Grandmothers are like fairy godmothers, wise, kind, and loving, or at least, the female version of Dumbledore. That was my impression of grandmothers before the summer of 2015. So, when my own grandmother announced that she was coming to Canada with my grandfather to visit for a month, I expected the same. In my mind, I conjured an image of my grandmother and I sitting by the fireside. She would recall unbelievable stories from her younger years,offering me life-changing advice along the way. I didn’t know it then, but that summer would turn out entirely different from what I had imagined, and I would find myself, at last, truly understanding her.
Right before her flight, my grandmother called. Her excited voice boomed through the phone as she spoke of all the dishes she would cook and the many gifts she had selected for us: school stationery for me and snacks for my mother. It seemed like the tiny phone could barely contain her exhilaration. Just as thrilled as she was, I vowed to be the best grandchild possible, planning each trip to every park and mall during their visit.
Instead of going on the exciting trips that I had planned for them, my grandparents often chose to stay at home as they tired easily. Instead of having long intimate conversations, my grandmother often chided me for “speaking too quickly,” and ended our conversations before they began. And worse yet, instead of praising me for being the best grandchild, I was constantly being told to learn from my articulate twenty-nine-year-old cousin.
These incidents angered me. So instead of being the perfect child that I had vowed to be, I decided to be the complete opposite, distancing myself,and sometimes annoying them by banging on my piano loudly. My more outgoing grandfather and I had always gotten along, and our endless discussions over kung-fu novels returned him quickly to my good graces. My grandmother, on the other hand, sat silently during our discussions, sometimes outraging me with insistent demands for dinner meal requests. However, despite my best efforts, I could never bring myself to refuse my grandmother’s sublime suppers out of spite.
Slowly though, I noticed that perhaps my grandmother was not the same cold figure as I perceived. Despite my attempts to upset her, her demeanor remained even. Rather than the anger and disappointment I expected, she continued to wake up early every morning with the single goal of rousing me. And every night, despite my preference to stay up late practicing my pieces, she always forced herself to stay awake and keep me company through those midnight oil hours, ensuring that I wouldn’t get lonely. No matter when I’d ask her to listen to my piano playing, she would always stop her current task to offer me her full attention and deliver her most honest opinions. And although it was her first time being outside Asia, it never seemed to occur to her that she came to travel. Instead, what consumed her was the sense of responsibility and duty to provide us with the best dishes she could prepare every meal of every day.
That sense of duty persisted stubbornly to the hour before her departure. That afternoon, after one last careful inspection of her and my grandfather’s bags, with a notepad in hand, she urged my mother and me to request the dishes we want her to cook for our last dinner together. Ushering my unwilling grandfather away from his iPad to assist her with the preparations, grandmother spent the entire afternoon in the kitchen, preparing every traditional Chinese dish we requested, ensuring that every detail was tailored to her standard. At last, with almost a youthful joy, she presented us with the proud product of her hard work and watched with fulfillment as we savored in her dish.
It was then that I truly realized the faults in my previous misconceptions. Indeed, she was not the openly doting elder that I had previously imagined. Instead, she was taciturn, serious, and therefore, often appeared distant. She expressed her care not via heartfelt fireside conversations, but rather through her every carefully crafted dish. Mealtimes allowed her to express nonverbal care, and allowed us to reciprocate with appreciation and gratitude; is it any surprise she loved to watch us eat? I understood that although she was never someone with words, she loved us in her own unassuming ways all the same.
Standing in the airport lobby, I watched as my grandmother’s frail form followed my grandfather to the gates. Suddenly, she stopped as if she recalled something important. She began walking towards me. In her habitual reservation, grandmother pulled me into a stiff hug and whispered, “you come back to China next year. I’ll cook you your favorite chestnut and chicken.”