The last time my Grandmother visited Vancouver, years ago, she haggled with the a manager at Sears over the price of a pair of gloves. She had talked to the customer service person, who had patiently and then with mounting confusion, explained to her that the gloves were a certain price. My Grandmother explained to her, and then later to the manager, that this was all well and good, but the gloves simply weren't worth what they were asking, and she would be happy to pay what she thought they were actually worth.
It can't have been a difficult negotiation. After living through two World Wars, after walking out of a bombed out building with her children in tow, after staring down armed soldiers in Franco's Spain, it's obvious that at some point she had sat down with Fate, and explained to them that while it was all well and good that most people only lived to a certain age, but that simply wasn't what life was worth to her. Perhaps it was when she was growing up in India, a little girl holding court with Death as tiger cubs played around their feet. I can see her demurely sipping tea, and explaining with perfect diction to the something in the dark sweltering hood that she never planned to give anyone more or less than what they were worth.
She walked away from this life on her own terms, with an existence longer and fuller than most of us could hope for.
She spent the last few years of her life in a nursing home, and we were told that she died whilst napping. I wonder, if I was in that situation, would anyone not die peacefully, whilst napping after tea or in the middle of the night? If she died in agony, choking, or after a massive heart attack, would I really make the call and say, "I'm sorry Mr. Elliott, but after a prolonged struggle, wherein several medical professionals attempted for almost 20 minutes to keep your panicking relative around for a bit longer, giving her injections and CPR, we were unable to save her." Why not just say they died in their sleep?
Unlikely, and probably unfeasible, but it's where my mind goes.
Her name was Pearl, and she was the one who introduced me to Omar Khayyam. I discovered a copy of the Rubaiyyat in her bookshelf and she let me keep it. Even when I had to remind her what I was doing with my life every day she could quote quatrains to me.
"There was a door to which I had no key,
There was a veil past which I could not see.
Some talked a little while of thee and me, it seemed,
And then no more of me or thee."
I still have that book, it sings among 3 other copies of the Rubaiyyat. Khayyam is one of my favourite poets, and there is more than a little bit of 11th century Persian trivia in my head because of my love for that poet, and not to mention a few quatrains that I can recite. If nothing else, I will always owe her for that.
I had an aunt who died a few years ago. I didn't know her very well, but she was a poet and wrote a piece about my grandmother that does a good job of summarizing her life.
By Susan Chilcott
The sun is soft and not yet warm,
The hum perhaps, was bees,
The years a great kaleidoscope
The rug tucked around the knees
And far away the peacocks cry
Stirring the mists of time,
From dung baked walls, a Mullah calls
In Bellary, home of mine.
Have I seen, or do I dream
The saffron sari'd girl,
The bangle chink, the water gourd
Now in my past they swirl
The Ayah's eyes, a fathom deep,
Did she not have a name?
Those arms that rocked the child to sleep
That played each childhood game.
I smell the scent of hot dry earth,
I feel the heat of day
Have I no kohl upon my eyes,
India is in my blood to stay
And shrill once more the jarring call
Takes flight my mind with me
Kashmir slips in my dreaming eye,
Prayer wheels in far Lamasery
Again, again, I hear that cry
And Stanley Park I see,
Was I not there, with Grandson fair?
To feed those birds with me.
Or was I in America
Deep in forest green
Where ticks and things torment the flesh
And white-tailed deer are seen.
Or was that the forest further north,
As north as one could be,
Where once a Sachen Indian
Stood looking down on me
Did I really see a bear?
Slashing a luckless tree,
Mouse quiet, watching lest he turn
To test those claws on me.
And now how I hate those evil men
Who stole my babes from me?
Heil Hitlering their jackboot way
Up to the very sea.
Did I not drink a bitter ale?
When from my breast they tore
My babies to another place
To live throughout that war.
All those years lost, who can reclaim
Those memories are not mine
Two childhoods stolen from my life.
My pearls before those swine.
Can I know that call again?
From bird to royal plume
Wrest from my soul the phantoms sad,
Those memories of doom.
The sun is soft and not yet warm,
Bestir myself I must
For all we have are memories
Before we turn to dust.
I once met a man, an old friend of my fathers, who had met Karl Popper. Anxiously I asked what he was like, and instead of describing to me his one brief and awkward visit, he pointed me to a book of his poems. When I asked for me, he said he didn't have more to say than what was in the poem.
I was annoyed by that. I wanted details, I didn't want to stumble through his metaphors, I just wanted to know what the guy was like.
Now I know. Sometimes poems are easier. She lived to be 103 years old. What else is there to say.