A Memory

My paternal grandmother — the last surviving grandparent — was recently hospitalized and my dad doesn’t think her chances are good. I’m not sure I can confidently say that I’ll miss her. This is not because we’ve had a particular bad relationship, nor because of my presumptive cold indifference to life. Rather, it’s that I’ve only ever seen her twice in the short span of time where our lives overlap: once when I was around 4 years old when she visited us in the US, and once last year when my sister and I visited her and our uncle’s family in Bridgend.

Of the first visit, I don’t remember much. Maybe she stayed for 2 weeks, maybe 2 months. I remember that she was a lot younger, but then again, back then she was probably as old as my dad is now. I remember her bringing little gifts: a 5-pound banknote, a toy red double-decker bus. What else, I don’t remember; and where those are now, I don’t know.

It’s funny how our memories can freeze time, how even though we know that time passes for all of us at (roughly) the same rate, we choose to believe otherwise. How certain frames become suspended in our minds, and then, when years later we revisit that person or place, we are shocked at how things have changed.

Since emigrating to the US in the 1970s, my parents never really went back to Taiwan. I went once with my dad when I was around 5 years old, but I don’t believe my mom ever went back. I’m not sure whether it was the of lack of sentimentality or the fact that basically no relatives from either side of the family remained there that prompted their non-desire; when I asked them, their response was akin to “there’s no need to, this is our home now.” So when we took a family trip back to Taiwan in 2008 (has it been that long already?), mostly at my and my sister’s insistence, it was maybe more an eye opener for them than it was for us.

… How my mom was surprised that none of the trains ran on coal anymore, the way they were when she took them to school and back… yet those bento-style meals on the train were still tasty, reminded her of those days…

… The place where my mom grew up, the old buildings long gone. A flat piece of unused land. Ten-story apartment buildings all around. What used to be a stream is now a road. How we all met one of her old family friends just walking down the road. Chatting in his flat over tea, admittedly a bit awkward for us children. Hearing reminiscences of stories before our time, a life we rarely heard about, rarely received much exposition when we asked…

… The place where my dad grew up, a square plot of land frozen in time. High-rise buildings surround it, but the two housing structures built by his father still there, fenced off (we didn’t have the key), weathering away, a place from a different time. How many thousands of people must walk by it, and what do they think of it? The little “courtyard” where they raised chickens, dust upon dirt. Maybe that well used to work. Some soda cans and fast food wrappers seemingly incongruous to that odd historical monument. The doors missing planks, the walls cracked. Oddly, no graffiti. The family shrine to my grandfather: his picture, some of his calligraphy still hanging on the wall. I wonder which aunt or uncle chose to keep the home intact and undeveloped. I hope it’s still there now.

A trip to the UK, with a stop in Bridgend, Wales, where my grandmother lives with my uncle and his family. He runs what must be the only Chinese restaurant in town (maybe in all of Wales). Their lives are maybe not as comfortable as ours; running a family restaurant means they don’t get any days off. They work lunch and dinner hours, so the day we visit we didn’t see my uncle or his wife much. Grandma stays at home, still ambulatory with a walking cane. Walking around the house exacts a toll on her, but she doesn’t want any help. How old is she? 85? 90? She probably has more energy than my sister and me, who were struck by some strong spell of sleepiness that entire trip (to this day I still don’t know if we were sick or if it was just the weather). The only common language was Mandarin, neither our nor her primary language. It’s tough communicating. All those nouns I’ve long since forgotten make each sentence too deliberate, too cumbersome to carry a conversation. Did she enjoy living in the UK? Not really. But my uncle takes care of her; she’s there for the family. I don’t know what to do, how I can help out. We all nap.

Even if we’re not that close, we’re still family. I saw that pride and stoicism in her, traits forged in a different culture, a different lifetime — of what use now? She’s suffered plenty enough. Time flows ever on. I cry a little, because what else can I do?