Age: 16, Grade: 11
School Name: Poly Prep Country Day School-Uppr, Brooklyn, NY
Educator: Sarah Whalen
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
My grandmother wailed as she caught me attempting to climb up the mango tree in her backyard. Hands held tightly onto the rough bark above my head, I peered ahead, trying to find another crevice for my fingers to grasp onto. My skin was glistening with perspiration as my seven-year old eyes noticed my grandmother running towards me, and before I could escape, her calloused hands already took hold of my thin arm.
“But Ma, I want that mango!” I shouted, transcribing my desperation into words. About a meter above my head was a ripe, sunset mango whose flesh and juices were begging to run down my cheeks. Instead of climbing to the top like I had intended to, she plucked my arms and legs away from the branches and held me close to her breast. Her crimson face attracted the sun’s streaming rays, her thin eyebrows furrowing as she took a step back. Putting one hand on each of my shoulders, she exhaled in disapproval at my clothes that were bestowed with stains of fresh dirt.
Ushering me into her house, she sat me down at a chair next to the mahogany table that was against the kitchen wall. Walking over to the stove, she reached her hand to grab the handle of a straw basket above on a cupboard and gently placed it on the table in front of me.
“Go choose a mango from here. A ripe one!” she exclaimed, her eyes crinkling as joy tugged at the corners of her lips. During the warm summers in southern China, my grandmother made it a priority to tend her mango tree, which always nurtured juicy fruit that tasted like tropical candy. Wasting no time, my small hands rummaged through the basket greedily and squeezed the plump mangoes softly, trying to spot the ripest. Nearing the bottom of the basket, I pulled out a mango that was sprinkled with brown, peppered flecks and laced with the sweet fragrance of ruby roses. It was not too soft, yet not too hard. Just perfect.
My grandmother cut down the sides of the mango, its tangy juice spilling out onto the kitchen counter. My mouth watered, a thunderstorm threatening to flood within me as I observed her swift movements. After slashing the mango’s inner flesh into cubes, she placed it in my palm. A slice of treasure laid in front of me. I nibbled on a tiny portion on the edge of the piece, tingling with vivacious excitement. It was sweet.
My grandmother wanted me to remember how to write my name. During one of her visits to America, she brought her calligraphy materials in hopes of passing on her skills to her eight-year old granddaughter. Pouring a tablespoon of water onto her wooden ink tray, she grinded the butt of her ink stick, rubbing it back and forth on the tray’s smooth surface as if to start a small fire. Watching in amazement, the glassy water darkened into a deep ebony. Dipping the wooden calligraphy brush into thick, obsidian ink in one hand and flattening down the rice paper with her other, embellished in deep, black strokes was my Chinese name. Rendered into English, it simply meant elegant and beautiful. She transferred the long brush from her hand to my small palm, fixed my fingers upon the handle so that it was held in the correct way, and guided my hand onto a fresh piece of paper. Possessing a mind of its own, the brush swayed left and right until it completed its graceful dance, imprinting my name onto the paper forever. She pressed down gently on my other hand, which was planted right under the upper left corner of the tainted sheet. Trying to mimic how my grandmother had lifted her hand off the paper, I slowly brought my arm up after the last stroke and looked over at my grandmother. The sunlight spilling out from the window casted an entrancing shine into my grandmother’s eyes when she held the paper upwards, looking for any stray marks. She let out a sigh of relief upon observing my markings, and she took it to the porch to dry.
A few days later, it was hung up in the middle of my bedroom wall.
“This is you. Remember that,” she murmured to me, her warm hands squeezing the sides of my thin shoulders, her almond eyes examining my bewildered expression from the side. My eyes growing wider, they glanced at the stark contrast between the periwinkle wall and the black, Chinese characters.
My grandmother was diagnosed with severe Alzheimer’s two years prior to her permanent move to America. Her memory was gradually slipping away, and immediately, I assumed the role of a caregiver.
“Ma is very forgetful, so we have to take good care of her,” my mother reminded me.
