I met my paternal grandmother for the first time when I was 8-years-old and in Hong Kong for my uncle’s wedding. I only have a vague recollection of her laughing at what my grandfather was saying at my big 9-year-old birthday bash that had us stuffed into a food coma from over 10 courses of food.
When I was 10-years-old, my grandmother came to live with us for a short while. Although my grandparents lived with us for probably no more than a year, I still never felt like I knew them. I thought at the time that I was not close to them because of our language, cultural, and generational barriers. Now, looking back, I realize that I simply was not mature enough to overcome these barriers.
My first vivid memory of my grandmother was when she lived with us: She was bed-bound, and sipping a drink from a straw that my Dad had positioned to her cracked lips. To this day, I do not know what was wrong with her. I just recall my relatives saying that she had “severe joint problems.”
My grandmother was always quietly on the sidelines when my grandfather was around. He was the center of attention and in the spotlight with his Chinese poetry and paintings. My grandfather passed away in roughly 2001 or 2002 from cancer when I was last in Hong Kong. I was in my early 20’s and the only recollections I had at that times was that “Cancer sucks” and “Funerals in Chinese culture were completely different from American funerals with wearing white instead of black.”
This year on my much-anticipated China Trip 2014, I finally saw my 92-year-old grandmother again. I had heard through the grapevine about falls she has had, time catching up with her to age and challenge her, and how fragile she had become. I was concerned about what she would be like, but I was mainly concerned about how we were going to communicate with one another. My Grandmother knows four languages: Shanghainese (dialect of Shanghai), a language in Ningpo where she was born, Cantonese (spoke in Hong Kong), and Mandarin. The extent of my language skills was very broken Chinese. Prior to visiting China, I had tried in vain to practice my broken Chinese when I attended “Language Club of Westchester” gatherings.
As soon as we rang the doorbell and the door opened, my grandmother was sitting there. She did not look any different to me. Sure, she was thinner and there were more strands of gray hair. The biggest difference was she now had a walker. On the shiny floors of her apartment, she leaned on the walker and seemed to glide. The grace she possessed and gratefulness in her heart radiated on her outside. Her eyes were the same...not the color or the shape, but the love and worries she had for her entire family.
Unsurprisingly, my grandmother first asked me in Mandarin if I had eaten yet. When she asked me this, I knew our grandmother and granddaughter adventures had begun. And, what amazing adventures my grandmother and I had for the short time we had when I visited! ;-) Our adventures mainly revolved around trying to communicate with one another. I had learned more Chinese in those two weeks from her and our facial expressions and hand gestures that I had in a lifetime. We also happened to have an ant adventure where there were colonies of ants invading one of her guest bedrooms!
But, when the adventures quieted down, we sat in comfortable quiet of simply valuing each others company—and, then, there was the photo album. Early on in my time with my grandmother, my grandmother stubbornly put aside her walker and slowly marched in to her bedroom to show me a photo album that one of my aunts had decorated and made for her. She handed me the photo album and then leaned on her walker again. We sat at the dining room table.
The very first photo was my grandmother as a young, beautiful, and happy bride with my debonair and handsome grandfather. Countless black and white photos came to light then of my grandmother dressed in silk and dancing with a fan, her holding hands with her children on them sitting on her lap, a photo of my father with a gap-toothed grin on the waterfront in Hong Kong, her grown children, and then finally with her grandchildren and then great-grandchildren. We went through each and every page. Each page turned was a signal of uncontrolled time ticking away and life moving to its own accord.
At the end of the photo album, I said to my grandmother in Chinese that I did not know she danced and asked how old she was? She told me that she had been in my age—in her 30’s. Her maid was shocked that my grandmother was dancing in her 30’s after having all her children. It did not shock me at all that my grandmother danced and did what she desired, because we were a gung-ho Wu group that clearly came from a history and ancestors of other gung-ho individuals.
Closing the photo album, I reflected on many things. I thought about how I loved to dance and swim and just had such a zest for any kind of movement from years of challenges with my joints. I contemplated about how the world was so different and difficult then in my grandmother’s time compared to now. The world was supposedly easier and better now than my grandmother’s time, but “easy” comes at the great and grave price of NOT appreciating and not feeling the sweetness of victory in overcoming challenges and becoming overall better and strong in character.
In difficult and challenging times with her children and husband, my grandmother had survived and thrive. She made a home in a house. She laid her legacy and foundation, and her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren reap the benefits. However, life and families work in circles that parents care for children, but children and the young help and care for the old and their parents as well.
Time just keeps going on. Faster and faster as we get older and older. The outer body ages with the formation of wrinkles and silver strands of hair appear over the years, yet the inner spirit somehow stay centered with only slight modifications from life’s most memorable moments. The light, soul, and spirit in aging eyes do not lie. My 92-year-old grandmother is still as full of love, care, and worry as she was when she was young.
I am so grateful for my time with my grandmother. It took a photo album and over 20 years to just learn a little bit about my grandmother and gain a whole lot more insight in to who I came from, who I was, and who I had become.
Have you thought about whom you are today and who you will be? Have you reflected on your history, ancestors, and the elderly in to how they have shaped you today and going forward in life from their own foundations that they have laid and paved for you, and what you can do for them and forward in life?
Treasure where and who you came from. Make your Mark. Leave your legacy to and from the past and the future.