Saturday, December 31, 2011

to grandmother's house.

I spent nearly half an hour looking at jam yesterday. As my grandmother and I walked back and forth between aisles at Target, we returned to look at the wall of various jellies and jams several times. 

"We'll tell yeh-yeh to look at this later," she said the first time to me in her quiet Cantonese. 

The second time: "What kind of jam should I get?"

"Ma-ma," I responded, and continued in my limited Cantonese, "what kind do you want?"

She shook her head and repeated that we would wait until my grandfather was done looking at pots and pans. We wandered to look at the cereal (again) and then she came back to the jam. 

"Have we looked at the jam yet?" she asked. 

I looked at her, my short, frail grandmother. She looked up at the shelves and pointed to the top. I began to reach for the sugar-free strawberry jam, but she stopped me. "Let's wait for yeh-yeh."

We did this again several more times, each time as if we'd never been to that aisle before. When we finally had a jar of jam and a box of cereal in hand, we wandered back to look for my grandfather and parents. They were still looking at pots and pans (yeh-yeh is picky), so I placed the food in the shopping cart and wandered off. 

Ten minutes later, ma-ma changed her mind again and got a different box of cereal. As I watched her change boxes, I felt a sharp pang of sadness. I realized I was watching one of the women who helped raise me slowly deteriorate in a natural, yet painful, way. 

Growing up, ma-ma was sharp and short--in both height and in demeanor. She used to move quickly around the kitchen, cooking and baking, and she wouldn't hesitate to command us to wash our hands, to stop playing with stuffed animals and eat, to not sit too close to the TV or read while lying down. 

Her motherly ways were demonstrated tenfold with the love and care she showed to her grandchildren. As the youngest of nine cousins, I only got to know my grandmother when her hair was already gray and her hands entirely wrinkled. But despite her age, she always walks and sits upright, like she did in the photos in the albums of her nursing school days. As a child, I remembered following her around the kitchen with my stuffed bunny, watching her cook like I would watch my own mother. I used to sit in the backyard and watch her tend to her garden, and then get scolded when I'd play in the dirt. I think a part of me was always mad that ma-ma stuck my bunny in the washing machine because she got completely destroyed and it took my mother nearly a month to sew her back together, but I know ma-ma only did it because she loved me. That, or she didn't want my dirt-smudged bunny sitting on the counter next to her newly-cleaned vegetables. (I don't blame her.)

Before bed, she used to pray with us, and in the mornings, she would practice her tai chi and wait for us to wake up. We always had breakfast ready at the table, and when breakfast was done, she'd start thinking about what to make for lunch. Occasionally she had friends visit and they would bring pastries and sweets, and sometimes she went out to visit her friends. We would go for walks (she made me leave my bunny at home) and we'd always run into her friends. 

But ma-ma doesn't garden anymore. Dad says she fell twice recently and it was too dangerous anymore. Just a couple years shy of 90, she is slower in the kitchen, and hardly bakes anymore either. Still, she appears young for her age, like most of my family. She still attends church, still visits with friends, still walks when she can. Her full head of gray hair is always clipped back neatly with bobby pins. Her clothing is always neat and organized (she and yeh-yeh just got a new iron). Her smile is still beautiful.

I realized, looking at her go back and forth between cereal and jam, that I never really took the time to observe my grandmother the way I did my grandfather. I knew yeh-yeh like none of my cousins did, and everyone told stories of the way he favored me. But did I really know ma-ma

I watched her, this time around, in every interaction we had--at Christmas dinner, at lunch the next day, at dim sum a few days later. When she walks past her children or grandchildren, she reaches a hand out to touch their arm. It would look like she was using us to steady her balance, but it was a light touch and sometimes the person wouldn't even notice. Her wrinkled hands brush against us as she walks as a display of affection, of letting us know, "Hey, I'm here." Ma-ma has this way of shivering when it's cold that I noticed I do too. She scrunches up her shoulders and gives a quick and violent shake of her arms, as if the chills just attacked her from out of nowhere--and she doesn't just do it once; she does it three, four, five times, and then stops, as if she's suddenly warmer. When yeh-yeh says something funny, she smiles (no teeth) and shakes her head, amused. 

