On this day exactly, almost three decades ago, my Grandma died for no reason. She’d just come through quadruple-bypass surgery when on the 19th at 2 am, she sat up, said, “I can’t breathe,” and died.
A few days earlier when I’d first seen her post-surgery, she’d looked vulnerable and scared underneath her oxygen mask in her darkened recovery room across from the nurses’ station. The last time I saw her, she had her soft, sweet smile on, no oxygen mask. But she looked lonely, the kind of loneliness a person has when surrounded by people but not the one they really want. She wanted Grandpa, who’d died for the second time 2 years earlier, his duty to see us all settled and thriving in our new land, done.
The two of them had once told me that being here in Canada was the first time in their lives they had felt at home. Being Zoroastrians, they essentially had no place to call their own, for over 1000 years ago, our ancestors had been summarily slaughtered in their own land, the remnants escaping from their millennia-old home and native land with fragments of the holy books south to India and Burma, where they were allowed to stay as long as they did not intermingle with the local populace. The once sprawling, thriving ancient Persian empire of the Zoroastrians was reduced through genocide to a rump. The survivors quickly found a way to prosper in their places of refuge; my family became a line of successful pirates and then lawyers when the matriarch realised her family could make more money that way. Still, it was not their ancestral abode.
Grandma began life as the pampered daughter of an influential lawyer and a hard-nosed doctor, who taught her how to cook. One day as Grandma was teaching me how to cut an onion, she told me stories of how her mother had taught her. Grandma was infinitely more patient with me! Her father doted on her; her mother clashed with her. Grandma went to boarding school in England, learnt Cordon Bleu cooking, mastered the piano and violin, and grew up a woman comfortable in society. Yet she was no snob when I met her. She always told me you could tell a person had class not by their wealth or status but by how they acted with others. I’m not exactly sure when she met Grandpa, a principled lawyer 7 years her senior. Her father warned him to keep his daughter in the manner to which she was accustomed. Unfortunately a world war changed all that.
They wed and Grandma had one or two miscarriages. Then my father was born and thrived. She had a couple more miscarriages, and then birthed a daughter. She was playing in a violin concert when her daugher died of “a fit” at the age of 18 months. She never played the violin again. She had three more miscarriages, and then became pregnant again and stayed pregnant this time. But the Japanese invaded, and she had to flee in an old Dakota plane with a Chinese pilot at the helm with her young son, her parents, and no husband. He stayed behind to trek out with the army. Japanese fighter pilots dogged them until they entered Indian air space. Luckily, she didn’t lose her pregnancy. And 2 months later she gave birth to her last child, a boy, my uncle, before she even knew if her husband was alive or dead.
They never returned to Burma. From the lap of luxury, Grandma was thrown into a poor, nomadic existence, her entire focus on her two boys, whom she spoiled rotten. She went from being a society woman to using her talents to supplement their income. She created spice mixtures for sale, held cooking classes, devised recipes, all the while maintaining her connections to the highest echelons of power and influence. The woman could schmooze. She tried to teach me small talk…
When I knew Grandma, she didn’t live in a grand house, but a small, rundown one. She didn’t look like a woman who’d lost 8 children, but one who had all the children she ever wanted. She didn’t lament her losses; she celebrated all my achievements no matter how small or unsuccessful just as she spoke endlessly about her sons to others. Her lap was a comfortable place from where I listened to her fairy tales as she retold them patiently over and over to me. No matter my mood, she never spoke to me an unkind word. She accepted me completely. She knew me so well, from my favourite breakfast cereal to the kind of dress I loved. Whenever I went over, she greeted me with her soft, sweet smile that radiated love, dampened down crankiness, soothed grumpiness, and turned my steps into skips. And she always cooked my favourite stuff.
After Grandpa died, she used another one of her talents, her facility with languages, to help Gujrati-speaking immigrants settle into Canada, her new home and native land. They came out in droves at her funeral.
I still miss her. But every time I chop an onion, I think of her in the tears of the cutting and the sweet aromas the cooking brings. I remember her.