桂花酒

Osmanthus Wine

Those memories I have of you are sweet, sweet like the osmanthus honey you used to make me, petals hand picked from your cobblestone patio back in China. You left only a few jars before you went back to Nanjing seven years ago, but I still remember their taste. They were rich and floral and tasted so much of home. I thought that of our memories too: thick and comforting, but they were clumped as well, honey riddled with dry chunks of misunderstanding and silence.

It’s been so long since you were last in America, but every time someone grabs my wrist, I’m reminded of you. And though your hands are much rougher, crinkled like parchment paper, the gesture always sends my mind tumbling through our memories together, most of which we made when I was twelve years old, and when you lived with my family in America. That’s how you’d often lead me, whether we were gardening together or taking a walk while you did morning exercises, you would always hurry me along, one hand wrapped tightly around my wrist. You gripped me firmly, and as a child, it reminded me of just how strong you were, despite your age.

I remember you as a strong woman. And perhaps now that’s why it is so difficult for me to accept your weakness. You’re almost ninety now, although none of us are quite sure exactly how old you are. You never had a birth certificate, papers lost in the aftermath of revolution, and just the mere thought of age renders you silent and forlorn.

I wish we had a day to celebrate you. Perhaps I would have treated you better, or at the very least, I would have remembered you. I lived for many years without ever thinking about how you were doing or what you were feeling — the barrier between us seemed too immense, a wall built from bricks of broken Mandarin, cement layers of faulty internet connection, and your strong Wúxī accent that not even the younger Chinese generation can understand anymore.

You often laughed at my Chinese, and teased me for only responding with “对.” “Yes.” “Correct.” It was a dismissive word. You asked me many questions, but I never did the same for you. I simply responded with “对,” and I convinced myself that it was because my Chinese was not good. My mother told me once that Chinese was my first language. I used to tell my friends this, proudly too, but I lost the language, and it became an injustice to claim that title. I lost more than just the language — I lost the sweet taste of Mandarin on my tongue, the silly Chinese songs you used to sing to me, and the rich accents and tones that make Chinese so beautiful.

But I didn’t lose you, and I didn’t lose the many lessons you taught me unknowingly.

I remember there was one day when you were on one of your routines doing morning exercises. Walking quickly around our small neighborhood in West LA, using your knuckles to gently stretch and ease your muscles, you would make long loops around our home. You used to frequent a Mormon church right by our house where there were rows of white fountains and thick gardens. I remember one afternoon, you came home clutching two pots of roses, purple and yellow.

When I asked where you’d gotten them, you told me that the gardener at the church had given them to you. They were replanting and would have thrown them away. I didn’t want to ask how you were able to communicate with him, but you seemed to know what was on my mind.

“I pointed,” you told me in Mandarin.

I was only thirteen at the time, but something about that fascinated me — how you were able to walk into a space so out of reach, unreligious, non-native, and speaking no words of English, to procure two beautiful things. Two beautiful roses that you gardened with such care and asked me often how pretty they were.

“They’re beautiful,” I would reassure you.

“Purple and yellow, lucky colors,” you often reminded me.

It amazed me how you crossed boundaries like this, and there were so many things I wanted to learn from you. I wanted to be proud and brave like you were. I wanted to be independent and strong like you were. When you lived with us, you were often alone, and you would spend those empty hours transforming our garden. I remember coming home from school to find you nestled deeply in a blanket of wet soil, always wearing a collared shirt with swirling patterns of roses and peonies, the kind that many Chinese grandmothers have. The sun shone against your crinkled skin, and you huffed in exertion every time you moved, but you yanked weeds and overturned soil with an unparalleled vigor. I wanted to learn how to transform things, to turn nothingness of raw earth into something beautiful.

You taught me how to make silk flowers, how to stretch the fabric out over wire petals, wrap them gently around one finger to curl them out so they appeared in full bloom. You bought me boxes of yarn, green tape so I could make leaves, and red paints so I could dye the silk flowers we made together. You showed me how we could communicate through art and with our hands, even though I could barely speak to you.

Then you left, and I never again touched that box of art supplies you gifted me. My mother still keeps a vase of those silk flowers we made together, but they’re growing old now — the cloth peels away from the wire frames like skinning an onion, and fine grey dust gathers between the petals.

A few years after you left America, when I was perhaps fifteen or sixteen, my father walked into my room with his phone, and you were on the other end. I heard your voice, distorted by the network, but loud and excited, eager to speak with me. I sunk my cheek deeper into the pillow, squeezing my eyes shut, and letting the weight of my body pull me deeper into the soft mattress. A feather floated up and tickled my nose gently, but I forced myself to hold in the sneeze. Nothing much had happened that day, and I couldn’t conjure up the words in Mandarin that I wanted to say to you. Maybe that’s just an excuse, though.

That time, I pretended to sleep. I pretended to sleep until my father left with you on the phone, the door creaking softly behind him.

To this day, I still feel ashamed for not giving you even just three words, not giving you a simple “奶奶好.” Nǎinai hǎo. Hello, Grandmother. I’ve tried to make it up in recent years with many words, telling you about the Chinese dramas I’ve been watching, or the Chinese songs I’ve been listening to.

But they don’t make up for the words that were never said.

It was easy for me to justify neglecting you, neglecting my family and our history. The lies I told myself — that we weren’t interested in the same things, that my Chinese was not good, or that it didn’t matter where I’m from — these were lies that were conjured gently, like plucking flowers from a field, but the truth is that I never tried. The truth is hard to wrench from the walls of my mouth and chew into words, but now I write to you with heavy hands, laced with decades of guilt. I write to you in between the honeyed lies that kept me glued to my seat of comfort and dismissiveness for so many years.

I wish I could tell you how much I miss your cooking, or how grateful I am that you would walk to the market every weekend to get my favorite Chinese vegetables. I wish I could tell you how 爸爸 makes your braised pork recipe for me when I’m having a bad day, and that his temper has been reduced to a simmer. I wish I could tell you how 弟弟 and I have stopped fighting like we did when we were little, and he’s grown into such a tall, handsome man. I wish I could tell you how 妈妈 grew the two big dragon fruit plants you raised, and how the lacey flowers are some of the most beautiful flowers I’ve ever seen, even though they only last for a single night before withering away.

But I’m afraid that you will leave me before I find these words. For now you clutch onto my wrist tightly as you did when I was a child, to lean on but not lead me. I’m afraid of death just as much as you are, as selfish as it may be. I’m afraid that the gardens you planted will wither and rot away. I’m afraid that the silk flowers we made will fade to grey. I’m afraid that the recipes you made will be long forgotten when I myself become a mother.

时间过得太快了

The time has passed too quickly, 奶奶. I no longer drink the osmanthus honey that you make, but rather, the osmanthus wine that my mother brings back from Nanjing. The taste reminds me of our memories, but more textured and more mature. And like the alcohol on my tongue — they too taste bittersweet.

Grad Student @ MIT Media Lab/ tech & society / creative writing / poetry / art