It was the winter my grandma was evicted from her flat and her things were moved out to the lawn. It was my fifth winter, but it was the first one I remember because it was the winter my dad had said things were starting to change.
Before this happened I didn’t remember much of my grandma. Until then she was a silhouette that moved from time to time in the few stories my dad told of his childhood. She was just an old woman with a woman’s name who had at some moment in her life, held my dad against her cheek and watched him grow up from there. Her expanse was limited to a flat surface and a common name; she possessed no boundary of death, no softness of tears or brawny laughter.
My dad drove with his eyes fixed ahead. There were few things I knew about my grandma before she came to live with us. One thing was that in all the stories my dad had told me, he always referred to my grandma as Mum. Dad would say, "when I was growing up it was just Mum and me, the same way it’s just you and me. But it’s different when it’s your mum. For one you don’t talk about the same things. And when you ask her a question you can only ever get a Mum answer, and never a Dad one. Sometimes kids at school would ask me why I don’t have a dad, and I’d say that my mum is my mum and my mum is my dad, because that’s what she used to say to me. She would say there aren’t many people who can claim to be two people. But then you don’t know anything more than what you have, so it isn’t really a problem to you. Sometimes it would bother me. Like when I’d visit a friend, and his dad would be there, and he would take us out some place and I would see what I didn’t have. And sometimes Mum tried, she tried to find me a new Dad, but some things you just can’t replace, she’d say. Some things never truly leave you. But maybe one day this will make more sense to you. Maybe I’ll tell you that one some other day."
His hand was on the wheel and the other against his face, and when he wasn’t saying anything and just looking ahead, it occurred to me that my grandma made up half of who my dad was, of what he looked like and who he was, and that therefore she must make up part of me too. I wondered which part of me was her, and if all people are never really themselves but a collection of many people at the same time, a gathering for different lives to rest in and pass through.
When we pulled up by her lawn, my dad went over to my grandma and started to talk to her. She was all scooped up in a chair on the verandah, and something about the way my dad kneeled in front of her, and the way her hands rested in her lap but then rubbed her face, made everything inside the car feel cold and small. She was sitting in the chair with her hands like that while two men moved the things from out the front door.
Something was punctured inside my grandma that day, my dad later said, and when I remember it you could kind of tell by the way the things had leaked out the front door and spilled out of the driveway onto the path.
At first I didn’t understand what my dad had meant when he said that things were starting to change. He said that I would start to notice it soon enough, and that maybe one day I won’t even need to think about it and it will just appear like a dream appears; of its own accord. He said he felt it after my mother died when he started to respond to the seasons.
He said that first it comes on in small things; like how I’m going to have to start helping out around the house a bit more, and that having an extra person in the house means one more person to share things with, and that sometimes we’ll have to do different things on the weekend that we never used to do.
From then on I became very sensitive to my grandma’s presence. My dad told me that it was like something twisted inside of him and that everything had a sense of emergency surrounding it. For me, I could always feel her in the room, the weight of her just sitting there, this old woman I hardly knew squinting at the television with her crumpled up hands on the arms of the chair. I felt a dull ache inside. I studied my hands and wondered which part of her was in me, which shape or line or story.
Sometimes my grandma would appear in such a way that she reminded me of the time my dad said she was coming to stay, and how I looked out the window to the old woman on the verandah with all of her old things out on the lawn. And something heavy and wet would fall through me when I thought of how pathetic I thought it was to just sit there at such an old, broken age, with all of your personal things out messy on display.
But as time went by my dad started to tell me more stories. It was as if by telling me these things he could bring my grandma to life, so that if I might catch her sometime at night, sitting in the kitchen with a spoon drooped from her hand, and her head drooped like so, I wouldn’t see the old woman on the verandah but the lively young mother he once knew.
He told me how she used to invite friends over and they would catch themselves around the piano at night singing. I couldn’t imagine it but she had a box of dress-ups she’d got from the factory full of the damaged and poorly made clothes, and they would all put them on. He told me how she found a message in a bottle once that said, “return to sender”, and how she framed it and hung it up on the wall. He told me how she made my mother’s wedding dress and that she and my mother were the same size.
He said, "you know, some things never really leave you. Sometimes the space a person leaves behind is felt more than their initial presence. It’s like footprints, you know? When my dad died, Mum left me some of his things. Just some everyday things. A suitcase, some suits and clothes and things. A camera. Like you, I never knew the other half of my parents either. But I have these little things. I have these little shapes and stories."
He said, "for me, in the end, a person is the sum of what they leave behind. All of that stuff from Mum’s lawn doesn’t fit in this house, I know, but I just can’t get rid of these things. I see her getting old like this and I crave the abundance, to be around the life of her…"
I was on my way to school one morning when the bus took a wrong turn and went down a different street. I panicked, stepped outside, pushed up my umbrella and tried to find the familiar route. Rain poured down invulnerably from the sky as unknown houses sprang up on either side of me.
Slowly, things began to fall into place.
There was something my dad said once about people being much more penetrable than you think, because they’re always leaving their doors open without even realising it, he said.
Looking past the lawn and the abandoned verandah, I could almost see her moving inside. I could see her draping her neck in pearls at night and singing into the piano, notes bouncing off the keys and the walls, bringing us all together there with her, with all of our little old things.