I imagine that when ma-ma wakes up each morning, she already knows what jewelry she's going to wear, what color lipstick she'll put on, and what outfit she might like to put on. She always looks put together, just as she did 10, 20 years ago. Her hair was curlier back then, and she walked a little faster, but she's still so very much the same. She still loves us all very much the same.

Watching ma-ma hold her great-grandchildren is like watching a new grandmother holding her first grandchild for the first time. She cradles them with comfort and ease, as natural as the veteran she is. And the babies are comfortable in her arms--no fussing, no crying the way they occasionally did when one of us tried to hold them. Ma-ma picks them up and rocks them, and they fall into a contented slumber. Of course after caring for four children and nine grandchildren of her own, she knows what she's doing. 

Before I left her house on my most recent visit, she pulled a chocolate bar out of the bottom shelf. It was hidden behind some jars and boxes, and she tapped me on the arm to signal my attention while I was putting her groceries away. "Miu-miu," she said quietly. She handed the chocolate bar to me and tried to get me to take it. I told her no, and that she should take it because she liked chocolate (and my grandfather didn't often let her buy chocolate). She seemed to think about this and then nodded. She handed me the chocolate and told me to put it away for her while she rearranged the refrigerator (because I'm terrible at unloading groceries, apparently). 

I went back to the cupboard she got the chocolate from and dug behind the jars and boxes where she had gotten the bar in the first place. I stopped, then laughed: there were stacks of chocolate bars and various other containers hidden in the back of the cupboard. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

songs about winter.

Right now, every Starbucks on every street corner in every city is piping Christmas music into your daily dose of caffeine. Cities appear to be alive and teeming with holiday cheer: Christmas tree lots are appearing, Salvation Army bell ringers are greeting you outside of Macy’s, and Fifth Avenue in New York City is sparkling with holiday displays. While the weather is unseasonably warm (nearly 70 degrees in D.C. at the end of November! ), now is still the time to curl up in front of a fireplace (or the TV Yule Log channel) and sip hot chocolate as you wait for rain, hail or snow to fall from the sky.

Tinsel and candy canes aside, December for me is more about the end of a year—the end of 12-months of laughter and tears, of dreams and failures. It’s a time to reflect on both the good and the bad, and to embrace all that we’ve endured as struggling, imperfect human beings.

Perhaps it’s depressing or morbid to be drawn to sad winter songs, but there’s something beautiful about the raw, emotional honesty in these songs and the way the artists dare to reveal such sadness during a time when we don’t want to think about sad things.

“River” by Joni Mitchell
Despite only minor references to the Christmas season (and a “Jingle Bell” intro), “River” has grown into one of the most popular songs you might hear at this time of year. It is largely a song about heartbreak and angst, and what better way to weather emotional turmoil during the holidays than with a little Joni? “River” is also one of Mitchell’s most covered tunes, with artists from Barry Manilow to Michelle Branch performing their own versions. The appeal of “River” lies in the melancholy imagery its lyrics evoke, with wishes of “a river I could skate away on” and trees being cut down from their natural homes to be taken indoors and loved in a new way.

“Winter Song” by Ingrid Michaelson and Sara Bareilles
If the song doesn’t make you think of snow and peppermint hot chocolate, then the music video will be enough to warm your heart. It’s a sweet and simple collaboration, with distinct harmonies and a sad story. “Winter Song,” like “River,” is another song about heartbreak around the holidays.

“Winter Bones” by Stars
The simple repetition of the instrumentals behind Amy Millan’s airy vocals strips away the traditional holiday cacophony of sleigh bells, carols and the “Auld Lang Syne” fanfare of the season. “The sun settles hard in the south, winter lives in my bones,” Millan sings. It’s as if Stars is begging us to embrace the hardships we’ve endured throughout the year so that we can prepare to begin anew.

“Winter” by Tori Amos
“Winter” is a nostalgic dedication to a father figure, and it’s something that I’m sure everyone can relate to (the desire to make somebody in their lives proud)—especially during the holidays, when everybody is taking the time to catch up with loved ones who’ve spent the year running around busy with work and school and life in general. But for me, there’s just something about Tori Amos’s voice that makes me want to curl up in bed with my unicorn PillowPet and read Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris. That’s really all I have to say about this song.