I was nervous about seeing my grandmother.
“Puo-puo’s really different now, huh?” I asked my brother.
Greg shifted gears, speeding down the Los Angeles freeway towards our uncle’s house in Fullerton. “Yeah,” he said. “Before she had some expression. Now nothing.”
My boyfriend Alex patted my arm. “At least you’ll have the chance to see her,” he said.
I nodded and didn’t finish: Before it’s too late.
The last time I saw my grandmother was two years earlier at a family reunion in Las Vegas. Even then she was slower, her speech slurred, her movements heavy. But she was still herself, playing the same quarter on slots for hours, scarfing down crab legs by the plateful at the all-you-can-eat buffet, beaming when she saw any of her grandchildren.
Now my parents greeted us at the door. Normally my uncle Wen Meng looked after Puo-puo, but that Thanksgiving he and my aunt were in Boston visiting her side of the family. To help out, my aunt Ping had flown in from Connecticut and my parents from New Jersey.
My brother and I were trying to convince our parents to move to California. Earlier that fall Alex and I had moved to San Francisco from New York, and Greg had been living in L.A. since the late ‘90s. But I knew they’d have a hard time giving up their mass of friends back east, mah-jongg every Tuesday and karaoke on the weekends. For now they’d make do with visits to my grandmother.
As everyone hugged hellos, I glanced around. No Puo-puo. Hearing voices from the second floor, I went up. In one of the bedrooms, an emaciated old lady lay unmoving. Her hair was flat and gray. As I got closer, I saw that most of her bottom teeth were missing. The nurse sat beside her, holding her hand and talking softly.
I gently lowered myself on the bed. “Puo-puo?” I said.
Slowly she turned towards me. Her eyes were on me, but I didn’t know if she saw.
My grandmother was born in Weihai, a small port city on the northern tip of Shandong province. The youngest of four, she was the family favorite: vivacious, charming, and always ready with a story. She was enormously clever, or neng-gan, as the Chinese said. She read books lickety-split and drew characters as well as any calligrapher. She stitched the finest embroidery and wrapped the most delicious jiao-zi. She could kill a chicken with one swoop of an ax.
By eighteen, she had grown into one of the most beautiful girls in town. It made sense that the handsome youngest son of the richest family would want to marry her. She didn’t even care that he was only a teacher, and would never make much money himself.
During the Communist Revolution in the late 1940s, my grandfather was imprisoned and tortured. He was released, but as a wealthy intellectual, he’d always be a target. He had to run. First he fled to his sister’s house in Qingdao, a larger city across the peninsula. A year later, my grandmother and their children joined them. It was a long and difficult wagon ride.
“The sun was so hot,” Puo-puo liked to say when reminded of that time. “I was holding your uncle Wen Meng and had to cover his face with a blanket, or else he’d have been burned.”
They all hid in Qingdao for another year, my grandparents and their three children, my mother included, crowded into my great-aunt’s small house. Still somehow Puo-puo managed to get pregnant again. Aunt Ping was born right before they left China for good.
On the month-long boat ride to Taiwan, everyone was seasick every day. “Many people died,” said my mother, who was seven at the time. “Puo-puo wouldn’t let us out of her sight.” They made it to the small island. Poor as peasants, they scrimped and saved and worked hard, and eventually, one by one, Gong-gong and Puo-puo’s five children left to make their fortune, via grad school, in the States.
Puo-puo came to the U.S. in 1972, the year I was born. My father was finishing his PhD at UC Berkeley and my mother was working at a bank in downtown San Francisco. I spent so much time with my grandmother that I picked up her Weihai accent. A shy child, I clung to her when confronted with a roomful of strangers.
When I was two, we moved to New Jersey, where my father got a job as a research scientist. A year and a half later, my brother was born, and Puo-puo joined us once again, as she would off and on for the rest of my childhood.
By the time I knew her, my grandmother was fat, though that didn’t stop her from criticizing me when I gained weight. Her sparse hair was permed into tight curls and dyed jet black. When she went out, she wore powder and lipstick, and draped herself in jade, pearls, and gold. Once I caught her trying on a fancy sequined black dress in the middle of the afternoon, in preparation for an upcoming party. She giggled at her vanity.
My grandmother was also fun. While my mother was grouchy and often yelled at me and my brother, Puo-puo liked to laugh. Once I told her, “Close your eyes,” and put on her hand a fake mouse on a string. As I moved it, her face puckered with curiosity and she looked down. Seeing the mouse, she screamed and jumped away, then broke down laughing when she realized it wasn’t real.
