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first person

Illustration by Wenting Li

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From my perch on the edge of the hot tub, I watch my grandma and her friends chattering animatedly in the roiling water. She is in the midst of the action, flanked by a thin lady sporting an immaculate bob and a plump lady with a cropped perm. The skin on my grandmother’s neck is creased like the fabric of her wet bathing suit, her face and hands are aged and tan, but elsewhere her skin is startlingly pale and smooth. All these women are grandmas, but they chit-chat like schoolgirls in this city pool.

There was no school today, so before leaving for work, my mom reminded me to accompany Popo to the pool. Popo’s eyes lit up when she heard this. She hurried me through washing the breakfast dishes and soon I was being pulled along toward the pool. My grandma is a social creature. The first time she came to visit us in Canada, she complained that there was nothing to do. She loved the bustle of Chengdu, her home city in southwestern China. There she took part in huge family celebrations, watched firecrackers at Chinese New Year, and had friends who would drift outdoors on summer evenings to call on her for a stroll and gossip.

Popo came to live with my family for good in Victoria when I was 9. I remembered her as the comforting figure in the thick wool coat that I clung to when we went on family walks during winters in China. But things changed when she moved in.

I feel like a third wheel around my mom and my husband

Before my grandma arrived, I used to tend the flowers in our garden. But while I was at school and my parents were at work, Popo, in her boredom, descended upon the little plot of land.

First, she pulled out the annuals – the pansies and poppies and nasturtiums – and replaced those with orderly rows of green onion and bok choy. Then, little by little, she infringed on the territory of the perennials, planting kale, swiss chard, tomatoes, sunchoke and radishes in the space where the peony, Solomon’s seal and bleeding heart had blossomed.

I implored her to stop, to keep the flowers.

“They’re pretty, but they’re useless,” she said matter-of-factly, then proceeded to boast about her exceptional vegetable harvest.

I took matters into my own hands. I pulled out the kale sprouts before going to school, only to return home to find them replanted, my grandma eyeing me accusingly. I protested to my parents. “Can’t you see that our garden is ugly now?” I was sure that they would side with me. They told me to let Popo be.

I finally admitted defeat the day there was no more space to plant anything in the ground and she discovered the flowerpots in our shed. Popo dragged them out and planted them as well.

There were other conflicts. Once, when we were taking care of my friend’s cat, I found my grandmother waving her cleaver at the poor thing through the glass door to our kitchen. I screamed.

“It kept getting in my way when I was trying to make baozi,” she said nonchalantly. “I’m warning that cat if it makes me trip, I might fall and cut off its tail.”

I lectured her on animal rights: “In Canada, pets are like children!” But when I lost all interest a few days into taking care of the cat, it was also my grandma who fed it and scooped its litter every evening.

I never fully understood why my parents always yielded to my grandma until one rainy night when my mom was driving me home. “Grandma’s had a tough life,” she said as I silently watched the swishing of the windshield wipers. “She was two years old when her mother passed away, nine years old at the time of the Great Famine. Later in her life, the same year Grandpa died, she also lost her dad and her own grandfather. I was in university, your aunt was in high school. Popo did everything on her own and never cried about it to anyone.”

By this time our car had pulled onto our street. “You think that your grandma has her faults, but I admire this quality about her. I can’t think of another person who could have done what she did.”

Popo had come downstairs to open the door. Her hands were more wrinkled than I remembered them to be. She had more grey in her hair. “Let’s eat dinner,” she said.

Different eras create their unique casts of characters. My grandma was shaped by the loss of her family members and the turbulence in China’s recent history. Those who experienced the Great Famine are, naturally, reluctant to use valuable land to plant flowers. Her independence, diligence, responsibility and unwavering optimism helped her through those difficult years, as did her unapologetic resourcefulness and practicality, qualities that might seem out of place in our current times of abundance.

The qualities that make up the foundation of my grandma’s character were laid down by the hands of time, and to change them now would break her. But she is a crucial link between my family’s past and future – she battled her era’s challenges to support the next generation. Someday, I will be like my grandma. I will contribute my small part to humanity’s incessant trudge forward.

But when my hair is grey and my hands are wrinkled, I think I would like to have a piece of land to plant pale pink peonies, even if my granddaughter cannot comprehend why I am not planting vegetables like everyone else.

Yiwei Luo lives in Victoria.

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