Poa Poa was always proud of the house. When you were a child in a small town in the foothills of Alberta, you learned from her by lamplight the Chinese word for “fall,” the one for “build.” She was talking about the house in Sum Yuen Lei, Guangdong. It had been in the family for more than a century, passed on from your great-grandparents to your maternal grandfather and his family.
Sometime in the 1970s, your maternal grandmother, your Poa, started reporting damage to the house to your mom. Poa went to China every few years and saw the damage spread like cancer, spread like rot. First the roof dripped when it rained, and then it dripped some more. Before they knew it, twenty years had passed and the roof collapsed, taking some of the walls down with it.
By then the house was uninhabited—old and lonely like a nonagenarian whose spouse has died, whose kids and grandkids rarely visit. People started ransacking the place, stealing your grandparents’ furniture, your great-grandparents’ wedding china. They needed to rebuild, lest more of their belongings be sifted through and seized like sand by a retreating wave, lest the land itself be taken away as well. That’s how things went in the village sometimes. It’s what happened to your father’s family’s second house, too. They owned it for the better part of a century before it fell down and the land got claimed by someone else. This is an object lesson in memories, the way that they can fade. What does a hundred years of tenure mean, one hundred years of life? Not always as much as it should.
For quite a long time, your grandma was your number one, a hand to shelter your flickering flame, so kind and present for attention-starved you. For years, she and your grandpa split their time between Hong Kong and Canada, and during your seasons with her, you would come home from long days of racist taunts at school to comfort in a bowl, tasty snacks she had prepared. Someone would be there to holler out a sing-song reply down the sixty-foot hall of your family apartment to your shouted greeting—sweet call and response—and someone other than your mom would intervene when your dad went on a tear, howling and trying to hurt you. Decades of unrelenting housework left your grandma with undiagnosed
osteoarthritis, which is something you can now relate to. Her body ached every day you knew her; she was thin, bony, grey, and short, and even then she tried to protect you. “Don’t be that way, Gok,” she’d say soothingly in Chinese. He didn’t stop, but her bearing witness, her being in your corner was significant in a way you have yet to fully parse even decades later.
Another thing: she talked to you. In a home where you were sensitive and teased, the quiet youngest child of parents with no time, the smallest part of a big and raucous family, you were guided this way and that, shouted at, and discouraged from both speaking and having friends. Given this, your talks with your grandma were a balm, a kind of calm communion.
They were also an investment in your future. Since you’re a writer, people often assume you read or were read to a lot as a kid. Fact is, you didn’t and you weren’t, not really, but some of the first and best stories you were exposed to were ones told by your dad and grandma about their lives. If your writing has any kind of emotional beating heart, you imagine the reasons reside both in their influence and in your temperament. You feel things so much, and the more you feel, the closer you think you are to truth and beauty.
Your grandma had a difficult past. If sadness were a kind of currency, she was the national mint. She was Fort Knox. Yes, there were happy times, the afternoons after school when she fed you, when you watched wrestling on TV and she rushed in from the kitchen to watch when you said Hulk Hogan was on, but more often she was sad, more often she was groaning from pain or casting mealtime doleful looks from her end of the dinner table.
“Are you uncomfortable?” child you would ask over steaming plates.
“My teeth hurt,” she would reply sadly.
Some evenings you hung out with her while she scrubbed herself with a lifelong martyr’s need for more suffering and a rough washcloth dipped in water from a basin on the bathroom floor. Many nights you recall creeping into her room while she sewed or folded plastic bags for later use. Your grandpa would be asleep, or maybe spending time with your mom, while you sat on your grandparents’ bed, having conversations with your grandma like gloomy secrets—the room lit by a lamp on a cord, the lampshade she made from a piece of cardboard. She talked like almost any other grandma would, wondered aloud about when your sisters were going to get married, shared hopes that it would be to good men. She said you have
to spend a lot of time with a guy before you marry him; that you need to walk with him. Yes, walk—that’s what she said.
