Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Like the rest of us, she had recently been sent to a remote, country village. Mom sent my oldest brother to attend the funeral, but it turned out to be a very difficult trip.
Like everyone else, the bus drivers were embroiled in revolution. There was no longer any bus service to the village, and due to gunfire in that region, it was also difficult to hire a pedicab.
The driver had demanded a fee commensurate with the risk, but as they were approaching the village – the sound of gunfire was heard and the driver refused to go any further.
After walking the final miles by himself, my brother saw a large group of people at the cemetery. The funeral was already over, and all he could do was throw a handful of dirt on the coffin – a sad ending for a life that was so different from the lives of her children and grandchildren.
My Grandmother had married into a landowning peasant family – substantial enough to hire three peasant workers – but her own birth family was very poor.
When she was a child of three, she went blind in one eye. The story goes that she had been helping her mother in the kitchen, when she dropped a plate, began to cry, and by rubbing her eyes, one of them became infected. Health care was minimal for poor people, and eventually that eye went blind.
When she grew up, that handicap did not prevent her from getting married – but it did mean her bride price was very low – so she was something of a bargain for the husband’s family who purchased her for their oldest son.
Was her new, young husband thrilled about taking this bargain as his wife ? She gave him four children – but apparently love was never involved. He went into a business that kept him constantly traveling all over China – and she became more like a servant to her mother-in-law than a wife to her husband.– a situation that is rather common throughout Chinese society, from top to bottom.
Their relationship got worse when illness forced her husband to return home in his early thirties. Though undiagnosed, he probably had liver cancer – and he was always in great pain and unable to work.
It became one of my grandmother’s jobs to care for him – which meant preparing the opium to relieve his pain – but still, he took out his misery by beating and yelling at his wife.
The money for that opium came from what she and her young daughter (my mother) earned by weaving cloth and selling it at the market. In order to make enough cloth, they often worked throughout the night, but her mother-in-law begrudged her even the oil for her lamp – and she either had to buy the oil herself or cover the windows to conceal her lamp.
During the day, she had to cook three meals a day for the entire extended family. She had to grind the grain, fetch the water, feed the pigs and chickens, and do all the other household chores, while constant verbal and physical abuse were part of her daily life. She must have been a very strong woman to live through all that, and several times, mom woke up to find her mother crying --- with a rope in her hand ---- but she could not do it -- she had a sick husband and 4 small children to care for.
When her husband finally died at the age of 35 – my grandmother stayed on – for the next 15 years -- as a servant in her mother-in-law’s house.
That was a woman’s life in pre-revolution China – even at the top of the social pyramid (as described in the popular 18th Century novel, “Dream of Red Chamber”, which, like many Chinese women, my mother read over and over again)
I remember once asking her “What is your name, grandma?” – and she explained that she didn’t have one – since after marriage, a woman’s name became the combination of the names for her birth family and her husband’s family.
But after the revolution – it was a different story – especially since several of her children, both boys and girls, became cadres who rose to higher positions within the new society.
So in the early fifties, grandmother came to live with us in Beijing – where she helped mother with babysitting and other chores (since both my father and mother spent every day at their jobs)
Being away all week at boarding schools, I was only home on the weekend, and I didn’t get very close to her. And she preferred boys anyway – getting very close to my older brothers – and always made a point of giving them special treats when she served us food. (but I loved her anyway!)
She also served as babysitter for my mother’s brother’s children – and eventually this got her into trouble with mother – who came home from work one day to find my young sister asleep on the curb outside our compound. My sister was only 2 or 3 three years old at the time, and anyone could have snatched her while grandmother was attending to my infant cousin.
A domestic storm ensued that left my grandmother in tears – and soon she went to live with my uncle’s family instead of ours.
In 1963, after our family moved into the complex next to Tiananmen Square, grandmother moved back with us and shared a room with my younger sister.
But when the Cultural Revolution began, and father was getting into trouble, mother thought it best for everyone if grandma went to live the countryside.
She had been a poor peasant woman her entire life. She was illiterate, blind in one eye, and since her feet had been bound as a child, she was barely able to walk..
But since she had been married into a landowning family, she was considered a landowner, and this was problematic for her sons who were cadres in the city. None of her successful sons could accommodate her. The only son who could take her was the impoverished one who had stayed on the farm (I’ve already introduced you to him: he was the uncle who came to the city a few times every year to bring us vegetables and pick up some cash)
Grandma really didn’t want to go – and many times she told mom that she would not mind dying in the city and being cremated. Mom promised to bring her back as soon as the troubles were over -- but that day never came for her.
So that’s where grandmother went to live – and as those familiar with Chinese family politics might understand – this created a huge problem with her son’s wife who would never stop resenting the presence of her mother-in-law – even though her other sons contributed money to the family.
One time – when I was 13 – I was sent to take her some cash as well as provisions from the city, including a string of sweets, some cakes, and specially selected pieces of her favorite salty belt fish that my mother had spent all evening to prepare. It was my first trip outside Beijing, so I was very excited, I went with my granduncle who was a retired school teacher. Mom paid for the trip but she dared not to go herself, because dad was still in very bad situation.
When we arrived, Granduncle handed the heavy bag of goodies to my uncle. Grandma, living in the opposite room, came out to greet us and see what we brought for her. That’s when Aunt got very upset, started shouting, and threw the bag down, scattering everything, including the cooked fish, all over the dirt floor.
The swearing continued, as Grandma went back to her room, closing the door behind her.
The next a few days, we spent a lot of time together. She followed me everywhere and was so happy to see me ( even if I was not her favorite grand child.) She asked me to tell mom that when things got better in Beijing, she would like to return.
She did not tell me how she was treated by her son and daughter-in-law, but she did refer to them as "animals".
One day she sent me to the farmers’ market (it was only open a few days a month) , and asked me to buy her some fruits and various cooked meats like sausage. The moment she received it, she began wolfing it down – and as soon as she finished, she began searching for something in her room.
Finally she found it – it was a piece of cotton -- and she lit it on fire to smoke the room and remove the aroma of the spicy meats. I did not understand, so I asked her what she was doing. Her brief answer was: “animals have sharp noses”
Her life there was not happy.
The neighbors later told us stories about the loud arguments – and when she fell ill, no one would care for her and she was left to lie in her own filth. At mealtime, they would bring her a bowl of food, but if she asked for more, it never came.
She recovered from that illness, but one day as she was reaching for a chicken out in the yard, she fell off a ladder and went unconscious. She never woke up and 10 days later she was dead.
She had lived for 73 years, but only a few of them were happy.
I missed her dearly.