The correct spelling and pronunciation of the word “maternal grandmother” in Mandarin Chinese is “Wai Puo”. When my mother sent me a letter detailing my grandmother’s condition during my second year of college, she referred to my grandmother as “Y-Po.” I thought the spelling was cute, so it stuck.
As I was growing up, we would take trips to Taiwan to visit my grandparents every few years. My grandfather passed away at the age of 93 in 1993. We were looking forward to having my grandmother, who took care of him for so long, to come live over here in the states. That spring, she was diagnosed with lung cancer.
I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to stop in Taiwan after working in China for a law conference. In that period of time, I got to see her in a different light- one I was not able to see before because of my young age. I always regretted that my grandparents weren’t around as I was growing up. My friends had grandmothers who baked cookies for them and went to their soccer games. Mine lived across the ocean, and I didn’t miss my grandparents too much, though I would feel badly when I would see my mother cry when she’d have to say good-bye to them at the airport. The last time I was able to see my grandmother, I knew then how my mother must have felt when it came time to leave so many times before.
As I stood before my mother, she said, “You have your grandmother’s back.” Y-Po’s back-strong, broad.
You could always see the outline in those light polyester dresses she wore–the same ones she washed by hand on the graying, weathered scrubbing board with the slick glycerin soap which lathered very little.
My grandmother’s dresses would hang on the clothesline in that hot, hot weather I avoided when I would visit during summers. I would be hiding in her cool bedroom upstairs where she once slept, before she slept downstairs with my ailing grandfather who could no longer climb the steps.
Cooling off on the straw woven mat on the bed, rummaging through old Archie comic books my father used to send in care packages from the states so my mother could practice her English on words such as “Jughead” and “Moose.” I would rifle through drawers and find bobby pins and hairpieces- buns my grandmother used to wear. I always thought her bun was real. My grandmother always had a big bun until the last time I saw her. Her cancer ate her hair and the big bun found its new home in her cosmetics drawer.
She talked to me and told me to shop around for a boyfriend. “The more you shop, the better you’ll find,” she said, as she gingerly extracted some peanut candy from a large jar with her black chopsticks. I watched the mole on her cheek move up and down as she chewed up that peanut candy. Y-Po had a sweet tooth. One of the few pleasures she allowed herself when she went to the market with parasol and dragging that little metal cart. I remember she once bought me colored markers that were a thousand times better than Crayola markers. (Now and then, I still find a stray marker around the house.)
And oh, those wonderful mango slices she used to chill on that white tin plate with the black rimmed edges. There was always a surplus of mangos from Y-Po’s mango trees. She made mango jam and froze little bags of mangos for later.
This time, as I massaged her legs as she sat in the wicker chair my grandfather used to occupy in front of the television, I tried so hard to remember everything I could about her, about that house, about Y-Gong. I saw my own picture on top of the television set. “People think that is your mother when she was young,” she said when she caught me looking at it. Y-Po’s back sagged a little now, a little weary…
And when I left at the airport we both knew without saying, that it was going to be the last time we would see each other in this life. And I saw her truly, clearly for the first time. My grandmother, the survivor. And do you know what she said to me? She told me to stop drinking so much soda pop. “It’s bad for you.”
Now Y-Po’s bun sits in a drawer with my mother’s make-up. My mother had a bun for a long time. She wore billowy silk bows to keep the bun up. My mother’s bun was real. And when she had her hair cut short recently, I thought of how lonely Y-Po’s bun must be sitting in that drawer.
Written on Mother’s Day (5/10/98)