My grandmother used to knit me sweaters before every winter. In a photo from my early elementary school years, I wore a handsome cardigan she had knit me out of white yarn speckled with red, magenta and green. That was the only time I wore one of her sweaters for Picture Day. Since then, I have become enamored with Gap, Abercrombie, Banana Republic, Polo and others — brands that have been worn by peers whom I looked up to over the years.
When I reached adolescence, my grandmother stopped making me sweaters; before the start of my junior year of high school, she left to go back to China. By the time of her departure, I had bored of her predictable Chinese cooking and started to cook for myself using recipes from the Food Network. In the months before she left, she would ask me, “How do you feel about me leaving?” I would reply that if she felt like leaving, she should leave. I knew it wasn’t the response she wanted.
When I was in elementary school, I often came home to my grandmother’s fried noodles, drenched in black vinegar and soy sauce, ready at the kitchen table. I would wolf them down without stopping to ask her how her day was. The efforts my grandmother made to provide for me were great. For a time, she even tried to learn English. She attempted to practice her vocabulary with me, but I was embarrassed by her disjointed speech and quickly found an excuse to get away. When she decided to return to China, I think it was because she knew that my brothers and I were maturing and pushing her out of our lives: There was no longer a place for her in America.
Last Thursday morning, I placed a long-distance call to Shenyang, my grandmother’s home. It was Chinese New Year’s Eve. My grandmother picked up. “Hello?” she asked cheerfully. “Who is it?”
“It’s Eddy,” I said.
“Oh, Eddy!” I could see her smiling at the other end, her eyes curved in happiness.
She told me that everyone was at her place: my aunts, my two cousins and my grandfather. They were watching the annual Chinese New Year celebration on TV and making dumplings at the same time. They would eat at midnight.
“You’re missing out!” she said. My insides tightened as I imagined my relatives gathered in her home: my grandmother scooping pork-and-cabbage filling into the dumpling shells and pinching them shut, my aunts carrying the finished ones into the kitchen to steam, my grandfather and cousins chewing sunflower seeds in front of the TV.
She asked about my back, which had pained me in the past, and told me to be mindful when I exercised. Once, in America, she had hurt her back by moving too quickly and was bedridden for a month. She asked if I remembered. I said I did.
Since last November, I have been calling my grandmother once a month. When she talks, I remember her hands, coarse from daily dish-washing, massaging my back to ease me into sleep. I remember her trying to execute the Food Network recipes and asking me questions about them so she could be a better grandmother for her three American grandsons.
I know I took for granted the moments when I should have appreciated her the most: when she would quietly place a plate of fruit in front of me while I was studying, slip hand-knit socks on my feet during the winter and be there every day after school. But she has never faulted me for all the time lost; her voice inflects with excitement each month.
So I call her just to check in, ask her about her hurting knee and the garden she’s tending in the backyard. She tells me life is good, but the air in Shenyang is not as fresh as it is in Rochester, N.Y. She asks when I’m coming to visit. I reply that hopefully I’ll be able to come this summer, but I know it’s not so easy for us to see each other anymore.
This Chinese New Year, I really wanted to be with my grandmother. I wanted to hug her, to sit next to her as she watched the New Year special on TV. I longed to dip her handmade pork-and-cabbage dumplings into black vinegar and soy sauce.