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It was a sweltering June night many years ago, with the smell of sea and jasmine thick in the air. I lay on the black-leather couch in the living room with my head on my grandmother’s lap as she stroked my hair with her gentle, calloused hand. I felt encased, cherished, protected, loved.
I remember that my mom and my grandma talked for hours, gossiping, laughing, weaving stories about past and future, suspending us in time and space. They talked about me, about the need to protect me from the evil eye of a jealous aunt. They talked about my brother, about how strongly he resembled my uncle who’d died tragically years before.
As I drifted into sweet sleep, their voices came from further and further away until all I heard was the soft, melodious cadence of their speech: the sound of love, the sound of my childhood.
My grandmother’s name was Johra and she neither knew how to read nor write, but I learned much from her simple wisdom and common sense.
She was a fountain of stories and anecdotes, fascinating stories that run parallel to the history of my country: stories about her childhood, stories about the French-Algerian war, stories about survival during brutal, harsh times.
She had a tough life: She lost her husband early and never remarried, raising her five children on her own. She lost her youngest son under tragic circumstances. She suffered materially and emotionally until much later in her life, when my mother could afford to take care of her.
In many ways, modern life passed my grandma by. She knew nothing of how computers and televisions and telephones and cars worked, but she took all of these developments in her stride and was surprisingly open-minded. By necessity, most of her knowledge of the modern world came to her through her children and grandchildren.
We would sit side by side in front of the television and I would translate the classical Arabic or French that was on the news into an Algerian dialect that she could understand. I loved to explain things to her: politics, technology, history, space travel. She always trusted that my explanation was the right one. Eventually, she even learned to use the cell phone that my cousin got for her and it became one of her most prized possessions.
The last time I ever saw my grandmother, she wore a pretty sky-blue dress matched by a scarf of the same colour on her head.
She had always maintained a remarkable form. Her hair was almost jet-black, her back straight, her skin supple. Whether this was due to a diet rich in olive oil or a youth spent in the open air I’ll never know. But on that last visit, she looked thin and frail, the effects of two strokes visible in the slumping of her body, a very perceptible letting-go.
I had travelled from Paris to Algiers specifically to see her; she had asked for me, sensing, no doubt, that the end of her journey on this side was near.
We met in the garden. She sat in the shade of the old fig tree, singing folk songs as I rocked in the hammock beside her. The water fountain in the corner made splashing noises and attracted chirping birds and butterflies.
My grandmother loved this garden; it reminded her of the vast open fields of her Kabylia childhood. She had never acclimated to city living, finding apartments too narrow and claustrophobic, and every chance she had, she would take a trip back to Kabylia to visit family and harvest olive oil with the women there.
My grandma died of a stroke last year, and I still miss her terribly. I miss her laughter, I miss her gentleness, I miss her warmth. Sometimes, I still can’t believe that she is gone and that I will never see her again, never again share a laugh with her or explain politics to her or buy her a new scarf (she so loved pretty things.)
My grandmother was a devout woman who held on steadfastly to her faith until the very end, and I know that she would want for all of us to go on. In the end, her naivety rendered her blameless and without sin, and if such a thing as paradise exists, I am convinced she will go straight inside.
The older I get, the more I realize that love, unconditional love, is rare and hard to come by. Life is tough. Everyone is out for themselves. When you lose a grandparent, you lose one of the few people who love you just as you are. It feels like an essential link to my childhood has been severed.
So much has happened since my childhood days, so much has changed. The Internet came about. CDs and DVDs replaced cassette recorders and videos. There were wars, tsunamis, global warming, near economic meltdowns. Time keeps rushing forward. Sometimes I wish I could make it stop, or at least slow down, but I know it is a cheap, futile thought.
But in the turmoil of these changing times, my grandmother gave me so many memories I can cling to, so many anchors to steady this ship and to steer her to safe harbour. I may not always know where I’m going, but I will always know where I came from. To me, that is a source of great strength.
Nezha Boutamine lives in Woodbridge, Ont.