My grandparents

Over the weekend I had to skip my daily writing prompts for the first time since I started them weeks ago. On Monday I thought I would sit down and write all three of them at once (Sat, Sun, Mon), ten minutes apiece. But the first prompt proved to be my grandparents and once I started I kept at it for half an hour, wiping my eyes as I wrote.

My grandpa and grandkids in 2001

Gong-Gong and grandkids in 2001

I always envied the kids with close, loving relationships with all their grandparents. Of my four grandparents I’ve only met the one, my mother’s father. His wife, my maternal grandmother, passed in somewhat questionable circumstances during the Cultural Revolution in Shanghai; her absence has colored my childhood and more particularly my adulthood, and is almost certainly responsible for the way my mother (s)mothers her three daughters. My dad’s parents are less known to me. His father passed at age 63, also during (or perhaps slightly after) the Cultural Revolution, of liver disease. My dad believes the illness was brought on by his father’s “revolutionary” assignment to hard labor and insect-infested living quarters. My father’s mother passed at age 78, shortly after I was born, also in China, also of illness (I believe a respiratory disease).

When I was a child I took consolation from the fact that though we couldn’t say “over the river and through the woods to Grandfather’s house we go,” we did go over the hills and through a forest of wind turbines to visit Gong-Gong in Sacramento. Whatever else I lacked of the American ideal in my second-generation childhood, I did have a grandpa, and he was cool and generous and well-to-do. He gave us crisp $20 bills in red envelopes on every conceivable occasion, from Chinese New Year to Christmas to our birthdays to his birthday. Similarly, on Christmas and our birthdays and for special piano recitals, he paid for beautiful party dresses my mother took us to purchase at Macy’s or Nordstrom. When my parents decided we should have a baby grand piano instead of the old upright, he paid for that too. I spent all of my youth thinking of him as wealthy, and only learned very recently that he was in his 60s when he returned to the US in 1979, and built his medical practice from the ground up after that.

Now Gong-Gong spends most of his time in a wheelchair in the Woodlands nursing home in Los Gatos, doped on Lexapro. His children would never have allowed him to be medicated, except that after Gong-Gong lashed out at a fellow resident in a bout of irritability, the nursing home managers decided he “posed a threat to himself and to others” and insisted that it was medication or expulsion. The fact that no one was hurt, and that the two parties involved forgot the incident and were agreeable again right after it happened, was of no import. Even before the Lexapro, it was clear Gong-Gong’s mind inhabited a hazy land between awareness and confusion. Most of the time he doesn’t follow what’s going on, but I know all the pieces are still there — he just can’t put them all together fast enough or consistently enough to function without help. He knows faces and names, but not together; but when I catch his eye, he still gives me the smile of someone who’s known me since before I was born. About a week ago my mother sent me an email saying she’d caught him sitting in his room staring at the wall, where she’d hung the pictures and cards I made. When she asked him what he was doing, he replied, “Lisa paints very well.”

I know the small guilt I feel for visiting him so infrequently pales in comparison to the torment my mother, aunt, and uncles must experience daily for not taking him into their homes the way Chinese tradition dictates. Instead, they spend hours with him every day; in the case of my mother, the only close-by child who is not employed, she spends nearly all her time there, tending to his needs, talking to him, and badgering the more careless nurses. For the past year or more, every time I’ve talked to her, she has repeated the same stories and musings about the people and things she encounters in the nursing home — Gong-Gong’s confinement there has become her life as well as his. What she and her siblings see there has them talking regularly about their own future, a future that will not be comforted by Gong-Gong’s ample savings or the filial devotion of his children. My parents’ old age holds only the dubious promises of bank accounts depleted by three daughters’ college educations, the sporadic attentions of these same children who feel distant even now in their twenties and thirties, and the solitary miseries of the neglected elderly.


11 responses to “My grandparents

    • Thank you so much, Alan. I know, he was a tremendous character and still is, though the force of it is diluted now. There are so many things I wish I could ask him!

  1. Beautiful, sensitive piece Lisa, you’ve touched on so many things in a short space of time and words. Reminds me of a book I recently read ‘The Diaries of Jane Somers’, and I wrote about how it made me feel here…
    I love your writing prompts. But I can’t manage anything in 10-15 minutes these days! Really beginning to feel tongue-tied, I don’t know why…or maybe I’m too lazy to apply myself. Need to get over this phase asap!

    • Thank you, Munira! Ouf, that’s quite a post, and sounds like a vividly difficult book to get through. I’ve never read any Lessing either, though I keep seeing one of her books at the library booksale and wondering if I should pick it up.

      Glad you like the prompts. 🙂 I do too, though I definitely find that some days are easier than others. I guess that’s what makes it a useful daily practice! Do you go through phases where it’s easier to write than work visually (like in photos), and vice versa? I’m often that way. Like right now, I am doing a lot of writing, but I’ve barely touched my paints.

      • I’m a different person after reading it I think. It really affected me. I have several more books by her (a friend’s friend was moving and giving away his collection so we lugged a lot of ’em home) but undecided as to which one to read next. Just finished reading Deathly Hallows the second time and must say I really enjoyed it especially after watching the last movie!
        Have decided to move on to a completely new author (for me)…Anita Brookner ‘A Closed Eye’….let’s see how she/it is.
        As for the prompts, though I haven’t had the chance to sit down to write, some of them really do make me think. Lately I have been busy stitching things, and that requires a lot of focus and concentration too, but not so much that I can’t come online and check my mail and reply to comments etc 🙂
        My mom always says it’s a good idea to have a variety of different projects going on simultaneously, so when you get tired of one thing you can always move on to another and eventually it’ll all get done and you won’t get bored along the way either!

        • Ooh stitching yes, make sure to take breaks for your eyes! 😉

          I always have too many projects going on at the same time. I don’t know whether I agree with your mom or I think it’s a problem to be too occupied… probably both. 😉

  2. Lisa dear, I’m behind on my comments, but I read this when you first published it, and now again. This is such a warm and touching ode of sorts to your Gong-Gong! Sounds like he’s created quite a legacy for his family – through his giving, responsiveness, attentiveness, and support of the things that mattered most to his family, especially his grandchildren. Those are the softer, but more meaningful and impressionable things. Remember him and cherish him by them.

    While I still am very young, I look at aging a whole lot differently than when I was, say, 30. I am aware of how quickly the body, and mind, can take a different direction, and threaten to rewrite and sometimes write over, our memories and experiences that once seemed ao intrinsic to our very being. Knowing that it is a process that we can do little to derail can be disturbing, I know; but those small, tender moments – like when Gong-Gong recalls something deep within the soul, such as Lisa is an artist, and a darn good one at that – no matter how infrequent, mean so much!

    • Thank you so much, SomerEmpress! Yes indeed — both my maternal grandparents have left quite a legacy.

      “I am aware of how quickly the body, and mind, can take a different direction, and threaten to rewrite and sometimes write over, our memories and experiences that once seemed so intrinsic to our very being.” — yes yes, and I try to always remember this. And yes, it’s such a dear thing to know that Gong-Gong was (1) looking at my work and (2) remembering that I made those paintings, and (3) liked them. These days, it’s no given that all three of those things would happen at once.

  3. Pingback: Moment of silence |·

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