She wore clothes that I had only seen on servants: light blue tunic, dark pants and cloth shoes. She was short, almost squat. The nape-length hair went straight across. She wore no make-up. Her appearance was a sharp contrast to that of my mom and her lady friends. They wore tailored, silk qipao. They dabbed on lipstick and permed their hair.
This is my only memory of Grandmother, my Dad’s mother. I was four or five. Shortly after I turned five in 1952, my mom, her father, my sister and I left China. I was not able to return for a quarter century.
We were living in the villa that belonged to my mother’s family in Shanghai’s French Concession. That territory had gone back to Chinese control after the 1949 Revolution. Grandmother, who lived in the Chinese sector, had come with a present. She carried a heavy earthenware crock wrapped in cloth that was knotted at the top. It contained my favorite dessert: jiu niang, sweet fermented rice.
I’ve been thinking a lot about grandparents these days. My COVID life is actually quite pleasant except for not being able to see my grandchildren. They live in Charlottesville, six hundred miles away. It’s been over half a year since I’ve held them.
I feel a pang when a photo of the just – turned – seven Edin shows that he has filled out – not a little boy anymore. I miss Edin’s mischievous imagination, “You’re standing in LAVA, Grammy!” I marvel at how Caleb, soon to be three, speaks so clearly on the video clip! Caleb’s expressive eyes and smile reflect a spirited curiosity. My heart reaches out to hug and kiss them.
My longing, my ache, my sadness replicate among friends, acquaintances and relatives. We grandparents are desperate to be with our grandkids. Nancy has mulled for months whether it’s prudent to have her little guy come visit from Omaha. Henry talks about running parallel to his toddler grandson with a fence between them. Julie cooks up schemes (“I’ll self-quarantine for two weeks and their mom, my daughter, will do the same”) so that she can kiss her babies.
Older and frail grandparents are especially hard hit. “What if I die before the pandemic ends?” Those with grandkids living abroad despair about international travel and when other countries will let Americans in. Everyone is thinking of driving to the grandchildren – regardless of distance – as we are told it is a safer.
Other grandparents do get to see their grandchildren. They have been pressed into childcare, given school and daycare center closures. Even then, though, they are cautious. They don’t want to get sick, and heaven forbid, make their young-uns sick. That sentiment goes both ways. When Barbara patted his leg, her four-year-old grandson asked in horror, “Don’t you know about the coronavirus?”
Jesmyn Ward, in her 2017 National Book Award winning book Sing, Unburied, Sing, paints a vivid portrait of grandparents from the point of view of Jojo, a thirteen-year-old mixed-race boy in Mississippi. Mam and Pop, as Jojo calls them, are Jojo’s Black grandparents. (Jojo has not met his white grandparents, though they live nearby.) They are the stable and loving caregivers for Jojo and his three-year-old sister Kayla. The children’s mother fades in and out of their lives, burdened by addiction and an unstable relationship with the children’s dad.
The book is intimate — a family drama revolving around a road trip and Mam’s death. And a bit of a ghost story. Besides making me care about what happens to this family, Sing, Unburied, Sing makes me think about a myriad of issues. Some are topical, nay, urgent: Black oppression and white supremacy; drugs; the prison system; the police; poverty. Some are eternal: what makes a family; the nature of time; our relationship with the dead.
An interesting point is that Jojo and Kayla are only the most obviously racially mixed. Pop has Native American background. Mam has Cajun/voodoo roots. It’s clear that we are all really “mutts,” and “race” is very much a social construct.
What impresses me the most is the love and structure that these two give their grandson, despite being poor, despite the racial prejudice, despite their own traumatic past. Without bitterness. Without even interfering with their daughter’s attempts at parenting. They are the bedrock of Jojo’s daily life, the backbone of his sense of family, the template of what it means to be human. Or as Mam might say, “… how you treat another person.”
Pop’s love is indirect, all action. When Jojo’s mom insists that he and Kayla go with her to pick up their dad from prison in another part of the state, Pop sees them off. He says to Jojo:
“Might rain bad up the road.”
“You remember how to change a tire? Check the oil and coolant?”
I nodded again. Pop taught me all of that when I was ten.
In the car, Jojo finds that Pop has put a gris-gris bag, a protective charm, among his things. Pop wrote, “[i]n slanted, shaky script, in blue ink: Keep this close.”
Already very ill, Mam explains to Jojo that his mother, her daughter, “ain’t got the mothering instinct.”
“I never wanted you to be hungry, Jojo … She ain’t never going to feed you … I hope I fed you enough. While I’m here. So you carry it with you. Like a camel … Maybe that ain’t a good way of putting it. Like a well, Jojo. Pull that water up when you need it.” (Italics mine.)
Grandparental love is special. It’s minus the ego, the anxiety, the “mission to mold your kid” we parents had on the first go-round. I found Edin’s cry, “I need that carrot cake,” to be adorable. If my son, his dad, had said that, I would have worried about him being gluttonous or greedy or rude.
All my life, I’ve regretted that I never got to know my Grandmother. From my dad, I found out that she loved to play mah-jongg. My mom said that Grandmother treated her well, not always the case with Chinese mothers-in-law. Recently, an eighty-year-old cousin who still lives in Shanghai, told me that Grandmother was devoutly Catholic. She had calluses on her knees from kneeling in prayer.
When I returned to China in 1977, five years after Nixon’s visit, she was long dead. Only now, in this time of COVID, in this time of separation, I realize that Grandmother must have longed for me.
Tell me: What’s happening with you and your kiddies?