Summer afternoons and sunflower seeds: sharing stories with my Grandma

If you can and have the means, I highly recommend donating to the PDX Protest Bail fund, organized by the General Defense Committee Local 1. Black Lives Matter, and your help right now to support protesters is needed more than ever in the fight for equality. Thank you.

Sik fan mei, ah? If you haven’t, I recommend looking at last week’s post about summer recipes to feel something and take one of those for a spin. If you have, let’s get going~

The summer chronicles continue! As much as I enjoy the added freedom, it’s kind of depressing that most of it is still spent inside. To be honest, I have only been outside a handful of times. I went strawberry picking with some friends last week, and since then have been enjoying strawberries and vanilla ice cream everyday… it’s been five consecutive days.

Speaking of friends, I saw two of them for once! Since the pandemic was announced, I’ve been hesitant to go outside since I frequently go see my grandma. Although I’ve lamented not seeing other people (even when masked), I have been connecting with my Wa Ma, mom’s mom, 外媽, based on Cantonese pinyin, instead.

(Strap in – this is gonna be a long one.)

Family has always been kind of complicated – but who doesn’t have a weird relationship with their folks? For those who haven’t been following me since the beginning, you might’ve missed this post about my other grandma, my dad’s mom, who passed away last year. I lamented how I didn’t really have much of a relationship with her due to the language barrier (she primarily spoke Vietnamese) and memory gaps that stemmed from her dementia. Since then, I vowed I would not allow the same kind of disconnect with my Wa Ma.

Lunar New Year dinner in February

Wa Ma has a special place in my heart. She and I have always been close, since she primarily speaks Cantonese. I have shared countless meals, cracked so many bad jokes and watched a lot of Chinese television with her. She’s witty, well-spoken, and great at lightening up conversations. She is also pretty religious but a classy, bubbly socialite; she always has lipstick on and in her bag and loves to dress up, even without an occasion. In my mind, she is the definition of Being Ladylike. Much of her socializing is through sharing meals, so she used to go out a few times a week with her friends to eat lunch or dinner. No matter what time of day, she is always down to “sik wan” (吃玩, roughly interpreted to “eat for fun”) and has eyes bigger than her stomach – whenever we’re eating together, she gives me what she can’t finish. (A side note: I’m her favorite grandchild.)

Since classes have been let out for the last couple of weeks, I’ve been visiting Wa Ma multiple times a week to hang out with her, accompany her on her evening walks and eat dinner together. Since the start of the pandemic, she’s been living at my aunt’s for the time being. A couple days ago, I went over to my aunt’s, with a mission.

Last year, my grandma was diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer’s. I was shocked, and to be honest, I didn’t even get this info directly from my mom, but through a different relative. There’s something about the bridge between knowing and being known that gets shifted when suddenly you’re presented with the knowledge that at any point in time you can be Completely Forgotten.

I think most people will admit that the idea of forgetting a lifetime’s worth of memories is scary, but it’s something else to watch it happening in front of your eyes as the days, weeks, and months continue to pass. There’s a phrase that the ultimate fear is in of being known, but I believe the same can be said about being forgotten.

Me sitting across from my grandma as she stubbornly refuses to answer my questions on attempt 1 of recording her history.

So when I went over, it was the first day of my mission to document as much of her life through her life stories. Admittedly, I started this last week but she refused to say a peep, claiming her life was insignificant and uninteresting… so I didn’t count that day. I did figure out that I should use food to get her to open up, though.

She loves snacking, and since she’s been at my aunt’s, the two of them have developed a fondness for sunflower seeds. The two of them can go through a bag in just a couple days, and then it’s onto the next. If I didn’t know that they loved to eat, I would be kind of startled by how quickly the two of them go through a bag.

“It’s impossible to stop once you start!” Wa Ma laughed, as she dug in, pouring some into her hand. We had settled into the couch and I smiled as I set up my laptop on my lap.

“You’re not going to try writing my life history again, are you? It’s so dull!” she shook her head.

“But it’s interesting to me, because there’s so much I don’t know,” I replied. She scoffed and popped a seed into her mouth.

I realized in that moment if I wanted to get anywhere, it wasn’t enough to have her distracted by food that she would just start talking, but that I would have to join in. So began a few hours munching away at some sunflower seeds.

The way that my aunt’s living room is arranged is that the right side of the room is just windows, so you can see into the backyard. The house itself has a lot of natural light that comes in, so we sat bathed in sunlight, the hours that passed could be felt by the way the sun made its way around the room, until it made its way past where there were windows to stream in.

Sunflower seeds, photo courtesy of Matt Briney on Unsplash

My Wa Ma has an interesting way of eating seeds. She celebrates if she can keep the shell of the seed together while still eating the nut inside, calling the ones that break in two, four pieces the “failures.” We praised each other if we could keep the shells intact and put them on the side to count at the end of eating, while “scorning” the ones that broke. While clumsily cracking shells between my teeth, I asked questions.

