Out of dust

Sophie's picture

Photo of New Zealand by my grandfather. 

I am tucked in the middle of a queen-sized bed in my favourite black bralette. Family Guy is running in the background and in front of me is a scenic painting of Norwegian mountains. I have a glass of water beside me, a cup of tea, a bowl of jelly beans and a dry-fit hiking hat I told my granddad I liked. That hat has been to the untouched underbrush of New Zealand, the snow tipped French Alps and the coves of Mallorca.

Grandparents love to spoil their grandchildren, especially grandchildren they don’t see often. Love pours out of their eyeballs, like dew drops by the bridge of their noses (they’re not crying, it’s just something that happens when the glands are tired). “Let me get you coffee!” said my grandma. “Let me get these tickets for you” said my grandpa. But the best part of it all is that time with them is sacred. Momentous. The fact of your existence is already a joy and you are an exquisite thing to be learned and absorbed. They get the gist of you, your knack for the arts a red pin in your profile. Your favourite colour, a pair of killer heels on a card for when you had a phase for fashion illustration. A photo of a dog, a cut-out from the newspaper, something they think you’d like. Being around them is so plainly satisfying. There’s so much to learn from these wizened souls, the ripples of influence forever expanding from their ancestors to your parents and now to you. We carry each other in one way or another, the memory of you ingrained in the way I pay close attention to harmonies, enraptured. In the way my desk mirrors the clutter in your kitchen, a projection of the sparks in your mind.

The older generation knows that tomatoes are picked from trees, not grown in baskets. Grandparents raised in the countryside have a special appreciation for the world that moves without us, the scuttling of hedgehogs at night and the turning of leaves from lime to amber. They are in wonderment of the Earth, the ancient trees, the land that gives and gives us life. The carpeted floors of moss, the gentle trot of speckle-breasted does by crystal streams. Life all around us, nudging us into humility. Beautiful without even trying! And you see how they used to think the gods were everywhere.

I walked through the fields, weeds tickling my ankles. In the dust from which I came, I thought, horse poo trailing my Nikes. Out sprung a blackberry bush, and I picked at them with fervour, bearing the sting of nettles on my hip and hands. Not to fear, they grow by Doc leaves, I remembered my dad once said. I rubbed the leaves on the swollen bumps and the pulsing in my hands abated. The Earth provides. I went home, boiled the blackberries and made dessert. The Earth provides.

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Britons

If you want to survive in Dorset, and maybe England in general, you must talk about the weather. “It’s not as bad as we were led to believe!” or “awful, isn’t it?” or “lovely weather  today!” You must keep an optimistic skepticism, as my dad called it, an umbrella in your car. If you want to be British, apologise for the state of the weather. Apologise when you want to squeeze past the aisle. Apologise for the cheese that’s a little too hard for your liking. Try to find every opportunity to tell people what you’re sorry for and to thank them very much.

Vegetables don’t seem to be the staple; it’s truly tea and coffee. Coffee in the morning, after lunch, sometimes after dinner. My favourite thing is crumbly, soaked, buttery cookies. I was only offered one, but I wanted another. I liked seeing people waiting for the train with a Starbucks in hand and a book in the other. On the MTR in Hong Kong, heads hang like beans on their stalks, looking onto phones that make obsolete reveries and conversation. I saw a fifty year old couple on the train in England, sharing a packet of gummy worms. And a group of kids that finished a packet before the train even started.

I’ve been indulgent with dessert and family, watching my dad in his element. What’s a man like around his mother? It’s very telling. With a glass of wine, a hearty dinner, he’s smiling and energetic. He rips open the plastic of a magazine and lets it float to the ground. Care-free and careless go hand in hand. Grandma will pause what she’s doing to answer your question. Like dad leaving his soup to help me find an adapter. Both their tongues wag in concentration, and they say “ooh yes” in enthusiastic affirmation. Kind and yielding seems to run in the family. After lunch with my grandmother’s sister and her husband, I feel as though I’ve made some very good friends. I was sorry to see them go.

Coffee cake & tea

It has not yet been a full 24 hours since I reached my destination: Dorset. ‘Just’ Dorset of the hay stacks and fields, verdant narrow lanes, brick houses and 13th century churches. Just Dorset where most strangers and even more of them with dogs say hello as you pass them by. It’s the countryside that my grandmother loves.

How was the flight? She inquired. My parents got lucky with a business class upgrade. When my mum whispered it to me, I’d rejoiced thinking we’d all gotten it. The trick is to purchase Premium Economy tickets, be the latest in line, a professor, and a beloved frequent flyer. Dad offered to switch places with me but when he came to check up on me midway through the flight, I was eating my black bean chicken and rice, refreshed from the best sleep I’d had on a plane since I was small enough to lay my head on mum’s lap. Neck strain was something I grew into. Vomiting was something I seem to have grown out of. I had claimed the two vacant seats beside me, which spanned my whole left side when I bent my knees slightly. THANK YOU GOD! I kept smiling to myself. It was, dare I say it, an enjoyable flight. I caught in the reflection of my screen the handsome dad behind me,  entertained by his beautiful green-eyed daughter. She was the kind of child to point at the horse-racing on tv in the immigration line and shout excitedly about the beams. “That’s like the one you rode right, daddy! Is he galloping or trotting?” “Yes, yes it was”, the dad mumbled distractedly as he typed on his phone. I wondered where the mum was.

I felt a strange pride when the immigration lady checked our passports and examined us, one by one. I love identifying the resemblances between family members. Yes, I am quite obviously the product of an Englishman and a Chinese woman. Sitting across from my parents at lunch, I realised that I have mum’s cheekbones, my sister dad’s eyebrows. And again on the taxi in the periods of quiet between the driver cursing the traffic, I felt that strange pride as my parents spoke to one another in Chinglish; English with Chinese stripes or Chinese with English stripes? Once, I asked my mum if daddy organised trips and managed finances too. She said: “we do different things”. I sat between them, a symbol of their complements.

When grandma showed me to my room, formerly her study, I saw that the walls were adorned with pictures of my family. My first day of school in a plum dress and a hat. Pictures of when I looked like a boy. My brother in a tub, my sister in a cable car. We occupy the corners of bathrooms; we are everywhere. We grandchildren are thought of often.

Today, she looked at me as I sat by the window reading a new book. She came to me silently and bent down to give me a hug, just because.