Lessons from my Grandmother

This article was published in The Star Malaysia’s Heart and Soul column on 1 July.
My grandmother, the original Wonder Woman, who gave the best Dunlopillo hugs. 

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*****
“My grandmother didn’t tell me how to live. She lived, and let me watch her do it.”

I am paraphrasing a quote by American writer Bud Kelland, but it is so apt that I had to borrow it.

My grandmother glided through life effortlessly – and always with a smile that radiated from her heart and twinkled out of her eyes. She faced every challenge with strength. She embraced every moment with love. And her chicken curry was legendary.

These are some of the lessons I learned through watching her:

Always maintain a sense of humour. Laugh often, and loudly. Your enthusiasm will be infectious. Your smile can spread through oceans of despair, over mountains of troubles, and soften even the hardest heart. Get on with it. Complaining is a waste of precious time. If you have a job to do, do it with grace and courage. Be grateful for your responsibilities – not everyone is so lucky.

Chill out. Getting angry or upset is hazardous to your health. A calm approach based on compassion and common sense will do everyone good, especially yourself. As will a hot cup of chaaya tea.

Hugs are underrated. Never underestimate the power of a genuine, warm embrace. It can melt away fear, tension and sadness in the young, the old, and everyone in between. Hold close the people you love. Hold them until you feel their pain evaporating. Don’t be the first to break away. If a child tells you, mid-hug, that you are as soft as a pillow, take it as a compliment.

Stay curious. You’re never too old to learn something new, be it a language, a card game, a skill or an idea. In an ever-changing world, adapting your mindset without compromising your values shows self-awareness and self-preservation. Also, being interested makes you interesting.

Get stuck in! Your appetite for food mirrors your appetite for life. Savour every moment. Lick your fingers. When you cook for others, cook with love in your heart, for this is the secret ingredient, in food and in life.

Rest in Peace, Muthashi.

(Sarada Menon passed away peacefully on April 11, at the age of 95.)

*****

©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

Furious Fiction: Brilliant Disguise

This time last year, a short story I wrote was one of six shortlisted entries in the Australian Writers’ Centre’s monthly Furious Fiction competition. Each month you are given a different set of story prompts and just 55 hours to submit your 500-word story. Since then, I have entered the competition every single month. This sometimes meant hitting the submit button at 11.55 on a Sunday night, 5 minutes before the deadline. Most of my stories would have benefited from another day of editing, and some of them would have remained average even with another month of re-writing, but I submitted them anyway. The challenge makes me focus my writing, forces me to be creative, gives me a wonderful sense of accomplishment at the start of every month, and then nervous anticipation for the announcement about 3 weeks later. (Living on the edge stuff, right here.)

So, 11 submitted short stories later, we got to May 2019. This was the criteria:

  • The story had to include the words MAYBE, MAYHEM, DISMAY, MAYOR and MAYONNAISE.
  • The story’s first word had to be an 11-letter word.
  • The story, at some point, had to include someone or something RUNNING.

The force must have been with me, this May as well, because my Bruce Springsteen-inspired story made it to the shortlist! Here it is….

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“Springsteen? Yeah, I know his music.” He took a sip of water and glanced around the restaurant.

She was relieved. A good start. She raised her wine glass to her lips and tasted the Pinot Noir. It was smooth, like Springsteen’s voice in I’m on Fire.

“He is a bit miserable though, isn’t he?” He shot her a quick look. “All those songs about struggle and loss?”

The Pinot caught in her throat and she coughed. He looked up from his menu with raised eyebrows.

“You disagree?”

She did not like his tone. It was too nonchalant. This was a highly important topic. A non-negotiable.

“Well,” she began, carefully. “He sings about the hardships of everyday life. And about his dismay at the contrast between dreams and reality. But he…”

“Like I said. Miserable.”

She bit her lip. This was not going well. Still, she would persevere. After all, Bruce had been telling her for years to look for that human touch, that two hearts are better than one, and most importantly, that faith will be rewarded. She would have faith. This one even looked like him. In the dim lighting of the restaurant. If she squinted.

The waiter arrived. They ordered the seafood platter for two.

“Hold the garlic mayonnaise though,” he said, with a wink that she deliberately ignored.

“I don’t think you understand,” she frowned. “Springsteen…his music helps us escape the misery and the mayhem of this complex world we live in. He believes in a better future, in the real possibility of happiness!”

He looked at her, bemused. “You’re a proper fan then?”

“I am his biggest fan,” she emphasised, realising with every passing moment that, once again, her suitor was unsuitable.

This one was also oblivious. “I know they bestowed upon him a title of some sort. What was it? The King?”

She shook her head in disbelief. “That was Elvis.”

“Oh, right. Was he a Sir, then?” He seemed to be chuckling to himself and she wondered how someone so ignorant could also be so arrogant.

“You’re thinking of Elton John.” You idiot, she wanted to add.

“Mayor, perhaps?” He would not give up. She was running out of patience. Time to put herself out of this misery.

“Boss. He was The Boss.”

“Ah, right. Silly name.”

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, she thought. The rest of their dinner was peppered with small talk. She was already planning her escape. As they stepped outside into the cool autumn air, she held out her hand to avoid any human touch beyond a handshake.

“Thank you for tonight,” she said. “But I don’t think we’ll see each other again.”

“That’s cool,” he said, squeezing her palm. “If there’s no spark, there’s not much you can do.”

She was about to nod in agreement when she caught the glint in his eye as he continued.

“My dad always said you can’t start a fire without it.”

