My grandmother died in 1989 at 104. A village girl from rural China when there was a Manchurian emperor on the throne, Grandma was married into our family at 13 years of age. I’ve seen a photograph of her as a girl, with her hair put up and held with a gold clasp. Maybe it was her wedding day.
When I was growing up in Hong Kong, I would wake early but Grandma would already be praying at the family altar, shaking a bundle of incense at my grandfather’s spirit. Embodied in the tablet that bears his name, he listened for seventy years to her wishes and her complaints.
Grandma had always wanted to go back to the village where my father was born, where everyone shares the same surname and where she’d left two daughters behind. They were given away and she’d taken on someone else’s daughter to bring up as my father’s bride. After Grandfather died my Dad became the head of the family and said no to marrying my pock-faced aunt. Grandma had to marry her off as a daughter.
Grandma never learnt to read or write and when my father brought her to Hong Kong she could only speak the village dialect. She was afraid of cars; she used to hang on to my hand so tight whenever we crossed the road together that I developed a fear of crossings. I didn’t realise that when she took me across the road to buy needles or thread, I was actually taking her or she would never have gone.
No one dared tell her when my father died suddenly. They said he ran off with a mistress to Taiwan. She blamed my mother for not being able to keep him at home. She lived for another fifteen years, yearning for that return to China but the only time she ever saw those yellow flowers and oily green of Choy Sum growing on home soil was over the Gurkha guarded border of Hong Kong.
Grandma died during the Chinese New Year and the villagers refused to have a burial of a woman during the festive period without suitable compensation so they buried her in no man’s land between two villages. There she stayed with her grave untended and a tree was growing from the middle of it when I found her some twenty years later. The authorities have built power lines over it as her grave was unclaimed.
My poem ‘Finding Grandma’s Grave’ was about that.