I will always remember my Mamay, my mother’s father, as a frail, toothless man who lived with us as we were growing up. I am not even sure how old he was at that time, he really couldn’t be more than 65 years old, if even that, but of course like any other five year-old, anyone over twenty was very old to me.
I had not ever known him to be well, my grandfather. Dressed day in and day out in his plain white T-shirt and pajama bottoms, he never seemed to step out of the apartment we lived in, or if he did, it was mainly to buy cigarettes from the Chinese grocer two doors away, and only if the weather was sunny and warm. Otherwise he was mainly housebound, and especially during the damp, cool days of the rainy season, when he would inevitably take to bed in the early evening, shivering and shaking from the cold. It seemed that layers and layers of blankets, and sometimes even a couple of pillows on top of these cannot stop the damp that seem to have permanently invaded his small frame.
On good days I remember sitting with him in the late afternoon, when he would be smoking his favourite cigarettes, a cheap unfiltered local brand called Aroma, which could be had for five centavos for a pack of 20s. Not really sure if anyone had ever stopped to think that this habit was not doing anyone, and especially not this asthmatic old man, a favour, but there he was, sitting in front of my mother’s dry goods store puffing away as we watched the world pass by.
Later on it was my job to cross the street and buy us his usual afternoon snack from the neighbourhood bakery: round sugar cookies he called kiting-kiting, from the scalloped edges of the cookie-cutters used. Not really sure why they were his favourite, other than the fact that they became soft when dunked into a steaming cup of coffee, and completely toothless that he was, that just suited him quite well. I am not sure how he would have fared with the much crunchier ogoy-ogoy, dusted and baked with granular sugar that gave it a good hard shellac on top, and needed a much longer time soaking in the coffee should he needed a change from his regular treat.
Of course afternoons with him were not always the bucolic tropical idyll I would like to remember. There were always times of fun and merriment, but there were also horrific episodes I do not really wish to recall. But to do that is to negate what he was to us then: a grandfather (the only one I had ever known), a constant companion and best of all for my mother at that time, a babysitter on demand. Not always the best candidate for the job, but one is never so picky when no one else is available.
The worst I can remember was one specific afternoon of bathing. This being the tropics, the ritual is not anything that many today will be able to relate. The bathroom was a relatively spacious but extremely dark room, with a flush toilet and a shower head that because of low water pressure never really worked adequately. How the toilet worked I really at this point would rather just forget, and so all that is really left is to relate the bathing ritual.
A water faucet closer to the ground is turned on to collect water in the water pail right under it. Depending on the day and the season, never mind how many other people in the neighbourhood have their taps running as well, it may actually take anywhere from fifteen minutes to half an hour to collect maybe five gallons of water. In the cold months of December and January, one either bathes in cold water, or if one is not inclined to teeth-chattering and time allows, tempers the cold with boiling water from the kitchen. From this pail one scoops water out, dumps it over the head and repeats until one is soaking wet enough and starts scrubbing and cleansing. In those days before the widespread use of plastic, the pail was made out of tin and is usually used until rust eats holes into the metal and only then replaced.
Well the metal pail and the soapy wet concrete floor proved to be a very dangerous combination, at least for me this one particular afternoon.
As I was finishing bathing, I slipped on the wet floor and fell, and on the way down sliced my left side on the side ear of the pail attached to hold the handle. I remember getting up from that fall, my side numb from the cut. The most amazing thing was that there was no blood at all, just this very clean gaping slice, in the shape of a Y, the flesh as white as can be under the skin.
I guess I must have walked out of the bathroom in a daze, and all I remember afterwards was that Mamay was tending to my wound which still surprisingly had not bled. I can still see him shaving Sulfathiazole, that ubiquitous pain relief/analgesic into powder and afterwards sprinkling it over the wound and then bandaging it. No visit to the local doctor, no thought as to the need for tetanus shots, or even suturing this gaping wound shut.
It was a very unpleasant experience to say the least, but thanks to the resiliency of the human body and wonderful childhood simplicity, all that came to pass and I came out of the experience relatively unscathed. Mamay died just over a year later, but that Y-shaped scar on my side stayed with me for many years until it finally faded to almost nothing in my early thirties.
© August 2007