DEAR GRANDMA

FOURWORD

Tip-of-the tongue
what is the word?
hands in your hair
thinking about
others – ah it’s
humility!

HAIK-U

Speaking of poets
like old friends, I must meet your
beloved Hardy.

BUTTERFLIGHT

Slate blue eyes, adorned with coral
you see beyond the mundane,
capturing light as it skims the leaves,
iridescent clouds, effervescent memories
in shadowy towers and age-old palaces.  

Attentive to whispers of feeling:
Timmy is watering the flowers-
maybe something is blossoming
between us. 

People like you are pockets of goodness,
strong, as nothing erodes it.
You land softly onto my shoulder
and teach me how to be lovely.

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Delight

The first thing that caught my eye was a crate of wine bottle carcasses. I’ve been drinking every day since I got to the UK and I have never once been bored. It is not the wine I like so much as the leisure with which it is associated. We talk about French etiquette, Tom Hardy, the future of agriculture (apparently we’ll be farming vertically, skywards), things I know nothing about. They take pleasure in blue and white china tea sets, in sparkling water with a slice of lemon in it. Dorset’s red cheese and peppered crackers after dinner. It is never too much trouble.

I am so beside myself; it’s been perfect. I’ve been so present on this holiday. I mean, I am never thinking of being elsewhere, rarely dipping into the past or the future. Rarely in need of anything or anyone. I feed on my family’s love of culture, history, art, and good food. On my grandparents’ wisdom. I am so FULL.

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.

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.

Poppy

The parents are coming back soon, tomorrow-soon, which means two things: I’ll have the luxury of considering a wax and I won’t be won’t be able to blast music or play the piano in the late am. I remember the glorious first day after they left; the clothes came off and the music came on. I shimmied in the mirror and swirled my imaginary skirt like a queen because I owned this place. It was so liberating. I had the license to grab the wine, sleep on the sofa, do whatever I pleased. Almost like having my own apartment. Minus what it takes to survive in real life: bills, cooking, cleaning. Thank God for grandmothers.

Have I been wearing clothes at home for a month? No, the answer is no. And I don’t want to do away with this privilege. My grandmother and my aunt have grown accustomed to the butt cheeks peeking out of my undies. It’s kind of funny how my grandmother so cooly remarked: “oh you’re not wearing clothes again”. It’s fine as long as there are no dudes around, she says. We both pull up our shirts when it gets too hot.

This summer, I’ve learned that I’m more like her than I ever would have imagined and hoped for. I remember delighting over the fact that my grandmother and I were both born in the year of the Rat… Because nothing feels better than being comparable to someone or something you love dearly. My counsellor said that we resemble our greatest influences and attachment figures, and this has revealed to me a completely new and refreshing dimension to self-discovery. When she said it, I was like- of course! But it never occurred to me that it applied to me too. It gives me such hope for the person I’d like to be and the person I’m becoming.

She and I share commonalities on many levels. We both love talking to people and learning tidbits from them; stories with morals, testimonies, anecdotes and transgenerational wisdom. We love to laugh and she is often the object of my teasing- only because she is such a good sport. In fact, I basically christened her with another English name, because ‘Susan’ didn’t quite suit her. It was kind of a joke but it stuck. She’s animated, expressive, creative, and she loves to do things. Sounds like I’m describing myself. I love her honesty and her innocence, although she has seen and suffered more than I ever have. I would like to think that I evaluate my intentions with the same conviction she does, with the same brutal honesty: I am wrong. Even if it is normal because everyone participates to some extent, I am still wrong. But the thing that makes her a gift to everyone she meets is that she is selfless, loving, and generous. If I’m to pinpoint something that sets my heart on fire and makes me happy to be alive, it is to witness the joy of one who receives love. I am compassionate and forgiving. Not all the time, I regret, but these are qualities I love and treasure in myself. Where did I learn them? I can’t say for sure but I think I have a pretty good guess.

The depths of indifference

I wrote this last summer:

In fact I am happy to be going back to LA. I have found a window to sit under. Tea whenever. I can leave the campus at three am and walk into the city if I wanted to. I do meet people randomly all the time. There’s no good time to date? I disagree. There is a time called not now. When I’m not happy enough myself, not whole enough independently to let anyone in. I don’t want to depend on another person to make myself sane, or have my feelings so wrapped around this person that I don’t know who I am. I have boundaries, I am an individual. And this will not change with a man.

My thoughts on relationships have stayed the same. With the additional: I only want a man who can help me serve God better. I love love love to see growth- both in myself and in others. Probably why I like reading and blogging so much. I see that I’ve only grown more in love with Los Angeles… Even then, I was a little indifferent about the city itself. I’ve learned that indifference is something I cannot stand. It stops me from writing and being creative. I’d pick depressed over indifferent any day- unless indifference is a symptom (#defeated). I just hate going out for dim sum with my grandmother and my aunt, unwilling to smile or even clear my throat. There is nothing to say. I might as well not be here. I have no feeling towards these human beings. I don’t even look up when my helper speaks to me or hands me a plate of scrambled eggs. “Thanks”, I say as I scroll through Daily Mail. The one saving grace is the intense jealousy I feel inspecting every documentation of Tom Hiddleston and Taylor’s romance. It must be a ploy. But Tom is too good a person to play the media like that.

I’m writing about indifference because, in spite of learning not to base my self-worth on the certainty afforded by achievements, part of me is still obsessed with pinning down favourite somethings. I rejoice over little discoveries that confirm that yes, I can be moved. Yessss, I am not a waste of space! I feel like a failure if I don’t know myself enough to come up with an answer to “what are your favourite artists?” It mostly-always throws me into an identity crisis. But here’s something: it’s okay to enjoy the feel of songs rather than their content. That can be equally as important and profound. I appreciate what sounds can do! Let your memories perform.
I don’t need to have a favourite artist or a go-to song. I listen to songs that suit the mood; it must fit the vibe of this real-time movie. I just don’t know why I find this so uncomfortable to come to terms with! As long as I find my stability in Jesus, I don’t need any other favourites to mark me as an individual. He is my constant.

What we like so much is someone who is authentically happy with themselves. The best thing is to be confident in what you believe in, to stand tall knowing that you are living out your principles regardless of what people think or say. To not have to fake anything. To be honestly radiant, without even trying. The antidote to my indifference, I initially thought, was to change the scenery. Maybe, go out into the city and drink more coffee. See a friend I really like. But I’ve come to my senses: the change begins INSIDE my head and heart. It’s all about perspective. Because the minute my family left for Canada and I said goodbye to my helper as she prepared for Indonesia, I remembered all the reasons why I loved them. The way my dad kisses my forehead, how my mum praises me for home exercises, how my helper always goes above and beyond in her generosity and thoughtfulness. How my sister makes me laugh and how she always looks at me with admiration and fondness. I am always surrounded by such love. Indifference melts away when I remember.