my beloved grandma

My grandma passed away well over 13 years ago but I still miss her.

Recently, I went back to Nanjing to visit my parents who still live in a flat in New Wuding Village, where grandma spent her last years. To welcome me, my parents prepared a little feast, chicken soup, stirred fried bamboo shoots, minced pork with Sheppard’s purse. I much enjoyed the dishes but they were not quite as good as my grandma’s cooking. I knew it wasn’t fair to compare. My grandma spent out of proportion amount of her life time in the kitchen.

I miss grandma’s food and I miss her. Our flat has been renovated since her departure from this world, yet it’s still filled with sweet memories of her.

We – my elder sister, younger brother and myself – were brought up by our grandma. Until my late teens, I had always shared a bed with her and my brother. Every night, I went to sleep, holding onto her tiny bonded feet.

After she had gone, I have to say that home has become less like a home. I am never very close to my father, who played little role in our upbringing but I have a decent relationship with my mother. I visit Nanjing home several times a year, sometimes with my children and I call them a couple of times every week. But my parents are simple folks in their old age, set in their ways and have very little idea about what I am trying to do. Sadly, the fact that I’ve travelled a long way from where I came from also alienated me from my parents.

My grandma had even less idea about my life. When I first left China for England in 1990, she cried and cried because she thought I had gone to the age of the sky and would never return. Yet the vast gap between our worlds never pushed me away from her. In fact, as I’ve matured, I’ve grown to appreciate her qualities even more: so kind, loving and giving despite all of her sufferings, such qualities shine in today’s society where the young people have stronger sense of entitlement.

See below my grandma’s story. It was the speech I gave at her funeral. and the picture of her with mother and my elder daughter, taken one year before her death.

Eulogy to My Grandma

My grandma passed away at 10 am on Saturday March 28, 1998, exactly a day after I rushed home from Beijing. Everyone believed she was waiting for me. She went very peacefully, as if in her sleep. She was hit by her fourth stroke in late February, after which she could no longer move, speak or swallow. Yet, relying on some Chinese medicine juice and water, she kept going for over a month! Everyone, including doctors, was so amazed by the strength and vitality she had demonstrated. For me, her last journey reflected her whole character – she always appeared to be a soft and weak person, yet, she was remarkably strong inside.

Though I feel, at 83, she was ready to go, still, I was grief-stricken to lose someone so dear and close to me, for it was her that brought me up. Strangely, I knew very little about her past. I learnt a bit more only on that Friday afternoon when my mother and I sat in front of her death bed, recalling her life and crying our eyes out. My grandma is called Yang Huizhen, hui as wise, zhen meaning treasure or precious. She had a very unlucky start in life. Born in Zhenjiang, Jiangsu province, she lost her own parents when she was only 5-years-old. She was adopted by a distant relative who virtually treated her like a slave. Somehow, she ended up as a courtesan, which was not a surprising fate for an orphan girl at that time. My grandpa, a married small businessman, met her at a local brothel and bought her over as his concubine. But his wife, a very hard woman, often went their home, causing trouble and humiliating her.

In the end, grandma moved with their little daughter to Nanjing where grandpa also had some business. Establishing a new life there, she won respect from neighbours as a hard-working and decent woman. Without the tragic incident in 1968, her ‘shameful past’ would have been forgotten quietly. During the Cultural Revolution, grandpa was labelled a counter-revolutionary. Frightened, he committed suicide. His wife, having being informed by grandma, came to Nanjing with a gang of people as she hoped to seize a good share of his fortune. Failing to find any, the wife made a big fuss and snatched away grandpa’s ashes because, she argued, my grandma, as a ‘concubine’, had no right to keep them.

Of course, I had no idea about all these dramas. Now, I wonder how grandma could be such a calm and kind person despite all her suffering and misery. She raised us three children almost single-handed. My father was never around as we grew up – he was sent down to the countryside to be re-educated as a rightist since 1958, and my mother had a full-time job and was often in trouble at her factory herself. For us, grandma meant home. Each time when coming back to home, long before the front door, we would habitually shout: “Grandma, I am home!” She was always there for us. In the morning, she plaited my hair; after school, she brought tea to my hand. She cooked, cleaned and washed. Looking back, I feel embarrassed because we all took it for granted for what she did for us. On hot summer nights, she would fan us with a large palm-leaf fan. Occasionally, when we woke up, realizing there was no breeze, we would complain to her: “Grandma, fan me! I am hot.” She even learnt to fan us in her sleep!

