TGIF: Why I Didn’t Want to Talk to My 95-Year-Old Grandmother?

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On yellow scissors, squishy elbows, “What’s wrong with me?” and life’s big questions.

“She wanted me to give this to you,” he said.

I examined the yellow scissors in my hands. Entranced, I put my fingers through the snug handles and snipped the blunt metal blades in the air as if to ensure that it still worked.

She was my grandmother. Or, Ammachi as I called her.

Back when I was in fifth grade, I gave my grandmother a pair of yellow scissors. I wish I could say that “the gift” involved some kind of noble sacrifice on my part, but it didn’t. I’d just upgraded to purple scissors at the beginning of the school year. My new pair was shiny, sharp and purple. Did I mention they were purple? Yellow reminded me of daisies, rubber ducks and bananas. Psssh. Yellow was for toddlers and I was ready to play with the big boys. Purple conjured up images of velvet, ink pens and grape juice. Owning purple stationery offered a warped sense of “sophistication” for my fifth grade mind. Having said that, it does not bode well for me that in my late twenties, velvet, ink pens and grape juice are still my definition of sophistication.

I remember gladly offering up my yellow scissors without experiencing any sense of loss.

Two decades later, holding the same yellow scissors unraveled me. It was the closest thing to finding a time-capsule I’d ever experienced.

My dad had just returned from Kerala (South India) where he spent some time with my now bed-ridden, very sick, 95-year- old grandmother.

She put the scissors in his hand and said, “Tell Kukku-mol* I’ve taken care of it for all these years. I want you to return it to her. I want her to have it.”

*Kukku –My family nickname #dontask, Mol –Daughter*

Let me put this into perspective, my grandmother had taken care of my cheap plastic scissors since the Gulf War. Gobsmacked. #1991wasalongtimeago

Fast Forward

A couple of weeks had gone by since my emotional reunion with the yellow stationery when my dad said, “Ammachi wants to talk to you. She said she wants to hear your voice.”

The moment the words fell out of his mouth, I felt my throat close up.

I didn’t want to talk to her.

From the age of six to about 11, my grandmother lived with my family. When the potent smell of talcum powder and eucalyptus wafted into the room, I knew she was near. To this day the cobalt blue bottle of her Noxzema face cream instantly transports me to our “cozy” two bedroom apartment in Dubai.

I’d play with the loose skin on her elbows while she read me stories from the orange hardbound children’s Bible with the red foil embossed lettering. Her eyebrows furrowed, her eyes distant and her voice urgent. She told me stories about The First Rainbow, Baby Moses in a Basket and, my favourite, Manna Falling from the Sky. And, just when she thought she was making progress with the squirrely six-year-old she was trying to pass her legacy onto, I’d giggle.

“Ammachi! Your elbows are so squishy!” I’d announce amidst more giggles. Her face would relax. She’d burst out laughing and pull me in for a kiss. Well, not technically a kiss. I don’t think my people “kiss.” We “sniff-kiss.” She pressed her thin lips and bulbous nose against my cheek and took a deep audible breath — inhaling the scent of my skin, inhaling my entire squirrely-six-year-old-baby-powder-essence.

And yet …
I didn’t want to talk to her.

I didn’t want to talk to …
The woman who smelled like talcum powder and eucalyptus.

I didn’t want to talk to …
The woman who let me play with her squishy elbows and sniff-kissed me.

I didn’t want to talk to …
The woman who saved my yellow scissors for two decades.

What is wrong with me? (And life’s other fatiguing questions.)

I thought about why I felt sick to my stomach at the thought of talking to her.

“If we cannot be clever, we can always be kind.” –Alfred Fripp

When I was young my grandmother spoke in broken English. As the years have gone by, she has reverted back to her mother tongue Malayalam. While I understand the language, I can’t reciprocate. My mind and tongue have a head-on collision and paralyze me.

The two default questions I revert to in Malayalam:
a. How are you?
b. What did you eat?

Every time I ask the same two questions, I feel ashamed. I think about how frustrating it must to be to be on the receiving end of those conversations.

While the language barrier is part of the block, the other part of it is not being able to push past the veneer of surface conversation. Our conversations feel practiced and clinical.

The questions I want to ask her:
Why’d you save my scissors? What do you remember about me as a child? What is unique about me? What should I look for in a husband? Will I be a good mother? What did you learn from your children?

“When your suffering is a little greater than my suffering I feel that I am a little cruel.” —Antonio Porchia, Voces

Hearing her belaboured breath and raspy longing voice terrifies me. The fact that they have already read her the last rites is so overwhelming to me. The fact that she is bed-ridden, simply awaiting death is devastating.

Some more questions I want to ask her:
Are you scared? What do you think heaven is like? What do you miss most about Appacha (grandfather)? Do you have any regrets? What do you know now, that you wish you knew then? If you had one dream for my life, what would it be? What should I do when I miss you?

And yet …
The words don’t come …
The courage doesn’t come and
I don’t want to talk to her …

Earlier this week I read Erin’s powerful piece “Learning the Language of Presence.” If you haven’t read it, go read it now.

Erin talks about being in Iraq and feeling at a loss for words, but finally coming to the realization that:

“She didn’t need to hear my words, she needed to feel my presence. And in more ways than she would ever know, I needed to feel hers.”

It was reassuring to hear that even when the words didn’t come, my presence was valuable. This isn’t one of those TGIF’s where I’ve figured it all out. It’s me as a work-in-progress.

I did eventually make the call. I still only asked the same two default questions, but this is how it went:

“Hi, Ammachi … It’s Kukku.”

The voice cracks on the other line, “Ende ponnu-molay!”
Translation: My golden daughter!

Warm tears …
Fat tears …
Salty tears …
Tumbling down my eyelashes …
Streaking down my cheeks …
Diving off my chin …
Sommersaulting onto my lap.

*encore*

“She didn’t need to hear my words, she needed to feel my presence. And in more ways than she would ever know, I needed to feel hers.”Erin Wilson

Also read: What My Grandmother Taught Me About The Hero’s Journey

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So …*deep breath*…

Is there someone in your world that you don’t want to talk to?

1. You don’t have to name names, I’m more curious to hear about your reasons for avoiding contact? I want to hear a real reason. Not, “I’m busy.”

2. What is the worst-case scenario that keeps you from making contact?

3. On the flip-side, what could be a possible positive outcome from experiencing this person’s presence?

Love you more than my friend Jen’s creamy Pumpkin Swirl Cheesecake Bars, (<- Recipe)

xoxo,
Teen

To read more TGIFs from Tina: Click here.
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