My grandmother was one of the most remarkable women I have had the honor of knowing.
She came to the US from Shanghai when my mother had her first child, me. Both of my parents worked full-time to support my growing family, and as is common in many Asian culture, the grandparents moved in to help raise the children. Therefore, for the first seven to eight years of my life, most of my memories are not of my parents, but of my grandmother. She was a friend, mentor, and role model to me. Among the hundreds of lessons she imparted to me, she taught me to draw stick figures, to fold origami boats, and to recite my times tables (which I sometimes still unconsciously find myself doing in her native Shanghai dialect).
Until I was five or six, I shared a bed with my grandmother. It might seem strange, but one of my strongest memories of her is laying in bed and playing with her earlobes – she had long earlobes that she stretched to look like the earlobes of the Buddha. Throughout her life, my grandmother was a devout Buddhist. in elementary school, she gave me a green jade pendant carved with the likeness of Guanyin bodhisattva, strung on a red string that I was to wear around my neck to keep me safe. If I was to fall, it would be the jade that broke, and not my body.
In spite of, or perhaps completely separate from her Buddhist beliefs, my grandmother had many friends in the Chinese Christian church. Her birthday fell within a week of the mother of a church pastor – they were best friends and twins, she would say. For a number of months, or perhaps it was years, every Sunday I went to church with my grandmother. While I did not sit through the services (instead, I remember playing outside, making long daisy chains with the pastor’s younger daughter), I always remembered that at the potluck lunch that followed the services, people would come to greet and chat with my grandmother with great interest and respect – sentiments that she would always return. Even at that young age, I could tell she was truly well-loved and cherished.
My grandmother returned to China half-way through my elementary school years. She had left behind three sons and three grandsons in Shanghai to take care of my mother’s children, and now that we were growing up, she returned to her old home.
Even long after she no longer lived with my family, her presence extended into my life. In high school, one weekend while shopping on the Ithaca Commons, I bought a box of sandalwood incense. When I got home, I proceeded to light a stick, filling my bedroom with the fragrant, woody scent. When my mother walked in my room and saw the burning nub of incense that remained, she asked me, “Where in the house did you find that?” Puzzled, I told her that I had bought it. Later that night she showed me a long, cardboard box of sandalwood incense that she had dug out of a closet. It was the same sandalwood incense that my grandmother used to burn every day before she went to bed, reciting the name of the Amitaba buddha (“na mo oh mi tuo fo”). To me, it was suddenly obvious that out of the dozen incense scents that were on the shelf of the small boutique, I picked sandalwood because of my unconscious association of the scent with my grandmother. I missed her constantly.
In January, my grandmother suffered a severe stroke. My mother quickly flew to China to be with her. Since spring semester at Cornell had just started, and my brother and I could not go with her, she brought along photographs. One evening when I called my mother in China, she told me that although my grandmother’s stroke had left her unable to speak, when my mother showed her my photo, she clutched it in her hand, unwilling to let it go, even when the hospital nurses tried to take it from her. For me, her words were heartbreaking. After a month-long battle with a lung infection, my grandmother passed away on Tuesday morning. My mother flew to China this afternoon, and again I regret that I cannot accompany her. But, my greater regrets are that it has been months since I was last able to converse with her on the phone, and that even when I did, the language barrier between us prevented me from telling her much I love her and how much she meant to me. I wish I could thank her for comforting me when I cried about mean girls and skinned knees, for killing the spiders that lurked in the corners of my bedroom, for teaching me to use chopsticks and for giving me my very first silver pair. I would thank her for loving me unconditionally and always having faith in me. For being an amazing grandmother and an amazing woman.