My very first question was if she remembered the first time she had sunflower seeds. She scoffed and said ‘of course not.’ Okay, a bad question. I asked what her favorite memory of eating seeds was and she lit up. She reminisced about how her favorite time of year to eat seeds was during Lunar New Year, since her mom would allow her to eat the red dyed seeds and just throw the shells on the ground. The floor would be a beautiful literring of the red shells until the second day of the new year, when they then would be swept up (for context: it’s bad luck to sweep or clean on the first day of the year because you might sweep away the good luck that’s come in.)

The difficult thing about asking her questions was that she kept getting off track, or she’d start a story and it would get interrupted by another thought, or animals roaming the yard outside, so the tale would weave itself into something else entirely. She wouldn’t answer about how she chose my Wa Gong (mom’s dad) as her partner, shaking her head and saying I should ask for his recollection of the tale before she tells her side.

After a stream of follow-up questions that bounced around certain topics she was willing to talk about – other family, her early years in America, life before marriage – were from a wide variety of times in her life. At some points, there would be wide swaths of silence where I assumed she was trying to recollect a thought, but when prompting her again she would admit she forgot the memory or what I was asking her to remember in the first place.

It’s not like I’m going to lose her anytime soon physically – she’s in good health and my family have been really good about social distancing, since many of their occupations were already done from home or at one other location. But it’s still distressing to me, and I know to her too, that the sharp memory she prided herself in having is deteriorating. We have a running joke that she isn’t old, that she’s still young and beautiful, to keep up her cheerful demeanor and stay away from the reality of things.

When I’m around her and helping her around the house, getting her things and having to be patient as she repeats stories and also admitting she’s forgotten others… I feel like I’m running against the clock to take everything in before things change so much that her personality at the height of her life will be swept away by the current memories I have, of a self that is not truly her.

We finished the bag (it was about a third full when we sat down) and our day continued. It seemed unfair that I could internally be so sad while it was so gorgeous outside. Growing up had already been on my mind, but my Wa Ma had given me some more to chew on.

In weeks prior, as term had been winding down, I was feeling frustrated at the dissonance of being 21, an adult, while still being treated like a child who doesn’t know better. Growing up is hard, they say, growing old is inevitable. I remember many a night that I balled my hands into fists and rolled over the phrase in my mind as I tried grappling with the inconsistency.

The thought came back into mind a few days after that initial “interview,” when she mentioned that it was incredible to see that we (my cousins and I) were all old, all capable, and that her life has been reduced to simple pleasures of eating and lounging around.

“I can’t wait to see what you all do with your lives,” she said wistfully, staring out the window. “All I can do now is bet on which one of you will get married, then have kids. Out of my friends, I’m the last to have a great-grandchild, you know.” She laughed as she said this, her eyes twinkling as she let the half joke, half truth set in.

I laughed too (as I internally panicked). I joked back with something along the lines of, “just wait a few years, don’t worry” and the conversation drifted onto something else. But I couldn’t help but think of how people refer to different stages of a life as theater acts – as the curtain fell on one part, isn’t it chilling that it can also vanish without a trace of remembrance?

As I’m writing all this out, I’m not sure what I’m really trying to get at now, in the end. When I think back to how she’s been the last few months, I can definitely see where her memory has gotten worse and where in some places it’s been relatively the same. It’s painful to think about how much has changed, scary to think of what the future looks like, and chilling to know I have a high potential to have this very same issue in the future.

As I’ve been also grappling with the idea of self-identity, trying to be more of my authentic self, I just can’t wrap my head around what that looks like just yet – at the same time, it sounds absolutely agonizing to have a sense of self and then slowly lose that, in the case of my Wa Ma and her memories.

I am incredibly blessed that I have a great relationship with her. I appreciate all the time I can spend with her, bring her joy and help make time pass a little faster. These summer afternoons I’ll be spending with her are something I look forward to, and documenting her history as best as I can is a project I’m excited for… at the same time, no amount of sun can warm up the chill I get from remembering these days are limited.

Phew! That’s it from me today – it’s strange to be so vulnerable about this part of my life. I realize that I do have quite a few very personal posts, but this one feels different. Thanks for sticking around to read this lengthy piece, I really appreciate it. I hope you and your family are doing well through this pandemic, but just in general good too.

What did you think of my story today? Hopefully it’ll help propel you to reach out to your family. I mean, I’m gonna see her later tonight too (probably) to join her on her evening walk. What would you like to see next? I’m thinking something more food industry related, but I thought I’d bring it back home for a bit. Let me know all your thoughts in the comments below, or shoot me a Tweet or DM over Instagram.

Make sure to eat, okay? Until next week~ Em

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