The ‘White’ Nana – by Gloria Meltzer

The ‘White’ Nana – by  Gloria Meltzer

source:- Chewton Chat February 2023

white naniDecember 2022. Colombo airport. Departure. We draw up outside the departure section. Remove my inflated suitcase from the car, said case bulging with local artefacts, teas handpicked in the Kandyan hills, gifts from the family – my deceased son’s Sri Lankan family, and prop it on one of the trolleys lined up outside the entrance doors. Only the traveller with a passport and a current ticket is permitted entry to the airport. My young Australian-Sri Lankan grandsons hover like flies around me, none of us wanting to utter that final goodbye. Raised in Sri Lanka they refer to me as ‘their White nana’. White nana visits them every year. Covid interrupted this cycle. This my first legally permitted visit in three years. My beautiful Sinhalese daughter-in-law, my son’s widow, brought them to Australia to visit me last year.

As luck would have it, the week they arrived in Melbourne I caught Covid and had to hibernate. My son chose well when he chose a Sri Lankan wife. She’s a natural survivor. As she tells me ‘ mum, I survived the sudden death of my mother when I was 12. I survived the 30 years of civil war in my country. I survived the tsunami, if only just. I survived the tragic sudden death of my husband aged 44. I had Covid twice, plus a bout of cancer and chemo. And I survived the recent political turmoil in my country.’ For a month I have been immersed in the glow of family, her family, of village life, the familiarity of quaint winding lanes, coconut trees bordering their land, the river on their doorstep where the boys swim and kayak. The same river that overflowed its banks during the tsunami, causing loss of life and vegetation. This is the tropics. Everything grows back with a vengeance, camouflaging trauma, homes swept away, neighbours caught in its force, floating out to sea. The boys and I had fun together. As their father’s mother I have long had a special place in their hearts. I was their grandmother. No one else shared this title. Every night they fought over which one would have their turn to sleep with nana, as is their common custom. Some nights I begged off, pleading for a restful night minus legs or arms entwining with mine.

Each day whilst their mother worked in her hotel business we would take a tuk tuk down town to buy gelatos or go for a swim or I’d take them for a chicken burger, a change from their usual curry and rice staple meals. Often they plied me with questions: tell us about our father. ‘What was papa like as a boy? What mischief did he do? Was he naughty? Did he like school?’ They were barely out of kindergarten when they lost him, yet their memories of him warm me. 

My son died suddenly, inexplicably, in Colombo six years ago. His wife and I attended the court to hear the judge give a report of the inquest into his death. All they could tell us was ‘the cause of death was inconclusive.’ Nothing more. We don’t really need more I suppose as nothing will bring him back. He has however left us a beautiful legacy – three vibrant, cheeky, intelligent, beautiful sons. One afternoon the 12 year old snuggled up to me on the couch. ‘ Nana, do you want to hear my life plan?’ I laughed. ‘Yes dear, tell me your life plan.’ ‘ Well nana, I’ve got five more years of school and then I’m coming to Australia to study. I’ll live with you and become a lawyer.

But before I do that I’ll go to the gym and get really fit. And that’s my life plan.’ I didn’t tell him how life doesn’t always go to plan. His father’s life is proof of that. My departure day loomed and we each of us tried to hold on tight to the warmth of our brief time together. The actual day of departure arrived. A heavy heart greeted the day. My youngest grandson, recently turned 11, told me ‘nana, I am so, so sad. Can’t you stay one more day. Or two days. Or a week?’ I reminded him why I had to leave. ‘Australia is my home, my family, my partner, my friends.’ ‘We will come and visit you next year nana,’ he assured me. The moment arrived. Departure time at the airport. I hugged their mother, then each child in turn. Tears and hugs and more tears. As I turned and walked towards the airport door, sobs haunted me. I heard one of them wail  ‘I lost papa. And now I’ve lost nana.’ His White nana.

Gloria Meltzer

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