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Sport 40: 2012

Fado for Gran

page 97

Fado for Gran


Outside a restaurant in Torremolinos a young man in flared jeans sings ‘La Mer’ with an intensity that sets my heart skipping. I beg Mum for some coins to throw in his sombrero. She shakes her head and continues to string together details of her latest food experience. Gran retrieves a handful of pesetas from her crocheted handbag and deposits them in a leaning tower between the bread basket and the paella remains. ‘Here you go. Girls who know what they want should be encouraged.’ Her eyes twinkle as she raises her glass and her carefully painted pink lips part to let the earthy Rioja seduce her palate. Unlike me, she knows that love can never be sparked too early, that trial and error takes a lifetime to perfect. The Frenchman’s eyes are the colour of the Mediterranean that awaits around the corner. Dad chuckles. ‘Clever young man.’ I slurp my lemonade and, with the straw in the corner of my mouth, repeat ‘What?’, until Dad explains that he’s replaced the lyrics about a glittering sea with birds covered in oil. ‘He’s singing about a living ocean at peril of dying at the hands of careless humans.’ I can’t imagine how you would kill an ocean, but before I can explore this further, the adults have moved on to the Moorish architecture of nearby Alhambra, its intricate carvings and fragrant orange trees framing mirror ponds. Their discussion ebbs and flows with the tides of wine in the lazy heat of the afternoon. I’m infatuated with the singer’s throaty language. I know he is trying to tell me something important. In the following months I will try to replicate the guttural r’s and the shushing sounds, conjuring up my own French that no one else will be able to understand. ‘La Mer’ will stay with me. I will never master the lyrics, but every now and then the intro will pop up in my head, setting off memories. The following morning I wake up to another kind of singing: it’s my fifth birthday.

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When Gran turns sixty, she decides it warrants a double celebration— one in Finland, one at her summer residence in Spain. As we pass through Torremolinos I scan the streets for my childhood hero. History has proven him right. The Amoco Cadiz is on everyone’s lips, images of oily birds litter the news. Exxon Valdez has yet to be built and climate change is still decades away, but from this moment on I will remember the singer’s eyes as harbouring a mix of the despair of a budding environmentally conscious generation, and the kind of optimism only the young and undefeated can muster.

Gran disembarks at Malaga airport, balancing three polystyrene boxes containing homemade cakes slathered in mocha butter icing and kinuski, a toffee made with burnt sugar, butter and cream, elaborately decorated with silver pearls and marzipan roses. ‘Leftovers from my party.’ Gran hands them to us as if they were hatboxes containing the latest haute couture. ‘Didn’t want them to go to waste. Careful now.’ By the time we reach the car we’ve already been given a taste of her birthday party. The photos reveal the crème de la crème of the village mingling with farmers and forest owners under the crystal chandelier in the farmstead’s formal lounge; the lingering evening light, as much as the vodka and wine, raising everyone’s spirits after another long winter. I can tell Gran lived up to expectations. Her hair coloured a fiery red, carefully undulated, set off against an emerald kaftan, sparkling with faux jewellery. Grandpa at her side, doused in Old Spice, poking the air with the inevitable stinky cigarillo. ‘Exchanging Winter War anecdotes with a former lieutenant, no doubt,’ Dad muses,

‘or perhaps checking on the forestry stock market.’ Grandpa’s secret investment portfolio a standard post-midnight discussion topic at our family gatherings. In each photo Gran smiles the smile of film stars as she towers above the crowd. The bank director, the sawmill chief executive with his Clark Gable moustache, and the colonel who owns the village’s only hotel, barely reach to her shoulder. ‘My God, is that Liisa?’ my auntie asks and points at a mousy apparition with a hairdo that will rise to fame with Margaret Thatcher. That’s what happens when you live in a remote rural community, where the young leave for greater opportunities the day after they’ve graduated: you have to catch up by proxy. Each time you notice new furrows in the land and page 99 the people you’ve known all your life. You begin to notice that your memories hold stronger colours and are more fragrant than reality. And, over time, it becomes unthinkable that you would one day return.

