by Natalya Gimson
My body is aching from the huge backpack I have been carrying through Europe for the last three months. When I walk into my grandmother’s tiny apartment I let it ‘thud’ to the ground. She is sitting on her dark green couch, just as I pictured her in my head. That smell too; the damp wool sweater smell is still lingering in the air two years later, since I last saw her. I hear the same sounds as before; classical music playing on the radio and the BBC on TV. I sit next to her on the couch and wrap my arms around her—holding her I already feel lighter. The weight of her frail body is only a fraction of my life in that back pack.
“Hello Natasha, alright, it’s so lovely of you to visit. Will you go boil some tea?” I smile; the way she talks is different from anyone else I know. Not just because she is from a different generation, but because she is her own person, self-created, with a particular vocabulary and style unique as the vast experiences she has had in her life. She has a certainty in her voice that is unwavering, at times bossy. In the kitchen I search for the boiler, English breakfast, and some mugs. “The digestives are in the tin on top of the fridge!” she yells in a slight panic, worried about teatime without them.
“Grandma, what are you doing with all those notebooks?” She is surrounded by messy stacks: on the table, floor, windowsill.
“I’m working on my memoir. I think staying busy is one of the keys to staying alive. Keeping the brain ticking away! I’ve always kept myself busy and I think that’s how I’m still here, you know? The gardens I’ve kept, reading, writing, watching the news. It’s all very important. I know I’m forgetful and not much use to anyone, haha! But to stay busy, you know? Really keep doing things; it’s one of the keys.” I stare at her, unsure what to make of these words. The keys to staying alive. The mug of tea is warm between my hands. It brings me the most comfort I’ve had in weeks. On it is a drawing of a geranium: Pelargonium x hortorum. I think I say something lame like, “I think it’s really cool you’re writing a memoir.”
“I’ve been searching for a poem. It’s one of my favorites, about a naughty little frog. Oh dear it’s dreadfully funny. I think it’s in my file cabinet in the office. Will you go have a look for it?” I remember the poem about the naughty little frog. He rejected his mother’s dinner and went searching for alternatives, only to turn his nose up to them, too. When he finally returns home, now very hungry, his mother has given his share away.
I walk down the hallway and pass framed family photos: black and white ones of her parents and sisters, color photos of my family—me and my sister holding a large decorated cake with the birthday candles ‘80’ sitting on top. I pass small fine pen drawings of plants, chrysanthemums, orchids, and lavender. The parts of her life that she has cared for most are displayed on her walls: her cultivations, achievements. I crouch down in front of the dark green cabinet. My fingers ruffle through the files: “Home Finances,” “80th Birthday” “Family Reunion,” “Will.”
My body stops moving. The thoughts I have been fighting for a long time grow from whispers to loud voices and with them I am guilty. I want her clothes. I want the button-up shirts and old worn down socks. I want the sun hat she’s had for over 25 years, and the embroidered cardigans with gold buttons. Earrings that she never wears anymore, shiny and fabulous. I want the mugs with flowers and books so that every time I drink tea and open the pages I can inhale her, breathe in her vigor for life. I want to have her smell on me to remind me that we have to stay busy to stay alive, to keep ticking, to remember the naughty frog and what happened to him.
I am seven years old; Grandma and I are sitting next to each other in her garden with the Spanish sun warming our forearms. We are holding a children’s book of poems between us.
“Sound it out, Natasha, come on now.” My grandmother encourages me through every word with her stern British accent.
“Nau..ggg..hty” I get stuck on the ‘G’ and look up at her.
“Try again. Do you remember what ‘gh’ do together?”
“…Uhhh.. no…no I can’t”
“They are silent! Try again.” She snaps with her voice. I take a deep breath and read, “Nau-(gh)-ty.”
“Aha! That’s it Natasha! Now keep going, let’s finish this poem before tea time.”
And he came to the owl
And he said “Kind fowl
Pray what are you having today?”
The owl said:”Mice
Can I give you a slice?”
But he sailed and he sailed away.
I hand her the poem. “You found it! Excellent.” My grandmother looks so innocent, with wide eyes. Her boyish haircut is messy and on the verge of stylish, she is adorable. She begins to read the poem out loud, chuckling every few lines. When she reaches the last stanza, titled “moral”, her face becomes serious;
And the Froggy tells you
You must never say “Pooh”
Whatever your dinner may be.
To the naughty little sinner
Who hasn’t had his dinner
It’s a long, long time till tea.
“What time is it Natasha?”
“Mmm, about 6:00.”
“Ah, it’s time for me to put on my jams. Angela, my evening caretaker usually helps me, but she is late. Will you help me?” We make the long slow walk to her bedroom.
“Okay, now go get me some knickers and some jams.” I pull out a pair of underwear: small, white, cotton, with a Marks and Spencer’s tag, and a light green pair of pajama pants with a shirt to match. When I turn around she has already begun pulling her elastic waistband pants down. “Pull them all the way off,” she gestures towards me. I crouch and she rests her hands on my back to hold her balance. It reminds me of all the times I have tied shoelaces in my years of babysitting. “Take my knickers off and hand me the new pair.”
This moment is the most important moment in my life until I have a child, if I have a child. The most delicate part of my soul (her soul) is demanded.
I pull down her underwear and try not to stare at the skin that seems to be falling off of her body. It ripples off of her inner thighs, stomach and arms. This is the form our bodies inevitably take. This is how we return to the Earth, like waves rolling into shore and out to sea, again and again.