My grandmother was a tough lady.
At just over five feet tall, she was the kind of woman that you saw on the street and knew to move out of her way. Her demeanor was strict, her hands tied with thick blue veins, crisscrossing over her thin, frail fingers.
I remember holding her hands as a child, how delicate and soft they seemed and yet that never made them seem any less worn or sturdy. Her hands told stories of different times, of different worlds and hardships. She had grown up worlds away from me, in a different land, at a different time, in an era and a life that I would never know.
My grandmother had stories.
But, she never told stories. Her stories were in the way she ate — she savored her food, cherished it. Often she would be the first to the dinner table, and the last to leave. Food had been scarce when she grew up and as a girl, she would be forced to give it up to her brothers or her father. She was never a priority. She grew up thinking and feeling that she was second to last, only succeeded by her mother.
Her stories were in the way she would sit in the afternoon, by the window, resting. My grandmother had worked her entire life, without fail. From a young age, she was brought up to understand the importance of hard work and the necessity of saving. Every Chinese New Year, I would be handed, or sent, a small red envelope that contained money, but never more than twenty dollars.
When I was young, I thought it was my grandmother being cheap. As I grew older, I realized that she wasn’t teaching me about money, but about tradition and hard work and family. The money was insignificant, I would probably spend it on some meaningless charm or toy that I would lose soon after, it was the meaning behind her gift that mattered. It was her saying, ‘I love you; I am your family and I want you to work hard as your family has before you.’
My grandmother’s stories were lessons.
But they were never told in words. From the time that I was very young, up until she could barely remember my name, I remember her telling me, ‘good girl.’ Those two little words, which as I grew older, were a constant reminder that I was still so young, with still so far to go. She was seldom outwardly affectionate. She didn’t need to be. When I wrapped my arms around her small frame, afraid I would break her, she responded with a strength disproportionate to her size.
She held tightly, like she was holding on for dear life, and then she let go, she smiled and she moved on.
My grandmother was an intelligent woman.
She had little schooling, but she had run businesses. She had managed on her own, with a husband and sons, in a country that didn’t care for her or her culture, but only for their aggrandized version of it. Her experiences were rightful cause to be jaded and hard, and yet she saw brightness and she saw brightness in me. She saw the great things in life, she loved hard and appreciated the little things — us going for a walk together or just sitting in the sun on a warm day.
My grandmother’s stories were in her complaints.
My grandmother complained about petty things: things that I would complain about. But she never complained about life and she never complained about pain.
My grandmother had developed a brain tumor, which when removed, removed much of her immediate memory. For a long time, she didn’t remember my name. She had no idea who I was. But she tried and she learned.
She understood perseverance and the importance of people and she carried on against all odds. The last time I spoke to her, she knew exactly who I was, despite years between the last times we had seen each other. Later, my grandmother would develop cancer, a cancer that she would never be told about. She would be constantly cold and never hungry. Her hands, which had always felt strong, would feel frail and weak, as they had always looked. She would gratefully and respectfully refuse food. Often, she would not be strong enough to get out of bed or sit up.
But when she opened her eyes, there was light in them.
My grandmother passed away, peacefully, on December of 2014 — four months after I began my first semester in college.
I was the only one of her grandchildren to not speak at her funeral. At first, I felt like I had failed her. I had copped out. But as I returned to college, I realized that no eulogy would commemorate her. It was not a eulogy, it was a lifestyle. A lifestyle that I had chosen without even realizing it.
I attend a women’s college, surrounding myself with intelligent, self-assured women with experiences beyond my understanding. My grandmother embodied this, in the lessons she taught, in the pats on my back and the constant compliments of ‘good girl.’ She pushed into me a drive and thirst for intelligence and learning and a perseverance that can never be kicked down. She taught me how to love hard and be passionate in everything I do, whilst also never forgetting how to slow down and appreciate the little things: the sun on a warm day or a walk with a loved one.
The great women in our lives don’t have to be celebrities to make an impact. It is through them, and their personal stories and struggles, that we create a legacy that fosters wonderfully, intelligent and passionate women who choose their own paths.
I see my grandmother every day. I see her in the women around me and in the mirror. She lives with me, inside me, and in the legacies that I will create. And I know, she would be proud.
(Photo courtesy of Katherine Lee)