Perspectives

  • Issue 115 / January-February 2017



    Grandma

    Nihat Balci

    The sun is shining down on us. We are walking down the road that encircles the small island. Men and women, young and old; the faces are solemn, earnest, and their steps neither fast nor slow.

    She is taking her last tour of the island. We are all following her. She loves this place. Who wouldn't? As we turn the corner, we feel the breeze on our faces. A few yards to my right the waves are crashing on the small, pebbled beach, forming white swirls of foam that dance back and forth. The lake is blue-green, beautiful, with specks of light caressing the surface. There are about two hundred people living on this island. During the summer, the number increases dramatically. Like now. With a few exceptions, all the locals are here, though.

    After passing beautiful stone and timber houses, we move past the historical Agios Stephanos Church and its arched windows. God knows how many last tours it has witnessed. We are almost there. We all meander to the left, and after walking a few more yards, smell the freshly dug soil. With one hand, I am holding my daughter's hand; with the other, I brush the tears on my face.

    My grandmother is up front. Not walking this time though, but on the shoulders of men, in a wooden box. She died in Istanbul, two days ago. It was her will to be brought here. She even had her own grave built, and her name carved on the stone a few years ago. She was born, raised, got married, and had three kids on this small island. Even if she later went to Istanbul, I guess her heart always remained here.

    We turn right for the graveyard and gather in the open space reserved for funerals. After she is placed on the pedestal, people start lining up. In less than thirty minutes, she will be in her final resting place, her last home she picked herself. Don’t think that she was all done and ready to go: I have rarely seen people as full of life as she was. In fact, she had so many plans and dreams, even at 85 years old.

    ~

    After the funeral, we head back to her house, to continue with the prayers and to serve food. We do not walk along the lake, but take the small paths through the interior of the island. I try to look away from the gravestones. I don't want to read the names. When I was a child, it was said that you should not read too much of what is on gravestones or billboards; doing so would make you forgetful. I guess the logic behind this was that a lot of little details would clutter up your mind, slowing it down.

    The footsteps on the small pebbles make a hushed sound, as if they are telling me, “Shhh, everything is going to be okay.” They remind me of the summers when I came here with her. When we walked on these roads to visit her friends or on the way to a house of someone in need.

    My grandmother had a colorful life. She had three sons, two daughters, and thirteen grandchildren. She had been poor, she had been rich. Her house was very crowded with kids, in-laws, and company, but she also had times later in her life that she would just be by herself. She worked hard, experienced difficult times, but always managed to enjoy herself. I grew up with real stories from her life, stories you can't find in the best story books. On the way back to her house, and the whole upcoming month, I would wonder, among many other things, about one thing she never endured: forgetfulness.

    Five days ago we were in her hospital room. Doctors were asking her about her past, checking if her memory was still intact.

    “When did you do the hajj?”

    My mom and dad looked at each other. They couldn’t remember, but she could, providing not just the date, but the details.

    After they left, I took out my camera and asked her more questions. The details she could remember, from both the recent and distant past, were amazing. She always knew when her appointments were, when it was time for her to host her monthly meeting with her friends, or where they were meeting when she was not hosting. She never put these dates on an agenda; never even had one, in fact. She cooked and baked wonderfully, but never had a recipe book, to remind her the exact amount of milk or baking powder she needed to use. How could she not be forgetful, even at 85? And why do people from my generation forget so much?

    It is really hard to blame our forgetfulness on visits to the graveyard. But we don't even need to, do we? How many ads do we come across daily? When we turn on our TVs, when we open our mail boxes, read the paper, or even just take a walk, we are basically bombarded with thousands of unnecessary details.

    ~

    We are back at her house. The prayers start and they take a while. Many people leave after the modest ceremony, before we all gather again for dinner at the coffee house. Some are on the veranda enjoying the good weather. A group of my grandmother’s close friends and family are together in the living room. I find an empty seat between Aunt Hatice and Aunt Memnune. I ask them about my grandma's strong memory and why our generation forgets so much. Aunt Hatice is the leader of their reading and reflection group, and basically a fountain of knowledge. Her green eyes penetrate deep into mine. She talks slowly and clearly:

    "Every blessing comes with its own negatives. Listen to many beautiful women about how hard it can sometimes be. Kids are great, but they are also too much work and responsibility. You would like to be the top person in your company, but be prepared for longer hours. Technology is great, too. But it is taking away something that we can't buy back. "

    I think about Alzheimer's and dementia rates, which are at all-time highs. Alzheimer's is officially the 6th leading cause of death in the United States. It kills more than prostate and breast cancer combined. An estimated 5.2 million Americans had the disease in 2014. Due to its slow-developing nature, it is the most expensive condition in the nation, costing an estimated $214 billion.

    "Aunt Hatice, do you think with all the videos, tablets, apps, and calculators, we have too much stuff to help us, which makes our brains lazier?” I ask.

    “Like an unused muscle shrinking," she replies.

    "When I was in high school, I knew all my close friends’ and relatives’ phone numbers by heart. I only know a few right now. I just find the name on my phone and dial it," I add.

    Aunt Mesude is my grandmother’s younger sister. Her positive energy is irresistible. No matter your age, you will never get bored spending time with her. She starts talking, too. “Hatice, they have too many details to think about. When we were young, our lives were much simpler."

    She has a point.

    “We make choices on a daily basis about so many things, from which clothes to pick from our cluttered closets, to matching our outfit with the right jewelry, purse, or shoes. We have to choose whether to listen to local or global news, then react to them by checking social media posts, tweets, and popular videos on YouTube," I say.

