I’m standing in the garden of remembrance on the grounds of St Michaels, the church where my parents were married, where I was christened and confirmed, where I sang in the choir and pronounced “womb” to rhyme with “bomb” instead of “tomb”, where I was married (first time around) and my grandparents were consigned to the afterlife. The winter afternoon is fresh but pleasant. The white-eyes are chirping in the trees and the roses nod in the hint of a breeze.
My parents are here. So are my aunt and uncle and the younger of my two brothers, and my aunt from Pietermaritzburg. The priest, a woman with a Canadian accent, has handed us print out of the service for the interment of ashes. My grandmother is in a small wooden box with a brass plaque. On top of it rests a spectacular cerise rose. She would have approved. She always did love roses.
The priest reads the prayers. We say Alleluia Amen where the copy is in bold. I read from the New Testament, the same reading at the funeral. John 14:2. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe in Me as well.” I enunciate the words clearly and read with carefully considered expression, like the well-spoken schoolgirl with colours for public speaking that I used to be.
I don’t believe in God, I think to myself.
The priest tells us that my grandmother has joined the Lord in the afterlife, that she and my grandfather are reunited, and I think: what nonsense this all is. Once upon a time, I believed all of this, and now I don’t. There is no afterlife. There is nothing: just us, standing in this small garden, preparing to bury what, symbolically, is left of my grandmother.
The priest places the box in the ground and invites us all to take a handful of earth to scatter on top of it. The soil is cool and dry in my hand. The priest’s robes get in the way, so my uncle takes over the task of covering the box with earth. “There’s an earthworm,” he says.
Prayers and more prayers. We can come and visit the spot at any time, the priest says. There is 24/7 security, so even though the church is surrounded by walls and electric fencing, we can commune with the dead before dawn if we so wish. She suggests that we have a new plaque made with both my grandparents’ names. I think back to them, how I loved them like a second set of parents, but that I was never under any illusion that they particularly liked one another. Would they have wanted to be reunited in the afterlife? I can’t imagine it.
After the service is over, I glance over some of the other plaques. Each has a name and a set of dates. Some are parentheses to many decades. Others are shockingly short. A young man who died at the age of 23, a woman whose life came to an end shortly before her 22nd birthday more than three decades before.
Sometimes, I miss believing in God.
Now I am in my grandmother’s lounge. The parquet clicks quietly under my feet. In the display cases are the Royal Doulton figurines my grandmother collected. As a child, I used to look at them and try to decide which one I thought was prettiest. They never interested me much, though. Nobody in the family wants them, so they will be sold. Is there a market for them? Who knows. Across this city, there were probably many women who collected them and displayed them in cabinets, where they now perplex the heirs who must decide what the hell to do with them.
This is how life ends: a trail of things, of stuff, left at the high tide mark of time. Silver, crystal, tea sets, antiques, jewels. I feel no attachment to any of this, which is surprising. I’ve known this house and the things in it my entire life, and yet there’s no single object in which I’ve invested my feelings about my grandmother. I wish there were.
Life comes to an end, and nothing means anything.
I am at home now, sitting on a mat I’ve brought from my grandmother’s, trying to feed RaRa yoghurt while she plays with a new ball. I think about all the things I have collected over the years. Some are stored here. Others are at my parents’, and there are still lots of books and papers in the house with the Royal Doulton ladies and the parquet floors. I can’t imagine that anyone would want them. They are only meaningful to me: signposts to older storylines. I have far too much stuff, and the thought of what to do with it all makes me anxious.
I cast a thought to Twitter, and what people there might think. (I always think of Twitter – Woke Twitter, most especially – which has become my conscience and my inner voice.) And of course, to have stuff, to have too much stuff, is a luxury. So many people in this country have nothing, or next to nothing. The accumulation of crap is largely a privilege of the middle classes.
I take another sip of wine and regard my daughter. She has been bathed and dressed and fed, and now she is happy. “Fetch the ball,” I suggest, and off she goes like a baby turtle or a wind up toy, slap slap slap softly on the laminate floor. She brings the ball to me and I praise her for her cleverness and lose myself for a moment in her smile.
This is purpose. This is meaning. There is no God, and there is too much stuff, but there is this delightful, unexpected child and tonight – just tonight – this is all and she is everything.