Friday, November 27, 2020

A Tale of Two Grandmothers // On Memory

This day is one of death and life, but so are all days.

A candid I took of my paternal grandma in the
Hong Kong Railway Museum, March 2018.
Exhibited at the Chicago Public Library, May 2019.

This morning my paternal grandma passed away at the age of 86, surrounded by family in Hong Kong. We knew this was coming. She was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer in the beginning of August, and it was inoperable and chemo wasn’t possible, so it was a death sentence. We didn’t tell her; think back to the film The Farewell. And lately she was on her literal death bed; the past few nights when we should’ve been sleeping, my dad would have his video chat on all night so that he could, in a way, be with her when it happened. I’d fall asleep (and oftentimes wake up in the middle of the night) to hospice noises and the sound of her labored breathing. I didn’t want to see her like that, wasting away. I wanted to remember her as she was. And who she was made me shocked when the diagnosis came, despite her age. She was so active and independent and self-sufficient. If you’ve been following my travels over the years you might remember that, every time I visit HK for Art Basel, she and I would literally hike around mountains together. She lived by herself, and she was always walking all over the city on her own, and she was always so sharp.

Pancreatic cancer is brutal. I won’t go into the details of her rapid deterioration but I empathize with anyone who’s had loved ones suffer through it. My parents and I paid attention to Alex Trebek’s journey more closely than the average person might because of my paternal grandma, and when he died a couple weeks ago, it filled me with dread.

Today is also a celebration of a life. It’s my maternal grandma’s 96th birthday according to the Western/solar calendar. She’s an immigrant and lives in the Chicago metropolitan area.

One of the photos my uncle texted us of my maternal grandma looking so
pleased after winning mahjong on various days in July and August 2020.

We always celebrated her Chinese/lunar one, which usually falls around December, but this year we decided to observe her Western one early; according to superstition, if my paternal grandma died, we wouldn’t be able to go to my maternal grandma for 49 days. (The irony is my maternal grandma isn’t superstitious, but some other relatives are, and we respect their wishes.) I guess I should backtrack a little before I continue, though.

I’ve been staying home since March. Home being my parents’ house. My parents are 63, so I knew back then, as I cancelled the physical show for SLAYSIAN when Illinois’ total cases exponentially jumped to 66, that if I didn’t come to them as soon as possible (I remember I had one last errand to run before hunkering down), I wouldn’t be able to see them for who knows how long.

We’ve been living like we’re under lockdown this entire time, nonsensical “reopening” be damned. We still get curbside pickup for groceries and sanitize them before bringing them in. We got takeout once, for my parents’ anniversary. We don’t even take walks around the neighborhood; I see too many people without masks outside. When it was warm out, my dad and I would simply walk around the perimeter of the house (how funny we must’ve looked to anyone who might’ve seen us).

Like I said before, I’ve been a germaphobe since I was 10 (it began when we were given a notice that strep throat was going around, and I suddenly flashed back to the trauma of catching it from different classmates over and over when I was 6), so on the one hand it’s like most of my life has prepared me for this, but on the other hand this is pretty much my worst nightmare. We’ve been strict, with me being the strictest and the enforcer. The only times I’ve ventured beyond our yard were when I had to go to my childhood orthodontist for a retainer concern (“Welcome to the outside!” the staff joked to me) and when we drop off freshly homemade food and other snacks for my maternal grandma every month.

We have a system. My maternal grandma lives with one of my uncles and his household. They have a table on one end of their garage. We arrive and park in their driveway, they open the garage door, we place our gifts on the table, and we stay at that open end (I sometimes stand directly under the garage door and think back to my childhood fear of being decapitated that way) while they’re at the other end. We briefly say hi and exchange a few words and maybe take a photo of the two of them from this distance. We drive away as they watch us, and my grandma waves, and I wave back. In July I overheard my mom saying that every time she says goodbye to her mother there’s a feeling of sadness, and I mentally agreed. Pre-pandemic, my mom would spend time with my grandma at least a couple times a week: Sunday dim sum and errands in Chinatown, a weekday dinner at their favorite neighborhood restaurant.

My maternal grandmother is also the woman who raised (and spoiled) me when my parents went to work. We were close. I was her favorite, which boosted my ego because she has 20-something grandchildren.

