MY GRANDMOTHER CAME BACK two years later. I was in middle school, and my pathetic puberty struck like a flash of lightning in the middle of the night — I suddenly saw all my surroundings for what they were: hideous and threatening. I had no friends, social life, interests, talents, breasts, straight teeth, likability, normal clothes, or charm, and every day I came home weighed down with dread. I started to fake illnesses so I could stay home with my 2-year-old brother. I followed him around everywhere, crawling when he crawled and walking on my knees when he learned to walk so that we were the same height.
My brother cried on the weekends when my grandmother went to work at a factory where she folded dumplings for five cents apiece. Most of the other workers could do only fifty an hour, and when the owner noticed my grandmother typically clocked in at a hundred and was teaching her trade secrets to the other ladies during their fifteen-minute lunch break, he instituted “quality control” rules, mandating a certain amount of flour on each dumpling and folds at the edge between 0.4 and 0.6 centimeters. My grandmother pointed out that he was arbitrarily docking pay for “unfit dumplings” without any real inspection, and all the dumplings she folded, including the unacceptable ones, were thrown into the same freezer bags, and that was exploitative. She persuaded the other workers to collectively demand back pay for all the rejected dumplings, and even organized a walkout one morning for higher wages. “Six cents a dumpling!” they chanted. The owner caved, and that day my grandmother came home pumping her fists like she was at a pep rally. Listening to her recount the day’s victory, even I had to admit that she’d done a great thing.
All of her was laid bare now — I saw her. She was just an old woman, raised in the country without education, who’d been told as a girl that women had been put on this earth to give birth and rear children and not be a burden in any way but to live as servants lived, productively, without fatigue or requirements of their own, yet had been resourceful and clever enough to come up through the feminist movement that Mao had devised to get women out of the house and into fields and factories, who had been given more power than any of the women in her lineage, who alluded to all the people she “saved” but never the people she turned in during the Cultural Revolution, whose hearing loss fed her fears of becoming useless, and who to counter those fears adopted a confidence that was embarrassing to witness, an opinion of herself so excessively high that it bordered on delusional. She tried to make her children believe they would perish without her, and when they learned better she tried the same with her grandchildren. But we were learning better, too, and it would be years before we had our own children, and by then she would be dead. My grandmother’s unwillingness to be a victim was both pathetic and impressive, and she deserved compassion. But fuck, why did she have to be so greedy for it? It repulsed me that she wanted my brother and me to love her more than we loved our own parents, more than we loved each other, more even than we loved ourselves.
damn this is brutal (sad)
“Mother,” she said, as she jumped on the trampoline. “Mother, I didn’t want to leave you, but I had to go with Father into the mountains. Mother, you told me to take care of my brother and I let him fight and he lost his legs. Mother, I let you down. Mother, you said you wanted to die in my arms and instead I watched our house burn with you inside as I fled to the mountains. I told Father I wanted to get off the horse and die with you and he gripped me to his chest and would not let me get down. Mother, I would have died with you, but you told me to go. I should not have gone.”
I took a step toward her. Her eyes were open but they did not see me. In the dark, I thought I would always remember this night and be profoundly altered by having seen her this way. But it was like one of those dreams where you think to yourself while the dream is happening that you must remember the dream when you wake — that if you remember this dream, it will unlock secrets to your life that will otherwise be permanently closed — but when you wake up, the only thing you can remember is telling yourself to remember it. And after trying to conjure up details and images and coming up blank, you think, Oh well, it was probably stupid anyway, and you go on with your life, and you learn nothing, and you don’t change at all.
aaah this made ms cry