We wait for the cool of the evening to take down the washing. I recognise each towel as I fold it, patterned with the stains and holes of my entire life. Each one a gift from my grandmother, and each one still here, threadbare but hanging patiently in the Bundaberg heat for me to do as I’ve done for years.
We used to wash them by hand, tiny fingers struggling to wring them out in the laundry trough, the freezing cold rinse water seizing every muscle, trapping them to my bones.
These towels are a reminder, a rebuke, for all the things I’ve thrown away because they’re-
“Just not me, Mum,” I explain, waving away something or other, a vase or an ornament or a cardigan. Detritus of the deceased. My inheritance.
My mother accepts this with a patient nod, understanding I wonder if I deserve. She can see past my sense of entitlement to things which collect to create my identity. She seems, somehow, to believe that I deserve the freedom to reject the towels I folded with such care not half an hour ago.
The constant contradiction of a life lived nomadic: everything used until it falls apart, unless we can’t stand to carry the weight.
“I’ll take the big elephant dude, though. He’ll look great with my new plant on top of him.”
I am lost when I come home to my mother’s and she hasn’t cooked any rice. I realised that this week, standing in my grandmother’s kitchen. I define the rhythm of home by mealtimes, by leftover rice for breakfast, by carefully arranged salad vegetables (carrot sticks lined up along my plate like a regiment, decorated with rings of cucumber, cherry tomatoes spinning away from all the order), by stuffing my face with chapatis my mother flicked out of the pan seconds before.
For days now, there has been no rice in my grandmother’s kitchen. This, more than anything else, tells me she is gone, and that she has taken a part of my mother with her. In this house, we are living among the dead, and floating around it I find myself forgetting to eat, padding well-worn paths from bed to bath to chair. This morning and yesterday afternoon I was rocking myself in my grandmother’s chair, the motion lulling my eyes closed, and in that drowsiness I became her for a moment, this woman who defined her safety by the rock of a chair and a crossword puzzle.
The security is suffocating. It is lunchtime and there is no rice. Where is my mother?
My mother has a cough, suspiciously, lungs full of fluid, suffocating her in the evenings. She pounds her chest in a familiar rhythm that is not hers. My inhaler holds it at bay, for a time.
My grandmother has been a ghost in this place, holding tight to remnants of herself in us. My grandmother cannot let us go.
We took our dog to be put down. She hung her head, unable to muster the energy to lift it to walk to her water bowl. In every halting, preoccupied step she took, I saw my grandmother struggling to pull her oxygen tank behind her. I cried with relief as she slipped away, and I felt my grandmother go with her.
We came back to the house and started to pack.
In the south, there were storms, the wind scouring our path home.