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Voices from my grandmothers

PEREGRINE NOTESBy just being themselves—no cloying affectations or overzealous attention—and hardly even talking in my memory, the “voices” of my maternal and paternal grandmothers have remained audible in me.

Astounding, too, as I’ve realized late in life, how the few years they spent caring for me when my mother, a teacher, went to school always seemed decades.

Contrary to a scientific research known as the “grandmother hypothesis” from observations of an extant hunter-gatherer tribe, the Hadza in Tanzania, that focused only on their role in extending life span, my grandmothers also carried the heroic burden of passing on family legacies, that should have been that of my grandfathers’, both dead at my birth.

Debunked since by moms and grandmothers in the three decades from its release, the research, which anchors its claims on the menopausal years when grandmothers take on hunting and gathering food while a daughter breastfeeds a baby, or takes care of another child, continues to draw out a fact that defies measurement—their influences on children. Later conversations have even attempted to delineate their imprint—maternal grandmothers tend to leave life-lessons while paternal grandmothers, family traditions. These, too, have caused debates in websites on childcare. But on hindsight, I agree.

Like from Inay, with which I called my maternal grandmother, the way my sister and I cook fish by simply boiling, and vegetables or chicken by lightly broiling, brings us back to her.

How I fold clothes to avoid creases, or iron the inseams first, and as I often catch myself, scour the bottom of a pot as I work my way inside, she also demonstrated on soft afternoons. From Lola, my paternal grandmother, who kept me away from rowdy games, “because you’re too fragile to run” (like her children), and so I created playmates within walls silent with the dusty ghosts of a pampered ruling class, I bear a name that carried me onto circles I had thought natural.

Perhaps, indeed, impressions on a “tabula rasa” stay no matter the layers heaped on it. Yes, like the Hadza research claims, my grandmothers have extended my mother’s and my life span but not in years—for me, it has been life’s details with them that had richly textured my mind as in these lines:

“Stalk tiger clouds because they could carry bad news. Eat parya (bitter gourd) leaves to replenish your blood lost during moon cycles. Only the morning dew from banana blossoms quenches thirst for magic. The full moon must share your pillow.”

A dwarf in the bagbagutot (goat berry) copse keeps secrets. Your talisman has chintz from your grandfather’s coffin. If you skid down the stairs, an old sow must throw a pail of water where you fell to retrieve your lost sentido (senses). The acacia waits for you to grow gray to make you understand why its leaves fold at the touch of twilight.

To pry open a clam, stun it with boiling water. How to tell if fish is cooked? Look if it has turned blind. Do not cry if you must slit a chicken’s neck to dress it.

Learn to shape a lotus bud with your fingers to eat rice—not a grain must fall. Pepper leaves are meant to float on simmering broth not sink with your thoughts. To skin a pea, work on keeping its inner sheath intact like how you would guard yours from tearing. Spit behind your right shoulder if she turns an evil (green) eye on you.

When he comes with his guitar on a new moon, beware of his disguise, but a full moon could play tricks on your heart. Love the name he will give you for that is who you are.”

Often sneaking in from the realm of myth and magic, these have gifted me with deeper truths and wisdom, making of my heart somehow as ageless as my grandmothers’.

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