Saturday, September 17, 2011

"For I Have Promises To Keep"

I sit by my window, sipping a cup of piping hot herbal chai, staring at the rainy greenery outside. As the rain plays on its steady, pleasant rhythm, I subconsciously begin to hum a song I learnt as a child. A monsoon song that my Auntie Flavia taught me. And I am transported back in time.

She was the odd - one - out in all our get-togethers. While these social gatherings were usually excuses for my neighbours to parade in all their dazzling traditional finery, she always came in wearing  flowy pastel dresses. She was also the only senior-citizen in the motley group of couples who mere much younger, couples who addressed her as Auntie Flavia. That is how I ended up calling her Auntie Flavia too, even though she was old enough to be my grandmother.

I do not know what drew me to her. Maybe it was the  fact that I did not have a grandmother. Or maybe it was the fact that both of us had no contemporaries in the whole group. But I grew attached to her in a way that I secretly like to consider priviliged.
She and Uncle Frederick had been a childless couple, and shortly before I was born, Auntie Flavia was widowed. If she did have relatives, no one had never heard of them. But, like my parents have often told me, Auntie Flavia never seemed to complain. She seemed content and secure in the midst of my family and our other neighbours. Her most special affections, however, were reserved for me. Looking back, I realise I was much more than Auntie Flavia’s god-daughter. I was, in fact, Auntie Flavia’s way of filling up a void in her life.

Auntie Flavia was my Santa-Claus.  Her gifts were unambitious, often home-made, but very frequent. Sometimes she made me cardigans, sometimes little handicrafts, and sometimes sauces and pickles. I loved all her little surprises, but what I enjoyed the most were her home-baked cookies. She could rustle up batches in the most unimaginable flavours, in the most intriguing shapes possible.

Once, seven-year old me proudly told her that my art-teacher had declared me the best “drawer” in class. She’d been delighted. “Will you make me a drawing for my birthday?” she’d asked, earnestly. I’d nodded. “Promise?”, she’d ventured, and I’d nodded again.

But her birthday came, and I remembered nothing of my word. It was then that she told me something that I was too little to understand at the time, but carry with me everywhere now. “Promises are little treasures,” she said, “Learn to keep as many as you can.” “Why?” I asked. “Because each time you keep a promise, you make someone happy and allow the person to trust you a little more. And, as you grow older, you will realize that few things matter more than trust.”

If you look at Life closely, you will realize that everyday, something or the other is changing. And you will discover that somewhere, some changes are getting to you. Suddenly Life seems different, and you want to run away from it all, and hold on to that one constant that makes you feel secure. That restores hope, simply because it is the way you’ve always seen it.

To me, Auntie Flavia was that constant. She saw me through some of my most challenging phases. Whenever things became too much to handle, I would run to her for comfort. The fact that her house remained brick-red, with the same doorbell, the same furniture, the same plants, the same antique piano, the same porcelain dolls, the same wall-hangings, the same unmistakeable freshness of the cookies and the same bedcovers I saw being rotated periodically, year after year, gave me a lot of solace. In more ways than one, Auntie Flavia and that house kept me going.

When I turned seventeen, my parents decided to migrate to Canada. Auntie Flavia was seventy-nine at the time. Knowing that we were the only family she had, and also how difficult her life would have been without me, we offered to take her along. I know it was a very difficult decision for her too, but she declined. “I am too old for a new country now,” she told my parents. “I cannot wake up in an unknown land. And besides,” she smiled wistfully, “I have promises to keep.”

All the persuasion that I could manage did not work on her. Eventually, we came to the eve of our departure. I went to her house for my last cup of tea before I left the country. Auntie Flavia brought me my favourite cookies.

“Promise me that you’ll come and visit me whenever you are here,” she said to me. “I do not know if I’ll live to see you again, but still, promise me you’ll come.” “I’ll come only if you promise to bake me your cookies again whenever I’m here”, I said, in what was probably a lame attempt to lighten our moods. “I promise”, Auntie Flavia said, a hint of tears in her eyes.

We left the next day.

Canada was a beautiful country, and we settled in eventually. Over time, we also made a new set of friends there. Once in a while, news trickled in from India.

