Her Wedding Purse


My grandmother has a gold clutch she used to clasp by her side as she attended weddings in Colombo. She would joyfully drape her sari, bangles jingling and chains swaying from her throat, and coo her congratulations to the bride and groom when she arrived at the event. As she was adored and deeply respected during her teaching years, invitations blustered over to her home in expectant flocks. Even though my grandmother has been diagnosed with dementia, she still proudly kits up with that little, metallic purse. Now it's her companion on her way to the bank, or to the grocery store.

I have watched in dismay as the older members of my family have gently taken that gorgeous bag out of her hands and replaced it with a sensible leather satchel, obviously the more practical and less embarrassing choice for her weekly errands and visits. If I was in Sri Lanka, I would, with all my affection, let her hold that little gold bag as she walked out the front door.

She used to sew dresses for us when we were children, traversing to the hot fabric market, dodging the stray dogs she was scared of and taking pains in her selections, before winding back home in morbid traffic on grimy public transport. Alone, she would sit and run the printed cloth under the clack clack clack of her sewing machine needle. One Christmas, my younger sister and I unwrapped dresses from her, white, embroidered around the waists and covered in green and red flowers. Our favourite cousins tore through their wrapping paper too and Mandy pulled out a dress identical to ours while Gavin had a perfect little shirt to match. My grandmother had sewn a pact between us and as we swayed in front of the tree in our outfits for our parents' photographs, we four felt unwaveringly whole and wholly inseparable.

At 29, my wardrobe is still unreasonably stacked with floral prints. They cheerily echo my childish joy from that December. I'm sure the little gold bag she loves must still contain the jubilant celebrations from her past.

Her short term thoughts spin in loops from time to time. On a brief car ride to sow up our errands last month, she asked me "so where are you working now?" 5 or 6 times, if not 7.

"In Melbourne as an Art Director."
"In Melbourne as an Art Director."
"I'm in Melbourne. I'm an Art Director."
"In Melbourne as an Art Director."
"I'm an Art Director in Melbourne."

I am happy to answer her questions as if each were new.

In our first apartment in Dubai, with twin beds smooshed side by side, my sister and I would quilt up past our chins and impatiently watch my grandmother somehow tuck herself into the corner of our mattresses in our small room. She sang with floating, full-bellied notes that hung above us in the dark. We would then selfishly trill "again! Again!" She would sing, and sing, and sing, each word ringing as true and clear as the one before, until we finally slumbered.

There were no bites of impatience. She never reminded us that we had heard the lullaby thousands of times before. She returned with joy every night, knowing too well our childish ritual to insist on multiple repetitions would undoubtedly ensue. To me, she deserves to have her repeating requests honoured with love and care, unquestioningly and inexhaustibly, too.

Sometimes, her earlier years are undone entirely. Our names escape her and people are left behind. Events and places, moments, holidays, blankets, towels - they leave her comprehension. She is chided and redirected and my heart breaks each time someone points out that she has let something shamefully easy slip.

It seems so simple to me: I think she had earned the right to forget.

As a poet, my grandmother has been writing verses for me in small, looping, sticky ball-point pen ink since I was old enough to read them. When she wasn't making time to compose them on aerogrammes or wafer thin stationery with those navy pinstripes, she was printing them on the insides of the greeting cards she had so considerately curated. She has never forgotten to hunt down my address in each of the 15 homes I've lived in and her birthday poems and Christmas cards have faultlessly followed me across continents.

Every night, she would pray for me too, and for each of the members in our family - mentioning our names individually. After speaking to us over the phone or excavating the necessary information from another relative, she would gather her thoughts and pause to contemplate the latest bit of luck we needed. ''I don't know who I'm talking to up there, but I still say the words!" She would chuckle. Night upon night for years her brainwaves would sling across oceans to reach her grandchildren and children in invisible and undetectable arcs. She doesn't owe me any more of her thoughts and memory.

She is also finding it hard to see who is still a part of her life. She talks about her brothers and cries for her mother and her father, who treated her with endless tenderness and attention. Those around her find it difficult to relate with the gaps of time she has created.

I would cry too, the way we did when we scraped our knees in her neighbour's backyard, if it brought me closer to time with her again, where her words of consolation ran like water over my muddied red knees. I would talk constantly about the jasmine tree in her backyard, where the flowers reached down to us as we left to visit the temple if it could take me back to the shade of her garden for even an instant. I wouldn't pull her back into a reality where she painfully misses her children and where she often can't recollect where she is and who she's with, unless she asked me too.

My grandmother has a gold clutch she used to clasp by her side as she attended weddings in Colombo. Now it's her companion on her way to the bank, or to the grocery store. If I was in Sri Lanka, I would, with all my affection, let her hold that little bag as she walked out the front door.

Archie has always told me I am beautiful. She spelt out this mantra face-to-face, eye-to-eye, when I was chubby, when I got too thin, when I dyed my fringe with unforgivable blonde chunks for no conceivably good reason. She tells me this now. To her, I still am perfect - the improvements and small considerations that have been passed on to me by so many others never existed between us. If I was in Sri Lanka now, I would tell her she's beautiful too, while she holds that little gold bag and walks out the front door.

Unlike Australia, in Sri Lanka, it seems that support for dementia patients is scarce. From the googling I've done and the e-mails I've thrown into cyberspace from my painfully distant apartment in Melbourne, I've found that there are maybe 2 or 3 homes that cater to the condition, in-home aged care nurses with dementia specialities are not available and neither are research studies on the subject that participants can join to stay connected to the wider community. Amongst my family, it was a common misconception that dementia and memory loss due to old age were the same thing. Alarmingly, they also assumed all elderly Sri Lankans will eventually contract some form of dementia (which is absolutely not the case).

If you have a loved one who is suffering from memory loss, take them to a GP to rule out dementia. If they are diagnosed with a form of dementia, please find out which condition/s caused the symptoms so medication/treatment can be administered correctly.


*Archie: 'Grandmother' in Sinhala (a language spoken in Sri Lanka)