6 October 1917 – 3 July 2017
We called her “Ah Po” – an endearment in the Hakka dialect.
As one of the first midwives in her village in Miao Li, Taiwan, my last grandma travelled to homes in remote areas, in the rice fields and mountains inhabited by the Hakka people. She worked for the local county’s health office (wei sheng suo, which translates literally to sanitation bureau).
At 61, she retired.
Once my mother said to me,”If you had only stuck to one job, like your grandma, you’d be earning more money in retirement than in your working life.”
On my last visit to Taiwan in March 2016, I noticed that Grandma barely spoke. The television was on a cartoon channel, the volume too high to tolerate any conversation. I asked for it to be switched off. I decided to apply what I learned in my music therapy course. I sang a children’s song about a crow in Japanese.
“Ka ra su, na ze na ku no, ka ra su wa ya ma ni…”
She responded by humming with me and uttering a few Japanese words. I asked my mother’s older sister if they sang karaoke with her. Grandma was fully alert, calling me by my Hakka nickname and holding my hands like a long lost friend. I knew she was glad to see me. I was reminded that I, of all the grandchildren, could speak to her in Hakka, Mandarin, and Japanese.
I had nearly forgotten that I bugged her with many questions when I was much younger and more chatty. I was intrigued by her profession. “How old is the first baby you delivered?” “What was the most difficult birth?” “Do they remember you?”
When I visited during summer school holidays, I’d ask her to take me to wedding festivities. She knew a lot of people and received many invitations to weddings and funerals. It was customary to give new currency bills in new red envelopes even if you did not attend the wedding. I told her that I’d gladly be her messenger and go in her place. Everyone spoke Hakka at these feasts. Hundreds of people were seated, ten to a circular table, under a gigantic tent. These events took place outdoors, usually near a temple. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know anybody. I felt important seated at a table among strangers, toasting to the bride and groom that I’d only meet once, engaging light conversation, and consuming the Hakka cuisine reserved for such salubrious feasts.
One summer, I spotted a light beige cotton tank top with huge sleeve holes in the laundry basket. The cool cotton felt good on my warm skin. “Can I have this, please?” My grandma had made the tops to wear under her blouses. She happily gave me the two and said she’d make more. She was very good with her hands, busily crocheting blankets with yarn colors that didn’t always match. I hope I still have a blanket of hers somewhere.
When Grandma was longer able to care for herself, her adult children hired a live-in maid from South East Asia. There were several over the years, and all learned the rudiments of Hakka dialect. My two uncles and their respective wives took turns living with her each week. My mother’s older sister would visit one day each week from her home nearby. The other widowed sister made her visits and calls. My mother, being furthest away, looked forward to her annual visits, a homage to her mother and her culture. She told me that she wasn’t interested in traveling anywhere when she returned to Taiwan each year. She just wanted to sleep next to her mother and be with her the entire time.
On 3rd July, Grandma died peacefully in her sleep. My cousin, who informed me via Facebook video, was devastated, having hurried there from Taipei after his mother told him that she was fading. I knew my mother would be very upset. I instantly felt it was the end of an era, and I would dread returning to a change of circumstance.
Due to the time zone difference, I e-mailed my brother to book a flight for our mother. I asked him to call our sister to tell her the sad news. We all knew ah po would not live forever. The time had come.
Grandma was nearly a hundred years old, or 101 by the lunar Chinese age. She had outlived her husband, my maternal grandfather, by nearly thirty years. On the other side, my paternal grandmother had died at age 93, outliving her husband by nearly a decade. She was my last grandma.