by Carlin L. Zia
The clay behind the potting shed in my grandparents’ backyard would be soft and red in April. While our grandmother tended about in her cloth gloves and faded sunhat, my brother and I would salt the slugs we plucked from the compost urns, or dig furrows in the clay. Sometimes we found bricks. These we stacked by the shed, to be use for weighing down the folded tops of open bags of mulch. My grandfather had rigged a pulley system to try to keep the bird houses safe from thieving squirrels. A cable tightened between the two tall trees and a cord looped round a figure eight hitch drilled into one of them. My father had made the little strung boxes, among other things, as a child. Once when my brother and I explored the crawl space under the house, where our grandmother would coil the green hose after her morning’s garden work, we found homemade wooden swords (two rough slats stapled perpendicular at the hilt), a pair of paint can stilts. We played with these on the cement lattice, tufted with grass. We strung the swords across our shoulders with twine and climbed them into the magnolia out front. The fallen fruit hurt to step on. Grenades of dark fuzzy banana bunches. The twine chafed our necks, and the glossy leaves, broad and curved like the shallow hulls of rowboats, clacked against each other as we climbed.
I don’t remember spending much time with my grandparents during those April vacations, several years in a row from kindergarten on, that my brother and I flew down alone from New Hampshire to Raleigh. My grandfather worked most of the day at his desk in the basement, and my grandmother had her garden routine, her afternoon naps. They did not cling or dote, but they were inexpressibly glad that we were there. On the way home from the airport, in the blue green Subaru station wagon with tan cloth seats checkered in perpendicular hatchings of fuzzy blue and orange, with local NPR on the radio, they would modestly catalogue the provisions they had readied for our stay: the Annie’s macaroni and cheese, the Klondike bars, the Pillsbury toaster strudels, the ketchup. First thing when we arrived they would open the large cupboard in the kitchen, the refrigerator, the chest freezer in the basement, and point out these items. (I remember once making jello from a box I found in the door of the cupboard—more out of curiosity and boredom than a particular desire for the food—and later finding it replaced by at least six boxes in a variety of flavors. But my grandparents are far from extravagant. Rather, their combined thrift and temperance stands out as much in my memory as their generosity. Two florets of broccoli refrigerated in an individual yogurt cup so long reused that the ink label has faded and worn off almost entirely. A splash of soy sauce and several scallion dicings stored similarly. Elsewhere in the pantry were cans of bamboo shoots and water chestnuts, clear crinkly packages of noodles, various pastes, but I still have never seen my grandparents cook with these ingredients. The only Chinese food we ate came from Red Dragon, and my brother and I mostly chose fried pork dumplings.
Over the years, between our diversifying extracurricular involvements and our parents slow separation, my brother and I stopped going to North Carolina as often, and then altogether. We saw them one Christmas in high school when the whole side of the family got together at a great uncle’s house. They came up to New Hampshire for our graduations. They sent checks for our birthdays. When I finally went back it was October of my senior year in college and I was by myself and nothing had changed about the house except that my grandmother had started to forget things.
My grandmother met me at the bottom of the escalator. There were benches along the wall but she stood, hands behind her rounded back, face open. As I came into view she leaned a little further forward and stayed that way, peering up at me in savored expectation, like a game of peek-a-boo around the corner of the ceiling. Less than five feet tall, she already looked slightly up most of the time, and the added angle of the escalator drew her brow shorter, her eyes wider. She smiled as I remembered. Lips pursed but unmistakably glad. When I kissed her cheek she whispered that my grandfather was in the bathroom. I was conscious but happy of the pair we made there—a tiny Chinese-American woman with wispy white hair under a soft, faded denim cap and her head-and-shoulders-taller, not-quite-Asian-looking granddaughter.
My flight to Raleigh had been delayed and it had gotten dark, so we agreed that I would drive the Subaru home. In the car my grandmother asked me what I planned to do after graduation and I told her about the project I was working on, writing Grandpa’s biography with him—yes, this Grandpa. I proposed to interview her, too. She sneezed at the idea and offered to tell me a bunch of lies, how’s that. When we got to the house, she directed me from the backseat to park directly behind her car, the tiny white sedan, because she and it were not going anywhere. Inside, my grandfather opened the fridge and showed me the lumpy triangles of cold pizza he had defrosted and cooked and wrapped in foil for my breakfast. I smiled and nodded along as he told my grandmother with the delight of childish conspiracy that it was my favorite. In the same back room my brother and I always shared, I laid out the recording equipment I had brought on the familiar yellow crocheted covers smoothed over the righthand twin bed, and slept in the lefthand one under an identical blanket.
I woke in the morning to the sound of a backhoe reversing on the lot next-door where a young couple—both lawyers, very pleasant, two kids—were building a too-big house with stone siding. The door to my grandparents’ room was open so I knew they were awake, but the house was quiet. I wandered down the narrow hall and spiked the knotted string hanging from the attic trapdoor. I took a slice of cold pizza from the fridge. My grandmother sat by the ficus in her deck chair, the poolside kind with the narrow plastic slats. Her small stocking feet, coral house sandals, were propped up on a small three-legged, mushroom shaped wicker stool. There was a banana peel on the nearby marbled glass table, and she had the News & Observer open in front of her, lit by the sun coming in over her shoulder from sliding door to the backyard. When she heard me enter the room she lowered the paper and eyed me expectantly, as usual as if over a pair of glasses. I smiled and we said good morning.
