How do we remember our dead? This thought crosses my mind whenever our extended families gather together. My grandmothers are no more and they have left behind a void that often goes unnoticed until you notice it and then you cannot not notice it anymore. You see a chair and you miss a smile. You see a book and you miss a conversation. As much as I believe in the Buddhist philosophy of detachment (believe being the keyword), at the end of the day what we are left with are memories and things, things and memories.
My two grandmothers. Habarakada achchi and Pannipitiya achchi as I called them, identifying them by their respective hometowns where they lived after marriage and until they died.
My two achchi’s. One made her presence known, almost always. Whether she was happy or sad or angry or unwell, she’d speak up. Sometimes she’d say classist or racist things, comically cringeworthy as with most people of her generation. Other times she’d say cleverly biting things about her husband, my only living grandparent right now, making all of us laugh. Even as her health deteriorated and reduced her mobility, she still ran the household using her words. During family functions such as alms givings, she’d dictate orders to my mother who for her part would humor achchi and then continue to do things her way because stubbornness is genetically passed down (I’d know).
Most recently, I was thinking about Habarakada achchi as we got ready for a family wedding. I’m sure many of us were thinking about her though we didn’t talk to each other about it. How we wished she could have been there with us, how maybe even if she was alive it would have been too daunting a journey for her to travel so far for the occasion and so on. As the wedding ceremony commenced and parents and elders were invoked, she was present in our memories. While watching the marriage rituals unfold, I turned to one of my aunts and told her how simple and beautiful her necklace was, only to be told that it was achchi’s. Achchi wore it when she got married and then my aunt. It was a bittersweet jolt to realize she was there with us in more than our memories.
My father’s mother was a quiet but constant presence. She was the older of my grandmothers and was a rockstar in her own right. She had a very sharp memory and while her short term memory began to slip as she entered the tenth decade of her life, she’d recall and share things from the past. Recall, she probably always did, as she sat in her usual chair tapping her fingers on the armrest. Share, she usually did when prompted by someone because she used her words sparingly (clearly not a trait I inherited though stubbornness was passed down from this side as well). While I never knew my paternal grandfather (who gave me musicality, writing and a short fuse), some of his lyrics show that achchi was his muse. Or at least the dormant romantic in me likes to think so.
Five years ago, she was in my memories and close to my heart when I got married. I had my reasons to enter into an institution I remain dubious about and goes against some of my deepest convictions, I had my reasons to do it at 25 (while hearing the horrified shrieks of my 15 year old self) and I’ve since been proud and constantly amazed by how my partner and I have deconstructed and made our own this institution (not to be taken as an endorsement of said institution). But I was also trying to find, and remain, myself in a wedding that escalated from a simple ceremony at home to a full blown big fat Sri Lankan wedding and while whiskey helped a lot, what also helped was keeping my gentle grandmother close to me.
Achchi gifted me this brooch many years ago with a note that said my grandfather gifted it to her for her 25th birthday while he was courting her. It was a reminder to my young(er) self that your 85 year old grandmother too has romance in her life and with my disinterest in new and/or branded wedding trousseau, it was the perfect piece of jewelry to wear that day (along with my mother’s wedding sari but that’s another post). I have no idea what the stone is, I have no idea how much the brooch is valued at but I like to think that its true value is that it kept her present at the wedding in addition to our collective memories.
Things, sentimentality and heirlooms are all overrated. If not our social class then our names are definite proof that we are not the kind of family who have heirlooms that go back great many generations though were she alive Habarakada achchi will remind us that her lineage goes back to King Mayadunne. We are also not the kind of family that has hoarded too many things from the past (a reminder to my father that most of the random things he buys off Amazon will be discarded one day except maybe the Reacher and Grabber, trust me it’s worth Googling). But what we do hang on to, whether it’s a piece of ordinary looking jewelry or a library of books or a rusty gramophone or an old pen, are a true testament to the power of memories and things.
My two grandmothers. My two achchi’s. I wouldn’t say not a day goes by without me thinking of you because that is not true. But I do think of you more often than anyone would assume and sometimes it helps to have something to hold on to other than the memories.