Written by Anita (Sicen) Hua
In this dream, I have been taken back to the Spring of 2010, when I was running across pebbled roads, over arched bridges, and in between rows of blooming jasmine flowers. I mingled with the vim and vigor of my surroundings, my cheeks covered in mud and the rims of my shoes abraded from too much activity. After a while of tireless dancing and hopping around, I stopped in front of a door. Its knob was almost as tall as I was, and the whole door was covered with papers of cursive Chinese calligraphy – my “phenomenal” works of “impressionism,” as I would profess them. My heart pumped with excitement to greet the face behind that door, a face that I longed to see. Every time I came, I would batter the door and yell, “It’s me! It’s me!” until Taipopo fetched the door open.
“Look, it’s my grand-daughter!” She opened the door for me while pretending to be utterly surprised by my arrival. “What wind blows you here?”
I winked at my mother standing behind her. “A good wind!” Reaching for her arms, I pretended not to notice all the delicious dishes exhibited on the tables and the huge packs of snacks that lay on the floor – signs of preparation in advance. Back then, Taipopo lived by herself. She wasn’t a picky eater, so she usually cooked whatever she had for that day. Yet the dishes varied upon my arrival – she remembered perfectly my preferences in Chinese cuisine to the tiniest detail – no vinegar on anything, no sliced ginger in chicken soup, no pork but corn in fried rice, three spoons of soy sauce with spinach, pre-fried tomatoes with cabbage, and much more.
After our intimate greeting, it was time for lunch as we – Mom, Taipopo and I – eventually sat down to a small table. I was always the first to sneak a piece of okra into my bowl, and Mom was always on me for that. “Manners, Hua Hua. You eat after Taipopo says so.” Ugh. Mom was always so stubborn with the rules of filial piety. I secretly rolled my eyes at her and waited for Taipopo’s nod.
“No need for all that! Eat! The soup is getting cold!” Taipopo nudged Mom gently, filled a bowl with chicken soup and handed it to me. Soon afterwards, my plates were piled up with flavors from every dish, all made by her with the freshest ingredients.
I can recall the afternoons that we spent together even still. Overwhelmed by the excitement of the visits, I would usually nap with my head on Taipopo’s lap. She would absent-mindedly comb my hair with her beautiful hands while Mom chatted about some past memories I knew nothing about. Her magical fingers that lingered through my hair would give it a mild coolness, as if my hair was being brushed over by a piece of silk. I would then close my eyes and step into a wonderland of dreams, my mind resting with the tranquil sound of tea being poured into cups and the gentle prattle of the two I loved.
Before Taipopo was afflicted by the ineffable pain of permanent amnesia, she often made a remark on how much I had grown between visits. “Look how tall you are! You are a beautiful woman now!” she’d say, her eyes bending like the moon arcs. I would then blush and laugh at her flattering words, and remind her that she must have been much more elegant in her youth.
“As if I am not right now!” She would pretend to frown, yet the huge smile on her red cheeks showed her happiness towards my words as she would hand me a jar of coconut candy. It was our little ritual.
The coconut candies, branded “Chunguang,” were unquestionably our favorites. I could not stop tearing the white wrappers off from one candy, followed by another as the mild sweetness of the snack became a symbol of the connection between me and Taipopo. We could sit there all day making “paper humans” out of a pile of candy wrappers –a skill I had learned from my matriarchs.
During these much beloved visits with Taipopo, Mom always looked truly happy. She would sit and watch us talk. Once, when we were back on the train to Shanghai after a visit, I asked her, “Why are you always so happy when you are with Taipopo?”
“Taipopo was the nicest to me.” Mom paused for a while before she began a story of reminiscence that took both of us back to her childhood. Born in a patriarchal family of three kids, Mom was the oldest and the only girl. Old convention has it that girls should be raised as strong housewives; boys as learned intellectuals. Mom was inevitably allocated with the greatest workload—fetching firewood, cleaning the house, and tending the animals. Convention and the common mindsets of that time became burdens on her that left her with little opportunities to educate and set a path for herself.
“Taipopo gave me her work money so I could buy myself some textbooks and some unpatched, new clothes,” Mom said, her eyes glittering in the dim environment of the train. “When I was in middle school, colored pencils became a trend and an indication of ‘popularity’. Yep. I was the class president that year, and I wanted those colored pencils MORE THAN ANYTHING. Yet there was no way that I could get them. How could you afford these luxuries when the source of your next meal is always a concern? So, I turned my mind to thievery.
“It wasn’t hard at all. All you had to do was to snatch a colored pencil from your desk neighbor’s pencil case. A piece of cake, we call it. Yet when Grandma discovered my delinquency, she ‘beat me up’—it was the first and last time ever. She had tears on her face when she slapped the belt on my back. The belt eventually broke,” Mom let out a tiny laugh, “Grandma eventually got tired, and she returned to her room without bidding me ‘Good Night’ like she always did. Afterwards, I didn’t see her for the entire next two weeks.
“On the third week, when I returned home, I saw a color-patterned box on my desk. A feeling of warmth emerged in my heart when I saw 10 neatly aligned colored pencils within the box. I immediately knew it was Grandma. It was a gift from her! I opened the door of her room to find her folding clothes in her wardrobe. We didn’t usually hug each other in our family, but I dashed to her and hugged her as tightly as I could.”
“‘Don’t bother me!’ Grandma said. Her eyes were filled with worry and indulgence, though she still pretended to be angry at me. She always let her pride get in the way.” Mom chuckled, “I remembered when I looked back as I shut the door of her room, I realized for the first time how fragile and tiny her silhouette looked. She must have worked endlessly to get me this gift.”
