Sunday, February 15, 2015

I find myself in a setting akin to that of the film “Grand Budapest Hotel”. The location, the house my mother grew up in, although not entirely foreign, is a house in which I have set foot perhaps just a dozen times before—at least in my memory. In what could be my final visit, I tried to visualise the magic that once was.

Everywhere I walk within the archaic walls I’m reminded not of who my grandparents are now, but of whom they once were. Ostrich eggs, purchased during their journeys to South Africa when I was still a toddler, now lie scattered in odd corners; photographs and bronze relics from trips around the world steadily collect annual layers of dust as they stand lifeless without shine atop countless shelves. I’m reminded in particular of the globetrotting undertaken by my grandmother, who manages to make me cringe and smile at her untimely advice about the women in my life.

“Every relationship has its challenges,” she would say without my prompting, “so it’s very important that you find the right girl.”

I’ve been in her house all but 30 minutes, and it’s that time again, I think to myself.

“Life is full of tests,” she adds, “but how we face them is what makes or breaks us.”

She’s ancient, I remind myself, but as outdated as her dating advice might be, she also typifies the very Darwinian essence in humankind that just refuses to go away and never changes with time, except, perhaps, only serving to further fortify itself. The fight in our species that hopefully gets passed on from generation to generation; the survival gene that stands first in line for natural selection.

“Do you still think about your father?” she asks.

“No,” I give a slight shake of the head.

“Things are more easily forgotten when you’re young.”

“Mmm.”

“There will be more tests in your lifetime,” she concludes. “I used to think I had a tough life, and that life held some inexplicable bias against me. But then I realised that life is fair—it’s equally tough on everyone.”

This old house brings back memories from the times I visited before. I had one of the biggest arguments with my mother in this very house, in the very room she grew up in, at the very same age she was when she and her two sisters were still running riot in the ivory-coloured hallways. I can’t even remember what we were arguing about. And isn’t that just all there is to say about anger, distain, and any petty quarrel in general? What are they to us in five years? Or five years after that? And five more after that? Insignificant.

Naturally, the number of times we argued dried up as I grew older, as did the number of times I agreed to stay over at my grandparents. I became less emotional when trying to wriggle my way out of a stay in my grandparents’ house in Hsinchu, but I also became more steadfast, more emphatic—my no was, and always has been, a firm no.

I surprised even myself by agreeing to spend the Chinese New Year period in my mother’s old house. But something is different this time round. It’s not that I’ve lost my fight, no—I still struggle to imagine what I might do to entertain myself in the city from which my own mother and her two younger sisters could not wait to escape. But I agreed. And here I am.

I think one of the reasons is because, as my grandparents prepare to move up north to the capital for better medical attention, I somehow subconsciously fear that I may never see this old fossil ever again.

Stepping over the threshold into the three-storey house is like experiencing first-hand a warp in Einstein’s laws of general relativity themselves and, whilst not going so far as to travel back in time, certainly existing on another time scale. Nothing here seems to change. Some say that’s the definition of “home”; I like to think of it as stagnation, not of the economic sort, but of the sort that becomes visible when you begin refusing to rearrange the furniture anymore, or when you don’t see the point of throwing out old things. I suppose others might simply call this old age.

What becomes of all these things we cannot help but collect? Do they cease to exist at the exact moment we do? I guess what I’m really asking is why do we do what we do?

Sometimes, if I close my eyes and imagine really hard, I can just about see what it was like when my mother and two aunts lived in this house: three girls running around a house governed by the iron fists of a strict, demanding school teacher and her retired airman husband.

I occupy my mother’s old bedroom. The dust renders the air thick and hard to breathe; my allergies have a field day. In the corner of the room on a dusty shelf there’s a fading picture of her holding me. I must be five, or six at most. Again, if I try really hard, I can remember my mother’s singing voice. Angelic.

The room next door has my mother’s old piano in it. Amongst other things, the room is adorned with religious—Christian—iconography. There’s a plaque on the wall directly ahead of me and a carpet to my right with Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” sewn into it. I smile every time I see a reproduction of the painting and wonder if da Vinci himself expected such age-transcending idolisation of his work.

I accompany my grandfather around the house as I tend to his medication. 82 might not be the oldest of ages, but to him personally, that number might as well be 102. A gap of two generations exists between us, and the early onset of his Alzheimer’s gives me a particularly sanatorium-esque feel today.

He asks me to recount over and over my dangerous foray into the territory of the Soviet Union while he himself recollects journeys that would rival those of Lemuel Gulliver. He stops mid-conversation; he’s tired. I bring him a mug of warm milk, and our conversation ends there. There’s so much more I want to ask him, but, in his old age, he simply has no more energy to give—certainly not for the want of trying.

Perhaps this is what awaits us in our old age. We amass as much knowledge about the world as we can physically hold, but in the end, besides fundamentally through our genes, we’re unable to pass any of it on, leaving the following generations to decrypt the philosophies of life all over again.

Raindrops begin to fall, loudly smacking against the roof and windows. My grandfather, a silhouette of his former majesty, sits alone in the darkened living room. I’m reminded of a stanza from a Dylan Thomas poem:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

JSF.

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