To Grandmother's House

Saturday, December 31, 2011 / 6:53 PM

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. 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. 

You Might Also Like


  1. This is a beautiful piece of writing- it makes me wish I knew your grandmother. I remember when my grandmother got old (I only knew one of mine). She accidentally baked cherry pie into her lasagna, and made up silly stories about being in the circus. She was always happy and beautiful, though, but it's funny the way our minds change. I think we only really learn to appreciate our grandparents when we realize they won't be around forever. All my blessings to you and your family. I'm glad you got to spend the holidays with them :-)

  2. I added to her chocolate stash over Christmas...I wonder how long it will take for her to eat it. :) I love the way you describe ma-ma. I could see her in my head as I was reading this post.

    Over Christmas, I, too, noticed how natural she was holding Miles. It made me so happy to see him holding him, poking his chin to get him to smile, and then looking up at me and laughing. I love how ma-ma smiles with her mouth, but I especially love how her smile always reaches her eyes.

    Another thing I realized about our family was that I got my creative streak from my dad, but he seems to have gotten it from ma-ma. I remember when she used to keep stickers and clippings from greeting cards she'd received and then recycle them by creating her own cards. She also used to knit neck warmers. I wish I was older when ma-ma was younger. I bet we would have had craft days together.

    Thanks for honoring ma-ma in this post. :)