Since then, Mom has always aspired to be an educated and strong woman. The disciplines and admonition from Taipopo drove the stemming belief of feminism in her mind, and with a chance of one in ten thousand, Mom walked out from the poor neighborhood and set the path forward herself. “Of course, there were hard times, but I know that I am always Grandma’s girl. I promised to myself that I would return to her with pride and triumph every time.”
We still paid our visits to Taipopo, but less frequently since the Summer of 2016, when I became a 5-day boarder. In phone calls home, I was told she had aged quickly, and many of our relatives less affluent might perceive her as a financial burden. “She could not recall any of our names,” Aunt Shen said to me, with a mild flush of anxiety and melancholy in her tone. My hands shook uncontrollably when I hung up the call. My worst fear of all times had laid his hands on my beloved one, and I could do nothing but to breath in helplessness.
Mom began to have frequent headaches. They became more severe in winter, thus hindering her work because she had to take fitful pauses in between big projects. During these times, I would lie beside her, holding her cold palms together, and gently massaging her temple. “Mom, are you okay?” Mom…”
She did not answer me; I knew she was thinking of Taipopo again.
My two years of boarding life went relatively fast, and within was the last time I would see my Taipopo —before the careless whispers of 2018 carried her away in a winter night. An array of flowers bloomed, radiating mixed fragrances and greeting me “hello” as I rambled along the riverbank in my hometown as I had done many times before. The tender spring breeze blew on me, generating cascades of flower petals that fell on my shoulders –flower tears, as I call them. The tears were pure yet fragile –I thought I had them in my palms, yet they slipped away only moments later in silence, leaving me with strands of recollection. They somehow reminded me of Taipopo, who I had been warned might already have forgotten my name.
I walked up the stairs, and there was the door. Suddenly, I saw the girl – who, with muddy cheeks and abraded shoes, stood right in front of me—I watched her banging crazily on the door, and then be welcomed in with applauses and warmth from an amiable old lady. I smiled at their sweetness, as the conversations and cacophony from the immediate surroundings pulled me back to reality. My hand paused in the air for minutes before I forced an attempt of a meticulous knock.
What greeted me inside was lifelessness. The grey, lofty walls crammed everything into a small space. On the left side of the room was a small bed and some flower-patterned sheets, and on the right side, a tiny table with empty boxes of finished biscuits. The arrangement of furniture and ornaments was rather sloppy, and right in the middle were two armchairs. On these chairs sat Mom and Taipopo.
I went forward as Mom stood up, holding my hands in her palms. Noticing how abnormally cold and sweaty they were, I knew immediately – Taipopo had forgot about both of us.
Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry. I closed my eyes, as the pressure exerted by my eye lids was enough to push back the emerging flames of tears. Smile for her; remember how she loves it. I put on my brightest smile and leaned towards Taipopo. “Taipopo, I am here! How have you been doing recently?” I waited to see if my much-loved nickname for her would trigger any recognition.
“Hao…” she mumbled, “Pretty good…” Avoiding my eye contact, she continued staring blankly at the wall. A corner in my chest, poked by blade after blade, shattered – she had forgot.
“I am glad to hear that you are doing well…” I bowed and clenched my fists.
Taipopo, I brought you something. Your favorite coconut candies. They were sold out in most of the stores in Shanghai, but I found them at a local market. I know that you could not chew them anymore, but do you remember what we would do with the wrappings? Remember when you taught me how to fold a wrapper in half and make a knot on the top, so it becomes a “paper human?” This was our little ritual! We used to do them all the time, Taipopo. Do you still remember how to fold them? I would love to teach you again, and again, and again… Like how you used to teach me. Boarding lives are busy, though, and I might not see you again till next year. I hope you can carve me –your little goofball— in your mind; I hope you are smiling like you always do; I hope you can FaceTime Mom more often; I hope…
“I am glad to hear that you are doing well…We…We really miss you!” Was all I could actually say, with the same, immaculate smile that I had learned in drama class.
Especially Mom. She misses you so much. She has told me so much about you. Thank you for supporting her unconditionally since the day she was brought into this world with a lens of stereotypes and conventionalism thrown toward girls. She is, because you are.
That night, we returned without stories but with heavy hearts. The train’s lights were dimmed, casting shadows on Mom, making her look paler and more emaciated than ever. For the first time, I saw a fragile and insecure little girl beneath her armors of education, excellence and strength. That same night, I told myself that I would do anything to protect that little girl.
How “ever” is forever?
Years later, as I was discussing this concept of “forever” with my friend, he said, “Defining moments that seem to be short in regard to time actually become an inseparable part of you, are what last ‘forever’.” When you look in retrospect at a person or a time period, these moments are what you find in your memory reserve.” How romantic is this idea of eternity? Something even I, as a subscriber of romanticism, would laugh off at the time.
Yet, I was proven wrong by this dream in the summer of 2020 that grows out from my memory. When I woke up from it, I did not find myself grieving. Instead, I was content—even happy—memories that had lay dormant for years were revealing themselves, painting picture after picture of my childhood. Those moments of Taipopo using a phone for the first time and exclaiming: “I look very young in that selfie!” Moments of her holding my hands and “admiring” my youth. Moments of her encouraging me to pursue whatever I desire.
And more moments of her telling me to give myself a break—and more–they are and will continue to be my eternity. They are what have been preserved, free from the causticity of time and the cruelty of space and separation. They bind me to my mother and they bind me to my heritage…a legacy of women and a legacy of love.
Thank you, Taipopo. I will see you soon in my dreams.