Following grandpa’s death, my family was forced to move house as we were shunned in the community. In those highly political years, who would like to associate with a counter-revolutionary or former prostitute? Our family settled in New Wuding Village in the south corner of Nanjing where we remain today. With too little help from father, my mother struggled to feed three mouths and pay for their education. In order to earn some badly needed cash, grandma took on piecemeal jobs, taking care of other kids, cracking peanuts or making match boxes.

For a long time, we concentrated on embroidering prayer mats for export. After school, grandma used to beg us to help, bribing us some sunflower seeds or sweet potatoes. Of course, both mother and grandma worked much longer on the embroidery on top of their usual chores. She did us a great favour, because, without the 30 odd yuan of monthly income, our family would have trouble to get the ends meet. But at the time, we often felt sorry for ourselves for missing out on play time.

My grandma was extremely kind – I know I am biased, but honestly, I’ve never met a kinder person. In difficult times, when there was occasionally good food, she would declare: “You eat, I do not like it.” When there was not enough food, she would say: “You eat, I am not hungry.” When my husband Calum came to visit my family for the first time, he was very surprised to notice that my grandma never sat down with the rest of us around the dinner table but ate quietly in a corner like a servant. When Calum invited her to join in she simply smiled: “I am not used to sit at a table to eat.” She more or less saw herself as a servant. Indeed, she lived her whole life for the others.

Her kindness was not limited to the family members. Once, a beggar came to the village. His strange way, wild hair and messy clothes attracted lots of children. We followed him and shouted and laughed at him. Suddenly, I heard my grandma calling him from the second floor and then dropped to him two pancakes filled with eggs and vegetables. My classmates said to me: “Wow, your grandma is so generous.” I nodded deeply with pride.

Grandma was selfless and considerate, sometimes to an excessive degree. Since her first stroke in 1989, she had often suffered from heart problems. About two years ago, she had another minor attack in the middle of the night. Not wishing to disturb mother who was always the person to put tablets in her hands, (being illiterate, grandma didn’t know which medicine to take) she lay in the darkness, putting up with the pain and waiting patiently. The only thing grandma did was to take off her gold ring because she worried that the ring would not come off if she died. We often tell the story to people as a joke. Actually, it says a lot about her.

One thing I must mention is her good looks. In her youth, grandma was stunningly beautiful with a perfect oval shaped face where two lovely dimples danced as she smiled, ever so readily. When my sister and I saw her old photos, we always felt sorry that some of her beauty had not passed down to us! Even when she was old, she aged with grace. By the time she passed away, her skin was still smooth and her hair was mostly black. And she was famously clean and tidy. I am very glad she went as a neat person, though worn and thin. The doctor warned there could be some unpleasant discharges. But there was none, no mess, not even bed sores, although she was bed-ridden for a long time.

Despite what she had gone through in life, the war, the ‘Rape of Nanjing’ in particular and turbulent personal life, grandma always felt she was a lucky person. Like many people from her generation, she had this amazing ability to take suffering without bitterness. She pinned her hopes on us three children. Now, we all turned out fine. My sister Huang Weijia has a fairly important job at the local government and she is driven around everywhere; my brother Zhang Xiaoshi works at a bank and recently passed his exam as economist; I myself work as a journalist, a profession I love and have dreamed of. And we are all married with kids. Though the second child, I was the last one to have a child of my own. One year ago, when I returned home to show off my one month old daughter May, grandma was absolutely thrilled. She confessed to me: “I really thought you two could not do it! You never know about a foreigner. Now, my heart is at ease.”

In grandma’s last hours, all the family members in four generations gathered around to send her off. The Buddhist chanting music was played day and night. Always a non-practice believer, she formally converted to Buddhism in the last six months of her life After she had left so peacefully, my brother’s Buddhist friends came to chant to release her soul from purgatory. It was very touching as they sat chanting the same mantra through the whole night without stopping, amituofu, amituofu, amituofu… Being such a good person all your life, grandma, I am sure you will be living blissfully in heaven. In this world, you’ve done everything you could, leaving no regrets. And there is no unfulfilled wish, is there? Please go well, my good grandma.

There is one secret I want to tell you. I want to name my next child after you. If we have a girl, I will call her Zhen; if a boy, he will be called hui. In doing so, I hope she/he will learn some of your good qualities, such as being gentle, loving, hard-working, giving and kind. You will see. I love you, grandma and I shall miss you forever.

Your granddaughter Lijia
March 30 1998

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3 thoughts on “my beloved grandma

  1. After a long busy day’s work and 135 miles of drive, I was feeling tired and going to bed early. Just wanted to check the mail and here comes your latest post.

    I am simply overwhelmed reading about your narative about your grand-ma. Now it will take me a long time to go to sleep – I would be thinking about your grand-ma – the great lady!

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