It was the fifth time I had broken a necklace that day. The thread kept slipping or the needle dropping out of my hands, the beads slipping away like rain. Hitting the grey tile floor like a tiny Technicolor hailstorm. The reoccurring, scattered sound is disheartening. Tears well up in my eyes and I am tempted to give up beading, to sweep them all up and toss them in the trash, but instead I kneel again in frustration and begin to gather the beads from the dirt and dust.
As I put my hands in the grit of my unswept apartment floor and carefully press my index finger over a bead, I realize that it’s her I am thinking of, my anaanatsiaq—my grandmother. I can’t concentrate. My thoughts are in a distant place and seeping into memories past. The soft focus of grief is all around me. Sometimes crashing, sometimes caressing.
She never wasted anything. I never saw her lose her patience. Once, when she was teaching me how to bead floral patterns, my clumsy young hands had knocked over the bead bowl. I let out a heavy sigh and looked up at her wildly, afraid she may be mad at me. She only smiled. I got down on my knees and began to pick them up. Frustrated that I couldn’t seem to pick them up with my chubby, little six-year-old fingers, especially the lonesome ones caught in the cracks and corners of her aging linoleum floor, I began to whimper. My anaanatsiaq gently leaning beside me, placed a hand on my shoulder.
“Imanna,” she said to me softly. “Like this,” as she pressed her soft, wrinkled finger on a single red bead on the floor. It stuck to her finger and she easily placed it back in the shallow beading bowl. The memories flood me like scattered beads.
Like the time she told me a story after a housefly, the dreaded ananngiq, kryptonite to even the mightiest Inuk hunter, had buzzed by my head. I let out a too-loud squeal and expressed my great dislike for them, lamenting their very existence. My grandmother shook her head and told me to be careful about saying such things. That every creation has its purpose and its place. She told me how a young soldier also hated bugs with a vehement passion, that he believed they were the scourge of the earth and wished to have them completely wiped out from the planet.
Then one day he was fleeing from the enemy and hid himself inside a mossy cave. As he waited until it was safe to come out, he fell asleep. He was stirred from his sleep sometime later by the creeping, crawling legs of a spider scurrying across his face. Just at that moment he noticed an enemy fighter at the entrance of the cave about to ambush him. He was awoken just in time to kill the enemy and was able to escape unharmed. She told me that from that day, the soldier realized that all creatures serve a purpose and we must never think ourselves more important than any other living thing. I asked her if she knew who the man was. She said, “Uillium Uallasi.” I was amazed, realizing that she had just told me a story passed down to her about the great Scottish hero, William Wallace.
She’d often surprise me as we’d sit together listening to the local radio or gospel tapes, staring out the window looking over the Hudson Bay. She might be knitting socks or making a new pair of kamiks for one of her many grandchildren. She’d eventually break into a story and it seemed at first that she was just talking, but her stories always ended in lessons. She was always teaching and I was always learning, even without realizing it.
The smell of fresh bread or bannock was often present at her house. Goose, walrus, seal or caribou stewed on the stove. Rice pudding or her famous salmon and macaroni dish waited for hungry visitors to come and feast. Tea and cinnamon buns on the table, sugar encrusted spoons and condiments sat alongside an assortment of leftovers from any other given day. Mustard pickles to go with stewed seal, Heinz 57 to go with boiled maataq, soya sauce to go with frozen Arctic char. The little signs of colliding cultures and colonialism all around us.
My grandmother once remarked that she liked me better when I was fat. I could hear my auntie kind of giggle as I awkwardly stuffed the rest of my foot into my shoe. I was only half way out the door.
It stung because I knew she was right. There was a distinct, marked difference in my behaviour one teenage summer. Most of which centred around refusing to visit her house because I didn’t want to be pressured to eat. I was determined to be super skinny and gathering around the cardboard or the kitchen table was not on my agenda anymore.
The day I overheard her remark was the first time I had ever heard her utter anything about me that could be viewed as a negative. But unlike the skinny obsessed western world, fat wasn’t a four letter word to her. Even though I knew it wasn’t right for me to avoid her house, it took me years to realize the high cost of my vanity. Like many grandchild-grandmother relationships, much of our relationship centered around food.
It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I returned back to my grandmother’s table. The table with the peaceful, yet ominous view of the Anglican church casting its shadow through the lace curtains.
