All my childhood lies in my grandmother's house. No matter where I am or what I remember, my mind takes me back to that house. It was, as I have said, the centre of the wheel for our entire family - aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbours and friends.. everyone met at my grandmother's house.
If I close my eyes now.. I am there at the gate, hot African sun scorching down on white picket fences and trellises heavy with honeysuckle, golden shower and coral creeper. A riot of creeping plants and flowers dripping bees. Below them, along the concrete path to the door, there will be sweet peas. Every summer there were sweet peas, staked up against the freshly painted picket fencing. It is cool under the canopy of green that leads to the door. There are two huge pine trees shading the back windows too. They smell of resin.
Around the front there is a swimming pool my grandfather built himself, two aviaries of birds and the fruit trees. Down the side there is a dry sandy strip marked with little wooden crosses for all the many departed pets. Dogs, birds cats, rabbits and even a monkey have their sacred space in Granny's little garden. She pulls the weeds from around the crosses and drops a few tears and flowers on the "special" ones.
Inside the house, at any time of day, it was always shady. All the trees and the deep covered front veranda keep the house from direct sunlight. In the scorching African summer this is a good thing, but I do always remember feeling a bit creepy going down the shadowy passage to the toilet. There are family photos along all the walls in the passage and several generations of family watch me with shadowy eyes as I dash for the toilet. Great grandma stands at the end of the passage. Beautiful forever since she died so young. Her sad Irish eyes seem to know this photo will be the last memory held of her passing through this world. She watches me, the third generation of girl children she will never see grow up.
In my grandmother's bedroom everything smells of old perfume and floor polish. The Virgin Mary stands on the window ledge, with her arms outstretched. She is wearing a pale blue cloak over her ivory plastic glow-in-the-dark body. I love her. I love the fact she glows in the dark. I used to have a glow-in-the-dark Jesus nailed to a wood and mother-of-pearl cross, but then my mom found out the "glow" came from toxic chemicals and threw him in the bin. Very weird memory that - a snapped up Jesus pulled off the cross and thrown into the dirt bin. I can remember going outside and lifting the lid to look at him lying there with his legs and arms scattered amongst the potato peals. My mom tells me Jesus will still watch over me and answer my prayers at night, but I do miss seeing his soft greeny glow over my bed. In my grandmother's house Mary will not suffer the same indignity. Gran doesn't care that Mary is toxic. Mary will stay.
At the end of the passage there is a little iron and glass table on which stands the telephone, and four brass ornaments - the sphinx, two pyramids and Buddha. Mary in the bedroom and Buddha by the phone.. is there some hidden meaning there? Mary will hold you while you sleep, but Buddha is better for communication? Who knows! I only know I am allowed to play with Buddha and the sphinx because they are made of brass and indestructible. So I will lie on my play rug with Buddha and the sphinx. The sphinx was once a cigarette lighter and his head is hinged to open up the lighter. This will leave indelible scars on my understanding of ancient Egyptian history. For years to come I will think the sphinx's head comes off. The sphinx is okay, but I prefer Buddha. I smile back at Buddha while the grown ups sit at the table and talk. He's not as pretty as Mary, but he is more cheerful. Admittedly not as exciting, he doesn't glow, but gran says if I rub his tummy he will answer my wishes just as Jesus answers my prayers. I think to myself how clever God is. He has Jesus for prayers, Mary for comfort and Buddha for making wishes come true. It is a wonderful world with so many celestial beings to watch over your needs.
In my grandmother's house there may not be much sunlight, but there is always noise. There are birds in cages, radios and always people. People come and go in waves. Gran feeds them and makes them tea, but she never visits them. She is the hub and all spokes lead to her. The hub does not wander. It stays in the centre and keeps the wheel of life turning. That is gran - the hub of our wheel.
I can't ever remember seeing her in the lounge watching TV. She is always in the kitchen, out in the garden or sitting in the dining room. She has plants to watch over, dogs, cats, tortoises, lots of birds. Visitors constantly. Only the fish tank isn't her territory. Grandpa takes care of the fish. Grandpa has his small sections of territory staked and claimed - the fish tank, the outside room piled high with old junk and his own bedroom filled with fascinating things. If I am good he will take out the old tin boxes full of war photos. Then he fills his pipe and sits by the window, puffing his pipe and telling me the stories behind the photos. I knew about Mussolini and the war in North Africa before I was eight. Grandpa has other photos too. Stationed in Egypt he went to every ancient monument her could. Here there are photos of the real pyramids and sphinx. And if I get bored with desert stories there is a box of old toys at the top of the wardrobe. Paper dolls from the 1950s and marionette puppets. I love grandpa's room.
My aunt has the last bedroom. Here I can look, but not touch - except her big plastic bangles - I can play with those. They jangle on my arm, but I can't put my hands down or they'll all fall off. I walk around the house with my arms up to keep the bangles on. It's not as exciting as war stories or Buddha and the sphinx.. I go and put them back.
For now I will sit with Buddha on the floor and be at peace. Here we will sit at the centre of the world and let it revolve around us. There will be dripping and tomato sandwiches for lunch and then later gran will let me feed the tortoises. Life is good.