Today is Qingming here in China, or “Tomb-Sweeping Day.” It’s a national holiday devoted to visiting family grave sites and honoring ancestors and those who have passed before us.
In honor of this day, I thought I would visit my grandparents in writing, offering them gifts of remembrance – celebrations of life and those bits of my own soul and personality that I believe they originally gave me.
And, to me, life is in the random little things – those moments that don’t feel particularly powerful or extraordinary in the passing, but end up being the most telling and important of them all.
So I bring you four short meditations on my grandparents. Four simple memories and acts of life that I had the honor of sharing with them – and that I will always hold close as I move forward in my own time.
We’ll start with my mother’s father.
Unfortunately, I never got to know Kung Kung very well, as he died when I was still pretty young. However, I have heard plenty of stories, and they all tell me that this one distinct memory I hold of him was quite in character:
When I was a kid, somewhere between 9 and 11 years old, I have memories of Kung Kung visiting us at our home. And in those memories – he’s always sitting in our armchair in the living room – a glass of brandy (or whiskey) in one hand, and a smile on his lips. I remember him laughing – in my mind, he’s always laughing. And in those memories, he commands the social atmosphere of the room like a captain his ship.
More clearly I remember him calling me over to his side and telling me, “You need to taste my drink.” When I asked him why, he told me that it was my duty to make sure that his drink hadn’t been poisoned, and that the only way to know was for me to take a big sip. If I died, I could rest easy that I had saved my grandfather. If I lived – well, even better.
From the shine in his eyes, I knew he wasn’t serious, and so I ended up taking a sip of his drink – and gasping and choking as the fire water burned down my throat. By the time I could breathe again, I was able to notice that Kung Kung was having similar difficulty – because he was laughing so hard.
And it’s that slightly-devilish sense of play that I find myself struck with, at times, as well. Those who know me can attest to that same gleam coming into my eyes when I get a notion that is undoubtedly going to entertain me to no end . . . and I like to think that – at those times – Kung Kung is having a good laugh with me when those times come.
Then there’s my father’s mother.
Grandma also died when I was pretty young (pretty much the same time as Kung Kung), so – again – I missed out on knowing her well. However, she also left a strong impression on me (and on my personality, as well).
Now, it’s easy for me to over-emphasize the very Russian cultural traits that were embodied in Grandma. She was truly strong beyond all imagining. Stoic. And brave. In her fight with cancer, I remember her wearing her head-wrap with such grace and determination - I never really understood how sick she was, because she was just so damn powerful and strong throughout.
And I’d like to think that I inherited even a small piece of that strength.
But – beyond her power, she exhibited traits that I have only now begun to appreciate fully – a warmth and caring which, I believe, she developed in her older years as a conscious way to temper her strength and the intimidation that could spark in others.
My clearest memories of her involved pancakes. Her cooking up special pancakes in her house as my brother and I showed her our favorite animals for her to replicate in batter. And she did it well.
Now, as I said, Grandma could be an imposing figure when she wanted to be (and then some), and she knew it. Yet, in those memories of her (and others which involve eating her alphabet soup), the overwhelming sensation that fills me is one of safety. And comfort. Because she had learned, at that point, how to use her strength to warm us – me and my brother.
And I find myself appreciating that ability more and more, as I grow older. From what folks have told me, when I am not conscious of it, I can tend to look a little less-than-friendly, and I often find myself extending extra smiles and cheer to people in compensation. And in those times when I do so successfully – I can only give my grandma credit for providing the model.
Next comes my mother’s mother.
Now, I’ve written about Ah-bu before. I could reference her strength, as well. Or her stubborn fire. But I’ve already done that.
So the memory I want to focus on today is of her and her “molecule.”
I’m not entirely sure what sparked this, but one day my brother got a gift from Ah-bu – a basketball-sized model of a (water?) molecule. It was handmade from styrofoam – hand-painted, as well.
It turns out that it was a model she had made decades before when she had been a teacher back in New York. She must have made it for demonstration purposes, but that’s not what I love about this story.
What I love is that she had kept it. For at least 20 (probably more than 30) years, she had kept that molecule model in her possession. For what? I’m not really sure. But I imagine now that she had kept it thinking, “some day, this is going to come in handy again.”
And so she took it to her home when she stopped teaching. She took it with her from New York when she and Kung Kung moved to California. She kept it in their apartment after he passed.
And then, one day, she decided that the molecule’s purpose had arrived, and she gave it to my brother.
Again – I don’t even remember why she gave it to him (my brother was hardly a “science-y” guy). But I remember the astonishment we all felt when he got it.
And – oddly – I think of that little molecule model often. I don’t even know why, exactly. But it seems to represent Ah-boo’s tenacity and faith. At some point, she decided that that molecule had a purpose beyond use in her classroom, and so she lugged it around with her (without breaking it) for years, just waiting.
And I can only imagine the feeling of triumph that rushed through her when she decided that she had to give that molecule to my brother, because it’s time had come, and her faith had been proven worthy.
Maybe that strange, ridiculous story gives me hope in doing the work I have chosen to do. When I pour my faith and belief into a better world coming out of tomorrow – and so seldom see evidence to support that fact. But I think – if Ah-boo could push through decades without throwing away that model, and end up with her success on the other end; maybe that same weird faith that courses through my veins will end up with its own moment of triumph on the back-end, as well.
Finally, we come to my father’s father.
I have quite a few memories of Grandpa, but the ones that stand out the strongest to me all revolve around his love of learning. From the thousands of National Geographic magazines stocking the shelves at the farm to his vast mineral collection, being around Grandpa always entailed learning something new.
But one of my fondest memories is of him sitting on the porch-swing at the farm, with a cup (not a glass – a cup) of his home-made dandelion wine in his hand.
I can see him there so clearly – telling us all about the process of making dandelion wine. How he picked the dandelions. The feel of the juiciest stalks. Pressing the juice.
In his well-worn plaid shirt; relaxed and happy as his soothing voice wrapped us all up and took us into his world. The joy of discovery and learning as tangible as the cup of wine in his hand.
And I tasted that wine, and I have to be honest – I didn’t find it so delicious. But Grandpa? He loved the stuff. And now, I wonder: Did he love drinking the wine because he liked the taste of it? Or was it for completely different reasons?
In my opinion, it wasn’t really about the liquid at all. Instead, it was that the wine represented a discovery. The wine was a physical embodiment of learning in action; the trial-and-error and steady improvement that comes from all the most satisfying learning experiences. And he had so many to cherish.
So, for Grandpa? Every time he got the chance to sit down with a cup of dandelion wine – and an audience – it represented the chance to share a discovery, and hold it up to the light for everybody else to see (and taste).
And for me? I don’t drink dandelion wine (although I’ve thought about trying to make some numerous times). But I know exactly that feeling he got from making it. The discoveries and examination and joy of finding out about something new – something that may have already existed in the world, but never existed before in his own experience, and which he got to – rightly – claim as his own due to that fact.
It’s this same love for learning and exploration that pushes me to constantly strive for better understanding and self-improvement. And I only hope that I can channel even a small degree of Grandpa’s energy in doing so.
And so this particular set of offerings is set before them all.
Ah-boo, Kung Kung, Grandma, Grandpa – I loved (and love) you all, and I thank you so much for these pieces of life that you gave me. May I hold them and grow them until I have become a man that would make you all proud. I hope that wherever you all are now is filled with laughter, warmth, rewarded faith, and continued opportunities to learn and improve.