The Skirt

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It was a Saturday in April, 2010. I put on an old skirt. White with pink flowers and silver sequins on the border.

When I bought the skirt about five years before that, I hand stitched the sequins on a second time, scared they would fall off and ruin my purchase. The skirt only cost R69.99 but I was a full-time student who also worked a full time job. Every Rand was precious to me.

My effort paid off. The sequins remained on through multiple washing machine cycles and many wears. I can’t say exactly how many, but at least one was memorable. That one. That Saturday in April 2010. It was the last time I saw my Ma alive.

Ma was my paternal grandmother, who lived with my parents, my brother and I for most of my life. She was a bit of a dressmaker herself and would sometimes sit with her old Singer, the one with the foot pedal and the hand wheel, and show me how to sew. I wanted to be as good as her but I wasn’t. So I decided it would be best if I left it to Ma to make me stuff. I even made her promise to sew my wedding dress one day and she agreed ,on condition I helped her with her other hobbies.

Together we grew mint in the garden, baked marble cake and made mango achaar. The only one I didn’t like was the achaar. It was a laborious process that involved soaking the mangoes in an oily spice mixture for days before bottling them and the pungency stank up the whole house. My dad loved the achaar but hated the smell, and one year banned us from making it.

I think that was the start of my dad deciding Ma shouldn’t live with us anymore. He had a point. He had lived with Ma for the twenty-odd years since Papa, his father, who I never met, died and his two other brothers had not shared any of the load. They said it was because they looked after Ma when my father studied in Scotland but it was actually because Ma hated her other son’s wives.

Ma called the oldest wife “a real witch,” and said her middle son’s wife “did not understand culture.” The senior wife was generally unpleasant and most of us called her another “-itch” word behind her back, and the middle one had fallen pregnant before marrying my uncle. In the 1970s, that was the equivalent of not understanding culture. My mother, though, was a demure girl from a small town who had grown up with the traditional values of looking after your elders. She doted on Ma and gave her a good life.

Still, it was unfair on my parents that Ma was solely their responsibility. It meant we couldn’t go on holidays without taking Ma or begging one of my father’s two sisters to help out. Eventually we couldn’t even go out for a few hours because Ma was scared of being alone and worried that she would be attacked by armed robbers.

Then there were the logistics. We had a much smaller house than either of my dad’s brothers, and Ma living with us meant my brother and I had to share a room, until that became too awkward. We took turns living in the lounge for a while and even Ma felt bad about that.

When I was 16 and she was 79, Ma moved out to live with my father’s oldest sister, a scandal for a woman who had three sons. When that sister had had enough, Ma moved to her younger daughter’s place, and when even she could not cope, Ma was moved to an old age home.

Just like that.

Sending her away was the ultimate outrage but no-one wanted to deal with Ma’s drama or her diabetes.

We would visit Ma once a month and sometimes pick her up and bring her to spend a few hours at one of her children’s homes. Each time, she brought back less of her mind.

She started calling us by different names and asking us to do things like bring the cows inside and collect all the brass frames. We had never lived anywhere near a farm and we didn’t have any brass frames. Dementia had been added to her other two d’s.

Her body did not serve her much better. One day she fell at the old age home and broke her hip. Doctors feared she would not survive the surgery needed for a replacement so she was bedridden instead. She became even more of a stranger. She was not able to sew my wedding dress and I don’t even know if she realised I was married.

A few months later she had a stroke and returned to Fiona’s house to be cared for by family. That was when I went to see her.

“You should have showed some respect and not worn such a short skirt,” my mother told me afterwards.

I was startled. That skirt was neither short – it reaches an inch above the ankles – nor scandalous. It is the kind of skirt you wear to a tea party, cut in fifties-style, a little cinched at the waist and flared. It is not the kind of skirt you write a story about. I actually thought Ma would have quite liked the skirt but I thought better than to mention that.

It was only afterwards that I realised the real problem with the skirt. It was not “such a short skirt,” but it was too short to pray in.

When I reached Ma’s side, I had the Surah Ya-sin – considered the heart of the Quran – shoved into my hands. My aunt instructed me to read it. She also gave me a scarf. Without thinking of the skirt, or my short-sleeved shirt which may have showed a bit of cleavage or whether the scarf was properly covering my hair, which it wasn’t, I opened the book to pray. Muslim women are not supposed to pray dressed like that.

I turned the pages hastily, mumbled a few words here and there and after what seemed like long enough, said I was done and blew gently onto Ma’s face. That’s when I saw that it was sunken on one side, that her eyes were closed but her mouth was open as she inhaled, but that her skin was still as smooth as it had always been. My prayer was supposed to bless her. I doubt it did. Less than a week later, Ma died.