    “Some of which just is a waste of time and would never bring any good to our lives or anybody else's, for that matter,” my Aunt Mesude adds with a smile.

    If you only had two sets of clothes, like my grandmother had when she was young, one that she would wear every day, and one for special occasions, then you would not spend any time deciding what to wear the next day, or trying to match it with the right accessories. You also would not need to think about the clutter in your house, or the laundry and ironing. Just reducing the number of clothes one owns takes much off of your mind. Imagine how much free time people would have for real conversations with real human beings – or to read books, listen to the birds, stop and smell the roses – if they had one less social media account or TV show to follow.

    “She was always surrounded by people, living in a big family. She also visited friends a lot, and had lots and lots of company,” Aunt Memnune says, joining in. She is another one of the sisters, and a very beautiful woman.

    “She was a very religious woman. She followed the Prophet's way. You know: ‘Whoever desires the expansion in his sustenance and a prolonged life should treat his relatives with kindness,’” adds another local woman, quoting the Prophet.

    Aunt Hatice adds, “Maintain the bonds of kinship.”

    “Now people seem to be more isolated, watch more TV, play more games. They have less time for others, even their own kids,” says Aunt Memnune.

    Aunt Hatice mentions great scholars Shafi and Nursi, and she says it is a very difficult society in which to grow another Shafi or Nursi.

    Shafi, an outstanding 9th century scholar, was once asked a question after class by his teacher.

    “Did you understand?” the teacher asked.

    As a person who would never lie, Shafi answered, “No.”

    His teacher made an interesting suggestion. “My son, quit sinning.”

    Shafi said he listened to the advice, and as a result of this, God opened up his abilities, which were planted like seeds inside of him and then grew as big as oak trees.

    Nursi, another prominent writer and scholar, whose books have been translated into more than 40 languages and have been in print for more than 80 years, and who was known to have a photographic memory, finished his whole education in three months, earning the highest qualifications. He had at least 90 books memorized. It is well known that when he went to Istanbul, he put a sign on his door saying, “All Questions Are Answered, None Will Be Asked.”

    Many scholars came and took on this daring challenge. But Nursi never failed. A friend of his, whom he encountered 30 years later, asked him:

    “We sat together at those desks. You passed us like lightning. What is the secret of this?”

    Nursi said he found a basket hanging down from the sky. He held on to it and it carried him up. When he was asked about the basket, he explained that it was taqwa, which he defined as a high state of the heart.

    “Where do you find taqwa these days?” asks Aunt Mesude.

    I knew Nursi’s answer, but I wanted to know Aunt Hatice’s.

    “What is taqwa?”

    “A person who has taqwa is conscious of God’s presence and it motivates them to perform righteous deeds and avoid the unlawful. It includes dressing modestly, and exposing our ears and eyes only to appropriate things.”

    Inappropriate scenes may come up any time on your screen, even when you least expect them. Needless to say, with the latest technology, some images we come across are so powerful, they make a place for themselves in our minds, possibly pushing out other ideas and thoughts. I know the brain is a container which never fills up; the more you learn, the more you can learn. However, these ads, images, movies, and pictures are not learning. We passively take them in. And many images we see and videos we watch may drastically change the way we feel by affecting our hormones.

    Aunt Hatice continues, "Taqwa can be compared to walking through a narrow tunnel with thorny bushes on both sides. A person passing through it tries their best to not get hurt.”

    "The thorns must be the sins. What are the clothes?” I ask.

    "Your faith."

    "The less taqwa you have, the worse your memory will get," Aunt Mesude adds.

    "I once listened to Ihsan Kasimoglu, a much respected scholar from Iraq, who translates Nursi’s Turkish tafseer into Arabic. He said that he could not do any translations for a whole month after he listened to the local news for 20 minutes,” I contribute.

    "Now think about all the unnecessary information that flows into our brains, from stories about celebrities, soccer games, and TV series; now just imagine how much this could affect our minds," says Aunt Mesude.

    Another local woman joins us. She says, “Your grandmother never slept in the early hours of the sunrise and before dusk. Sleeping at those times is really bad for your brain."

    Aunt Memnune says, "If you want to have a good memory like her, eat 21 raisins with seeds each morning."

    "Also eat healthy and get enough sleep," says Aunt Hatice.

    "Think systematically rather than dreaming aimlessly," says Aunt Mesude.

    Then there is a short silence. Aunt Hatice breaks it. “Since I believe the brain is created by God, I also believe that it would be wise to listen to the Maker about how to keep it healthier and prolong its life.

    I would believe anything these women say. The way we dress and talk, the things we read and listen, the way we pray and exercise, what we eat and how we work: all these have an effect on our brain, hormones, and whole body. And it is an amazing thing that brain cells made out of matter can store and keep information for such a long time and bring it out whenever we need it. 

    I have so much more to ask these amazing women. Is my generation forgetful, or do we also have a harder time learning? Are we just forgetting mundane things, or are we also forgetting bigger things, like right and wrong, or even important memories?

    But our conversation comes to an end. It is time for dinner. It will be a potluck dinner at the local coffee house situated at the center of the island. We all start walking. The coffee house has a yard where they put roundtables and portable chairs for funerals, weddings, or other parties. The family is not supposed to cook. The local people bring the food. A lot of people also help to serve the food.

    I meet some of my cousins, many of whom I haven’t seen in years. We sit and talk. After some more conversation, I also eat. The food is so comforting. I look around and drift off into my own thoughts. All the actions and conversations around me turn into a hum, a song. I feel warmth swaddling me. The prayers, the good food, the help we have been given, the friendship we have been shown… all of it makes me feel the whole town is wrapping me in a warm embrace.

    May you rest in peace, Granny.

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