My grandma was hardy and tough, bold enough to sneak out in the evenings to attend night classes in a time and place where girls were not granted education rights. Solid enough to blink back tears at the age of nine when her father hit her on the head for not cooking the porridge perfectly. Zany enough to catch a live cockroach in her hand and fling it out of the window while my grandpa and I looked on, glad it wasn’t us doing the disgusting deed. Plucky enough to stop live crabs from getting away from her in the kitchen sink, and to turn them into a delicious dinner for us all.
She was also sharp and full of common sense, forward-thinking and clever. She could taste a dish at a restaurant and quickly work out how to reproduce it at home; she had a solid memory; she was skilled in all aspects of homemaking; she wore bright red lipstick and modern outfits and travelled with ease; she once cooked for 80 people, to celebrate my grandpa’s birthday.
She was a woman with both charm and a startling temper which could descend on you without warning. She loved working with her hands – cooking for her family, always putting meals on the table no matter who was in or out that night; sewing pyjamas for us; smacking me when I got unruly; brushing my hair and braiding it. She made food to take to the temple as offerings for the gods. She loved to play mah-jong with friends and family. She rarely sat still, except in the afternoons when she sometimes took a short nap, or in the evenings when her favourite sitcoms were playing on TV.
Notions of what it meant to be a wife and mother drove her, work and duties were ingrained into her daily routine. Strongly anchored to that love was a sense of fear and needing to protect us from any harm. Growing up as a child under the roof of a father who loved boys but not girls, into a young woman living amidst the horrors of war during the Japanese Occupation, to a woman who had ambition but not the opportunity to do more beyond marry and have children … she was one of many women in her time who relied on marriage as a means of survival, as she had no education or way to make a living. Her children were her everything. Her love was both warm and assuring, and smothering.
Though she never said this to me, I eventually came to suspect that her world was an unsettling one, where the most we could do was control how things went at home and be morally upright so we might be spared punishment from the gods. She worked hard to do the right thing in every situation, to make all the right offerings at the temple, to pray to the gods for protection for our family.
With her lips she cautioned me against the many dangers of the world. Don’t walk outside alone at night. Don’t catch a cold in the rain. No jumping off that seat, it’s too high. Eat your rice, or each grain left on your plate will become a pimple on your husband’s face. Be careful, don’t mess with a man before you get married, or you may get pregnant and he will leave you. She told me stories of her past, she hoped I would have a better life and be able to help look after her when she got old.
From her I learned that it was good to be beautiful, but not to be too beautiful or a man might take advantage of you. It was important, as a girl, to marry not just for love, but for practicality. It was vital to always look after yourself, as no one else might. It was good to help others, but not too much in case your family was left with not enough.
Towards the end of her life illness and disappointment had worn her down; fear had come in the way of her once ringing laughter, and I was afraid of her bitterness and anger. I found myself feeling irrationally angry with a woman I once loved inviting over to our place to ‘sleepover’ in my room; whose tickles once made early mornings bearable; whose meals I always looked forward to with anticipation.
* * *
In the course of working on a book, I found myself tracing love’s story, love’s journey, love’s lessons … I found myself remembering my grandma. Early days. Late days. Times in the kitchen when she’d lovingly chase me out so she could fry food in hot oil for dinner. Times in the lounge when she’d talk and I’d wriggle out of her arms, tired of hearing a story *again*.
I found myself smiling and crying as I wrote the above … recalling moments in which it was easy to feel love for her, and moments when it was really tough to even like her.
But that is family, and love. So simple and yet sometimes so complex when you are that close to someone. Sometimes the love you share with someone brings you warm fuzzies. Sometimes it brings hurt and makes you mad. Sometimes it makes you question … makes you think about who you want to be.
I love her so very much, and on many days I miss her.
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