Tag Archives: grief

In Memoriam

A year and a half ago, after family Christmas celebrations with my mother’s side of the family, I said to myself, This will be the last Christmas like this one.

Six months ago, after an eclectic hodge-podge of people, food, and gifts with the pilot’s family and other expatriates, I thought that I’d been wrong, and there had been another Christmas like that one, I just wasn’t there to see it. Of course, when the power came back on and I checked my email, I had an email from my mother, informing me that the family was having Christmas at the hospital, in and out of grandpa’s hospital room.

My mother’s father died yesterday morning.

The last time I saw him was at orientation in August. He and grandma came by to say goodbye to me, and to bring me hugs and a game of Dutch Blitz. We walked to the park nearby, and along a wooded trail. One of the other SALTers, at this point I don’t even remember who, wandered by as we were saying goodbye and took a picture of the three of us. They sent it to me for my birthday, and it hung on the wall of my room in the Wooden House. He looks the same as he ever did, or perhaps only slightly different.

I feel far away and a bit lonely, though surrounded by many excellent people. I’ve been reading comfort books and eating the chocolate that’s been stashed in the freezer since January in expectation of this eventuality. I feel weird telling people, and weirder still not telling them, and have somewhat managed to arrange things so that other people tell people for me. Hugs are easy to accept, condolences are harder. I don’t have a clue what I’m supposed to say, if there is anything other than “Thank you,” and both Miss Manners and No Nice Girl Swears are in Philadelphia, and No Nice Girl Swears is intended for débutantes and probably doesn’t have a section on bereavement, anyway.

I’m managing, I think.

People keep asking, “Were you close to him?”

I don’t know how to answer that question. Closer than many people are to their grandparents. Not as close as some. I loved him, and I know he loved me. He was my grandfather. I wasn’t as close to him as I am to my parents, or to my maternal grandmother, I guess, because of the person he was and the person she is.

There’s a white wooden bookcase in my room at home, six (seven?) shelves high and exactly half an inch higher than my taller hardcovers, that was my birthday present from him back when I was in high school, made to the specifications I requested: to contain all of my books, and to fit into the space between the wall and the window. In front of the window is a shorter bookcase with higher shelves, that he made some years later, when I needed somewhere to store school binders and my few really big books. Grandpa installed the ceiling fan in that room, fishing around, halfway inside the ceiling, with grandma feeding him wires, because I wanted one. I must have been at school at the time, because I don’t remember this, and have only heard of it from mom.

Whenever the two of them were coming to visit, we always needed to come up with a list of household tasks, things with the right combination of tinkering and engineering and manual labor, because grandpa wouldn’t be happy just sitting around visiting without any work to do.

He taught me to sharpen knives, something my mother, despite her twenty-first century emancipation, has always thought of as men’s work, and my brother wasn’t interested in learning. Apparently I can sharpen kitchen knives without ruffling gender roles, as long as mom doesn’t have to do it herself.

When I was a kid and would go on summer visits for a week at a time, we’d work in the garden together, or he and/or grandma would walk along as I rode the bicycle they got for me. When I was cleaning my room last year, I found a charmingly misspelled journal from 1995, describing an upcoming visit to gramol’s house and gleefully anticipating a bicycle. I remember that bicycle; it was red. I don’t know what was so special about it, as I think I had a bicycle at home. That grandma and grandpa got it for me, I guess.

Until just a few years ago, whenever we visited, grandpa would climb up the ladder built into the wall of the hall closet to fetch down sleeping bags and air mattresses for my brother and I. Those shallow rungs always seemed very intimidating to me, but he climbed up them without fail until the time that Isaac did instead. The transition was natural and easy, but I remember being very aware at the time that it was One of Those Signs.

He was an excellent cook. There are some dishes that are particular to my grandmother, but for anything beyond those, we’d have to ask to be sure who made any item of food found in a meal. In particular, I remember him standing over the electric skillet, tending pancakes or french toast for a big family breakfast.

He was not a game-player by nature, though the rest of us are, and usually sat in his chair and read or napped while grandma terrorized everyone at Parcheesi, or we all tried to out-bland and out-cunning each other at Clue. I recall that he particularly despised Fluxx, describing it as “a very postmodern game.” It wasn’t until I got to college that I gained an understanding of postmodernism that is more nuanced than my teenage impression of it as something approaching a curse word in my grandfather’s vocabulary. It was probably Easter a year ago, though it might just have been an ordinary family get-together, that we discussed postmodernism and biblical scholarship over the dinner table, skirting close to the edges of The Topics We Did Not Talk About.

