I was twenty years old when I stepped into my grandmother’s living room for the first time.
Neglect reigned the room. A painting by her brother covered the main wall, blurred by the tears it witnessed. Dust sat as idle servants longing to move. Rat faeces made their home in forgotten corners. A browned paper lantern marked years of observing the lack of life around it. A couch held the shape of her family’s absence. Chests from China locked shut with rust, and like her heart, its contents remain unknown. Two red marble dragons sat on a bookshelf, protecting her journals and all their secrets.
Hand painted flowers lined a silver and pearl vanity table, and on that table stood a sculpture of her head. It was evident she had once lived a life of wealth and grandeur in her aristocratic mansion. Her belongings revealed she also lived in war-torn China during the 1940’s. When she escaped, Australia was her hero. The story possessed her heart, later written in the journals. Journals now lost, stolen by greed. Maybe that’s why her heart decided to stop.
In the face of the sculpture I saw a woman who might have began her life naive. The walls of her home guarding her innocence. She had good intentions, but found herself trapped on foreign soil, unable to leave year after year. Surrounded by a language she did not own. Hoping, losing that hope, then trying to find it again. No longer ignorant to the harshness of the world surrounding her, she learned to distract her pains for home. Breathing in what good she could find, and breathing out the ugly she did not want. In time, she did find some good in this world. They ran away together to another far away place. A home was finally built, and her hope came back. I think she would have understood me.
She was my grandmother, a woman I barely knew. Through her and because of her, images of the streets in Shanghai captivate my dreams. Cherry blossoms adorn every cheongsam dress I wear. Jade earrings silently signify my belief in their good luck. A timid obsession of all that I will never know yet connects my blood to that place, that country, that life in China.
My fingers trace a flower painted by her mother near the edge of the vanity table. So many women have touched that same flower. Where a woman with answers once sat, a sculpture now resides. Death took her spirit, her unmarked grave a permanent wall. All I have left is what I imagine in my mind and feel inside my heart. Like a thief, I took all that I could carry with a promise I’d never let it go.