My paternal grandfather is one of my favourite people.
At age 66, he was finally a grandfather when I was born in 1984. (As an aside, we only recently figured out my Grandpa’s real age. Grandpa had an on-going joke with us, for as long as I can remember, that his Chinese horoscope is “Elephant”. I think it started as a joke because elephants are afraid of rats, and Grandpa teased me for being a Rat. That gives you an idea of the playful grandfather I had. Unfortunately for us, Grandpa also had the memory and persistence of an elephant, so it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that a relative finally revealed Grandpa’s age.)
From what my dad and my uncles say, Grandpa was a strict disciplinarian when they were kids, never hesitating to whip them with belts whenever they misbehaved. Yet the grandfather he became was incredibly patient and expressively loving. I think that change in him surprised everyone.
Growing up, I had a storybook grandfather: the kind, elderly gentleman who was involved in his grandchildren’s lives. I remember school days when I was just in junior kindergarten, when Grandpa would step in and take me to school if my parents were busy. He would make sure my school uniform was neat and tidy, my nametag properly pinned on, before letting me through the doors to join my friends. After school, he would be waiting at the gates for me to take me home, and feed me lunch or dinner accompanied by big canned peach slices that I used to love so much at that age. As I grew older and our routines changed, Grandpa continued to accompany me to school if my dad couldn’t drop me off. In fact, our tradition continued all the way up until my family moved away from Taipei, when I was 11 years old. I remember in third or fourth grade, Grandpa spent some mornings taking a taxi across the city, just to stand by my school bus stop with me at 7:30AM, to make sure that I got to school safely. Although I was old enough to be standing a couple of blocks away from our apartment, I loved Grandpa’s company in the mornings. He would tell me stories, update me on what had been happening in the world since he woke up at 4:30AM, and give me a nice shiny coin to buy myself a treat.
Grandpa preferred shiny coins, pristine dollar bills, and very square loaves of bread. He is a former military man who loves order and tidiness. Whenever he gave red pocket money for Chinese New Year, he insisted to bank tellers that he wanted the newly minted crisp bills. Whenever I was tasked to pick up bread for him on our way over for dinner, I spent a good couple of minutes inspecting all the bread in the bakery before picking out the most uniform and square loaf of bread. Grandpa took the same kind of care on his appearance. He always dressed in a pressed shirt, trousers, and a suit jacket outside of the house. Ties and vests were reserved for special occasions, with a selection of gold and silver tie clips to match. His hair may have greyed and thinned long ago, but he maintained regular appointments with his barber to keep a tidy and distinguished coif. He once told me to never eat while walking, and I adhered to this golden rule until I found myself absolutely starving and rushing between classes in university. On top of not eating, Grandpa was a lifelong smoker, but I honestly can’t even picture him ever smoking while walking down the street. However, appearances aside, Grandpa was never “above” anything – he kept up with taking buses and enjoyed the new subway system until my dad and uncles intervened and begged him to take taxis for all occasions, not just for rainy days.
Grandpa even dressed up in a suit to go to the traditional market down the hill from his house every morning. (I cringe when I think about what he might say if he saw me in my old sweatpants and salt-stained Uggs, cruising the aisles of Sainsbury’s.) On days when my sister and I were visiting, Grandpa shopped around the fruit stands to pick out the biggest guavas and juiciest mangoes for us. After dinner, his excitement would be palpable as he took to his post in front of the kitchen sink to wash and prepare the fruits. He loved to indulge us. This is a man who never missed our birthdays, holidays, our preferences for food, and our childish need to be indulged. After dinner and fruit, with the family relaxing in front of the TV (and drinking Grandpa’s favourite green tea), Grandpa always had a trick up his sleeve – literally. He would hide a Japanese candy up his sleeve, twist his arms about like a magician might have done, and produce a little candy for each of us. I don’t know when the tradition started, but even after we moved away to Canada, Grandpa remembered to keep some candies whenever we visited.
After we moved away, Grandpa struggled to stay active in our lives. He never expressed any frustration, but with actions he showed us how much he still wanted to be involved. Shortly after we moved to Canada, my sister’s second grade teacher hosted a Chinese New Year party to introduce the kids to different cultures. As an accomplished calligrapher, Grandpa volunteered to write out every student’s name in Chinese, after my parents and I helped to translate the names of thirty children. Throughout the years after we moved away, we visited at first regularly, then intermittently. Grandpa managed to visit us once during the summer holidays, and I loved having him around. However, that summer was also the first summer I noticed the slight bend in his posture as his age began to show. (Subsequently I wrote a non-fiction essay about Grandpa, which won a writing prize in the school district.) By the time my high school graduation rolled around in 2002, Grandpa was well in his eighties. Everyone was taken aback when he expressed his determination to attend my graduation. Grandpa responded, “I’m old, and I want to be as involved as I can be, before I get too old to travel or die!” With that, Grandpa came to my high school graduation and spent some time with us in Vancouver. He was right – it was going to be too difficult to him to make the 15-hour journey to my university graduation, so my high school graduation was the last of my life milestones that he attended.
I’m not very good with the aging process, having moved so far away from my grandparents at a young age. It has been difficult for me to not only hear about Grandpa’s health deteriorating in the past four or five years, but also emotional to see the helplessness in my grandparents’ eyes whenever I visited. Grandpa will be 95 this summer, and his body has just simply started to shut down slowly after a lifetime of hard work – a war fought, a new family established in a new country, and three children raised. As much as he wanted to, by the time I visited in 2007, Grandpa had changed so much that his body couldn’t really keep up with him anymore. That was the first summer Grandpa looked at me in surprise when I said I liked mangoes. For a moment we just stared at each other, both with expressions of instant disappointment and shock – me saddened by the first obvious sign that Grandpa really was getting old, and him saddened by the loss of control over his own memories.
Aside from being a great grandfather, Grandpa was also a great family man, given the generation he came from. My grandmother is in her eighties, but to this day she does not know how to do laundry, or how to cook rice better than Grandpa. Grandpa woke up every morning at 4:30AM to take care of laundry, and prepared breakfast for himself as well. On days when I had sleepovers when I was young, I loved Grandpa’s breakfast, too – perfectly square pieces of toast with Hershey’s chocolate syrup drizzled on top. Chocolate toast, combined with the prospect of stealing Grandpa’s “sleeping hat”, made my childhood sleepovers with my grandparents that much memorable today.
On my visit to Taipei with my mom in 2009, my mom urged me to take photos with all of my grandparents, and I found that I was unable to accomplish such a simple task with Grandpa. In my mind, the picture of him will always remain a gentleman who stood tall in his three-piece suit, with a booming voice, looking serious – that is, until his next chance to get silly with his grandchildren.
Spring break with Grandpa & Grandma in 1996 | Grandpa in his element in 1989 in Gansu, China
(This blog post has taken me almost a year to put together. I find I’ve had so much to say, so many memories, that I never felt I found the right moment to publish. Today is the day. I’ve spent the morning putting together a slideshow of Grandpa’s photos. His health is really teeter-tottering at the moment, and has been since March last year. The photos have brought smiles and tears to my face. I only wish I knew more about Grandpa’s 95 years of life.)
(Errata: some corrections & additions made on 12/2/2012 after input from family.)