Grandmas are, more often than not (as I discovered) characters that our childhood selves can never quite decipher. Put it simply, they are the perfect blend of heroes and villains. And what’s most incredible? At least with those that I had the pleasure to become friends with, they were more than willing to jump headlong into the conversation and say things like, “my Nana was a beast,” or, “you wouldn’t want to mess with her,” or, “she used to give me the weirdest gifts,” or, “she still drives my mum crazy.”
And just like that, worlds of stories suddenly surface from what could have well been a dead-end conversation.
So, going back to my grandma… she was the first person to teach me that the world was unfair for no particular reason. She’d give the fanciest gifts to my cousins (telescopes, video games, Lego sets), and small chocolate boxes to my brother and I (the Brazilian equivalent of Quality Street). The caveat here is that unlike other children, we weren’t much of a sweet tooth at all — “She does that on purpose!”, my mother complained to my father on the drive back after Christmas Eve Supper at the grandparents. For the rest of the night, they would fight amongst each other, behind closed doors, about all the other times Grandma was this and that or did this and that, until eventually they finally let sleep take over.
For that and other complex family feuds, my mother hardly let us spend time with Grandma by ourselves. When we did visit Grandma, accompanied by my parents, of course, it used to always be a rather awkward affair. We all tried squishing together in the four-seat couch, covered with a thick see-through plastic that made the back of my thighs sweat and stick to its the surface like melted mozzarella cheese on a frying pan. My mother would always look like she had swallowed the sourest of fruits, and father, quite frankly, had the face of a comatose fish.
Yet, somewhere in between the unbearable and uncomfortable, there would be something quite miraculous. She’d bring in her manioc cake, and after she’d exhausted all the ways she had of complaining, inadvertently, about the way my parents were doing a perfectly bad job at raising my brother and me, her diatribe naturally and almost imperceptibly gave way to stories from when father was a child our age and did despicable things.
Even mother, though she must have heard those same stories several times before, couldn’t help but give a faint smile. I would laugh and clap my hands and my brother would call out, “Encore! Encore! Just one more?” Grandma would look rather pleased with herself, and shuffling slightly on her rocking chair, she’d start again until the sun had set and the mosquitoes attacking our bare legs reminded us that all good things come to an end at some point.
Here’s the second thing that I learnt from my grandma: stories are beacons; without them, it’d just be one bleak passage through the earth, with no opportunity for learning about compassion, nor love, nor forgiveness. And despite all the imperfections she had, it’s those stories that stick out in my mind and make me want to say, “Grandma, thank you for the best gift of all.”