She never learned to speak English, except thank you and hello. She was a great mah-jongg player and a terrible karaoke singer. “Puo-puo’s singing sounds like a cat being microwaved,” a cousin once said. After more than fifty years of marriage, Gong-gong still trailed her like a love sick school boy, first from Taiwan to the U.S., then back and forth between the coasts.
“Puo-puo visits us,” my mother once said. “And Gong-gong follows.” A decade later my grandmother would stand crying at his grave, while her children left offerings of flowers and his favorite foods.
Her hands were strong. She often stood at the counter rolling out dough for dumplings, steamed bread, and scallion pancakes. Sometimes she took the extra dough and molded doves for me. (I was always disappointed when they’d start to crack and harden.)
When I was losing my baby teeth, I had one that was particularly stubborn. My parents kept saying I should let them wrest it out, but I refused.
“Little Gem, let me see it,” Puo-puo said, calling me by my nickname.
“Don’t pull it out,” I begged.
“I won’t,” she promised. “I just want to look at it.”
As I went up to her with open mouth, she promptly grabbed the loose incisor and twisted it. Hard.
Crying out, I yanked myself away. I didn’t know what I found more offensive, the pain or Puo-puo’s bald-faced lie. I locked myself in the bathroom and blotted my gum with a tissue. I inhaled, and the tooth came out. I emerged triumphant, excited about receiving another dollar from the tooth fairy, having already forgotten what my grandmother had done.
That same year Puo-puo slipped and fell in our dining room, breaking her wrist. It was night time, after dinner, and she had been carrying a load of laundry. Now she lay groaning amidst the previously folded T-shirts and underwear. My mother hovered tearfully while my father called 911. From the living room, I brought over a large pillow, as though that would help.
The ambulance came. I was surprised at how bright the lights were, how they blinded me as I stood in the cold doorway. The next day the kids at the bus stop, who never talked to me, asked what happened. I was surprised that they had seen the ambulance too, that it wasn’t contained in my own small world.
Many years later, when I became engaged to a Korean man, I knew Puo-puo didn’t approve. I was never sure why. Was it really only because she didn’t find him handsome enough? That at five eight, she thought he was too short? Maybe too she sensed his distance: he thought his family was better than ours. Unlike my mother, his was soft-spoken. Mom’s cooking was too salty, our background wasn’t prestigious enough. His parents were doing me a favor by accepting me.
When we divorced four years later, my mother couldn’t bring herself to tell my grandmother. Instead she told Aunt Ping, who unlike Puo-puo, kept her judgments to herself. Mom allowed Ping to tell their mother.
Puo-puo was horrified. Not only had my ex cheated on me, but the woman had gotten pregnant.
“Who is she?” she kept asking Aunt Ping. “Some Korean woman?”
Aunt Ping wouldn’t relay the details about the random neighbor my ex had forged a seemingly innocent friendship with over the years. Puo-puo’s imagination churned.
“Little Gem deserves someone so much better,” she said. “She deserves someone who’s her match.”
Three years after my divorce, I fell in love again. Tall with a shaved head and goatee, Alex resembled an ex-convict, but his blue eyes warmed when he smiled. He was a computer programmer who played jazz guitar. He cooked good southern food and was nice to my mother. After just a few months, we moved in together and started talking about kids.
My mother loved his jokes and friendliness; my father admired his handiness around both software and a socket wrench. Quickly he became like another son to them.
I couldn’t wait to introduce him to Puo-puo. I knew she’d love him, that she’d think he was my match.
Now I leaned down to her ear. “It’s Little Gem!” I shouted. Half deaf for years, Puo-puo didn’t even bother wearing her hearing aid anymore. “It’s Little Gem!” I pointed at my nose, Chinese style.
Her eyes locked with mine, but she didn’t speak or smile. My brother said just a few months ago, she had smiled at him. Did she recognize me? Later I’d try to introduce her to Alex, but couldn’t tell if she had heard, if she understood what this strange Caucasian man was doing there. I didn’t know if she saw how we nestled together on the couch, how he kissed me freely in front of everyone, how happy I was now. I didn’t know if she saw now that I was okay.
Slowly she reached her hand towards mine. I grabbed hold of it, and found that it was still strong.