I use past tense because her memory has been fading. (This is why, for those of you who follow me on social media, over the summer I was delighted to learn that she still remembers how to play—and win—mahjong, pictured above.) Before the pandemic, this was my #1 stressor. It was on Christmas 2019 that she officially forgot who I was. And it felt even worse to me that it was an otherwise joyful moment. We were at her house for the annual Christmas party with extended family and it was the end of the night and an aunt was trying to shuffle her off to bed so we were saying our goodbyes, and she forgot who I was and did not remember raising me. It was bittersweet because she was genuinely praising me and joking, “Oh, I must have done a good job then!” and doing it so cheerily and rubbing my arm and looking at me with kindness and wonder, yet I couldn’t help but let the tears flow as I smiled and nodded sadly with everyone watching us. Without context it was a cute exchange—she was even saying how tall I was (I’m 5’1”)—but I felt like I was dreaming. It was like her true self—her innate personality and humor—shined through, like she was seeing me objectively since she wasn’t beholden to our decades of memories and experiences together. It revealed to me that every version of her would like or love me, that if she met me for the first time she would still feel the same, and she’s always been the kind of strong, opinionated, firecracker of a woman who’d just as easily let it be known if she didn’t like someone. Still, it was a pain I’d never felt before. Earlier, I’d thought I’d be OK with it like Miguel in Pixar’s Coco, but I wasn’t. Then again, unlike Miguel, I’d lived an entire life with her.

Then COVID-19 hit and my priorities completely changed. On March 1, the last time I went to yum cha and before the location of the state’s 4th case was confirmed (we’d received news of it from a cousin who saw a post by a local hospital worker that said Arlington Heights), I suspected community spread and shifted to survival mode for my family. And when your mindset shifts to staving away death, sickness, and suffering, everything else can seem so trivial. I was now happy my grandmother was alive and safe, and I would do everything to keep it that way. Her memory loss also became a silver lining to me: She wouldn’t have to worry about what was happening (she barely knows what’s going on); she wouldn’t have to miss me. I became OK. Throughout the pandemic I’ve even joked about her condition with my mom (imitating a little old lady voice, “Who are these two women who bring me snacks every month?” “She probably doesn’t even remember the previous visit; the snacks are a nice surprise each time”).

So, two days ago it was a race against time for my mom to bake my maternal grandma a cake and for us to drive the 8 or so miles to her, hurriedly wish her a happy birthday, and then get back in the car and leave, before anything happened to my paternal grandma.

We made it, as my paternal grandma held on. She clung to life until all the HK family could be at her bedside at once, holding her hand and bidding farewell. I couldn’t be with her as she was dying of course, but I don’t regret it. I will now always remember her as she was in life: Loud, fierce, hiking mountains in her 80s. Life and death may have been on my mind, but so has memory.

I’m suddenly thinking back to when my maternal grandfather died, on Father’s Day—the Father’s Day that the Bulls won their 4th championship and the first one Michael Jordan won without his father—when I was 8. That was a death that changed my life in so many ways, and marked the end of one era and the beginning of another: I wrote my first diary entry; my mom eventually quit her job; [because] my grandma, who used to live in the house across the street from the one I grew up in (my parents had intentionally moved there so she could babysit me), moved out of that house and started anew. There were too many memories there for her. After staying with us for a little while, she moved to Palatine, where she’s been ever since.

Life is strange and everything can change so quickly. Now more than before I think about how little time we have with our loved ones. The years are fast.

This day is one of life and death, but on this day I celebrate both my grandmothers’ lives. On this day I choose to celebrate life.

P.S. Something I was always proud of was how both my grandmothers admired each other. They’d always individually praise each other to me, telling me how they thought the other was so impressive and such a good person. They have so many children and thus so many in-laws, yet it was my grandmothers who connected. In my youth I’d joke how it was a testament to how powerful I was. (Of course, being my maternal grandmother’s favorite probably didn’t hurt.)

P.P.S. Oh, the limits of the English language. In Chinese we have completely different words to distinguish between one’s maternal and paternal grandmothers.


  1. You are definitely a writer, Jenny Lam. I would encourage you to tackle a few short stories and rock the publishing world.

    I tried to respond to your post by email rather than on the blog site, somehow the loss of a grandparent just seems like something one should not respond to publicly, but it seems to be a “do not reply” email situation. The heart in your post between the loss of one grandparent, so sensitively balanced by the joyful celebration of the birth anniversary of another, is truly magical.

    I’m a rare bookseller (and old man) in Shorewood, Wisconsin (first suburb north of Milwaukee proper) and I always enjoy your posts. I have many Chinese friends (scholars), most of whom have returned to the Mainland now, all over China, and I miss them dearly. I was often the only ancestrally European American present at many Chinese dinner parties here in Milwaukee (honored to be so), so much outstanding hotpot and I’m just crazy about jiaozi.

    As a rare bookseller I’ve been developing a familiarity with and an inventory of 20th century and contemporary Chinese novelists, I’ve taken a serious interest in Chinese history and culture. Just bought 3 more signed first printings of An Yu’s debut novel, Braised Pork (recommended reading), from a bloke in Britain. They arrived yesterday. I always enjoy your blog posts and I really do encourage you to write for publication.



    (Please forgive mistakes if I didn’t get that completely correct, I’m an amateur. And forgive any Mandarin that isn’t quite Cantonese, I think written text is the same or similar.)

    Anyway, thanks for touching me with your story today, Jenny.


    Scott Pauli
    Shorewood Wisconsin

    1. Comments like yours are why I write. Thank you, Scott, truly.


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