Mirror Magazine  

20th July, 1997

Grandfather's diary

By Nayomini Ratnayake

It was a kind of 'spring cleaning' Sunday at my mother's. When I invade her house on such days, I bring a storm in my wake-dusting, cleaning, polishing...attack every nook and corner, bring the cobweb spinners to book. From one room to another , I went, taking no notice of my mother's protests. A clean house was my corporate objective for the day.

Not the kind of a day you'll expect to find any hidden treasures - just cobwebs, dust and more dust. Yet an insignificant looking old note book falls across my path, its half open pages fluttering softly in the wind, as if inviting me to take a closer look. I pick it up and on closer examination, discover it's a diary. Entries are made in pencil, beautifully articulate old hand writing, the kind you see in old manuscripts.

"That was your grandfather's last diary" I hear my mother's voice in the background. "He talks a lot about you in that."

This is a grandfather I never had the opportunity to remember, to cling on to for a tale from the good old days. Broom and dust cloth forgotten , l look for the closest chair, my objective of the day slowly dissolving among the pages of a diary that belonged to a grandfather to whom I had been very precious.

The diary is brittle with age - the pages feel soft and porcelain like, to the touch . The gentle old man I never had the chance to see, comes to life ...slowly, tenderly, through journal entries made in a feeble yet strong hand. Grandfather came from a proud and famous clan who made the southern tip of Galle their hometown - and belonged to a generation that moulded itself on solid values . Word by word, page by page, a life and time of my mother's father who died when I was just one year old, in 1966 , begins to unfold.

Grandfather wrote with an eye for detail - and clarity. The entries started with his birthday, January 03rd Monday 1966. Some touch on the politics of the day, as seen by grandfather who, like most of his time, believed in a free and just society. It was a heady time, with traces of post-independent colonial sentiments still clinging on to a changing system. And a new taste of socialism, inspired by the Bandaranaike policies was very much alive in daily life.

The man I see through neatly written, crisp and short sentences, was one who loved his family, a brood of four girls and two boys excluding my grandmother . Each day, he faithfully recorded what his children did, in the little white book. By then, the brood was starting to leave the nest one by one. Trivialities such as a daughter or a son dropping in at home for a visit, makes big news for him - a grandchild's birthday makes his day. A one year old me figures big in his life, as journal entries show. My mother had been his favourite daughter, family grapevine reminds me - as her youngest, I may have been a sort of a favourite grandchild.

Emotions choke me as I glance through the entry marked "Nayo's sickness" - a few days of diarrohea seemed like an epidemic to him. For a still, small second, I wonder if I love my grandfather - unseen, unheard, he has somehow walked tall and proud in my childhood world; as a five year old, my grandmother used to show me sepia toned photographs of a man dressed in a white suit. And then there was the time, inspired by the photograph, I would cry at the sight of an old man I passed on my way to school everyday.

Now, in my world of a busy career, family and the trappings of a nineties life, a door was opening, bridging the past with the present. Grandfather was coming alive, in the pages of his diary .... at my first birthday party where he brought me a cake, at the first stone laying ceremony of the house my parents built...an old man who lived by the rules of his day and age. He speaks to me through words I understand - as sentences become shorter, it somehow signifies his admission to hospital, just a few months before his death. The warmth and care lavished on him by the children and my grandmother, who is now spending the evening of her life almost bed ridden, enveloped him in its very essence . They were a close couple, much in keeping with the 'children first' theme of their day. Married in a traditional arranged wedding, they reared a big family and were happy.

Although spending time away from the kids by themselves wasn't on the marriage counsellors' agenda for couples then, grandfather's diary bears testimony to the fact that my grandparents did spend time with each other. "Went to see Parasathumal (the Movie) with wife" says one entry in April in bold print. Grandfather always referred to my grandmother as "Wife", in his writing. As the words thread through, a pattern begins to emerge: theirs was a strong bond of unity, unbroken and sustained till his last day.

08th November 1966 - the last entry made in his now-familiar handwriting speaks nothing of the sadness that would follow a few days later. I pause to digest the words; not much information about his sickness, just one sentence about the diagnosed cardiac asthma . My aunt's dental work and my uncle's visit to Galle take prominence, even in the last entry. He was not expecting death to catch him in the midst of life, robust as he had been. For him, life was fulfilling and happy - he was the uncrowned king in a world of adoring daughters and a growing herd of grandchildren.

Two empty pages yellowed with age, later, my uncle, my mother's oldest brother, has made a solemn entry with the same pencil. Father expired at 2.30 pm" on 11th Friday. It is followed by two more short entries of "Funeral" and "Alms Giving". The last entry, again solemn and sad, informs me of the ashes deposited in the Kelani River, followed by Bana that night.

A lone tear tries to force its way out of my eye. I run my fingers through the now empty pages ... it makes me feel sad . In my mind's eye, I see - and feel the loss as felt by my mother's family thirty one years ago. I wish he had lived - at least long enough to cement that special bond between a granddaughter and a grandfather. I think of my daughter, and how "Seeya" my father, makes her life so special. The granddaughter in me longs to utter the word "Seeya"- a privilege I never had. My father's father had also passed away before I was born.

I whisk the diary away to a secret location at my work table - to be kept, to be cherished in memory of a dear grandfather I never knew. Clutching the diary in hand, 1 am suddenly overcome by a rush of love, of deep rooted affection for the grandfather whom, the diary has helped me to discover - thirty one years after his death.

Grandparents could mean so much to grandchildren - they and they alone can lavish love in a way that truly makes the world go around.

Have you told your grandfather you love him?

Continue to Mirror Magazine page 3The vanishing tattoo

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