We apologise for not being able to attend the party, as most of us now live overseas. Gran beams and assures us that being with her here in Spain is all that counts. After cakes and coffee, lots of red wine and three games of ruuvi—a cross between bridge and whist that has been known to cause players to gamble away their homes; all the more civilised this time since Grandpa is not present to call his partners idiots and asses—we take Gran to see flamenco. I’ve entered the no- man’s-land between childhood and teens, acutely conscious of my body, bewildered by its awkward growth spurts, its non-cooperative behaviour. It doesn’t help that my older rockabilly cousin flip-flops between considering me an annoying brat and a promising flirt. It doesn’t help that my auntie and Mum smile a knowledgeable smile and say, ‘What’s the story with cousins these days, are they allowed to marry?’ I’m good at soccer and raiding plum trees at dusk. I’m the fastest runner in the neighbourhood. A few months earlier I coaxed a friend into cutting off my overgrown tresses, revealing a swan’s neck and delicate ears, the effect surprisingly vulnerable. I won’t give up on my tomboy status yet, even if it means shoehorning my body into tight T-shirts in an effort to flatten budding breasts. The flamenco takes me by surprise. Never could I have imagined the power of a ruffled skirt, the determination inherent in the clack of a heel, the pride and beauty of heads held high, accompanied by clicking castanets. I don’t even notice the male dancers, they pale alongside the women. For months afterwards Mum tells me off for turning up my nose and stomping my foot whenever I want to make a point.


Change comes in the shape of a black dwarf rabbit. Its sharp teeth slowly decimate the solid oak furniture in Gran’s kitchen. We’ve never seen Grandpa so smitten; this rabbit can get away with murder. ‘Pepe, you naughty boy!’ Grandpa wags his finger at the black furball, but remains seated with his cigarillo on the kitchen bench next to the radio, from where he can monitor the driveway. An accordion struts through a melancholic tango, while the cigarillo’s ash pillar lengthens page 100 and dies. There is comfort in familiarity. Every item in the house has been kept in the same place since I was a toddler. A special smell infuses all the furnishings. ‘Mould and mothballs,’ Mum snorts. I ignore her and revel in the safety of recognition. There’s Grandpa’s moose antlers that crown the doorways and the wall clock with its heavy lodes that has to be wound up every day. My bum fits snuggly into the curved seat of the red rocking chair. I mimic Grandpa and tip it back until it leans against the wall, pivoting on its oversized rockers. A 1930s version of a La-Z-Boy. Knowing that any moment now Gran will pop her head around the corner and say, ‘Careful that you don’t mark the wall.’ And I’ll assure her I’m old enough now. Next to the rocking chair is the wall cabinet that can’t be moved since it doesn’t have a back; in an unsupervised moment the builder decided to take a shortcut and simply attached it to the wall. But my favourite is the carved table with its slab of pink marble hauled all the way from Spain, so heavy it takes three people to lift it. Black veins snaking through the pink in a set of endless roadmaps, the marble surface smooth and cool even on the hottest summer day.

Gran opens the door to the cold storage where a mosquito-netted window lets the breeze through. ‘Honey is good for you,’ she whispers and retrieves a jar with amber liquid hidden behind a row of 2kg bags of wheat flour bought on special. I notice the words almendra and miel. ‘Nature’s magic remedy. Not like the hard cloudy kind you get here . . .’ She takes off the lid and holds out the jar, makes me feel special. Part of a conspiracy. I look for a spoon. Amber specks glint like fool’s gold in the depth of her green eyes as she dips two fingers into the fluid sunshine and lets honey dribble down her throat.


The late summer afternoon quivers and sighs under the weight of another Russian heat wave. Even though we fear the lightning, we long for the relief a thunderstorm brings. Marshflies swoop down in deadly attacks on the gathering under the giant cembra pine. Gran has outdone herself. The berries we’ve gathered have been turned into blueberry pie and a sponge cake filled with raspberries and vanilla custard, flanked by a plate of soft buns fragrant with cardamom. Grandpa is still in his pyjama pants, cranky as an old goat. He’s page 101 been caught in flagrante, breaking into Gran’s storage to get hold of the vodka and gin. Later we hear him shout orders in his sleep. He utters unintelligible words in a voice that is bullying and harsh, yet there’s an unmistakable undercurrent of anxiety, even fear. As a child, I thought he was in great pain, perhaps possessed by evil spirits. I couldn’t understand the closed faces of the women huddling around Gran in the kitchen, why no one ventured to help him.

As soon as Grandpa is safely tucked away in his bed the coffee is replaced by red wine. Our spirits lift as the wine seeps into our veins. Our bad conscience has us competing to cheer up Gran—we’re only here for a month of the year, two at most. The rest of the time she’s on her own, miles and miles away from neighbours, locked away in a marriage with this man and his war demons. Gran tells us about the latest trip back from Spain. How she and Grandpa kept a spanner handy, in case they got attacked at traffic lights. ‘Never had this problem during Franco. Things were better then,’ Gran says, which draws a host of protests, mainly from the women. ‘It’s true,’ my uncle says, drawing on his pipe until it rattles. ‘Can’t deny he kept law and order.’ No one wants to discuss politics now that we’re rid of Grandpa. My auntie’s Swedish husband tells a joke that’s lost on the crowd. It doesn’t matter, he is splitting his sides with laughter while I translate. Then, without a warning, he throws himself back against the chair, tipping it over and somersaulting into the delphiniums.