The first time I saw my grandmother after she arrived to the States, I just came home from school. Expecting her to be at the front door to greet me, I was met with a deafening silence. She was supposed to be in our apartment. Peering at the living room, my grandmother was leaning on the cream-colored recliner with her eyes closed, and she turned around after my feet were mounted on the creaky, oak boards lining the entrance. Her beady eyes stared me down, her stone face empty of expression as she stayed in place.
I tried to avert making eye contact, for her stare overwhelmed me with fear and bewilderment. Why wasn’t she coming to give me a hug? Was I supposed to go to her and give her a hug? And why didn’t she greet me? Remembering my mother’s words, I stayed motionless, not knowing how to approach her in a way that could ease the uncomfortable silence.
Before I had a chance to eliminate the dead air, she asked, “Who are you?”
Crimson. The sound of my heartbeat elevated to my ears, its pounding evading the vigorous silence that I loathed. My eyes widened, my hands clammy, a swollen river threatening to spill from my eyes. My throat closed up more and more as my chest tightened. It never struck me that she would forget about me completely. My mother hadn’t mentioned how much of her memory had faded away. It had only been three years since we last saw each other.
She scrunched her nose, deep ridges forming above her eyebrows, and gazed at me once again. Devoid of affection, her blank, black pupils drilled holes through my forehead, my skin heating up as my blood bubbled from the rising tension. Her barren eyes scanned my face carelessly. What was she looking at?
A stranger in my own home, a stranger to my grandmother. I ceased to exist.
Not being able to withhold my tears any longer, I gritted my teeth as my shaking legs made a dash for my bedroom down the narrow hallway in front of me. I shut the door before my grandmother could say anything else. Leaning my back against the front of the bed frame with my arms wrapped around my knees, I allowed the coursing river to run down my cheeks. It came running down like the sweet juices from my grandmother’s mangoes that I used to savor, but she would always wipe them away with a warm towel afterwards. The salty river dried up, tainting the soft surface of my plump, rosy cheeks. I hastily wiped the tears that welled up against my puffy eyelids.
Feeling a pang of guilt for leaving my grandmother alone, I was ashamed for finding solace from the silence in my room. Instead of taking care of my grandmother while my mother was gone, the courage to leave never came. Even if I bothered to step out, all she’d see would be nothingness. Emptiness. The one who brought me the most joy could also transport me to a deep melancholy.
Still sitting on the cold floor, I raised my foot and thumped it back violently on the surface in fervent frustration. The wooden slats trembling, my body was a thunderstorm, my legs transformed into lightning. Clouded by self-pity, I cried more in blazing anger at my grandmother. How could she forget her own granddaughter? My tears, trailing down like boiling lava, burned my cheeks.
But I was at fault too. I didn’t tell her my name.
Lifting my head up, the hot tears left dark, wet stains on my light wash jeans. As I blinked away the remaining salty tears, my gaze was directed towards the peeling periwinkle paint in my bedroom. To the left was a sheet of rice paper that was laced with thick, unfaded ink.
IV. My Turn
My grandmother always told me about her youth. Her recollections included reminders of how she cultivated a potato farm with her parents when food was scarce in her village, or how she housed runaway families during Mao’s reign. The way the words streamed out of her mouth, often enriched with her own theatrical twist, transported me into her reality as she tried to bring me back to her past.
“All of my stories are your mother’s stories, and all of your mother’s stories are your stories too,” she told me. I was to keep these stories safe and to bear them to my own children in the future.
Courage coursed through my grandmother’s veins, but it never flowed far enough to reach me. People always assume that as one grows up, they learn to stop crying, to wipe their tears away with the back of their hands. They’re supposed to muster up strength within them to move forward, to acknowledge their flawed past and move on to the future.
However, that was not my case. I tried to cling onto the past, to cling onto the stories that my grandmother had shared with me, to cling onto the memories that we created together. I pleaded for time to stop, afraid that these anecdotes would slip away through my feeble fingers as the future drew closer. As I grew up, though, those stories became a source of tenacity, and I unraveled a newfound sense of security from my reminiscence.
