Popo means “grandmother” in the Hainanese dialect.
When I say grandmother, I am talking about my maternal grandmother, for I have no connections whatsoever with the paternal side of my family.
This letter I write, for my two girls:
My dear girls,
I love talking about popo. I think it is important that you know more about her. Without popo, there is no mama. Without mama, there is no you. One day, you may sit in a circle with other women, as I once did, and introduce yourself as such: “My name is ________. I am the daughter of blah-blah-yada-yada and I am the grand-daughter of popo.”
What I think you ought to know about my popo, whom you call po-dou :
~ She is Love. When my mother handed me to her, a tiny one-month-old baby, she had to be prepared to nurture a small baby by bottle, through the night. It has been seven years since her last child was born. There was no guarantee that money will be sent every month to buy the milk powder. And at that time, the family was not exactly in great financial shape. Not bad. Not starving. But still, it was one more mouth to feed. And this mouth also later needed clothes, time, and attention too. (And later, she developed a huge appetite for paper, and lots of books.) She took me in, her heart bursting with love and compassion, and, sorrow for my plight. She let me sleep in bed with her until I was ten. I moved a lot in my sleep, often kicking her in the process, but she never complained about that. The first night after I slept with my mother when we lived in the same flat, she called popo and asked her, “How could you sleep with all that kicking?” and popo replied, “You just get used to it.”
Afraid of the dark as a young child (and now I need to sleep in total darkness, how things change), I would always wake her up in the dark of the night, to accompany me to the toilet. She never mumbled a word of complaint, or uttered a sigh under her breath. She just responded to what I needed. Took me there, waited outside for me, always with a cup of water in hand to re-hydrate me.
Not only was mama a scaredy cat as a young child, she was sickly too. So many doctor visits. And popo took me every time. I threw up in bed and she cleaned it up. No raising of voice, no frowning. She just did what needed to be done.
She would finish up dinner earlier so she can bring me to the nearby playground. So I too can swing on the swings and feel the breeze in my little pigtails. Yes, she was Love. She still is.
I was a slow-eater as a child. Very slow eater, indeed. Every morning she would make me a soft-boiled egg and even that took me a long time to get into my belly. As the clock ticked close to the time we needed to go down to wait for the school-bus, I will try with all my might to swallow and she’ll squat down by my feet and pull on fresh white socks for me. Once, we were late (because I was a slow-poke) and the school bus had went off already. I was struck with fear- what was going to happen then? Popo looked at me, then she said, “Let’s go back upstairs so I can get my purse. Then we can take the public bus to school.” No anger. No scolding. No chiding, no blaming. Just solve the problem.
Popo had never attempted to train me so her life can be more convenient. She did not need me to be anything else than who, or what I was, in that moment. She did not need me to learn to get up to pee by myself, to sleep on my own in isolation, to eat faster, to write neater. And, in all honesty, I do not think I am spoiled in any ways because of that unconditional acceptance of who I was. In fact, I toed the line so often (in school), because I had that self-respect in myself; because I knew I was loved. I need not act out of the line, as I saw some school-mates did, so I could get some attention from authority. I think she was very wise, to not believe in manipulation. Or should I say, she did not believe in forcing a child into a mold, just to fit an adult’s purpose?
Mama aspired to be like popo, but as you can see, I am a far way off.
~ She is a true learner. Popo does not know it, but she is a life learner by heart. She thinks you both should be sent to school, but she has never stepped into a school all her life. Yet, she can read and she is a fabulous cook (the best in the world) and she sews beautifully, and she makes wonderful intricate Chinese knots; and plants just thrive under her care.
Once, I asked, while watching her magic with awe in the kitchen, “Who taught you how to cook, popo?”
And she smiled a wistful smile and told me, “You know, my mother died when I was very young. I learned everything all by myself. I watched, I learn, and then I try it out myself. Learn from mistakes.”