For the latter years of her life, my grandmother hated all the pills she had to take, the food she was forced to eat, the rules that were imposed on her for health reasons. One of which was the nurses had told her to stop taking sugar in her tea. I knew this was a rule and had noticed she had taken to the change without much fuss. When someone served her tea with no sugar she did not seem to mind at all. As she sipped on her tea she would look at me with a little twinkle in her eye, nearly winking. One day she finally revealed to me her little trick.
She told me that she would sneak a candy into her mouth just before asking for or receiving a cup of tea and quietly sip on her secretly candy-sweetened drink. We smiled wistfully at each other and began to giggle. She always had that rascally way about her that was so endearing, even to the end.
As I gather up the last of the beads scattered across my kitchen floor, the sunshine beaming down across my knees, I begin to recall my last memories of her. Flooded with loss I gaze down at my hands and the tears form heavy in my eyes. No wonder she liked me better with my big rosy cheeks that rivalled St. Nick himself. I was happy and carefree. I ate whatever she offered and she never had to worry whether I’d make it through the winter. She often praised me in front of other elders for not being the fussy type as she handed me things like boiled seal intestines, raw ptarmigan or fermented walrus. I never gained back the weight, but I also could never gain back all the moments and treasures lost.
In her last days, greatly discouraged by her immobility, she was often too listless to eat. She no longer had an appetite. Her sense of worth had always been in doing, in working, in helping and serving those around her. She would often fall into bouts of weeping and it was intensely difficult to watch this great woman I love so deeply struggle so much. It was hard to watch her in pain. I admired my mother’s ability to help her through these difficult hours.
During one of my last few visits with her, she grabbed my hand desperately as I was about to leave and with wild eyes filled with tears she told me she wished I could take her with me in an amautik. My mother commented that she must be speaking nonsense. My heart was stabbed with pain as I told her she was not speaking nonsense at all. She was heartbroken at being left here again, and she was more than aware that many people had stopped coming by like they used to, the house was quieter and lonelier. She was immobile and couldn’t come with us, she had to be left yet again, unable to do the things she loved.
I placed my hand on her cheeks and told her that if I had an amautik big enough that I would take her with me everywhere. She smiled softly and knowingly, the heavy water in her eyes retreated for a moment but there was still a languid sadness that remained. It was a small comfort to her, that I understood, but we both knew that I would still leave her. She would still be bound to her living room. These were her last days.
That night, I decided to stay longer, the hours passing slowly as we all sat together on the couch. My grandfather was watching the television on mute. My grandmother and I sat mostly in silence. She had refused to eat earlier when my mother had come to feed her. She wept and refused the meal. She did not have the heart to eat anymore, she said. She did not feel well. My weary mother, concerned, kept trying and managed to get her to eat a few bites but gave in shortly after. She would try again tomorrow. Later in the evening as my own hunger began to noisily announce itself, I got up to cut up some frozen char quaq. I sliced the pieces carefully.
Normally I would have sat at the table by myself until she joined me. Because I knew she was unable to leave the confines of the couch, I decided to pre-cut pieces of char and placed them on plate. I rejoined my grandparents on the couch. As I sat there and ate, after a while my grandmother reached over and took a piece for herself and began to eat. I smiled a little to myself and wondered if she would take more... and she did.
After she consumed a fair amount of fish, the colour returning to her face, she smiled and turned to my grandfather. She said, “Takkuu nirijuruluujunga. Look at me, I am eating.” She said it in the self-deprecating way of the Inuit. Belittling herself so as not to sound proud, but knowing what she was doing was good. My grandfather beamed and gently patted her hands. The 60-year love between them was so palpable it nearly knocked me over.
After we were near the end of our tiny feast, my grandfather got up and went to the kitchen. He chopped up pieces of mataaq and caribou, not much but enough to restock our tiny shared plate. He placed it in her hands and we all sat and quietly shared the last meal I would ever eat with my anaanatsiaq. It was a small redemption for the cultural and social rejection of my confused youth.
As I stand up from gathering the last of the scattered beads, I think of how many more stories I could have listened to, how much more I could have learned had I not priced the value of my appearance over the value of her company. But as I am flooded with the richness of her memory, instead of inconsolable tears I am comforted by one of the very first lessons she taught me: don’t cry over spilled beads.