I put on a full length dress over a long sleeved top, covered my hair completely and went to her funeral. By the time I got to my aunt’s house, Ma’s body was already prepared for burial, washed and wrapped in white cloth. Her face was covered too and my older cousins had decided they would not allow anyone to see it. Who was I to argue?

I sat at her head, with my hands clasped and swayed back and forth, pretending to pray. On cue, a cousin handed me the Ya-sin. I was about to accept when I remembered my condition. “I can’t,” I told her. “I’m on my period.”

“Get out!” she hissed at me. “How can you sit here when you are unclean?”

If it wasn’t the skirt, it was something else.

I shifted a little, as though I was getting ready to stand, but before I could, I ran out of all reasonableness and fired back; “I lived with her for longer than any of you. If you want me to get out, you can move me.”

I sat back down, exactly where I had been.

My cousin was floored. Nobody questions customs. I sensed we were about to get into a proper fight but something pulled her away to the kitchen and by the time she returned, the hearse had arrived. It was time for Ma to go.

That’s when it hit me. It was time for Ma to go. We would never talk about mint, or marble cake or mango achaar again.

My male cousins collected Ma’s body and as they left, my aunt sank to her haunches, sobbing. My cousins surrounded her. My mother, as close to Ma as any daughter, wiped away a few tears on her own. No-one went to her. Not even me. I’m just not like that.

I stood staring at the space were Ma’s body had lain and someone steadied me by the shoulders. I remember my own voice leaking out in high-pitched shrieks, and I remember not being able to control it. I remember being embarrassed for exposing those emotions.

I started to think of Ma a lot more after that. I wondered what happened to the scarves she had stuffed in the second drawer of her cupboard and why I didn’t get even one. I tried to ask about the letters she kept that were sent from a relative in India, written on crisp pale blue paper in perfect Urdu, because I wanted to read them but no-one cared to look for them. I started to plait my hair the same way she used to do hers.

I am sure those longings were coated more in nostalgia than authenticity. I was not Ma’s favourite grandchild and she was not my favourite grandmother. Granted, I had a lot less choice than she did but I preferred Nani, my maternal grandmother.

For a start, Nani had more money. She would slip us R100 on birthdays, R100 more on Eid and R50 every time we visited her. Ma occasionally gave me R5 to buy a Peppermint Crisp and then she would eat half of it anyway.

Nani was much cooler than Ma because she lived alone and she wasn’t scared of anything. She actually fancied herself as a bit of a hero. Once after Nani was burgled, she decided to hide her jewellery in spice jars to avoid having it stolen if the bastards ever came back. They – or someone else – did and found nothing.

The best part about Nani was that she was never as sick as Ma. At least, not that I knew. Even when she got breast cancer, it was all over in a few weeks. Ma’s diabetes was forever. I felt certain Nani would never become Ma but as the years went on, she did.

The first warning sign I got from Nani came through a story. I had returned from a work assignment in Sri Lanka and Nani gleefully recalled a time when she took the train from Madras to Colombo. I pretended it was possible to go on such a journey and privately thought she had just made a mistake on the place name. Maybe she meant Madras to Coimbatore, which was entirely likely.

In the months that followed, Nani started making up more things about people she didn’t see and illnesses she didn’t have. If someone questioned whether she really saw the couple who lived across the road from her even though they moved away several years ago or suggested she go to the doctor for the sore foot she complained of, she would take the phone off the hook and not put it back on for days.

Once it went on so long that my mother’s sister, who lived close to Nani, was worried enough to go around and check on her. Nani refused to let her in because she didn’t want her to see how she was (not) coping, but youth won out.

A thorough investigation of Nani’s living conditions revealed that she had rotting meat and sour milk in the fridge, her geyser was not working so she was bathing in the cold and she had lost the key for the back door so she could not get into the garden, which was so overgrown the plants were blocking out the sunlight. It was clear Nani could no longer live alone. Nani disagreed. Naturally.

Nani’s children came up with a way to move her, which involved a rather large lie. Her son, her only son, invited her to spend a few weeks at his luxurious pad in Pretoria – a common event over the fasting month – and Nani went. In that time, her daughters, one who had come all the way from Canada, sorted and cleaned out her house which made it impossible for her to return. Then, the four of them had to decide what to do with Nani.

There actually should have been no discussion and Nani should have gone to live with her son. In our culture, that’s the way it’s done. But like Ma, Nani was not overly fond of her daughter-in-law and the feeling was mutual.