As Grandpa’s war library expands, Gran engages in various community courses in the village thirty kilometres away, until the snow makes the roads impassable after dark. ‘There’s a lot of darkness in the Nordic winter,’ Gran admits in a rare moment of despair. Already an expert at knitting, crocheting and embroidery, she learns to make delicate Brussels lace and paints dainty flowers on gold-rimmed porcelain cups, cups we will treasure long after she’s gone. Lace adorns all her handicraft this season, from embroidered linen tablecloths to skirts and blouses. Only the boys escape unscathed. When we wish to do something for her in return, she says, ‘I haven’t been in the city for some time. Take me out for a pizza.’ Knowing that Grandpa is a potato-fish-and-hard-rye-bread kind of man, we oblige. She sighs and page 102 purrs with pleasure as she indulges in Italian fare surrounded by the buzz of Tampere city. The Italian restaurant owner pours her Chianti and kisses her hand. ‘And what’s for dessert?’ she replies, starry-eyed like a teenager.


Grandpa’s aortic valve replacement lasted ten years. After his death everything unravels. His hidden stash of shares proves to be worthless.

‘Why doesn’t anyone in this house want to talk about him?’ No one responds. Gran is Earth Mother. She’s taken care of everyone, always. And now they tell me it’s all been a farce? This summer Gran has a friend staying with her. Aino is knobbly like an alpine birch, her voice rasping in her throat. She smokes and drinks like a six-foot sailor on

24-hour leave. Our laughter gathers in the leaves of the linden tree in front of the house, a reminder of old times. Across from the main building is the cottage where I spent most of my childhood summers. The farmhand and his family have moved away, after bringing up seven children and grandchildren without running water or a toilet in the house. Left behind is a cottage that used to bristle with life but now stares at us with vacant eyes. Suddenly I notice Gran has disappeared. My Mum and aunt ignore me. ‘Why don’t you go and see if she needs help then,’ my aunt finally says and lights another cigarette. I find Gran in her bedroom, bewildered, as she stares at two nylon pantyhose legs in her hands—one attached to her left leg, the other to her right leg.

‘Had an accident,’ she says, cheeks burning. I’m sorry to have caused her such embarrassment. ‘Here, let me help you.’ I peel off two pairs of pantyhose. Somehow, she’s managed to use only one leg of each pair and is left with two empty legs that have no visible home. She’s relieved when I dangle both pairs in front of her. ‘It didn’t add up,’ she sighs. I suggest she’d better take some longs. ‘The mosquitoes . . .’ She nods and then she grabs my wrist. ‘I’m not silly. I understand something is happening to me, but I can’t figure out what. Mostly, it’s fine. When I’m in the other world, I’m fine too. It’s when the two connect . . . when I realise the silly things . . .’ We hug and cry and I tell her I love her, no matter what. I clean up the bathroom and give her some space to dress before we join the others. For my wedding she gives me a powder-blue jumper that looks like it’s been knitted by a spider on LSD.

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After Grandpa is gone Gran can’t be left on her own in the old farmhouse, not in winter. My uncle voices our collective despair when he blurts out, ‘But what’s the solution?’ No one wants to be responsible for placing a free spirit in an institution. So, for a while, Gran stays with one of my uncles. Within months his wife is taken ill. My uncle struggles under the burden of multiple care needs. ‘Mother is not reliable anymore. Fine one day, then utterly batty and erratic the next.’ His guilt is painted on his face. But no one doubts his assessment. We’re all heavy with guilt. That leaves the rest home. Curiously, Gran doesn’t seem to mind. A social butterfly at heart, suddenly she is surrounded by people, always someone to share a meal with. ‘Write to her,’ my auntie says. And I do. I send her postcards from my travels, carefully crafted anecdotes of my food adventures in New Zealand, knowing what pleasure she’d derive from experiencing it first hand. I have no idea when she stops reading them, or caring about who wrote them, when mail becomes anonymous background noise, like the radio and TV. ‘Keep writing,’ says my auntie. ‘The cards are not for her. They are for the staff, so they know someone cares.’


