My maternal grandmother is in her 80s, but could pass for much younger. Ten years ago, people often mistook her for my mother’s older sister, which didn’t please my mother none. I think sometimes my grandmother looks upon her 3 daughters and wonders why she, who is always so well put together, was not able to impart even a thimbleful of her sense of style to any one of them (nor, unfortunately, to either of her granddaughters).
My grandmother was born in Taiwan in the 1920s, when Japan still occupied the country. Her father was a fisherman, her mother a housewife. She had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, and in an age when most women of her class were not educated, she would often sit with her brother and male cousins and listen in as they were being tutored.
My grandmother was the 2nd of 3 daughters. When her younger sister was a toddler, a rich couple passing by saw her playing, and were entranced. They were childless and seeing as how my great-grandfather had 3 daughters, they offered to take the youngest off his hands. I’m sure money was exchanged as well. I’m told that my great-grandmother cried for days afterwards. But my great aunt always knew she was adopted and she always knew who her real family was. The rich couple were good people and allowed her to visit her biological family often.
When my grandmother was in her late teens, she met my grandfather. They were both teachers at an elementary school and fell in love. I often wondered how the romance started between my proper grandmother and my grandfather, who in his younger photos looked like a bad boy, handsome and confident and carefree. Most marriages at that time were arranged, so their love match was unusual as well. To keep their love affair a secret, my grandparents would hide love letters in textbooks and have their students pass the books back and forth.
At the time, my grandfather was waiting for World War 2 to be over so that he could emigrate to Japan. A relative was the school superintendent and got him a job at the elementary school while he waited out the war. In the end, he never went to Japan, because he met and married my grandmother. They remained teachers until they retired, and until the final year of my grandfather’s life, travelled to Japan at least once every other year. They held hands whenever they walked together.
They did have some rocky times, though. My grandfather liked to go drinking with his friends, and would come home drunk in the wee hours of the morning. My grandmother would refuse to unlock the door for him, and he would stand outside and holler until he passed out. As the years went on, however, he decided it was easier to go along with her wishes, and their (bigger) fights largely ended. I wonder how many years I’ll have to wait before AJ finally just gives in, too.
After Chiang Kai-shek took over, my grandmother had to learn Mandarin in a hurry, because she was expected to teach it. She told me that she would read the textbooks the night before and teach it the next day, pretty much learning it at the same time as her students.
Throughout the years, my grandmother’s desire for learning has never waned. She takes classes at her senior center, learning English as well as various crafts. When I lived at home she would often ask me to check her English homework. But what I love most about my grandmother is her willingness to try anything once. She’s game for anything, be it new foods or new experiences. When AJ bought his little sports car, I asked my grandmother if she’d like to take a ride, since she’d never ridden a convertible before. She excitedly said, “OK!” and hopped in the little two-seater. AJ took it easy, not wanting to give her a heart attack, and stayed at about 50 mph. Finally my grandmother tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Sixty-five, OK!”
When we got our little plane (AJ is a pilot), most of our friends and even my parents were fearful of riding in it, but my grandmother was the first to sign up, as I knew she would, and thoroughly enjoyed herself. I hope when I am her age, my mind is as nimble as hers, and that I’m as open-minded as she is. I also hope that I look as good at her age – she exercises every morning and looks better in a pair of jeans than I do.
I keep meaning to sit her down and just tell me stories of her life. I bet there are a lot more gems. I need to do it soon, before she’s gone.