Notes: On my grandfather and Gayo heritage

By Teta

This month marks the anniversary of my paternal grandfather’s death. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.

Awan, which is grandpa in Bahasa Gayo, was born and grew up in Gayo Lues, in a lakeside town called Takengon. I don’t know much about his childhood. Apparently, his date of birth on record now is an approximation — his real date of birth is not exactly known, probably during a monsoon season. He had a lot of siblings, and he was the first to go to university. He was a bookworm, and he would continue to be an avid reader throughout his life. One wall of my grandparents’ house in Jakarta is filled with books.

Some time after he married anan — grandma in Bahasa Gayo — they fled Aceh together and settled on the island of Java. My father was then born in Jogja to two Gayo parents removed from their hometowns in the Gayo highlands.

Awan was a neat, disciplined man. I remember him wearing a peci, even outside of prayer. There was never a hair out of place. But, he was soft-spoken and willing to concede if need be, a contrast to the unwavering anan. He was a devout Muslim; he made it a point to have everyone pray together, knocking on bedroom doors for fajr, zuhur, asr, maghrib, and isha. He rarely laughed, but when he did, it was wheezy yet infectious, and it made you want to keep making him laugh.

It took years before I was comfortable speaking with awan on the phone. I felt guilty about my terrible Indonesian, and awan was only OK at understanding English. The 12-hour time difference between upstate New York and Jakarta didn’t help. But, he had named me, so I’d always felt close to him.

The last time I saw awan in person was 2012. I can’t go back to Indonesia often because of constant lack of money, so when I went back after my high school graduation, several years had already passed since my last return. I didn’t have a stand-out, poetic, beautiful last moment with him. The last memory I have of us together is just a vague recollection of having breakfast in the dining area while anan hovered around us. I had asked awan something — maybe about politics or Indonesian history — and we just talked until I had to go somewhere or awan got tired and had to lie down again. A mundane last moment.

When I had booked my return to Indonesia in 2016, I was supposed to see awan again. But, about a month before my return, he passed away.

Following awan’s death, anan thought it was a good idea to take me and my parents to Gayo Lues. I hadn’t been since I was very young, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was really excited. That also meant we were going to travel around Aceh.

Anan took us around North Sumatra and Aceh, from Medan, to Blangkejeren, to Takengon, to Banda Aceh, to Sabang, and other much smaller towns, to meet with people who she said were my relatives. I had always known, abstractly, that I had a lot of family still in Aceh, but to see them in person was overwhelming. My family tree suddenly had all these branches and roots that felt more alive.

When we finally reached Gayo Lues, I was anxious. (Not only is my Bahasa Indonesia terrible, but I can’t speak Bahasa Gayo at all and only know tidbits about the culture. Somehow, though, I still feel very strongly connected with my Gayo heritage.) My anxiety lessened after some late-night jaunts for mie Aceh and generous fruit sharing (just shaking it straight from the tree!).

When I stayed in awan’s hometown of Takengon, I finally saw Danau Laut Tawar, the great lake that looks like an endless sea. He has a picture of it hanging on a wall back in Jakarta. I tried to picture awan looking out onto the sprawling, glittering lake, wondering if he had also fallen in love with the subtle motion, the chilly air, the patchwork of blues and greens, and the peaks that kissed the sky. And though I didn’t get to see him before he died, being where his spirit was given a human home was something I really needed.

Someday, I’ll be able to fully articulate how I felt during this journey, but for now, I can only offer pretty, disconnected images of my grandparents’ home region and my birth city of Jakarta.

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