Grandma Learns Gmail, Writes Back Months Later

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. 
The date. 
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. 


As I write this, my Taiwanese grandmother arranges and rearranges the contents of two Samsonite suitcases in my brother’s room, where she has slept for the past month. She is leaving tomorrow on a two-thirty China Airlines flight. My father will take her to the airport at around 11:30AM and I will go to my grandfather’s house as usual. I will not make a big deal of saying goodbye, nor will she; we will see each other in less than two weeks, when I return to Taiwan for Chinese New Year.

She visited two years ago, also around the holidays, a little over a year after my grandfather passed away. Her hair was still black then, though after a month her roots started to show and I learned that holy cow, all her hair was white. 

That was the year I finally graduated from college and my brother from business school and my grandmother from the dark cloud of fresh widowhood. We were all about to embark on new chapters, and though my grandmother was still a widow, she was also only fifty-five years old with several decades ahead of her. My mother had invited her to stay with us almost immediately after my grandfather died, asking her to come at the beginning of November and stay through the New Year, but that first year my grandmother shook her head. It was too soon.

The next year my mother brought it up again.

“We will help Betty move back home from school, and you’ll experience the rowdiness of an American Christmas.”

My Taiwanese grandmother agreed and flew across the world alone for the first time in twenty-two years. No well-dressed old man at her side. I didn’t tiptoe around her. None of us did. My grandfather’s death, at the age of one-hundred, was hardly a surprise and from the look of things – the easy way my grandmother fell into our lifestyle and the warm welcome she received from my mother’s side of the family and my parents’ friends – my grandmother had more or less “moved on.”

She laughed and shopped and ate with much gusto, and though now my memories from that time have blurred, I do remember her having a pretty good time overall. I think it was fresh for her, to be back on American soil and to be with us, an oddly American extension of the family she knew forward and back in Taiwan. In our quiet American suburb with no sidewalks or street lamps, we seemed very far from the sights and smells of Taipei city, most of which I’m sure at the time, reminded her of her late husband. We were Chinese, but in some ways so decidedly American – and my grandmother was game for all of it. She ate at our fatty American restaurants and toured our expansive American universities and shopped in the endless stretches of American malls and shopping centers. At the time however, I was too busy wondering about my own future to consider seeing our America through her eyes. I regret not looking more closely – I think I could have learned a thing or two.

I do remember her being surprised by my anger. She watched in silent awe as I argued constantly with my father and snapped at my mother and rolled my eyes at my brother. At one point she conceded that yes, my father was very difficult, but then later she told my mother she was surprised I had such a temper. Where did this impatience and disrespect come from? Was I not the same sweet and happy-go-lucky pre-teen she played marbles with for hours some twelve, thirteen years ago? Did she wonder? I wondered. I was so ill at ease and even two years later, at the edge of another open door, she seems to still have caught me in a lurch.

I often wonder where the rift began. If I am looking for some sort of emotional origin story I would say it happened at the end of their visit that year I was thirteen and in middle school. I was struggling not to grow up, knowing that becoming a “young adult” was inevitable but still fighting it with every neuron. I went to classes, wore the damn forest green uniform with the horribly unflattering pleated navy shorts and tube socks, and then came home and left it all at the door. My awkwardness (which I didn’t even realize at the time as awkwardness) my abilities, and my status as a middle schooler. I had friends, some of whom I’m still friends with to this day, but for the most part I was distracted. Some things aren’t worth explaining. I doubt I’m the only person who would rather middle school never occurred. My grandmother came from Taiwan that winter with my polished grandfather on her arm, bearing suitcases and suitcases filled with gifts and foodstuffs, and with her sharp, hearty laugh and my grandfather’s enviable vitality (he was around ninety years old by then), filled our house with smiles and good cheer.

I played marbles with her nearly every day after school, not a real version (whatever that is), but one I made up and constantly revised the rules to. With my brother we played cards, and sometimes my grandfather would join too and my brother and I would howl with laughter when grandma challenged grandfather to War, winning us twenty dollar bills for each high hand. At Christmas she won multiple gifts at Bingo and I think, I think, around that time we must have gone to Las Vegas too, where her luck followed her and gave us more quarters than necessary to play in the arcades. It is at times like this I wish I had a better memory, or at least had the good sense to keep a proper diary. But I can only share with you the vague description of warmth that only a grandmother in winter could provide. I was thirteen and that winter stands out as one of the happiest because the surrounding days seem so bleak in comparison. I was never bullied in middle school. I had good friends. I think I liked most of my teachers. But my god I so looked forward to going home and being with my grandmother that winter break.

We took a family photo that year. In it, I wear my middle school uniform and my brother with his awkward high school haircut and glasses. My mother and father looking years younger than they do now, standing around my grandfather who sits squarely in the middle with my grandmother leaning on his shoulder. She wore a tailored suit that day with large, square shoulders, and had her hair clipped in a low, elegant ponytail. Her bangs are curled and piled high up on her narrow face and she is thin, with slightly hollowed cheeks but full lips. Here eyes are bright and though I never thought of her as such, there is something powerful about her. She married the old man, made him happy, which made her happy. Some people are built that way. You could cut the rest of us away and see a perfectly happy man and wife, but you look at the young girl’s smile and can see that at that moment, she’s the happiest one in the photograph.

