I had only had a few hours of sleep when I felt someone’s holding my hand tightly. Half-dreaming and half-awake, I saw in front of me the beautiful aging face of my grandmother. She was looking at me, smiling, and asking me questions in language and words I couldn’t comprehend. Partially because I was still trying to be fully awake, and partially because basically, it’s hard to understand what my grandmother is saying most of the time ever since she’s stricken with dementia.
Most of the time, she’d mumble something in Dutch, a language which, sadly, none of her offsprings understand. We would simply reply back in Indonesian whereas she would reply back in Dutch. It’s like she’s only speaking Dutch and that we’re from two very different worlds.
At other times, her mind would wander back to her younger days. She would call me “mother,” or she would call my mom so. And then she’d spotted her oldest son and perceived him as someone else, someone from her past, who are mostly dead and gone now.
All these time, I’ve been writing continuously about my paternal grandfather and his intriguing, but dark past. But recently, I’ve been hanging out with my mom and her family, and watching how my mom taking care of my demented grandma makes me learn, even just a little bit, of my mom’s past and my grandma herself.
Apparently, my grandmother was a refugee in the Japanese-colonized Dutch East Indies when she met my grandfather. She was under my grandfather’s protection, to be precise, living in his house. My grandfather himself was a wealthy Chinese widow, his first wife deceased, leaving him with his children. Despite the age gap, my grandmother being only a few years older from his firstborn, my grandpa and grandma got married anyway.
Whenever I visit my grandpa’s house at Purworejo, Klampok, Central Java (now occupied by one of my cousins and his family), I never ceased feeling awe and spooked at the same time. The house is the very depiction of an old Chinese family house (I’d say it’s resembling the typical Balinese house) where there are small houses inside those wide acres of land. There were remnants of the past, where apparently my grandfather grew and sold some fruits and vegetables to earn the household incomes back then.
One time, when I was visiting one of my aunt’s house, she and my mom gathered in the dining room, talking about their past. Despite being wealthy, my grandpa never stopped pushing my grandma to earn her own income, so she had to work on her own, selling things to the traditional market (I forgot what she sold exactly) to earn extra money. My grandma herself was quite proud, never begging for money from my grandpa. She worked hard, even when the family when bankrupt after my mom was born. I always heard that my mom was born during the most difficult times. My grandma’s oldest son had to left his study in the university to help the family with the newspaper agency business. And even then life was still difficult. They used to eat rice with salt, or soy sauce, and having a salted duck egg for a meal was already considered a luxury for them, and even then they still had to divide one egg into four to be divided for my grandma’s 8 children.
But life is just like a wheel. Sometimes you’re up, and sometimes you’re down, right? And despite the hard and struggling past, most of my grandma’s children are now successful, and my grandma got the chance to enjoy the wealth before she’s stricken with dementia.
Now my mom is taking care of my grandma, who, consumed with dementia, is still pretty robust and strong physically, but whose mind is already eaten away and turned into that of little kid. She becomes very dependent of everyone, especially my mother, and perhaps my mom’s the only person who understand her best.
The last time I came home, I already expected the same thing I’m becoming used to expect of my grandmother these past few years: That she wouldn’t have the slightest idea of who I am, that she’d mistake me as an outsider since I’m her only grandchild with dark skin and doesn’t have the slightest Chinese look, that she’d sleep most of the time, that she’d keep asking the same question over and over, and that she’d mumble either unclearly or in a language I don’t understand (Dutch). Funnily, since she’s Chinese, it would only be logic if she also mumbles in Chinese as well, but I’ve never heard her say anything in Chinese. It’s usually Dutch, or Indonesian, or Javanese.
In the old days, when she was younger, I remember my grandma talking to me gently, kindly, and tried to protect me from anyone or anything who tried to harm me. I remember her wearing kebaya, the Javanese traditional dress, and chewing betel, or sometimes smoking (yes, she smoked). Whenever any of her children or grandchildren was tired, she’d offer to massage us.
I’d chuckled and smiled every time one of those memories crossed my mind, and I can’t help but miss those days. I wish I could turn back the time, and saw another glimpse of my younger grandmother, because those images of her has started to be replaced with her current image: fragile and demented.
There would be stories which, luckily, my mom could laugh at instead of feeling stressed with, of my grandmother. Because of her demented mind, the first days and months she stayed with my mom, she could barely sleep, and that caused my mom to be lacking of sleep just as well. Or sometimes, my mom would wake up, finding my grandmother’s already gone. We’re very fortunate that the neighbors already knew us pretty well, so one of them would find her and guided her home. Once, there was even a pedicab driver who found her astray. All she said at that time–and even now, actually–is that she wanted to go home. All she remembered is her home back then in her childhood and teenage years.
One of the few memories I got of my grandmother that still touched me until now is when her mind was starting to become demented, she’d told me not to go out for too long, or that she’d told me to come up early, because to her, every second could suddenly passed to 6 PM, where it would be dark already, and there would be very few lights on in the streets. One day, she gave me Rp 500,- for my pocket money. At that time, all Rp 500,- could buy me was one cheap candy. I felt choked since I felt like scolding her to correct her errors, yet at the same time tears were already filling my eyes. I managed not to cry in front of her.
My family’s history is really complicated, both from my maternal and paternal sides. But then again, whose family history isn’t complicated, eh? I used to hear that my maternal ancestors were somehow connected distantly to the Sultanate of Yogyakarta, but none of us have any exact idea how it could be anymore. A part that I remembered is that one of our ancestors was actually a child, or perhaps a relative of Hamengkubuwono, who got adopted by one of his Chinese close friends who were childless, and then moved back to China. After he grew up, he returned to Indonesia as a Chinese, and married another Chinese, and then produced more Chinese offsprings (or Chinese Indonesian). No one can really confirm now whether the story is any true or not, and I merely took it a a kind of tale from a distant past, not really caring whether it’s true or not. I could only trace my maternal family line as far as my grandfather, and even I never got to know him. Because of the age gap (about 20 years) between my grandma and grandpa, he was old enough to be my mom’s grandfather when my mom, his last child, was born. My mom was 2 when he passed away. All my mom remembered was that once, he beat up my mom because she was being naughty. But many of her brothers and sisters would remind her how my grandpa used to carry my infant mom on his shoulder whenever he walked around his massive garden where he would sell the fruits and vegetables to feed the family. I remember seeing his photo only once, and all that’s left in my head is merely a vague picture of an old Chinese man. Whenever I heard my mom and her sisters and brothers talked about their past, I kept wondering what kind of person my maternal grandfather was.
Ever since knowing that I can rightly claim my Balinese heritage through my paternal grandfather and my father, I never tell people that I’m Chinese. Partially perhaps because I don’t look like one, and perhaps because I always thought that I cannot tell people so because I’m not 100% Chinese since I don’t look like one, and I don’t speak like one, nor do we still embrace the Chinese culture. But it’s there, and I can’t just shrug it off no matter how disconnected I sometimes feel with it. It’s a part of my family, and a part of my mom that she still holds dear. I suppose now I could say that I’m a Javanese-born Balinese, and about 25% Chinese-Indonesian, despite not speaking any Balinese or Chinese. Well, basically, I’m an Indonesian.