Dust and Diamonds
I must’ve been about eight when I popped the fateful question “Mommy? Are we rich?”
My mother turned from the stove, wooden spoon in hand, and looked down at me quizzically. Then she gave me a smile and shook her head. “No, little lad, we’re not rich, but neither are we short of anything, are we now?”
“No …,” I eyed my dust covered sandals and the hand-me-down shorts and polo shirt I’d inherited from my older brothers. No, we weren’t short of anything, I thought, but then again … “But then we have all of these diamonds, mom, I mean …,” and I ostentatiously tugged at the worn fabric of the old polo shirt.
“Yeah, diamonds, I seen’em, tons of them, dad showed me when I asked how come the big blades go through stone like butter, and he said it was because of the diamonds which are harder than stone and then he showed me the teeth of one of the big round blades and they were there, all sparkling and shining.”
“Ah, those diamonds, yes. Well, sweetheart, dad was just showing off and should’ve told you those aren’t the kind of expensive diamonds for jewellery. They’re called bort and they’re a bit like leftovers, like when you peel potatoes. We eat the potatoes, but we don’t waste the peels. We feed them to the rabbits. It’s the same with diamonds. The good ones go to the rich, and the leftovers are used for making special saws and blades.”
So, for all the shine and sparkle in the blades, we weren’t rich, and with bank loans for the business and the house to be paid off, hand-me-downs, from school satchels to bikes, would be my lot for quite a few more years, while the diamonds the rich didn’t want, did their job for my dad. With my father’s workshops right next to the house, not a single working day went by without us hearing the waspy drone of the pneumatic sanders, or the chilling banshee screech of the huge and precious circular blade as it cut through thick slabs of quarried blue stone and marble, and despite the profuse application of water during these processes, thick clouds of dust would still waft up from the machines, turning the workmen in their blue overalls and black berets into mottled, white-faced circus clowns.
Dust – my mother’s bane. Not just any dust, but the fine milky-gray powder, smooth like freshly sifted flour, you get from cutting and sanding stone. Through the workshops’ sliding doors, which the men left wide open, rain or shine, the dust would drift out and disperse on the breeze, only to magically reappear and settle on whatever surface available. Somehow, it also never failed to slip past the tightly shut doors and windows of our home, covering the dining table, side boards, windowsills, chairs and stairs with the thinnest of white veils. Even the broad leaves of the two forlorn houseplants my mother tolerated in the house – a Sansevieria and a Monstera, the first also known as “women’s tongues” in my native Flemish, and the second commonly called “Swiss cheese plant” – seemed to suffer from some strange, white blight by the end of every working day, and I really can’t blame my mother for sending my father packing the day he brought home some sort of cactus.
“You want that thing in the house? You dust it,” she had told my dad and held out her yellow duster. Two weeks later, the cactus had mysteriously disappeared. The house, you see, was my mother’s realm where she reigned supreme, the sanctuary she’d created for her husband and children, providing us with something she herself hadn’t had as a young girl, because of a war. A home.
A home from which her children could set forth to get the education she never got, to pursue their ambitions where she had seen hers cut short, and all paid for in diamonds. A home her children could return to for comfort and support and to lick their wounds. A sanctuary, and she knew a sanctuary required dedication. And dust, redolent of death, useless and sterile, is the last thing you want encroaching on your sanctuary. So every day, she raised the colours, the yellow duster a permanent fixture in her hand, and went into battle to push back the insidious invader, one room at a time. Today the kitchen, tomorrow the living room, next the staircase, and so on, and finally back to the kitchen where the enemy had already gathered again.
A Greek myth comes to mind – Sisyphus rolling his heavy stone up the hill, only to see it tumble down and having to start all over again, day after day. But the comparison doesn’t quite bear out. Sisyphus was set to his endless, futile task as punishment by the Gods for twice cheating death. What my mother did, she did because she chose to, and though tedious and unrelenting, it wasn't futile. No God had punished her, and she knew cheating death was nothing but a myth.
Dust and diamonds. It took me years to realise how rich a boy I was.