She asked if I had had breakfast yet and then scoffed when I held up the half-eaten pizza. She refolded the paper neatly and got up to bring the banana peel to the kitchen, where she cut the yellow leather into inch-wide segments with a pair of scissors, and deposited the lot in the white compost bin under the sink. My grandfather came up the stairs from his office and refilled his coffee cup from the half pot on the sink. When my grandmother returned to the living room he murmured to me that she would sometimes eat an entire bunch of bananas in a single day, not remembering that she had already eaten one, two, several. I looked through the interior window over the sink at my grandmother’s small feet extending from under the open newspaper, and I saw the dissected peels steadily filling the white bin and my grandfather steadily emptying the collection into the large compost behind the potting shed where my brother and I used to dig in the soft, red clay.
We left my grandmother reading upstairs and went down to my grandfather’s office to record an interview for our biography project. I sat cross-legged on the plastic carpet cover and my grandfather sat in the swivel chair at his desk. He showed me a photograph of him at age six or seven. In the photo he was also sitting at a desk, this one in the childhood bedroom he shared with his fourth and fifth brothers in their family compound in Changzhou. He was still young so the desk was too big for him, his feet dangled and the desktop was level with his chest, but he sat there anyway, facing the window. With his left hand dipped a brush into the round ink pot, bigger than his right hand resting beside it. Above him, a hanging lamp with a pale scalloped glass bonnet over the eggplant-shaped bulb—but there was plenty of sunlight. To his right, a four-poster bed. To his left a white plaster wall. He paused then, and told me that one of his earliest memories was of seeing that wall being built. He remembered sitting in the furthest recessed hall in the family home and watching hired carpenters cut and plane posts for the partition wall. He remembered watching them as they stood one on either side of a log and sawed, one on each handle, back and forth down its length.
He told me another early memory, ingrained by its regularity rather than its uniqueness. Most days after school his grandfather would send a rickshaw to pick him up and bring him over for the afternoon and dinner. The rickshaw would stop along the way and my grandfather would buy a baked sweet potato. He remembered having to dance his fingers on the hot snack when the vendor slid it into his hands off the long bamboo fork used to retrieve it from a shelf inside the clay kiln. The recorder beeped that the SD card was almost full.
Cold pizza for lunch and I stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room and watched as my grandfather put the midday round of drops in my grandmother’s eyes, watched as she tensed, watched as he had to separate the lids of the second eye with his fingers while his palm cupped her cheek. I watched as he checked off the boxes on the chart from the doctor, his checks backwards like mine. My grandmother had to stay horizontal for ten minutes to keep the medicine localized so I went and sat on the coffee table and she stroked my hand as she shook her head, eyes closed. She scoffed at the prescription but submitted, and her crows feet crusted orange.
After dinner—takeout from Red Dragon—my grandmother asked me to fetch from the door of the refrigerator a recycled peanut butter jar of pea-sized lumps floating in light khaki colored liquid. With a clean pair of chopsticks, she fished out and ate nine gin-soaked golden raisins to prevent arthritis. I asked for the jar and as I was coughing on my raisins my grandparents shared delayed a moment of delight that I was twenty-one years old.
Later, my grandfather asked me to help him move some heavier items about the yard. I followed him with the half bag of mulch to fill in a ditch by the driveway where my grandmother had recently removed a shrub, and then to a delicate tree in the backyard by the low retaining wall. It was late October but the light flowers were fragrant when my grandfather held up a shoot to my nose. He told me proudly that it was a special Chinese tree, and gave the scientific name which I promptly forgot and had to ask later—Osmanthus fragrans, the sweet olive. We fertilized its roots.
Our chores done, we reentered the house through the basement door there and passed through the mudroom where my grandfather stored his tools. (One April when my brother and I were visiting, my grandfather had propped that door open and set up a workshop out on the cement lattice—chipboard across sawhorses, the table saw. My brother and I had each carefully drawn the plans for a small freestanding shelf unit, about a foot cubed, and it was time to build our designs. We measured our plywood and marked the cuts with a carpenter’s pencil, the first I’d ever seen. My brother went first and I watched as my grandfather helped him guide the wood through the saw, checked that his planks were clamped at right angles before he power-drilled and screwed them together. I can’t remember just how excited I was to build my shelf, but when my brother had finished his work my grandfather built mine. I was probably about six years old at the time and my brother was nine. I don’t know how we got the shelves back to New Hampshire. (I still use mine. It is perfectly constructed.)
My grandfather paused at his office to send some emails and I turned left through the den to the stairs up to the first floor. (We didn’t call that basement room the “den,” but the term conveys a recognizable space: brown carpet; a chair, another wicker stool; a futon patterned like the outside of the wax paper cups at the dentist; a radio and a television; my grandmother’s sewing table. There are old pictures of my cousins and me in the dresses she made for us. Minutely pleated and embroidered collars and airy capped sleeves. Light cotton and small flowers. I never saw her at work there.) Upstairs I washed my hands of mulch and clay with watered-down soap, and reassured my grandmother, puttering, that yes, I did get lunch.
Sometime that afternoon I took a nap on the love-seat next to my grandfather napping on the sofa and I dreamt of cut paper and clementines. I stirred at the sound of the side door closing, and sat up to see my grandmother placing her brown sneakers in the cardboard tray by the door and slipping on her house sandals. I asked if she would like to change into a new shirt when I noticed that the one she was wearing—white cotton and short sleeved with blue scalloped embroidery around the hems—was soaked through across her whole back and into the top of her waistband from the sprinklers on this, her most recent mission into the garden to pluck the small weed in her fist. She scoffed at my invitation and I wondered how long ago my grandfather had risen, how long I’d been there, how long she’d been outside, alone. I reassured my grandmother that yes, I did get lunch, and got up to give her a hug which was damp and awkward and hard in places where storybook grandmas are soft.