Becoming the Grandmother I Never Had
By Qin Sun Stubis
Throughout my life, I always had a wish and a yearning: I wanted grandparents who could be close to me and love me. I wanted them to hug me, hold my hands tight and take me places. I wanted to see their smiling faces and laughing eyes when they looked at me. I wanted to enjoy that very special loving and bonding experience.
Now well into my adult life and with all of my grandparents long gone on the other side of the world, I know that my wish can never be fulfilled. In a park, on a street, or at a restaurant table, I often feast my eyes on grandparents doting on their grandchildren with envy, wondering if those kids know how lucky they are to have their grandmas and grandpas so close to them in their lives.
As for myself, I have learned to shift my attention to other grandparent figures in my life, neighbors, colleagues, and even passing strangers. Whether helping them with a bag of groceries, or having a cup of coffee in their living-room or a short conversation with them on a street corner, I embrace every opportunity for friendship with an older person to fill the void I feel inside myself.
“My grandmother never liked me because my mother only gave birth to girls.”
When I was born in a shantytown in Shanghai in the 1960s, our family’s little wooden hut leaned against my father’s parents’ own shack. In spite of how physically close we were, my grandparents and I were practically strangers. My grandmother never liked me because my mother only gave birth to girls, who were seen at that time in China as far less valuable than boys. Her behavior told me that she would have preferred not to have a granddaughter at all.
The only grandparent who loved me and my sisters was my mother’s father, Grandpa Ho De. He passed away when I was only three, and yet I have clung onto such fond memories, though ever so faint, of him bringing us tangerines and walnuts as presents, holding our hands and playing with us. Ho De’s wife unfortunately died of tuberculosis before I was born, depriving me, I thought, of yet another chance for a loving grandmother.
Then, when I was about eight, I learned that, like many girls in old China, my mother had been given away to another family. While this had been a terrible blow to her as a child, for me, it meant suddenly realizing that I had three sets of grandparents. Imagine how excited I was about the news! Finally, I might have a grandmother who would love me! I begged and nagged my mom to see her many times. However, when my mother finally gave in and I met her, the story did not end the way I wanted at all. My grandmother was cold and indifferent. She never even touched me. I felt doomed.
“It may be a long while before I will become a grandmother but I have realized that being one is not just title but a privilege that should not be taken for granted.”
During my childhood quest for a loving grandmother, I learned a lot about the families I belonged to, why my father’s mother didn’t like us, why my father’s father was always silent and kept his head low, why my mother had been given away by my real grandparents, and how my own parents met and I came to this world. As I continued to walk down the path of my life, these stories have helped me to understand who I am and where I am rooted. And now I have woven some of these stories into a historical saga, “Once Our Lives” (Guernica Editions, 2023). The book not only takes readers on a dramatic journey to a time when magic was real, when pirates roamed the seas, and when babies, wives, and daughters were sold in opium dens, but tells the story of how an eerie episode affecting my grandmother nearly 100 years ago determined the fate of generations of my family. It also includes the heartbreaking story of how I discovered and met my mother’s birth mother for the first and last time.
It may be a long while before I will become a grandparent but I have realized that being one is not just title but a privilege that should not be taken for granted. What I choose to do and not to do for my grandchildren can, and will have an impact on the entirety of their lives. Maybe by then, I can finally fulfill my dream of loving grandparents . . . by being one myself.