The Chinese lady

Objects hold memories

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I ask if I can take home the Chinese lady I once called Queen Elizabeth.

Mum calls dibs. I accept that as the grandchild I get second priority.

The lady stood, same as always, on the right-hand side of my nana’s cabinet, a two-foot statue in a red hood, her white dress swaying in the imaginary wind, and her dainty hands holding a gold vase. As a child I called her Queen Elizabeth because she looked like royalty. Titles like ‘Chinese Empress’ weren’t in in my vocabulary back then.

How did my nana respond to my incorrect labelling? Did she correct me, or did she just smile and find it endearing? Did she play along? I have memories of all three reactions. Maybe they all happened. Maybe none of them did.

My nana, aged 79, recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, later with lung cancer, undergoing radiotherapy a couple of months back, felt pain in her chest on Monday. On Thursday afternoon before the long-weekend she went to hospital. She died the following Tuesday.

That was five months ago now. This is the first time I’ve been back in her flat.

We’re here to divvy up the furniture, the art, the décor, and the household appliances. Everything has to go so the place can be rented out.

We get the couches, the coffee table, I ask for the printer, my sister can have the double bed. My uncle will take my great grandmother’s sewing machine, and most of the art and the rugs. The tacky Picasso prints will be donated, along with cutlery and crockery, non-perishables, the bedroom drawers, the dining table and chairs. The old colonial curtains won’t go to any of our houses, and will have to be thrown away or donated. The real estate agent doesn’t think renters like that kind of thing.

The rest is up for grabs.

I idealise minimalism. After spending years hoarding birthday cards, I recently discovered the magic of throwing away stuff, of clearing my space and thus clearing my head. The little things I don’t know what to do with I hide away in drawers, never to be reopened. Yet I look around my nana’s flat and I want to keep all the useless stuff. The old man and old lady nutcrackers, the little fiddler, the succession of wooden elephants, the abacus, the multiple sets of coasters, her books and pens and birthday cards and tacky Picasso prints.

My mum and uncle discuss how the coffee table will fit into our house, my sister browses the books, classics piled into the bookshelf. I stand in the kitchen, leaning on the counter, and flick through my nana’s old address book, set next to the push-button phone, connected to the wall by a cord. It still works.

She used the same address-book for years. I flick through the pages of phone numbers. What a waste of time it seems, to write down phone numbers with pen and paper, scrounging for someone’s contact details before dialling their number digit by digit.

But there’s something nice about the feel of her handwriting, where her pen pressed into the page. I don’t believe in
returning spirits, but her writing reminds me that she was once alive and I knew her personally.

I decide to take home a framed photograph of my parents at their wedding surrounded by our close family, most of
them alive, some not anymore. I pack a bag of scented candles that were meant for birthday gifts. I also take the little fiddler statue. Everything else can wait for next time.

In the car, my mum entrusts me with the Chinese lady I once called Queen Elizabeth. It balances in my lap and I clutch at it, trying not to imagine it smashing to pieces. It takes me a while to notice the little note stuck to the
bottom.

It’s like she knew that we were going to be divvying up her stuff one day, and wanted to be clear about certain assets. Written in her handwriting, it stated the statue belonged to me, signed by my nana.

“Look,” I show it to mum. “I think I get dibs.”