An old picture your grandfather hangs next to the dream catcher in the living room, an heirloom that need not be divided, it is a distant dusty old memory but yours still, collectively. You look at him on the picture and see all the faces you have imagined him wearing. Having not lived long enough to see you become has come to mean you imagine him most times than you remember him.
Before you were old enough to open the front door by yourself, there were things that let themselves in, made your grandparents’ house their home. They found your grandfather smoking his cigarette and away. It is the cancer you cannot pronounce that made of him an absence. What came in and took him stayed away longer before it came back for your grandmother. It came quietly and unannounced, but the story goes she knew her time was almost up. So she channeled her goodbyes through your little cousin, five at the time and unable to honor the gravity of the words, he told on her as soon as her light dimmed. Asked them to dress her in her blue and white St. John’s uniform and that was it, she too was gone.
Today your recollection of them is a picture puzzle with shape-shifting pieces, you almost have to give up a part of them to remember another, shroud yourself with mourning again and confront the ground that opened to swallow them, the soil that sits atop their graves compact and committed to the labor of keeping a body under. You ask of it to give up one detail or either one of them, one story to immortalize them and perhaps help you remember who you are. Memory is a crafty thing so you have forgotten much more than you can remember of them. Every December holidays your family gravitates to eulogizing them without even trying, it is just a thing they do out of pure nostalgia. You have noticed how your mother, who is the firstborn of your late grandparents, says very little when her siblings talk about them. Your aunt, who seems to have a trunk worth of memories, sitting next to you on the floor says, ‘But they were also strict, too strict,’ then breaks up in laughter. Inside her laughter you can hear the twenty-year-old girl who liked Christian fellowships and boys all the same, who received lashings till she was black and blue but would still return home way past curfew, bible on hand and a boy’s jacket on. All this you learnt from your other aunts in other eulogizing ceremonies that she did not grace.
Over the years you have come to notice that reminiscing about your grandparents has become a papier-mâché of borrowed memories, one detail here and another there. When you finally gave yourself permission to mourn your grandfather, it was two decades later and it all came in like a gentle storm. For days a small memory of his hands played on your mind like a precious stone glistening against a setting sun, over and over again until memory hungered for presence; the place where this picture repeated itself in your mind was left eroded and gouged so hollow you needed to remember more to fill the empty if not bring him back. You so desperately wanted to remember the rest of the picture but whenever you sat still and focused, you found yourself chasing after a mirage, you seemed to forget it all. Then when not even trying, perhaps taking a shower or reading a novel, you would catch a whiff of his scent, sitting down under the Mosetlha tree, his big hands like bible pages holding the truth, his hand lines so vivid and sure, like paths promising good years ahead together, in this memory you know that even he did not think he would be gone a few years later. You forgive his leading the way on which your grandmother came following; you feel like this is what they mean when they say closure.
‘Remember when RraLesego came back from Kgalagadi and for a week we would be spoiled? As long as he was home we ate rice with sauces, beans with meat and ate potato chips seasoned with a lot of chili?’ ‘Remember when MmaLesego would make you iron your uniform in the dark because you spent the afternoon playing sunababy and diketo? Remember? Remember? Remember…?’ all a chorus followed by stories, stories reaffirmed by grunts and glinting eyes in the dark, those that did not remember the bits of memories listened intently and took mental notes, yourself among them. With each year you have come to learn that you did not really know your grandparents, to eulogize them you have kept close their fond memories but left the memories you did not like so much to wither with time. Memories like how vicious your grandfather’s rage was, how one time he beat up your uncle to the point of bleeding, how when he was this angry your grandmother had no say on the punishments, she kept quiet and cowered into a corner, praying with her eyes for mercy for her children. How one time she asked her first son to escape through the window when RraLesego had gone to fetch his belt. There was also a time when he tied his son to his 4×4 Hilux and drove on in the yard like a wounded lion, in his mind, all this a well-deserved punishment for a little school boy. These were memories that would be re-told without the somberness you thought they deserved, something that started to irk you as you grew older.
