My grandmother died when my father was thirteen.
Not thirteen. Not exactly. Twelve years and maybe seven months. She died in 1976, in April or maybe May–around this time, when it was relatively warm. She died of pulmonary tuberculosis when she was about fifty-two years old. She left six children–two boys and four girls–behind her.
Including my father.
My father has rarely spoken of my grandmother. Only when I asked him–a long time ago–what she died of. I don’t think he’s talked about her on any different occasions, and I do not ask my mother about her in front of him.
Obviously, I’ve never met my paternal grandmother. She died forty years ago, long before my father met my mother or my brother and older sister were born. And I’ve never thought much about her because of it.
But I have met my paternal grandfather. He died two years ago, in the summer, in the sweltering heat of July when I was more than a month away from being fifteen. I’d never exchanged words with him, not that I can really remember–except maybe a few mumbled words at Chinese New Year’s. He wasn’t…pleasant. He detested my father, and my mother, when he was alive, for reasons we can only guess at, and he still disliked them when he died. Unfortunate, of course, but it was a fact. But after he died, I realized that my maternal grandmother was the only grandparent I had left. My mother’s father died in the nineties–he’d been to the Korean War, and he’d been rather ill for the rest of his life–and I’d never met him, either. And I started thinking of my father’s mother.
Dad doesn’t like it when we are sick. This sounds obvious–who likes seeing their family members sick?–But my mother told me that one reason is because he doesn’t like hearing us cough, or sound sick, because his mother coughed and coughed and coughed herself to death in the old house, the old, dirty, mud-floored house when he was still a child, and he just doesn’t like to hear coughing.
And when she told me, at first I thought “Oh. I see.” And that was all. But then I felt tremendously sad. Because it just sounds so…tragic, that you could dislike the sound of sickness for the rest of your life because you had to hear it during the months before your mother died. I don’t even know what I felt when I realized that my father’s childhood had effectively ended when he was twelve; I still don’t know what to feel. Uncomfortable, this pressure in my chest–I don’t know.
In China, it’s custom that when a relative dies, you frame their picture (or, if you were poor in the olden days, a drawn portrait) somewhere in the house, and burn incense during holidays and such things–just to show that you remember them, that you miss them. But my grandfather had no such picture in his house, no picture of his wife, who bore him six children and wasted away and died in a dark, damp room with tiny windows. He never went to her grave on Tomb-Sweeping Day. In fact, he didn’t even give her a tombstone when she was buried–my father had one made for her, several decades after she died. I don’t think he loved her at all, which was highly plausible, because theirs was an arranged marriage, as was normal for people born in the nineteen twenties. But even so, she was married to him–he didn’t respect her in life, but he should have at least shown her respect when she was dead. It’s just a sad, unchangeable truth that he didn’t care for her at all, not even as a person, certainly not as a wife or the mother of his children.
So I have never seen her picture. I don’t know what she looked like. She was illiterate, her last name was 田–that’s all I know about her life. About her as a person. And that’s like not knowing her at all. Only a few people alive now remember her–her six children, their husbands/wives, and basically no one else, as her own family is already empty, her two brothers dead. She has faded away into the past, where poor people, so poor that they didn’t even know how to write their own names, remain, lost and forgotten. And it’s just so tragic, so sad in the way that all deaths are sad because someday, someday, you’ll be forgotten, and you’ll have been so small and so ordinary and so unimportant that it’ll seem like you never were alive. My grandmother was by no means a very unique, very special person–she was just another poor, illiterate, countrywoman who worked her entire life and died too soon. No one very special, not a person history books immortalize in text. But she was a mother–my father’s mother. And he misses her, I know he does, even though he’s never said it. It’s just so sad.
But the one thing that gives me comfort? I am a little part of her. I am the smallest bit of her that is still here. She didn’t have the chance to learn how to read, to write–she never had the chance to learn, to travel, to see the beautiful places in the world. She was born in a time when being poor almost automatically meant being illiterate, and when being a woman definitely meant living without the chance to learn or do anything other than get married and bear children. But I was born in a time, in a country, that meant I could do those things. I can read and write and go to school and work hard to be what I want to be, not what society will force me to be because I am a woman or I was born to a certain social standing. I can do all of the things she didn’t get to do and while that’s sad, that’s also good–because I can live well, live for her, live so she didn’t live to be forgotten.