All good things…you know how it goes. I came home from school one day in early January and they were gone. It shouldn’t have been so dramatic – I’m certain we said goodbye, and I was going to see them in a few months when I went to Taiwan in the summer – but it was so sudden. Perhaps it was all just poorly timed. Perhaps my grandparents left on the same day I started school again; always a sad day when you’re a kid. But I don’t remember those details; mostly I remember how the house went from six noisy people to four, all suddenly subdued. The guests were gone. The lights and ornaments were put away, the tree hacked into thirds and dumped at the end of the driveway. The guest room was now dark and empty, void of my grandmother’s creams and my grandfather’s colorful ties, even the bed seemed bare now that the sumptuous emerald green comforter reserved expressly for my grandfather had been rolled up and zipped away.

I remember walking down the hall from the guest room back to my own room, but stopping outside my parents room where a nuclear family photo hung, taken when I was six. We had gone to a portrait studio one hot summer day in Taiwan, my brother came directly from school and had no suit to wear or rent. My mother gazes lovingly at the camera, while my father and brother have varying dim looks – men never really photograph well – and I am standing at the center, wearing a frilly white dress, a small white flower between my fingers. I am smirking, smug because I don’t know anything about anything. But looking at it then I felt two people missing. They were never in that photograph to begin with, but now I felt four was such a small, quiet number. Not at all a whole family.

I cried to myself that night, wondering what the heck was wrong with me and feeling, rightly so, like a baby. I missed my fun, young grandmother and the steady, smiling albeit stoic presence of my quiet grandfather. I missed the dull clink of poorly aimed marbles and the laughter that they brought to our cold house. My parents, if they noticed my dull mood, said nothing. My brother, if he missed them as much as I did, was most likely more reasonable and told himself to be patient. But I think then I was on the cusp of something. I was changing, growing, hardening somehow. It’s not fair but it makes sense. My grandmother left that winter and along with her left my childhood. I don’t think I ever felt that light or loose again. There were more fun winter breaks and summers and regular days ahead – I have hundreds of photographs to attest to the fun that came later, with and without my grandmother – but never to that extent, never at that funny awkward age when you are able, when you come home from school, to leave the rest at the door.

I closed the bucket of marbles that winter and never opened them again. A few years later my mother took a few handfuls for her plants and I dropped the rest off at the salvation army.

Whatever happened between that memory and the next of spending time with my grandmother in Taiwan doesn’t matter. The pebble had already cracked the windshield and it wasn’t her doing or my doing, but just life in general. Suddenly I was in high school. She picked me up for lunch and I noticed that I had nothing to say. It was around that time too, that I began to scrutinize the relationships around me and ask questions. I was looking for answers, motives. I wasn’t yet a “writer” in that indulgent self-labeling way, but I was certainly judgmental enough. I was also trying to divine the future – my own, mostly – by learning from others’ pasts. It struck me as odd that she had married my grandfather. He was very old and she was very young. Around that time too, I began to listen more closely when the women talked and she was out of the room. My cousin was developing in the same way and late at night when the rest of the house was asleep we lay awake and dissected people’s pasts. What made them the way they were? But it was all just part of life, wasn’t it? My grandfather was aging finally, in real time, and my grandmother was most likely discovering the downside of marrying someone fifty years her senior. Her attitude never wavered, but I’m sure my grandfather’s life, or whatever was left of it, hung heavily over her head.

It wasn’t disrespect I felt for her, but if emotions could smell, it was the faint whiff of pity. She became a strong, fun woman I looked up to to someone whose welfare seemed to depend on the whims of a weakening ninety-year old man. But that is unfair, and has nothing to do with how she has always treated me: nothing but love, hands on, undiluted. There was no blood between us but whatever ran was much thicker. And yet. I felt as though I had evolved beyond her. Though of course I was doing just the opposite. I was self destructively closing myself up to the warmth in her that had always been there, for me, my cousins, all of us.

I did it to myself. I closed myself off from her specifically, holding an inexplicable and unreasonable grudge. I blame that winter break when with her, I had too much fun. She made me feel I would need no one else but her and perhaps a deck of cards and a bucket of marbles. And then just like that she left. You can’t play those games by yourself.

Now she is leaving again and I am well prepared. She is struggling with four Glad containers of oatmeal cookies she asked me to bake (“Less sugar, more raisins, please.”) and though I am happy that I will have the bathroom to myself again and that I won’t have to worry about what she’d like to do or eat or where she’d like to go tomorrow (not that she ever, EVER has any demands in regards to any of those things), I feel an imminent sadness for when she leaves. It is silly, believe me. I will see her in less than two weeks’ time, on her turf too. But this time it’s regret, the kind that comes when you’re old enough to feel the kind of nagging responsibility you owe to your aging relatives. Was I less cold to her? Did I make spend enough time with her? Did I make her feel welcome? Does she know I love her?

I tried, but could have tried harder. I tried, but could have tried harder. I tried, but could have tried harder. I don’t know, but I hope she does.