That left it up to the daughters. The Canada-based one was ruled out, for obvious reasons, leaving it to my mother and her older sister to come up with something. The older sister was a wealthy widow with four grown sons, lived on a farm in the same town as Nani and had both the funds and the space, but felt she had done enough for Nani over the years from a few kilometres away, and suggested my mom take Nani. She suggested it so strongly, my mom could not really find a way to disagree. But then my dad found out.

My father has more rough edges than the cliffs of Ngoma Kurira and he does not even try to hide them, especially when it comes to his family. He even does it to me. Most of the time, when I tell my dad a story, before I can get to the good bits, he is bored. Instead of nod, smile, zone-out and let me finish, he just walks away. He does not even stop me to say he has had enough. I never really minded that approach, it taught me to get to the point quicker and I’ve started adopting it in my own life. It’s a real time saver.

The person my dad honed that skill on was Nani, whose stories went on far longer than he had the tolerance for. He was just not interested in Nani’s tales of riding on the back of Nana’s motorcyle when they studied at the Aligarh University, or of her obsession with Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan, and he definitely did not have the patience to live with her.

The end result was that Nani had been rejected by her own offspring. And none of them had the balls to admit as much.

Instead, they came up with an idiotic plan to share the burden she had become. They divvied Nani up, so she could spend four months a year with each of the three living in South Africa, but not four months at once. She would move every two months, because that was as much as any of them could take. When Nani realised the trick that had been played on her, she died. Inside.

This was a woman who had lived in the same house for more than 60 years and overnight, she had become a nomad. It was the cruellest thing that could have happened to her and it changed her.

She went from an aging, but physically able, old lady to someone stumbling in their search for the exit sign. She lost interest in the few things she enjoyed, like knitting and got to the point where she could not stand upright, barely ate and did not even talk much. She needed help to bath herself and go to the toilet, and sometimes lost control of her bodily functions.

When I saw her in late January, during a stint at my parents’, Nani said she could not sit with me while I ate because her stomach was running. I said I understood. But I lost some of that pathos when she walked past the dining room every 15 minutes or so and reminded me of her urgency to use the loo.

I told my mom Nani would be better off in an old age home like Ma had been but, having seen how unrecognisable Ma became at a facility, my mom insisted Nani would never stay in one. She also reminded me I would have to do the same for her one day. The dad part of me came out and I quite bluntly let her know that I would put her in old age home.

I softened the blow by telling told her I could never see her becoming like Nani. I know I’ve been wrong on this count before but my mom, at 60, is the envy of most 40-year-olds. She barely has a wrinkle, she is slim and petite, does yoga twice a week, works a part-time job and dedicates her free time to charity work.

Separately, I told my dad I could see Nani would be better off with supervised care. He agreed but changed the subject so I knew it wasn’t worth pursuing.

What I said may have had some effect because soon after that, Nani’s children resolved to find an old age home for her. Of course, they then found a problem with every one they visited. Some were too far away, some housed too many old people in too few rooms, some they had no explanation for ruling out but did anyway. All the while, Nani had an extended stay with my parents, much to my dad’s irritation and my mom’s exhaustion.

But one March day, either everyone came to their senses or my dad just had enough – and I suspect it was the latter – they told me they were moving Nani into the one of the homes that was previously unsuitable. Conveniently, it was the home closest to my parents.

“They have made some improvements to it and it’s very nice now. Nani really likes it,” my mother told me. Yeah right.

For the first two weeks of Nani’s stay, none of her children could visit to give her time to settle into new surroundings. When that period ended, my mom went there every second day, at the expense of her yoga and her charity work. She took food for Nani, she helped bath her, she read her bits of the Quran and she gave me endless updates. I warned my mother she was becoming too obsessed with Nani and was neglecting herself. She told me she was doing what any good daughter would do. Hint, hint.

About a month into Nani’s stay there, one of the other ladies at the home died.  “Well, that’s what happens to people there,” was my response. Then I remembered Nani was there too.

Last Thursday my mom sent me a text to say Nani had not even wanted to go for a drive. “She really looks finished.” my mom wrote. I wasn’t sure what the right reaction was so I made a mental note to reply later. I never did.

Then it was Saturday. A Saturday in April 2016. I put on that white skirt with the pink flowers and got ready to go the farmers’ market. I heard my phone ring. I did not recognise the number so I didn’t answer and I wasn’t planning to listen to the message but for some reason, I did.

“Nani passed away at 8:30 this morning. The funeral will be at six. Let us know if you can make it.” Wracked with guilt, I looked down at my skirt.

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