That’s what a true learner does, my girls. Learn from mistakes. Observe. Watch. Try it. Fail. Try again.
That was also how she learned to sew, and everything else.
When popo got married to my grandfather, he taught her how to write three words: Yun Chun Lian. Popo’s Chinese name. She did not know how to write, having never received an education. But she needed to sign the marriage certificate.
Then it was a life of bearing children, tending the hearth, growing old with her husband.
When grandfather died, she was fifty-one. Grandfather was a devout Buddhist, and we had an altar table, with statues and pictures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. After his death, the family had to decide what to do with all those statues and my grandfather’s Buddhist implements. You cannot just leave them there on display. If you have a Buddha statue, you are expected to chant and say prayers.
So, popo decided that she will learn how to say Buddhist prayers. She took out my grandfather’s favorite sutra, the Diamond Sutra, and began on the first character. What did it mean? How do you say it? Only my two uncles could help her. During that time, children either go to an English school, or a Chinese school. My aunts all went to English school; my grandfather sent the boys to Chinese school.
And so, word by word she learned, devising symbols of her own to help her remember the sounds, and/or meanings. She went to the temples, and listened and learned, and came back with fascinating tales and teachings.
Today, not only can popo say prayers, she can read the newspapers, and forms her own political opinions.
I am so proud of her. Literally bursting with pride.
~ She is very soft on the inside. Popo likes to say, “Oh, I am old and my heart has hardened. I think my tears dried up too.” But I know she cries. She just does not like to admit it. A sign of weakness for her, I do not know why. I think she does not like people to worry about her. Your aunts may send me an email telling me her leg is bothering her and she is great pain, but when I call her, the very same evening, she will tell me, “Oh, it hurts, but just a little bit. Tiny little, you know? Not bad at all. I can still walk, of course.” She does not want me to worry. Every time I call her, she will always beat me to it and asks me first, “How are you? Are you good?” It makes mama cry, every time.
~ She ages gracefully. Popo is a beauty, and I love her smile. So beautiful. She never wears any make-up. Not even lip-balm. She does not need it. In my teenage years, I accrued a barrage of skin-care complete with scrubs and facial masks and she wondered if I was insane? What made me think I needed those things? As I sauntered in and out of the bathroom, first scrubbing, and then layering on various types of masks, she shook her head, “I just wash with water.” Look at her face, she has few age spots, and they are barely visible. Her face is smooth, and her smile is still dazzling. Sure, you can tell, she has been through life. Hardships. Tears. Heartaches. Disappointments. But still, she is beautiful. Because she did not believe in superficial beauty. In fact, I think she seldom thinks about such things, nor does she allow the concept of “beauty “hinder her life in any way.
When I co-slept with popo, I loved to stroke her arm to fall asleep. That part of her underarm, where muscles had softened. But her skin was still soft and smooth. “This is the best part. So soft, and smooth.” I told her. And she laughed!
“It is soft because I am old, silly girl.”
Who cares? It comforted me.
And when I asked her about the stretch marks on her belly? — “It is because I gave birth to many children.”
She was never a nutrition fanatic. Balance was the key. Eat a bit of everything, she said. Always leave some for others, she taught. Always have a good conscience.
So, share, do good, be kind. You will be beautiful, my girls.
Remember that this is your legacy, and I believe you will feel so proud.
Try hard as I might, I don’t think I will even be near to what popo is. Oh sure, there are many wise, beautiful, and wonderful grandmothers in this world. But she is special to me; she is my light, my goddess. She took me in her care and loved me whole-heartedly, expecting nothing in return. Nothing I do will hold even a small spark to what she did, what she is.
Because she follows the Chinese lunar calendar to celebrate her birthday, it falls on a different day every year on the calendar we now widely use. This year, her birthday will fall on July26. Happy Birthday in advance, popo. I can never tell you this in person, but I love you so very much.
With tears, with deep gratitude, I write this. For you, popo.
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