One day, I heard from a former neighbor that Auntie Flavia was very unwell. Since I had some money saved up, I decided to travel to India.

It was a clear morning when I went to meet Auntie Flavia. Surprisingly, walking into that old neighbourhood, and past my own home of seventeen years did not make me as nostalgic as seeing Auntie Flavia’s house did.

I rang the doorbell. Once, twice, thrice. No one answered. Fearing the worst, I decided to walk over to another neighbour’s house to inquire about her. But just as I turned towards the driveway, I heard the door open.

I turned around. There she was, my Auntie Flavia, frailer than ever, but smiling. I ran up to her and hugged her tight, the tears flowing freely. “Thank you, God,” I kept saying in my mind. “Thank you SO much.”

I drank in everything - her familiar homely smell, the same furniture, the same plants, the same antique piano, the same porcelain dolls, the same wall-hangings,and the same unmistakeable freshness of the cookies. For a while, I was frozen in time. I could see myself, at different ages, running around from one room to another, Auntie Flavia keeping an administering eye on me all the time.

I held her tiny little palm, and asked her to sit down next to me. “Wait,” she said, and hobbled in to the kitchen. Five minutes later, she came out with a bowl of chocolate-and-roasted almond cookies. 

“Just like I promised,” she said, with a twinkle in her eyes.

“I kept my promise too, you know,” I replied. Auntie Flavia smiled.

“You know, Frederick and I met at my Uncle’s anniversary party”, she began, all of a sudden. “He heard me laughing at someone’s joke, and decided right then that he wanted to marry me. He proposed to me soon after. Told me he would never let me feel unloved, even for a moment, for as long as I lived. I said yes, and we got married in a few months. Life was more beautiful than I’d ever imagined. And Fred lived up to his word of loving me incessantly. Even though we never did have children, I did not miss having any because Fred made me so complete.”

I wondered what had led to her suddenly talking about Uncle Frederick. But I kept listening.
“When Fred died, I did not think I could survive on my own. For days, I would go to bed at night, praying that when I woke up, it would be in Heaven, next to Fred. But that did not happen.

And then, one day, your parents moved into the neighbourhood. And you were born soon after. Between you and me, I think Fred sent you to me, because he wanted to keep his promise of making me feel loved for as long as I lived. Because after I saw you, Life seemed worthwhile again. You’ve been a wonderful child.”

We spoke throughout the afternoon, about our life in Canada and her life in India after our departure. Everything seemed just the same, like the good old days. And then, it was finally time for me to leave.

 “Will you do me a favour, Chickie?”

I nodded.

“I haven’t been able to visit Fred’s grave in weeks. My health hasn’t allowed me to venture out. Will you visit his grave for me, with his favourite flowers?”
I smiled and said I would.

“And I hope they haven’t laid anyone to rest in the patch next to his grave. Remember how I had promised Fred that whenever I died, I would lie down right there? I had sort of ‘reserved’ that place for myself,” she added with a little smile. 

How well I knew that promise of her’s.

I got up with a heavy heart. Something told me I would never see her again.

 Auntie Flavia read my mind. “You’ll see me soon,“ she said. “I promise.”

I wondered what she meant, but I assumed she was just trying to make me, and herself, feel a little better. I hugged her tightly and left.

An hour later, the red and white roses in my hand, I walked into the graveyard. I knew where Uncle’s Fred’s grave was; Auntie Flavia had brought me along several times. But as I stepped up to the grave marked ‘Frederick Mascarenhas’, my face fell.

The formerly vacant patch next to it was now occupied.

Part anger and part sorrow gripped me. I thought I’d let Auntie Flavia down. I knew this was her last wish – that she be laid to rest next to her beloved husband. I wanted to scream out in anger at whoever had dared to occupy Auntie Flavia’s ‘reserved’ spot. The flowers still in my hand, I bent down to see who had been buried there.

And then I froze. It couldn’t be.

I sank down onto the grass, blank, weak in the knees. Her last words kept echoing in my ear - "You will see me soon. I promise".

In the distance, the sun was slowly setting, and the world was becoming darker by the moment.