But what you remember most was the way her face looked, the way she winced like a dog that had been kicked too many times as she told the same set of stories on shuffle, on repeat: the last time she saw her father—she was young—the job at a broom factory that left her without teeth. She talked about how she was sold to your grandfather’s family at age eleven—later you learned she cost thirty pounds of yam—how they’d married when she was eighteen, how her mother-in-law tried killing her multiple times, how your grandfather had a mean streak, too. In your mind, she is pointing at her eye, the one like a blown headlight, saying he was the reason for that.
Her words hit you hard like slaps in the face; they emptied your chest. Your grandpa was meek and eccentric, a source of physical comedy in the family with his various mannerisms, the strange, half-shouted tripping cadence of his piecemeal English, his bad hygiene and propensity for falling asleep with his mouth open anywhere he’d been sitting too long. To think of him as an aggressor was to apprehend the threat in a breeze, or to imagine the hurricane that preceded it. He shared ham sandwiches with you, spared no expense on your mom’s education during a time when not so many girls went to private school, much less university. They went to movies together, your mom and her dad; he liked candy. Could he have had a dark side, too?
To you, it seems likely despite the unlikelihood. You think you saw it sometimes in how fast he went and how far ahead of your grandma despite her demands when they walked together in the city. (Was this the importance of walking with prospective romantic partners?) You even saw a few times the way he looked at her when she nagged or talked back too much or when he thought no one was looking. These times were rare. They presented a shocking contrast to the man you thought you knew. At the time, you’d never seen hate like that except on the face of your father.
But the main reason you think he hit her was that she said he did. It was an early lesson in believing women. Why would she lie? To retain your sympathy? To get power in a situation where she had next to none? You knew how it felt to be powerless at the hands of a man who controlled the conditions of your life. If you’d ever had the courage to tell someone how bad and dark things got for you, you would
have wanted that person to believe you, to not find you at fault, to not take his side, to not think you had ulterior motives for telling them about it. Yes, your grandma nagged and nagged; yes, peasant China a hundred years ago was a totally different time; yes, a person can look with utter distaste at someone they’ve spent more than half a century with; yes, people have different walking paces. You grant this, all of it. But you still feel sorry for her and you still choose to believe her.
How do you love an abuser? It’s a hard question, the love is complicated, but things were always different with your grandpa, anyway. Evenings with you were not his cup of tea. Decades later, while writing this essay, you’ll realize you know next to nothing about his life—say, his birthday or the town and year he was born in. Plus, he provided intermittent after-school snacks for you, but they were all store-bought. And sure, ham sandwiches are nice, but it’s not your grandma’s twohour congee, not her fried rice or jih yok beng, a dish you continue to love, one that continues to have emotional resonance for you to this day. Also, perhaps most tellingly, when your dad raged at you, your grandfather stayed silent, eyes on the TV, continuing to eat his dinner, to spit anything he could not chew into tiny enough bits on to the table like nothing was happening. You remember your grandpa calling you fat and you angering at that, and him laughing at your anger. In a situation like this, if you had to side, wouldn’t you with the one who’d always been kind when it counted, the one you felt sorry for and had things in common with?
Everyone has their special place. In sessions, sometimes your therapist wants you to meditate. She tells you to close your eyes and go to the best and safest place you can. For you, it’s an empty room; more rarely, it’s a beach. If you were to guess, you’d say your grandma’s place was her village, the one she married into, Sum Yuen Lei. It’s another place she went on your evening lampside chats with her. She told you about the village, the people there who were kind to her and to whom she sent money and clothes. She told you about the fallen-down house she wanted to rebuild. She wanted it to be beautiful, and you’d do anything to make your sad love smile, wouldn’t you?
So you let her take your clothes—old things, but also stuff you liked and were still wearing—to donate to folks in Sum Yuen Lei. She put the clothes in a giant sack, and when it was full, she tied it with rope. Before she left to fly halfway around the world, you gave her money. Fifty dollars, one hundred dollars. Your child allowance building her house week by week, five dollars at a time. You were an idealist
who didn’t understand the value of money. In this way you’ve barely changed. But still, when you gave it to her, she gave thanks like you were hot shit, almost like you were the Buddha. She smiled like when the sun shines on your face and you close your eyes all happy and warm. For many years, she was the only person who ever said you were any good. Is it possible to forget someone like that?
