I wrote this late night email to someone very special to me, in response to a moving story he shared with me about his father, who passed more than ten years ago.
Life is profound and crazy. You understand that so much better than I do, but even the limited extent to which I’ve experienced change, and the inevitable way that time grinds on, sometimes feels almost incomprehensible.
When I was home in California this past Christmas, we found a cassette tape my mother had made when I was a baby. It was just her and I in the tape, and I was maybe one and a half, two years old, just learning to speak. She would prompt me. I would parrot her. She would ask me questions. I would respond, “Yes!” in Chinese.
The tape was for my grandmother, who raised me in Taiwan from when I was an infant until right before this tape was made, and then later came to live with us in America. My grandmother raised my younger sister and I while both my parents worked full time. In a role that more resembled that of a mom than what Americans typically think of as grandparents, my grandmother made breakfast for us every morning and dinner for us at night. She tied our hair up before school, and made sure we did our homework after school. Every afternoon, when the school bell rang, she would be standing in the yard waiting to walk us the 30 minutes home.
In many ways, I always felt like I was more similar to my grandmother personality-wise than my mother. Don’t get me wrong, my mom is the best person I’ve ever known in my life, but that’s because she is naturally selfless, considerate and accommodating. My grandmother was capable, headstrong, opinionated, and passionate. She was incredibly caring, but she had a sharp tongue and a tendency to hang onto grudges. But she had seen a lot of things. She was the matriarch of the family, and had financially supported herself, my grandpa, and four children for so many years. For reasons I never fully understood, it didn’t seem as if my grandfather had ever held much of a steady job or career, and I know that he gambled, too. The family lived at the poverty line in Taiwan in the during the 1960s and 70s, and in those years my grandmother did whatever she could to get them by. She opened a little eatery, ran a photography business with my grandfather, was a court reporter, and even helped my grandpa build them a little house, which I think was much more like a little shanty under an overpass or something. She always told me, “You can do learn to do anything.” One particularly heartbreaking story I’ll never forget was the day that the police came to tear that little house down, because they didn’t actually own the land. My grandmother came out to the street, fell to her knees and begged them to let them stay. I will never shake the image of her, on her knees.
And then when it came time for my grandmother to be the one who was cared for, according to Chinese culture, her kids had moved to America and it was her turn to take care of people again, this time her grandchildren. But she never complained about taking care of us. We were like her children, but this time she could just love and care for us, instead of having to worry about whether we would have enough to eat, and whether we would get a fair shot at this thing called life.
When she passed away in 2009 it was… I don’t know. I have dreams sometimes that she’s still here. I wake up in the middle of the night with tears streaming down my face. Crying silently in the dark. I miss her, and in a way it still doesn’t make sense that she is gone forever.
But, the tape. It was made around the time my mom took me back to America as a toddler, and my grandma was still in Taiwan. My mom was 29 at the time — the same age as I am today. Her voice sounded so different. So soft and girlish. And of course I was just a little baby—just barely forming words, sometimes just making sounds. Still learning to use my voice.
I remember I started tearing, and I looked at my mom and she was crying too. We laughed at each other for crying, and just sat there, hugging each other, laughing and crying like two crazy people. Neither of us were very good at articulating what it was that made us cry but I think we both knew. It was almost too much, knowing this had all been real at one point. I had been her little baby, and she had been a young woman still figuring it all out like me. I imagined my grandmother, alive and well, just barely past middle age. Her hair black and her body strong. Listening to the 45-minute tape in her little kitchen in Taiwan while she cooked dinner for the night, cleaned, did other chores. We found the tape in a box in my sister’s room, so my grandmother must have brought it with her when she came to America. She was going to be with me every day, but she still packed it in her bags to cross the ocean with her. Like you might do with your precious jewelry; your nicest things.
I don’t know what it was, but when you described these memories with your father, such beautiful memories, the same feelings came back. The gratitude for the memory. And then the pang of loss too, for a time that will never be again. When does it stop mattering that these things really happened? I don’t think it ever does.