We Skyped a few times since I came to Zambia, but it grew harder and harder to find times when he was alert and aware and not befuddled with sleep. But even then he was still my grandfather, if vaguer and more obstreperous.

He was ready to go, and for several months now, this is what we’ve been praying for.

But it’s still hard.

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A fraction of my recent adventures

I wrote this last week and thought I posted it (the power went out right after), but upon checking realized that it hadn’t.

I’ve been busy lately and haven’t had much time for my usual lengthy blog posts. At this point I’m so far behind on things I intended to say that if I’m going to get around to posting any of them, I need to just start typing somewhere. So:

A few weekends ago I went to a church National Women’s Conference. Conveniently enough, it was held in Choma. Something like 1,300 women attended. The conference was over a term break, so many of the women stayed in the dorm of a school. I, along with three other MCC women, stayed at a nearby guesthouse (which was very convenient, because we wound up cooking a large portion of our own food).

The conference started on Thursday, and those of us coming from Macha were taking local transport, catching a ride on the (large) minibus that the other Macha women were taking. There was a 10 hours bus and a 13 hours bus — we opted for the 10 hrs bus.

I did not expect the bus to leave on time. However, I’d never taken churchwomen transport before, and on the bare possibility that it *might* leave on time, I felt that I ought to be timely. We showed up to the meeting place, the church, at about 9:59, and no one was there.

Okay, I thought, usual Zambian transport.

Before Natasha could get worried, a Zambian woman in the church chitenge showed up and introduced herself as E—-. We introduced ourselves, and before we finished the greeting process, another woman showed up, carrying E—-‘s suitcase on her head. We greeted with her, too, and before we finished that round of greeting, Lisa appeared from around the building; she’d been taking pictures. Cue more greeting.

One of the next women to arrive was Grama, who I’d met before, when I went to the women’s Saturday afternoon bible study, and whose name, I have since discovered, is, in fact, Glamour.

Over the next hour or so, people arrived in a slow but steady trickle, bringing with them an ever-widening round of greetings — in Zambian society, you don’t greet the group as a whole, you greet each member of the group individually. While westerners may find it a bit odd to go “How are you — I’m fine” along a whole line of people (especially when you arrive in a group, so there are two lines moving in opposite directions, like optimal heat exchange between parallel pipes), Zambians consider it not only normal, but eminently proper.

There was still no sign of the bus.

One, or perhaps some, of the women had arrived with popwe, boiled maize, which was broken into chunks and shared out among the group. I attacked mine with the incisor-bite I’ve worked out for things like boiled maize that are harder than my front teeth are up to handling, and managed to decimate my four centimeters of cob with a minimum of mess.

On my way back from the trash pit to dispose of my empty cob, I realized that there was some great commotion going on back at the group of women, and arrived to find E—- wailing. While bits of her lament were in English, most of it was trial by fire for my fledgeling Tonga. I followed enough to figure out that her father had just died, and after a bit someone gave us a proper summary of the situation, in English.

Lisa knew E—- a little bit from work, but I had only met her that day, and stood around feeling an awkward intruder, but at the same time fascinated by the chance to observe cultural differences in the expression of grief. I have no word but ‘wail’ to describe E—-‘s outpouring of sound, heartfelt anguish vocalized in words.

Picture us there, a cluster of women in front of the church, E—- wandering and wailing, Lisa and some of the others drifting close in an attempt to offer sympathy or condolences, Natasha and I farther, but still trying to stand in solidarity. They were trying to get in touch with E—-‘s mother, but in typical Zambian fashion, no one had any talk time, and while Lisa wanted to lend her phone, the screen had broken a few days before, leaving it in that annoying place just this side of unusable, which is worse than true uselessness. Since I never use my talk time anyway, I persuaded them that Grama should use my phone, rather than fighting with Lisa’s, so she was bustling about, texting and calling and giving the phone back to me and then someone would call it and I’d hand it back to her and another three people arrived so we did subdued greetings around the edges of the wailing . . .

Presently a car showed up and discharged another wailing woman, who came and curled up in the dirt by where E—- had been persuaded to sit on the church steps. They made, sang — I can only describe it as the grief song. A particular sort of keening melody, high and sad and minorly off-key. It’s eerie and discommoding. And the new woman, who may or may not have been the mother, smeared dirt on her chitenge. Grief is much rawer here, and it made me realize that we’re terribly repressed, we Americans. All we know how to do is cry.

About this time the minibus arrived, and E—- and the other woman were helped back into the car to be driven home. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to bury a man, too.

To be continued. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

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