Wafer thin slices of potato dive from the mandolin, cascading into the hot oil with a raucous sizzle. My father brushes past my left shoulder. I’ve learned not to look, not to ricochet my head around searching for signs of him. He’s not there.
Twenty years after his death, his spectre graces me with ephemeral appearances; his gait in my children’s stride as they lope beside me, the particular way he ate — mashing curries with rice willy-nilly, intensifying already pungent flavours — transcending generations and appearing at our evening meals, his stubbornness and competitiveness surfacing in my children’s arguments at inconvenient times and defeating me.
I’ve forgotten the particular timbre of his laugh, that in the last years of his life he sported a full beard, the sparseness of the hair on his head, thinned by radiation and chemicals the human body was not designed to tolerate. But his hands are clear — his nails bitten short, his cuticles dry and curling away from the nail bed, the lines of his fate etched a dark brown across his soft, plump palms mirrored by my own.
The potato slices have stopped jostling in the Cheena chatti like sugared-up kindergarteners. I prod at them with my slotted spoon, herd them in circles around the Kerala cast-iron wok, occasionally pushing the paler ones under the surface spluttering oil in every direction. I curse and giggle at the memory of my father performing the same task a lifetime ago, the way he commanded the kitchen, a conductor in his element, the way he swanned away calling for my sister or me to clean his mess, too much a diva to perform such menial tasks.
My father isn’t my only spectral companion. Especially at this time of year, my father-in-law’s sister and my mother-in-law’s mother also pop in and out with alarming frequency.
I shell and devein prawns at the kitchen sink while my grandmother-in-law (is that an actual kinship term? it should be) sits at my dining table, a lit cigarette perched between nicotine-stained fingers, blithely disregarding all my mental objections to smoking inside my house. She nods approvingly as I tear away the prawn heads, slip off the shells, and slit their backs to extract the black tubular intestine. Christmas lunch is only complete with the sweet, tender meat of a just-cooked prawn.
In the supermarket, I gather ingredients for an orange trifle — nobody’s eating the wine trifle these days — with my husband’s aunt directing me to exactly the right brands of jelly, and orange juice. I’m convinced she pats my arm as I reach for the Aeroplane jelly, and reassured, I start humming the jingle.
I’m not haunted by these apparitions. They don’t fill me with foreboding, nor are they harbingers of doom. No, they’re phantasmic echoes of people I loved, appearing only in the special moments and tasks that we shared. Memories, perhaps, or perhaps something else. I don’t know. I’m not religious, I have no faith in incorporeal angels or demons, but I feel the presence of my dead as I live my life. Perhaps their lessons were just very well taught, perhaps I soaked in their natures with their words.
In the end, the reasons for their appearances don’t matter. Death did not extinguish our relationships.
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