Mum buys a bottle of Siglo Saco for Gran on the ferry to Turku. The bottle is covered in sack cloth, a pauper’s shroud. ‘She shouldn’t drink, Dad would’ve said.’ I frown at the offending bottle. But Dad is not here. Our family was an early victim of the tectonic plates that shifted and let us drift apart. We all fell between the cracks. Mum could have said lightly, ‘It reminds her of how things were. We can always pour her a bit and drink the rest.’ But that would be to voice the truth. Instead we look wide-eyed at one another. How much longer can we go on pretending? The bottle doesn’t go any further than our room. In the duty-free shop I weigh a Lladró porcelain figurine in my hands, wondering if Gran would like it. Two frighteningly young lovers, about to kiss for the first time, already attached by the hip to each other.


The break-in is a devastating breach of trust. This is a region where doors are left open. People have trusted the isolation to protect them,

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as well as separating them. It happens during the spring months, once the snow has thawed enough to allow access. Someone has been biding his time, keeping a close eye on the deserted house on the hill. One of my uncles appears on TV, dishevelled and disturbed. He draws on his rattling pipe, trying to remember what items were placed where, which ones might have been stolen. I could tell him what’s missing. A wave of robberies has flooded the area. My uncle’s summer bach has also been broken into. Among the stolen items: an ancient egg cooker and the entire stainless-steel kitchen benchtop. ‘Russian mafia. Who else?’ my uncle says, eyeballing the audience through the TV camera lens.


There’s something grandiose about a Last Trip. My aunt and sister succumb to family pressure and take Gran for a last trip abroad. They head to the Mediterranean island of Mallorca. ‘Where Chopin and his lover George Sand hid from prying eyes in the Valldemosa monastery,’ I sigh, green with envy. ‘An island famed in the eighties for pig barbecue orgies among Swedish package tour travellers,’ my sister dryly remarks. No doubt the Mallorcans are pleased tourism has moved on. As it turns out, Mallorca’s heritage sites and natural beauty are wasted on this family expedition. According to family agreement, the two minders will indulge all of Gran’s whims, including a glass of red wine and dessert every day. Gran adores parrots, and as soon as she learns about the aviary her mind is set. Ever since my auntie watched Hitchcock’s infamous movie she’s nursed a bird phobia. A bottle of Scotch is what it takes to get my sister to volunteer as a bird guide. The day is overcast and the parrots are hiding, but my sister assures us they spot a few as she tows Gran through the outdoor aviary. The minute they’re back at the hotel, Gran complains that she didn’t see a single parrot. My sister is deeply insulted. My aunt suspects Gran has lost her eyesight. Later, at dinner, Gran visibly stiffens and points at the white wall. ‘Isn’t that a mosquito?’ Dutifully my sister rises and lets Gran navigate her to the indicated speck. Sure enough, it’s a mozzie. ‘Unbelievable,’ my sister says through clenched teeth. Safely back home, my sister is inundated with questions about her beach holiday. It doesn’t help that she denies having sighted any beach at all. If anything, she’s now in need of a holiday. Then rumours arise that Gran wasn’t allowed to indulge in page 105 dessert even once. ‘Un-be-lievable,’ my sister says. She refuses to speak about Mallorca ever again.


Autumn is in the air with crisp mornings and glassy skies. Birches drop their gold into the mirror of the lake. I hope Gran got to enjoy the seasonal changes one last time, she would have liked that. She dies in the midst of my university exams, less than a year after a successful hip operation that divided the clan into those who wanted her to have a quality life, versus those who saw it as inheritance squandered. It is but a prelude to what will follow. With Gran gone, the family will drift apart, scatter over the globe; no one will suggest we congregate annually anymore. ‘What’s the point?’ my mum says, as if five decades and three siblings could be dismissed with a shrug. Our family has lost its glue. Petty fights mushroom and fester until they are impossible to heal.


Mine is the constant shape of absence at family funerals. I can’t make it to Gran’s funeral either. After the church service, villagers and friends are invited to my uncle’s for dinner and red wine. If anyone is surprised about the format for the solemn gathering, they don’t let on. When it came to Gran, people expected to be surprised; anything less would have been disappointing. I hear it’s a send-off worthy of her generous spirit. Alone at my student flat thousands of miles away, I arrange candles in a mandala on the floor. In lieu of flamenco, Portuguese fado serves as an appropriate stand-in. Mafalda Vega’s and Ana Sofia Varela’s soulful voices are packed with sadness and loneliness as they tell of destiny, of love lost at sea. I don’t understand enough Portuguese, but I float on the drama, the lisps of promise. Years later, when I finally have my own family in New Zealand, when dual citizenship has allowed me to put down roots in both hemispheres, I find myself surrounded by individuals who wouldn’t have a clue about who I am, or what shaped me. There are no grandparents left to introduce. No evident hooks for my story, beyond ‘When I was little’, which is awfully close to ‘Once upon a time’.