MmaLesego was spoken of as one who would make a person eat a whole pot of dumplings by themselves if they dare cooked them wrong and hard. She was the one who remained behind when RraLesego worked a thousand kilometers away from home, always gone. You think a lot about the loneliness she must have endured, raising seven children who missed their father all too much, keeping the house in order and the small fat-cake and snacks business running. When men are spoken of as hard workers you wish that conversation could acknowledge women too, women like your grandmother and your mother who have gone through the breaking-back labor of raising families by themselves even with their husbands present somewhere. You wish to remember your grandmother on days like this as strong, tenacious and giving. To be a mother even in your era is a challenge not many get the acknowledgment for.
There are stories you hear every year but can never find a perfect fit for them in the already existing picture in your mind, but if you must remember your grandparents well you must be honest with who they were and this one year you struggled. Someone passing by the road would have thought you were all talking about a great harvest or a good fortune with all the loud voices and laughter, despite the ugliness in some of your late grandparents’ memories. You cannot stomach some stories because how was it not abuse then? When you stand to go cry in your room, you are a moonless sky and no one notices you slipping away. You wonder to yourself why you can all laugh about hurtful things done in the name of parenting and speak of them like they were acts of heroism. You wonder if you owe your loved ones forgiveness or pardon once they are late, if they now assume positions of deity where they no longer have to answer for their actions. You wonder how you can ask the dead to heal what they broke even in their passing and to what degree you can hold them accountable. To have your grandparents now is to have all of them, the good and ugly and you don’t know how to hold that blowing out amber of truth.
You don’t remember much about RraLesego’s passing, you just remember at six years being told you cannot go watch as they lower him to the ground, that you were too young. About three years later when it was MmaLesego’s funeral, you remember the frail voice of a woman, advocating for you, as the cars filled up to go to the burial site she said, ‘Ke ngwana wa moswi tlhe batho,’ meaning you were daughter to the deceased. Just those words made room for you on a red Hyundai back seat. At the grave yard, your uncle only two years your senior, last child of your grandmother wore a black suit and looked all too old for his age. He was squatting on one knee while holding his chin the way older men do when they are thinking about the weightier things of life, weighing their options. A single tear streaked down his eye and that was it, you never saw him crying beyond that, which made you feel guilty for wanting to cry when he just sat there dry-eyed so you held back too.
You do not know if your desperation to remember this beautiful part of your past has left you with pure memories or not, time has also done its faithful work of leaving chunks of your memory unaccounted, which has left you with more questions than answers. Questions like, have you imagined any detail to flesh out your memory? Are the people in your mind the ones who once lived? Does it matter at all that you did not know them enough to visit their graves and lay flowers on the sunken soil that has embraced their decay? Do their spirits wander the earth (or wherever it is departed souls go) asking what kind of granddaughter you are and don’t they miss you? Which you? The petulant little girl always home sick for a city they did not know? A city in which your mother thought she had found sweet love but it left her heart with a cavity so dark it needed pulling out? Like a tooth? Do they know that she left the city and its tiring hunger demanding for her to give, give, and give? Went back home to be a parent to their other children? You wonder if they know too that this granddaughter of theirs went back to the city to live a clichéd life of a writer forever typing her days away in little corner coffee shops. Are they proud of you? Now a twenty seven year old girl who doesn’t know how to be an adult without constantly questioning everything? Like why did they find the call of death so urgent? It is hard to hold their memories dear without asking yourself if this is all there is to life, living days forever looking back because someone always stays behind and never comes back, because they are never coming back.
Busamoya Phodiso Modirwa
Busamoya Phodiso Modirwa is Motswana writer and poet with works published on Jalada Africa: Bodies, Praxis Online Magazine, Ake Review, Kalahari Review and elsewhere. She is a recipient of the Botswana President’s Award – Contemporary Poetry 2016.
This entry appeared in The Memory Issue