The first thing is the smell. It’s overpowering, leaking from every crevice in the floor and crack in the peeling paint near the windows, oozing from the groaning wooden cabinet doors, from the crusty ancient oven, from the cheap plates sitting in the sink with remnants of yesterday’s dinner still clinging to them. Fermented herbs and oils waft through the air, lingering in the room with the nauseating scent of chicken fat and minced meat. The aroma of Chinese herbal medicine. Of Asian immigrants, some say.
Then there are the photos on the walls. Not one or two, nicely framed, hung straight and level and perfectly even like a neat row of houses in an upper-middle-class neighbourhood. Instead there are hundreds, once meticulously counted, all different shapes and sizes, arranged haphazardly. They are photos of people, mostly — of Mother, of her siblings, of aunts and uncles and cousins lost to the passage of time. The faces, dim in the fading light of the late afternoon sun, stare down at the overflowing trash can below them and its skewed lid; at the stagnant grease-scented air that seems determined to remain even after being battled with the strongest air fresheners. The slowly spinning fan overhead is unhelpful, only circulating the odour. It must be ingrained in the walls, in the furniture, Mother says.
The floor creaks in complaint when it’s trod upon too suddenly — don’t hurt me, keep out, stay away, it seems to say — and the small, rickety table is still too frail to support much more than a carefully balanced platter. Everyone complained often of the loud inconvenience of the table, of the clattering hood fan, of the crepitating cube of a television that could only play clear programs when the antennae were poked and prodded when Grandmother was alive. There were so many discussions of improvements in this house, but somehow it is constantly static, unable and unwilling to change. The mass of tangled television cables coiling around the table is just as troublesome as always; those trying to move mountains of dusty boxes of disposable cutlery find themselves constantly tripping as they maneuver through narrow spaces and around sharp edges.
Thin, droopy curtains shroud the barred window above the sink, but through the threads in the fabric peeks what used to be Grandmother’s garden. Where there used to be rows of vibrant orange squash, plump dark zucchini, and tangles of snap pea vines, there is now only lifeless dirt. With nobody to tend to it, the yard has succumbed to a state of forever decay. Now there are only rotting vegetables in the refrigerator, the substandard after-images of past perennial bounty; a piece of broccoli squashed flat on a cloudy plastic shelf next to a half-empty carton of milk with a dog-eared top; plastic-wrapped leftover salted fish and white rice in a tinfoil tray. And, always, the insistent scent of burnt lard.
Maybe the kitchen doesn’t want to let the final proof of its former inhabitant’s habits depart. Maybe it doesn’t want to submit to inevitable emptiness, loneliness. For it truly does seem as if it’s grasping desperately at the scraps of its longtime tenant, alternately hoarding and releasing them to onlookers in an effort to prove itself: someone lived here, see? And they left the chicken fat on their broth, let it turn rancid in the empty pot on the stove. Let the shrivelled Mandarin oranges on the shelves wither as the seasons passed. Let the crusty old rice sit at the bottom of the cooker, its long, loopy wire still dangling over the edge of the mottled counter. Let the floors stay slightly sticky and the door to the unforgiving concrete basement stairs continue squeaking on its hinges.
It will look different once the renovations are complete, everyone agrees, but some parts of the room will refuse to concede to the work of decorators and carpenters. Even after scrubbing and sweeping, painting and reupholstering, the faint scent of chicken grease will invade the space. The floorboards will continue to creak, and crushed grains of rice will still be visible in the spaces between each slat despite the best efforts of industrial-strength vacuums. This room is steeped in the tics and idiosyncrasies of Grandmother; everything from the mismatched dishes scattered around the sink to the plastic-wrapped chairs surrounding the table recalls her peculiarities. Even if she no longer walks the gummy floors or peers through the curtains at her garden, she presides over this place like a military general. This space is loyal: It will never allow her memory to be completely forgotten.