I got to know the family when we moved to a new neighborhood early this year.
I first met the woman at the local grocer’s and was immediately captivated by her. Her straight, shoulder length hair was jet black and her groomed elegant look was somehow out of place in the lanes of row houses, that ran criss cross from the central plaza. I found out that she lived nearby. We exchanged pleasantries and politely asked each other to drop by.
I did not really plan to go down to her house but this is what I found myself doing when I was invited over for a party. The house looked ordinary enough, but as I walked in the front door, I was surprised by the bonhomie. The front room was full of people and laughter, which was a pleasant change from the reserved atmosphere I would encounter in other homes.
Her husband, a middle aged, balding man, welcomed us warmly as if we had known each other well. He was tall, almost towering over his wife. As the noise of the other arrivals distracted my hosts, I looked around at the beautifully decorated walls. The pride of the place belonged to a double photo frame designed to hold a couple’s photo. On the left was the husband, handsome and grinning in the flush of youth. On the right was the wife, whose photo curiously was not a close up of the face but a long shot of her standing demurely under a tree. The asymmetrical effect of the photograph was a little unsettling.
This, I found out later was the nature of the relationship. They were different temperamentally. He was hot and fiery; she was calm and gentle. He rambled on in conversations, fixing his visitors with the eye of a predator in spite of his friendly demeanor. She interspersed his monologues with gentle reminders.
Their son had an honest and eager-to-please smile. He jumped up to serve guests and tried to engage them in talk, a bare teenager though he were. The daughter had a haughty, aloof look about her, and preferred to eat standing at a side table, when the rest of the family was scattered around the room, talking and eating.
The grandmother was boisterous when I met her, as if she were trying to be cheerful to play down her insecurities. The patriarch of the family was a taciturn old man who had scaled great literary heights in his younger days. The family seemed to be living in his shadow and in the reflected glory of his success and stature. Everything that happened in the household seemed to be directed towards pleasing him, as if everyone had a different notion of what would amuse him.
A month back, the head of the family fell ill and passed away quietly. When I met my family friends a few days after the last rites, there was a spontaneity in the house, as if they had all dropped their masks.