It wasn’t like I went looking for her. No. I inherited her. Grandma Ma is a tiny but formidable woman and I lacked the ability to say 'no'. And so it was that without a word of discussion, when I moved into building 6, stairwell 3 number 11, Grandma Ma came with the apartment as the cleaning lady – end of story.
Every Friday morning Grandma Ma would quietly open the door, strip about three layers of warm clothing off her old but lithe body, and fill the sink with soapy water. She’d clean the surfaces, check on the plants, scrub the floor three times, wash her face and her hair, stand on my scales, always weighing in at 53kg, and then wash the floor one last time, backing out of the door on her knees lest she dirty the clean floor with her feet. She disdained a mop, using rags instead. Yet wide semi-circles would be left dusty around power outlets. Dangerous things, those power outlets. The fact that she always unscrewed the bulb from the bedside lamp, dusted it, re-inserted it then tested it was to me somewhat of a puzzle. As for the bathroom … that was ignored, being beneath her dignity. Why anyone would want an indoor bathroom was a mystery to her. Why anyone would choose to use the stinky outdoor one was a mystery to me. Anyhow, the bathroom was my domain. It was the only room in the apartment over which I had control.
I’m not complaining, mind you. Most of my teaching commitments were in the afternoons and evenings, so mornings were free for lesson preparation and marking. I used to have neatly organized piles until I moved to Grandma Ma’s apartment … I mean, um, the apartment that she cleaned. She objected to the haphazard nature of the piles and would reorganize the papers and folders in order of size. Finally, I bought baskets – one for each class or project. That way I could just pile the baskets up before she came and she didn’t worry about the size of the papers.
Before Grandma Ma came into my life, the various homes in which I had lived had their clean days and their messy days. That did not change. What did change, however, was the health of my pot-plants.
It wasn’t like I was a bad gardener. Perhaps ‘lazy’, ‘inattentive’ or just plain ‘ignorant’ would be better adjectives. That was until Grandma Ma started cleaning. If she arrived and the soil of any plant was too wet or too dry, I could literally write off a good thirty minutes while I endured an animated lecture. Her dark eyes would flash with passion. Plants have life too, you know. Plants are good to us – how dare we neglect them. Every month or so, Grandma Ma would lovingly take my plants onto the balcony for a shower. She’d take mouthfuls of water, swish vigorously, then shwaaaaaaaaaaaa … the water and saliva mix would be sprayed over the plants. There are lots of good things in our saliva, she told me. Good for plants as well as people. A regular dose of mouthwash does wonders for plants. I suppose she was right. They did have a certain shine under her care.
That wasn’t the worst of it though. I was blissfully unaware of the worst of it until the powers that be knocked down the public bathroom. In the past, once a week, the large, modern yet still putrid ‘honey truck’ would come and suction away the waste. Human waste, that is. The destruction of the public bathroom coincided with Grandma Ma’s special fertilizer becoming unavailable. Grandma Ma had previously told me that she collected the manure herself, dried it well in her courtyard, and that there would be no smell … nor had their ever been … so why should I think to ask where she had collected it? Ignorance is indeed bliss.
Speaking of the courtyard where the fertilizer was dried, that was a veritable jungle. Grandma Ma and her husband were legally squatters – squatters in their own house on their own land. The city had repossessed the land, and paid them for in with the deeds to two apartments in the buildings which were erected on the site. Three sides of the old courtyard home were demolished, but Grandma Ma, her patient husband and six cats stubbornly refused to move from the fourth side. That is where they remain to this day, shadowed by two six story buildings, containing the apartments of two of their sons and their families, as well as my old apartment. Determined to regain the courtyard she had lost, Grandma Ma built out towards the laneway. First it was a brick wall, the bricks borrowed from a nearby building site. Then one winter, she decided to add a roof, some windows to let the light in, and a coal burning stove to keep the plants warm. Unfortunately, that required building around an electricity pole. After six months, the electricity commission knocked down her labour of love.
During my five years of living in Grandma Ma’s apartment … sorry, overlooking her house, I listened to many lectures from Grandma Ma on topics ranging from fashion to philosophy to world affairs. However, finally I managed to get a word in and give her a lecture. The only lecture that mattered. A lecture which lasted for approximately 15 seconds, including two lead in questions.
“Grandma Ma, you know I’m a Christian. Well, I’m just wondering if you know about God.”
End of lecture part one.
Grandma Ma launched into a diatribe of how anyone with a brain must know there is a god. When she goes to the park early each morning, walking backwards because it is good for one’s health and singing local opera songs at the top of her lungs as she skirts the pond, doesn’t she pray to the creator and sustainer of life? How can life exist without a god? It may be possible to fathom if you spend your life under an electric light bulb, looking at pieces of glass and plastic, living within grey cement walls, but once you look at nature, well, it is obvious. Silly girl.
Lecture part two. “Grandma Ma, did you know that this Creator God sent His Son into our world to save us?”
Grandma Ma actually looked stumped for two seconds, then burst into a big smile. “Of course, you believe that happened at Christmas. Yes – his son grew up to become Santa Claus, right?”
“Um, Grandma Ma, it isn’t quite like that. Let me tell you about it.”
“Now, now, child, I don’t want you telling anyone in my family that I believe in God, okay? They already think I’m an ignorant illiterate peasant woman who doesn’t belong in the city. We don’t need to add to that impression. I’ve worked hard to give our children a good education and get them ahead in life. They’ve been taught that there is no God. Their father doesn’t believe in God either. And I don’t want them to know that I do. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got work to do.”
Over the five years I lived in Grandma Ma’s apartment … or, rather, the apartment overlooking Grandma Ma’s little house … I sought many times to share the gospel with her. I invited older local believers to join us for celebrations, specifically hoping she would accept from them what she would not hear from me. I pray for her often.
Grandma Ma still lives in that little house, in permanent shadow from the surrounding concrete jungle. She has no courtyard. All that remains is a power pole sticking out of brown earth. Demolishing that courtyard crushed her spirit. However, early each morning, she and her six cats still walk down the half-lit streets to the park, where she feels a connection with her creator. She still sings. She still walks backwards. She still prays.
Demolishing that courtyard crushed her spirit. However, early each morning, she and her six cats still walk down the half-lit streets to the park, where she feels a connection with her creator. She still sings. She still walks backwards. She still prays.
This paragraph has gripped me. It is soooo powerful. I definitely need to talk to the Lord, as to the reason it has moved me so much.
I love the way you write! The phrases you create, your perspective and sense of humor, and yet clearly, the love of the Father for the people in your world.
In anticipation of more,
Ah, Suz, I can see you bundling your precious files into boxes away from Ma's unique filing system. What a clear picture you've portrayed of her and her gardening methods. :-) and through it your own love for the lost. Yes, there still is hope and we do keep praying and Lord do, please have mercy. yeggy
What a wonderful characterization of an interesting (to say the least) individual. You portrayed her well! She is certainly precious in God's sight, and it's easy to see how she is in your's as well. Thanks for sharing.
Suz, this is delightfully vivid and entertaining! There are so many layers to your story. It just goes to show that if we take the time, there is much to learn about all of Father's children. Lorikeet:-)