My grandmother’s Alzheimer’s still continued to deteriorate her memory. During the first few years of her time after permanently moving to America, I was a paper doll. Her empty eyes pierced through me like bullets as if I were invisible. Oftentimes, she still couldn’t decipher who I was in relation to her, and it felt like a blow to my back every time she asked who I was. She would see me standing there, but she couldn’t recognize the times that we spent together in the past. My weightless body drifted further away from my grandmother as her recollections of us dwindled. It was only a short matter of time before I became numb. Internalizing my pain, knowing that she had almost no chance of ever recollecting our relationship again, I learned to cower. Rather than finding my own strength, I tried to sweep my despair under the rug, hoping that no one would notice it under the dust.
My mother, grandmother, and I found ourselves going back to my grandmother’s village in China to retrieve important articles that she left behind. It’d been two years after her relocation, and my grandmother sat in the passenger seat, staring outside the tinted window as we passed by wheat plains in the countryside. As always, I tried to avoid making direct eye contact with her through the rearview mirror, for her apathetic gaze usually sent me to a state of uncontrollable anguish.
Arriving in front of her quaint dwelling, I stepped out of the car, not expecting for a gentle breeze to blow my hair back as the sun beamed down brightly at us. My grandmother looked around, not completely sure where she was, and she made her way down the side of her house. As my mother continued into the house to collect documents, I followed my grandmother, worried that she wouldn’t know where she was walking to. I trailed behind her as she gazed at the mango tree that was by the corner of her backyard. It was still flourishing with newborn fruit, its branches reaching far enough to touch the brick building besides my grandmother’s house, and the tree was almost too tall for me to grab any of its mangoes. As she gravitated towards the tree, she picked up a large river rock beside the tree and stood on it, trying to grab a golden mango that was perched high upon a branch. Afraid she would fall and only inflict harm to herself, I ran up to her and begged her to get off the wobbling rock. Startled for a brief moment, my grandmother turned to the side to face me. My eyes meeting her steady gaze, the mild wind suddenly started to suffocate me, its arms locking me into an inescapable chokehold. Invading my mouth, it traveled down and filled up my lungs. Her eyes weren’t hollow this time; the dark brown orbs bore fear, confusion, shock, sadness. Longing. For so long, we hadn’t looked at each other with such passion or, in fact, any sort of feeling at all. A wave of astonishment made my body shiver, and I froze, struggling to comprehend the present.
Still staring at me, her right foot began to skid off the rock. “Ma, Ma! Let me help you get the mango. You’re going to hurt yourself,” I expressed with worry and pulled away a bit, afraid of how she’d react to my words. She gave me a small nod, and I held her hands as she stepped off the unstable rock. I carefully perched my feet onto it and tiptoed as I extended my arm to reach the coveted piece of fruit. Handing it to my grandmother, she beamed at me softly and cupped the mango in her hands like one would do with crisp water. My body was still surging with adrenaline.
There was something different about that moment that I couldn’t fathom. Was it the way she looked at me that differed from all the other times? Was it how she didn’t question who I was? Was it the fact that she paid attention to me and looked at me in the first place?
I stayed in my place near the tree, my head angled up as I looked at the ripe mangoes that my seven-year old self would have been desperate to peel and devour. The tree’s thin, narrow leaves rustled carelessly, the wind humming an original song as the leaves danced in harmony. Letting the sounds consume and relieve me, I was met with stillness. Plucked off by the wind’s heavy breaths, the leaves drifted away, spiraling to an unknown elsewhere.
Soon, the wind would be too strong and knock some of the mangoes from their place, making them thud onto the soft grass. But the tree will still thrive with vitality, even when it loses its precious bearings. My grandmother’s memories are blurred, but she’ll always love me as long as I can remember that this love is unconditional. This was enough.
And it is my turn to keep our stories safe.