About two weeks ago, my po-po (maternal grandmother) passed away. At the funeral, several members of my family patched together a more complete look at her life than I had ever heard. I knew that she had come to Canada under her sister’s name, but when that happened and how she met my gong-gong (maternal grandfather) never came up. My uncles talked about her as a mother and what they learned from her. They mentioned her liveliness, her quiet leadership, her self-sufficiency, her dedication to family. Many stories from my sisters and cousins revolve around food, which is much of what I remember as well.
Since she passed, I have tried several times to write about her and failed, so I’m taking the easy way out and being self-aware. My blog posts tends to be formulaic: I start with a story about a recent event, then meander through my thoughts and extrapolate wildly. Somewhere along the way, I hit the hopefully profound moment of insight, share it, then wrap it back around to the original story as the close. For my po-po, it took one draft to get the lesson I wanted, but I couldn’t bridge the gap between a central story to that lesson.
I will again cop-out of real structure and say that it wasn’t a failing of writing to come up with the story: the problem is that the influence of my po-po is greater than can be expressed so concisely in a blog post. Instead, she has weaved herself through my life so deeply that I can only recognize the bits of it, which follow in a scattered manner.
Physically, there are the plates and bowls passed through my family. These bowls have held countless bowls of cereal and held beaten eggs for many baked goods. These aren’t family heirlooms, though: they’re the dishes from airplane meals that you get your bread roll in.
Although I probably wouldn’t take a tray myself, I do remember the jars of smarties and 2-cracker packages of saltines, probably carried off from Chinese buffets in a napkin. And I remember waking up one morning to see my po-po carefully transferring individually wrapped pats of butter into a butter tray. I got through college by snagging cereal and milk from dinner the night before or stashing an apple or orange for breakfast.
Once a year, a clan of old Chinese people would caravan between Toronto cemeteries to visit the graves of their ancestors. There were lots of seemingly creepy people, and it was mostly riding in the car, but what 5-year old Kevin did know was that every attendee received a bag with a styrofoam box of Chinese food and a can of Sprite. A can of Sprite worth a day in my life.
So I happily sat in the middle, fold down front seat of the Cadillac between my grandparents. I couldn’t have sat in the backseat had I wanted to because it would be filled with luggage and supplies for every contingency. My po-po had extensive pillows for the marathon drives they would take to drive to Florida or Palm Springs, or later on, Houston when my family moved. My legs dangled, which was also okay, because there were glass jars of candies, sweet and salty dried orange peels, dried prunes that could either be delicious or disgusting based on the color of the writing (which I never did figure out), and other assorted snacks. And there would always be the huge thermos filled with tea.
I don’t remember really having too many in-depth conversations with my po-po. Her English was fine, though maybe it would have helped if I had known more Toisan. I do remember a lot of commands and laughs, though.
I once got a yellow “old-timers baseball” t-shirt from her that even today would be way too big. She gave it to me one day while at the cottage out of my grandpa’s collection, and I can’t possibly fathom the reason for it beyond my interest in baseball. Despite that, I ended up wearing it from several years.
Her Christmas gifts typically came in cardboard boxes wrapped in newspaper. Inside, I could expect half-rolls of girl scout cookies and other assorted goodies. I haven’t confronted my mom about it, but my mom’s last Christmas present was a cardboard box filled with assorted cooking equipment, and also a half-package of soap.
The simplest way to put what I learned from my po-po is that I learned how to be cheap, but I think the trivializes all of the intentions behind it. What’s so ironic is that because of her and my parents and grandparents, I have never been in a situation where frugality was necessary. Her dedication to family enabled the wonderful life I have, where saving is just norm. She taught me that what really matters is providing for and being there for the people you care about, and it’s worth enduring discomfort to have saved a bit of cash or driven across the country to make that happen. Stretch a little here and there to be able to spend time, the most limited resource, to truly have a fulfilling life.