China

China

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Mom

China

People who don’t cherish their elderly
have forgotten whence they came and whither they go.
~Ramsey Clark

The rain grew heavier, and I listened to the hypnotic sweep of the cab’s windshield wipers as my mom and I traveled to her parents’ gravesite in Tai Shan. Pockets of pine trees emerged against a mountainous backdrop, and wild brush and grass thickened the terrain. Ahead of us, a man wearing a straw hat pedaled a bicycle at the side of the road. His pant legs were turned up to the knees and his work clothes drenched.

We picked up our guide at a gray brick house in an open field near a section of fishponds. The man, sporting a clear rain slicker, pointed ahead and spoke Chinese to my mother in short, clipped sentences as if talking posed a hardship. For one of the few times in my life, I regretted that I couldn’t understand my own language.

After we endured a stretch of pothole-ravaged roads, the guide directed our driver to stop on a narrow shoulder and headed out. My mother reached for her umbrella and opened the cab to pelting rain. I slid across the seat and readied my umbrella to follow.

The driver popped the trunk, and my mom and I retrieved the supply bags. The guide waded through knee-high grass to a tight trail, and my mother and I tracked him up the steep and muddy path through rocks and jagged brush.

We trudged forward, the wind and rain whipping against us. In time, we came to a four-foot-wide ravine of rushing water. The man spoke to my mother then walked into a river that completely covered his work boots and soaked his pants to the knees.

My mom marched across, seemingly oblivious to the current spilling over her tennis shoes and pants. I trekked behind her, my lower legs fully immersed. At the other side, I could feel the squishing of cold, wet socks inside my sneakers and the bottoms of my jeans clinging to my skin. Another twenty minutes and we came to a clearing overlooking a valley of pine trees.

Then I saw it—a small cement slab on the sloping bank of the bluff ahead. We made our way to a headstone in the earth inundated with grass and weeds.

My mom dropped her bag, hurried to the foot of the headstone and began pulling at the plant growth with her bare hands. I set my bag and umbrella down to help. We cleared the entire area around the gravesite as if our very lives hinged upon it. My mother was soaked, her hair sopping moisture onto her face.

She wiped the sleeve of her blouse against her forehead and went to get her bag. She carried it to the headstone and removed a container of roast duck. The guide brought the remaining bags while I gathered my umbrella to shield my mom from the rain. She opened a pastry box, put it on an empty sack and rotated it toward the headstone as if positioning a dinner setting for an honored guest. She placed apples, mangoes and plums on another bag.

After arranging the food, she took out the incense sticks and planted them in the ground by the headstone. She dug out a box of matches and struck one against the side of the box. It didn’t light, so I bent lower to shield her from the gusting rain. Three attempts were needed to produce a flame, and she held her free hand around it the way a child might cup a butterfly.

Carefully, my mom brought the match to the incense sticks, and the sweet smell of jasmine weaved into the air on thin smoke trails.

Rain swept over us. Drops ran down her neck as she knelt at the headstone, put her hands together, and bowed three times in respect.

She closed her eyes and spoke Chinese in a quiet, solemn voice as if conveying something from the depths of her soul. She continued for a time, and I watched, transfixed.

My mom repeated the bows before opening her eyes. They were red and moist, and I knew the drops trailing down her cheeks were tears. Then she turned and walked slowly toward the edge of the clearing.

I went to where my mom had been, knelt, and propped the umbrella to protect the incense and food. I closed my eyes and bowed three times. As I began to pray, images appeared: My mom as a peach-faced, pony-tailed little girl playing in front of a spacious brick house; her mother, wearing the traditional black tunic top and pants, the long, loose sleeves rolled up to the elbow as she scrubbed clothes by hand in a basin; her father, slender like me, and with silvering hair, working the fields with a hoe, raking and tilling the soil. I could see them clearly.

I started to speak in a soft voice, “My name is Raymond, and I’m your grandson. I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to come see you.

“I live in America, and it’s important that you know I have a college education. My mom worked hard to give me that chance.

“Sometimes, I don’t realize how lucky I am for the opportunities I’ve been given. I take things for granted—my schooling, my job, my family.

“But on this trip, I’ve seen the way people live, how hard they work. It’s helped me to appreciate my life in America, and that’s something I’ll never take for granted again.”

I paused, drew a deep breath. “There’s something else I want you to know. It’s about my mom. She brought me here today to be with you. It was important to her.

“She’s had a hard life; I didn’t know how hard until this trip. That was my fault. For so many years, I didn’t want to be Chinese. I didn’t want to be different, so I never asked about you. I never wanted to know.

“I’m sorry. It was wrong, and I ask your forgiveness.

“Your daughter has cared for a deeply wounded man, a man who couldn’t love her. But she stayed with him and tried to help him. She raised two sons, often by herself. Michael and I are very different. He’s practical and business-minded like she is. Someday, he’s going to run his own marketing firm, and he’ll be successful. He learned from my mom.

“Me, I’m stubborn. Mom would call it hardheaded, and she’d be right. But if there’s one thing I know, it’s that I’m going to make a difference in this world. Maybe with my work. Or my writing. Or by being the kind of person I am.

“My mom raised me to be a man of integrity and honesty—a person who cares about others. She taught me courage by the way she’s lived her life.

“I want you to know these things about your daughter, and I hope that you’re as proud of her as I am.”

I knew my grandparents had heard me, and they were smiling. I bowed three times and opened my eyes. Then I stood, turned, and joined my mom.

~Ray M. Wong

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