©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

The judges said….
What we liked:

This was a fun first date scene that manages to do what many fail at – find a good balance between the external action and internal dialogue. Well-paced and sprinkled with humour, it saves a little in the tank for an ending that delivers a dose of intrigue. Simple storytelling, effective in bringing this tale of hungry hearts to life.

The Grieve Project

Hunter Writers Centre hold an annual competition for stories and poems about grief and loss. The Grieve Project publishes a collection of these poems and stories every year. 

The Grieve Project is also an online community set up to encourage empathy, reflection and healing through the sharing of stories; there are some beautiful ones up on the site.

I am so honoured to be a part of this project and to be published in the Grieve Anthology volume 6. (An actual book, Papa!) Here is the piece, and a part of my heart.

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Time for Grief

Some telephone conversations lodge themselves in your memory and never leave. You think you hear the words ‘shadow’ and ‘lung’ and you hope the reason is the poor long-distance line and not the possibility of cancer. Your father is a smoker, after all. You pray that his body is playing a twisted trick on the x-ray machine, but your increasingly heavy heart tells you that it is probably not good news.

Stage 4 lung cancer is not good news. You begin to furiously research facts, statistics and survival rates. You wonder how long one can hold on to 5 percent hope. You realise you have already begun grieving, for life as it was before the telephone call. But this is not the time for your grief. There are questions to ask. There is compassion to show. There are spirits to lift. You lock your grief away in a safe place, to retrieve once all hope is gone.

You travel 10,000 kilometres with your 8-week-old baby because you believe that compassion transmits better through a hug and babies are exceptional at lifting spirits. Your father smiles his widest smiles for his granddaughter. You observe their mutual contentment and realise this is where you are supposed to be.

In between hospital visits, your father studies his notebooks and works through a checklist of phone calls. He notices you watching and declares that this is not the sorting out of affairs, but simply ongoing administrative tasks. You nod with false nonchalance. You wonder why you are both putting on a brave face when it is time for the masks to be lowered.

The chemotherapy works and then it doesn’t. You ask the oncologist for the truth. He suggests that your sisters come home. Grief starts knocking but you do not let it in.

It is a bittersweet family Christmas. You create beautiful memories, but they are marred by the shadow of limited time.

Your sister sits by your father’s feet as he dictates the terms of his funeral. She dutifully scribes instructions on the death announcement, coffin and rituals. Tears collect behind her eyes. She holds them there until she can turn away with the excuse of necessary filing. You wish for that kind of strength.

In your last few days together, you sit by your father’s bed and softly read his favourite poetry. You don’t know if he can hear but you hope the words of Kahlil Gibran will cut through the cancer and settle in his soul.

After the funeral, an acquaintance asks if you were close. You realise the pain in your heart is from considering not the history, but the lost potential. It doesn’t matter if you were close. What matters is that now you will never be able to get any closer. Your closeness has been capped.

You travel back to Glasgow, unlock your grief and let it engulf you like the unrelenting February snow.

©2018 Seetha Nambiar Dodd
♥♥♥

Furious Fiction

Furious Fiction is a monthly short story competition run by the Australian Writers’ Centre, with different story prompts each month. 55 hours, 500 words. This month’s challenge was launched on May the Fourth, and therefore had this criteria:
• The story had to begin with the words “A long time ago”
• The story had to include the words “star”, “war” and “force” (or a plural).
• The story had to feature something that flies.

I am delighted that my story was shortlisted and published on the AWC website!!!

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A long time ago her life had not been controlled by beeps. There were languid hours dedicated to doing absolutely nothing. There were long walks on beaches with powder-white sand and no time limit. There was the delight of getting lost in a book with no interruptions. There were nights of staring up at a sky so crowded with stars that it seemed as though a few might have to fall down to earth to make room for the brightest ones. Life was about enjoying the pauses between the moments.

Then slowly, without warning, something changed.

Her life became punctuated by noises that signified the ceasing of fun by an external force. The pauses were no longer an invitation to breathe, but an opportunity to maximise productivity.

Beep. The alarm clock set for 6am kept its promise and ruined her slumber party of one.

Beep…Beep. The phone called out to be scanned for notifications, messages and other people’s highlight reels, all of which cut into her own dressing room preparation.

She stirred her steaming coffee and inhaled its heady aroma.

Beep. The clothes in the washing machine cried out for attention or they would punish her with creases that would need to be ironed out.

Beep. Now the doorbell. She put down her coffee and signed for a parcel she couldn’t remember ordering.

Beep…Beep. Her laptop was running out of power after her late-night session browsing for paperbacks that she wanted to read but would never get around to reading. Better plug in the charger.

On her way to work, she waited for the Green Man at the traffic crossing whose sole purpose was to give permission for people to cross the road: Beep. She was envious of him for finding his calling.

She thought about how it seemed she was not enjoying her life but merely enduring it.

Then suddenly, without warning, something changed.

A doctor’s appointment that produced a new way of living. Her life became only about the beeps.

She stared out of the window. She felt like a bird that was always too afraid to soar above the clouds and now had its wings clipped.

Beep…beep…beep…she looked over at the contraption that was keeping her body functioning, with its flashing lights and synthetic noises.

The nurse strode purposefully into the room. “Are you alright, love? It’s time for your walk. We’ll bring the machine with us.”

The war would continue. She closed her eyes and decided that finally, it was time to unplug.

©2018 Seetha Dodd

The judges said….
What we liked:
A new twist on the benefits of unplugging, this story opens with a long paragraph – itself representing the freedom of being uninterrupted – before the short sharp paragraphs kick in. We loved the purposeful repetition as the story took its first, and then second turn – all tied together by the same element. A (beep)ing good story. Perhaps having no title is also significant…