Don’t be shocked by the way she lives.
The apartment is small, when I see it. A small kitchen with a dining nook. Running water installed in a small basin as a 70th birthday present some years before. She didn’t speak to her sons for a week – thought it meant they thought she was getting too old to haul buckets of water up to the first floor home. Even so it’s only cold water in the faucet, she heats water in a special section of the wood fired stove that heats, cooks and lights the space.
A concertina door through to the open space that is living and sleeping quarters. Once no less than 5 people lived here. Now she lives here alone.
An hour before, snowy fields and ashen fingered trees, huddled villages and the soft disc of the sun that a day before had blazed ethereal into the Australian landscape. All changed now in our new home, our emigration to this mysterious land. Now a walk down the hall to the separate toilet, door number 4 along the row. Inside, both icy and cosy at once. The seat is so cold I wonder if it will stick to me when I sit.
Back into the flat, and everyone looks up expectantly, gauging my response. It wasn’t that big of a deal really though. Kind of annoying if you had to go in the middle of the night.
Dad takes me downstairs to the storage shed in the yard. Shows me how to split kindling with the hatchet. The wind whistles down the passage between buildings. It is too cold to remove gloves, too hard to chop wood safely wearing them. In the warmer months I will learn to bring the little pinecones that fill the woods in a bag to her. They burn hot and long. The novelty of the whole thing supplants the monotony and discomfort of the task
Return upstairs, pausing for the tutorial on how to stomp the snow from my boots on the special grate every building has, then wipe my shoes carefully on the mat. It takes at least a minute. Then you remove the shoes before going into the flat anyway. This ritual must be adhered to every time.
She smiles, and I smile back. On the mantle I notice a drawing I made for her. It shows me and her sharing a happy kiss. I am about 18 months old in the photo I copied it from. Her hair is darker in it, not the thick white mane she still sets in curlers everyday.
Over the time we will live there, these tasks will be shared with her, our Oma, and she will love us so intensely that after her passing I cannot walk down that road and not feel her love. It calls me the way Africa calls the swallows in autumn, the way the flowers call the bees to them, the way the ocean calls the river.
Her son, my father lives out his life in the same street, decades later, metres away. He dies in the same hospital as his mother. That call of love summons me home some nights. I wake to the trilling of crickets and half remembered visions of family and the pillow is wet with tears cried by the joy of the dreaming.
A forest worth pieces of wood to split. A harvest of pine cones as wide as the snowy fields seemed that morning, coming home to meet you. Cold running water and woodsmoke, standing naked in front of the family to wash in a metal tub as a teenager. Trips to the toilet in the night along the icy stone hall to a freezer room. How irksome it would have all been, if not for the balm of family and love