Early Sunday morning, my grandmother (A-po) passed away in a Los Angeles area nursing home. Today, she will be buried in California after 92 years of life – an adolescence spent in southern China, a stint as a homemaker turned candy and fashion shop owner in central Vietnam, a Cantonese and Vietnamese speaking refugee in the America. From the fragments that I have managed to piece together, all of these moves were provoked by war. I can trace the thematic element of loss and exile in my grandmother’s life, but the most immediate memories of my grandmother are more sensory than historic sentimentality.
I grew up in a large Chinese-Vietnamese family – my grandmother had five sons and five daughters. Consequently, my formative memories of effective familial communication and meaningful gatherings include, but are not limited to: My aunties and A-po screaming Cantonese at each other in a Vietnamese supermarket parking lot over things like the number of shopping carts we should push. A-po’s intimidating and commanding tone of voice that would state, with finality, declarations like, “It’s IMPROPER for a ‘young lady’ to go into a man’s house!” The hours of taking over 100 pictures at reunions with no less than ten cameras in every conceivable configuration of family (a picture with just the aunties, a picture with just the uncles, a picture with the aunties AND the uncles, a picture with A-po, a picture with just the grandchildren, a picture of the unmarried grandchildren where they are chided throughout the picture taking process about being unmarried, a picture of just the babies, a picture of the unmarried grandchildren holding the babies, etc.)
I remember the Christmas shopping excursions for A-po that usually resulted in my tearing through a JC Penney’s sales rack for any shirt covered in multi-colored sequins. I remember that, among the few words of English she knew, A-po could say “Sprite” – her beverage of choice on airplanes. I remember how she smelled of tiger balm, herbal oils, and the Capri Slim cigarettes that she smoked in contemplation after my grandfather’s (A-gung) death from cancer.
It has been week of surreal irony – my family and I have been exchanging memories of her life, yet A-po died in an excruciating process of un-remembering. In what we now believe to be dementia induced by Alzheimer’s, A-po spent the last decade of her life eating food she could not taste, dreaming perhaps of things she would not remember, and being visited by people she could no longer recognize.
It feels tragic. You live this life of survival, of ten children, over twenty grandchildren, and about a dozen great-grandchildren. Of China, Vietnam, and America. Of such culturally ingrained conviction that you would lecture sweet cousin Linh on being “improper.” Of love, war, homemade Vietnamese cha and carbonated drinks on airplanes to and from California. Of birthdays, cancers, cigarettes, Cantonese, holidays, joy, nostalgia, and strength. And then slowly, you forget how much salt you should be putting in your food, the name of your daughters or how to come back home. People stop visiting you not because they don’t love you anymore, but because when they say, “A-po,”you don’t know who that is.
Yet, for all the discussion of Alzheimer’s, there have been stories of her jade earrings and bracelets (a few of which she would sell to clients at Temple straight from her purse), AquaNet styled hair buns she wore to countless mah-jong games, and her 80th birthday bash in Houston. As my family has reminded me over this past week, perhaps the only way to counter a forgotten legacy is through remembrance.