My grandmother’s house was always warm, even in the coldest winter. Simmering pots with hearty meals would permiate the small rooms and steam up the windows. It often felt like we were in a wood cabin surrounded by snowy mountains with an indoor fire raoring in the corner. But we were home, living a so-called modern life in an old neighbourhood.
Sundays were our favourite; waking up to the aroma of freshly bakes koeksisters soaked in the stickiest syrup and my grandfather’s wireless booming the most random radio station. This was what made our day. His off-key whistling to music he’d clearly never heard before was our comic relief before church and gave my grandmother and I all the more reason to giggle in the kitchen and exchange naughty grins when he passed by. If he wasn’t remixing some unknown European folk tune he was humming along to songs way too young for his time.
They were the most unlikely pair, those two, but their stubbornness made them the perfect fit for each other. My grandmother knew just how to rile up the old man into a cussing frenzy and instantly soften his tone with a quick, “Ag, Welly…”. Every misunderstanding or argument was easily solved with a warm cup of tea and a sweet treat. After all, food was as good for the soul as an unspoken apology and a warm home eased any sort or pain.
I’d never heard my grandfather use the word love before my grandmother died. The night she passed, he cried more than I’d ever seen any man cry. It was the strangest and most welcoming comfort from this broad-shouldered old man who never showed any tenderness before. His huge, overworked hands seemed baby-like in this new uncertainty; gently searching through all the coulda-woulda-shoulda’s of their years together – on her side of the bed, among the empty pots and pans, through the clothes that no one would ever wear again.
Winter dragged that year. The days seemed to go on forever with people trodding all through the house cleaning, cooking, always shaking hands with rehearsed sullen eyes. Their condolences bounced off the cold walls like winds carrying echoes through deep vallies. At night we sat in silence, staring blankly at the TV which seemed to keep on playing like nothing had changed. We drank tea – naked tea, as my grandfather called it – with no sweet treats and ate the food visitors brought. We were always draped in wooly coats and plush blankets, even in the house.
That year we steamed up the windows with our shivering breaths and attempted to chase out the ominous chill that moved in when my grandmother’s body moved out.