you can. Spend the night here, how about that?” I recite these words like poetry when I think about her. She never tells me the way she felt when she had to marry my grandfather. I’ll let her keep that.

She will always tell me what she knows I need to hear.


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