When I’d lived in New York for three months I did something I rarely do. I wrote an email in Chinese to my grandmother in Taiwan. This was November 2013. I kept it short, giving a brief overview of my studies, life in New York and POI. I paused a moment before clicking “send,” mostly because things were going well for me, a young woman who (at least on her Instagram) seemed to be having too much fun while dipping her toes into her first romance (here, POI rolls his eyes and shudders violently). By then, my grandmother, a breast cancer survivor, had been widowed four years and was living alone.
My grandfather had passed away the summer before I graduated from Berkeley in 2010. Immediately following the funeral, my mother, anticipating a period of vast loneliness and depression for my grandmother, invited my grandmother to spend winter with us in California. Grandma said yes and traveled happily up and down the California coast and to Las Vegas as well, snapping close to a thousand photos with a shiny pink Canon my mother won at a casino. She celebrated Christmas and New Years with us before heading back to Taipei to start life in anew in her own apartment some twenty minutes away from the house she lived in for twenty years, at my grandfather’s side.
When she returned, it seemed as though the good times – all good times – had come to an end. She felt an odd lump in her breast. The doctors confirmed it was cancer. A few months later, her best friend passed away from a ten-year battle with the same disease. And closely after that, a few of my grandfather’s friends, with whom she’d grown quite close, passed away as well.
We worried about her, but she has always been resourceful, resilient. She married an eighty-year old man when she was thirty, after all. They were married for twenty years. Anyone who knows my grandpa will understand that it’s the woman who made it work.
She ended up having one breast removed and through it all, made new friends both at the hospital and through a Tai Chi class she had taken up just a few weeks before she came to California. When she was recovering, the Tai Chi class began to consume much of her time. She worked up her strength and flexibility so that by the time I saw her next, she was transformed. She cut her hair short and stopped dying it. She adopted a primarily vegetarian diet and as a result, lost the weight she’d gained while being married to my grandfather, who could eat foie gras, butter and sugar by the kilo and not gain an ounce. She stopped wearing makeup but there was more color in her face. Her eyes and skin were brighter. She turned once again into a spritely woman, not young, but with a young spirit.
She also got a Gmail account.
I helped her set it up some time ago – I forget which year, which visit – but it was time to upgrade her from the cooling Hotmail.
I showed her around the easy interface, feeling smugly “techie,” and told her to start telling her friends to email her there. She nodded, always thirsty for cutting edge technology but never quite mastering it. She took pages of notes from my “Gmail lecture” despite my counseling her to just play around with it. This was how she learned, or so she thought, but some people can study and study and not absorb a thing.
Grandma was smart in other, more important ways. How to appease a hundred-year old man on a hourly basis for twenty years, for one. How to make a huge, disparate family love and rely on you, for another. How to make friends with old and young, Chinese-speaking or not. How to love and love, give and give, and expect very little if nothing in return. The list goes on. I know how to use Gmail but comparatively, my skills pale.
In the end, I would wander into the kitchen and see her poring over her hotmail account, which she would leave unattended for months at a time. It was a treasure trove of spam.
“I need to get through all these before I start using my gmail,” she would say.
I wondered, “By when?”
When I moved to New York, the promises I’d made to call my grandma fell away – it was hard enough to remember to call my own mother. But I thought about her from time to time, and wondered how she was getting on. I talked more regularly with my cousin Karen, who despite living in the same city, did not see grandma as often as I assumed.
“She’s pretty busy,” my cousin said, “She’s got like a whole other life outside of us.”
I’m not sure what compelled me to write to her that day in November – I guess it had been a while. I guess too, that I was continuing a faint tradition of sorts. My grandfather, her husband, had been a steady corresponder – until he was ninety-eight, he wrote letters on a daily basis. Sometimes with a fountain pen, sometimes with a Chinese calligraphy brush. Always in a shaky, but elegant hand. My brother and I wrote to him from time to time, more often when we were children and three weeks later, almost to the date of our last letter to him, there would be a reply in the mail, written on thin, nearly translucent paper.
Dear Howard and/or Betty
A brief message responding to our polite inquiries of how is your health? We accomplished such and such. We are looking forward to our next trip to Taipei…
Love, Grand Pa.
Always two words. Grand Pa.
In any case, I clicked “send,” and my words, the gushing toned down, traveled electronically to my grandmother’s gmail inbox.
I didn’t hear back from her and did not think anything of it. Had it been anyone else, I would have been irked. Thought them rude. A callous penpal. But it was grandma and I wondered if she was taking the time to digest my email or didn’t know what to say in reply.
I should have known.
A few days ago I opened my inbox and saw a message from her. The subject line said simply, “Reply,” in Chinese.
Zhen (my Chinese name):
I’m very sorry I’m replying to your message now. Half the year has gone by.
My inbox has two to three thousand messages. Recently, I have started to go through them one by one, which is how I came across your message.
I’m very happy you have a boyfriend now. Take the time to understand one another. Your cousin Larry is getting married next year. If you have time, come back for the wedding.
I will go to America at the end of the year. When the time comes, I will see you.