But even after all those lampside chats, there were still many things about her you didn’t know or understand. Somehow you’d thought you’d have a chance to learn, but time’s arrow moves in one direction only. You grew up. In the late nineties, you graduated high school and moved to the closest big city for university, while the second-oldest person you knew continued to get older. She and your grandpa, three years older than her, came to stay in your parents’ half-empty house in Edmonton. They slept on bedrolls in one of your three living rooms even though there were beds available, and they rolled these blankets up each day like campers at a temporary site. Their visits got shorter and shorter before they finally stopped coming for good, but they were still alive. You moved to San Francisco, then Toronto.
In 2005, your grandpa died along with most of his stories, a warning, but your grandma persisted. You went to graduate school to learn to be a writer. You were finishing your thesis when your family decided to take a trip to Hong Kong. You had already extended your thesis deadline by a couple of semesters and you didn’t want to spend any more money. Plus, it would have been tight; your uncle’s condo has two spare bedrooms only.
And anyway, you thought there would be time. You would be finished very soon, then after that, you would spend months with her, getting all the details of her life, all the big stories, too, that you’d never written down. All the boulders, rocks, pebbles, grains of sand in the rockpile of life. How many tons does a long life weigh? Before you had a chance to see, she was dropping nuggets, starting to fade. During the trip, she met your soon-to-be brother-in-law Brent, but was already unclear about who your sister was. Poa went with your parents and other relatives to Sum Yuen Lei, and the pictures there were not traditional—taken on a canted angle by somebody’s phone’s camera—but they were conventional in their way, a line of family standing, the eldest seated in a place of honour at the centre. They’re posing in front of the house. Your grandma looks tired and beatific.
Weeks later, in Hong Kong, she gave up the ghost and died, aged ninety-eight. It reminded you of people close to death in the hospital, how they wait for one last thing, maybe permission to depart or that one errant relative to visit before they die, only it wasn’t you she was waiting for, you were just one of ten grandkids, and there is no poetry in existence, no deep meaning to life and death, or if there is, it’s like drawing straws, everyone takes a different one and meanings diverge.
Your grandma was the one who at last made you understand the finality of death. In the years after she died, you interviewed her daughter, your mom. You corresponded with her almost daily, looking for everything she knew about her parents, but there wasn’t much to report. Throughout her life, your mom paid attention to other things, to school, school songs, sock hops, her friends, to Elvis Presley and the Beatles, Chubby Checker, and then work, survival, her husband, the business, which buildings to buy, how much rent to charge, TV, her kids, and when you, her youngest, finally wraps her head around death and its effects—its tumult and stillness like a small, sudden, precise snowstorm—and you decide to ask her what she knows, there isn’t much to say. She’s like her father, your grandpa, that way: private. Plus, you’re mostly texting questions now. Your shyness stops you from bringing up the big topics when you’re with them in person, though you know you could get more that way. Still, her knowledge of them is incomplete—so many questions she did not ask because of shyness, distraction, indifference.
The whole thing makes you sad: no matter how many questions you ask, you’ll never know the entirety of your grandma’s life, you won’t even know half. It’s time for you to face the facts: knowledge of antecedents, even close ones, fades. You envy people you know whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower, people who know their great-great-grandfathers’ names, occupations, towns of residence, even one or two of their personality traits, but your mom does offer you some things, a few choice nuggets she pulls from her pockets like jewels. The meaning of your grandmother’s name, the name of the town where she was born, how many siblings she had, roughly how old they were relative to her.
Years after your grandma dies, you find you have something else as well, a longstanding wish whose fulfillment may not tell you all you want to know, but you still have it, and you fulfill it as you stand in front of a building in 2015 and then again in 2017. It is tall and white and has a painting of trees and birds above the door and you can roam the halls and look at pictures on the walls and burn incense for
her there. It is her wish, her love, a semi-constant companion over the lion’s share of her hundred years. She wanted you to go there. You wanted it, too. Her house. You open the door.