As I approach my senior year of high school, and with the help of affinity groups on my school's campus, I have been looking more into my heritage and how certain things in my past have made an impact on me. One of these said defining moments— or rather, experiences— was my grandmother's diagnosis of dementia in the spring of 2017. These days, my mom often comments on how much I am like my grandmother and things I do that remind my mom of her, and it makes me think of how in one way or another, we as human beings are responsible for the people that have come before us.
[Awarded Silver Key in 2023 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards]
People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.
- James Baldwin
There is a round musical clock that hangs from the screen covering the plywood staircase of my grandmother’s house in Taipei. It is an antique PURETE, finished in an old amber wood and painted with a small ring of rounded numbers. Every hour, the clock whirs to life, playing one of six short tunes; the ring of numbers revolves to the sound of the twinkling music; beneath the face, a pendulum of Swarovski crystals swings as tiny herald angels ring in the new hour. These six melodies are the soundtrack to my childhood— to the six lucid years I spent with my grandmother.
1. カノン / Canon in D 0:30
There are twenty-four hours in a day but not a single one that fully captures the beauty of the morning the way Canon in D does. The singing clock hangs right across from the east-facing kitchen windows, and for a brief couple of seconds during the day, the Swarovski crystals sends the last of the morning sun spiraling across the plywood walls in rainbow projections. The kitchen was situated right next to the dining table, and as my grandmother bustled around in the kitchen, the sizzling of oil and freshness of green onion wafted through the air. At six, I was still too young to understand that the scallion and egg pancakes at the breakfast table were there because my grandmother had gotten up early to make them for us, or that she had made an early trip to the market to ensure that we had the freshest ingredients and the apple-milk we liked, but it was on those mornings that I felt her presence most. Each individual pancake was a work of art, the edges layered in a way only she knew how to do. Always take pride in the work you do, she would say, winking at me. That was the same thing she said the summer she taught me to make dumplings with their edges intricately braided in and out of each other, in a way I will continue to do for the rest of my life and pass onto my own grandchildren someday.
2. ピアノ·ソナタ Ｋ.545-1 / Sonate für Klavier K545-1 0:29
The summer after I turned seven was the same summer I started taking ballet “seriously”— as seriously as a seven-year-old in primary school with a single pair of ballet flats could. I pranced across the hardwood floors in frilly socks and torn ribbons from my grandmother’s basket of unused textiles, dancing to the tune of Sonate für Klavier. I wore those same ballet flats all the way up until my brother and my 8 o’clock bedtime, convinced they would conceal my footsteps for when I would inevitably creep up to the screen door to watch my grandmother’s nightly Japanese soap dramas with her. We slid open the screen doors just enough for a sliver of light to pass through, and pressed our eyes against the thin gap. Listening to engka and watching Japanese dramas reminded her of her childhood spent under Japanese occupation; when 台灣那麼旺 began each weekend-night, she would swing side-to-side in her armchair and lose herself to the music. Music speaks to my soul, her head-swaying movement seemed to say. Mine too, my inner dancer replied, eyes gleaming in the light of the television screen.
3. 野ばら / Wild Rose 0:30
Every single time I get into an argument with my mom, she mentions that I have just as stubborn of a temper as my grandmother had. That and the fact that my grandmother was the 校花 of her school. Wild Rose was her personal soundtrack for getting ready in the mornings. She was always methodical in her application of makeup: She always started with a couple layers of foundation, careful to hide her cooking burns and old scars. Then, reminiscent of 1960s and 1970s Japanese trends, she drew on thick eyebrows and applied a thin layer of glossy pink lipstick. She always concluded this routine with a careful selection of sunglasses and brimmed hat. You must always look presentable, her attention to detail seemed to say. Once, she noticed me peeking at her through her handheld mirror, and beckoned me close. Using her trusty eyeliner pencil, she scrawled on my hand a figure of a girl holding a little purse, much like the strawberry-shaped handbag I used to tote around when I was six. Use it wisely, she advised, handing it over to me. At ten, I was only just learning to pick out my own clothes and do my own hair, and her routine was something I admired about her and went on to try and replicate. It would take me another few years to understand what she was saying and another couple to finally bring myself to use the pencil, but the first time I framed my eyes with the black eyeliner pencil, I saw a little bit of her in me.
4. ノクターン 作品 9-2 / Nocturne 9-2 0:31
The only time my grandmother came to Hong Kong in my lifetime was the week of my twelfth birthday. Lunar New Year celebrations had finished the week before, and my mom and uncle had decided that a change in scenery would be good for her. At first she seemed completely healed from the apathy she had had for weeks; she laughed when I stomped around the airport in my fluffy Zara boots, and enthused over her business class experience our entire taxi ride home. But in retrospect, she was never emotionally there. At home, she pored over the photos albums of Remco and Tina and Michael and Tiffany and Gordon and I, talking aloud to us, thinking that we were only a phone call away when in reality we were ten years away. There was a photo of my brother playing Nocturne 9-2 at his sixth grade recital that my grandmother always applauded, eyes glazing over in pride. After learning crocheting in art class at school, I had decided to make a tote bag for fun. My grandmother had been a home-ec teacher, so I would sit by her as I worked on the bag. But it was in those moments that I noticed for the first time how dull her eyes had become. After another week, we brought her back to Taiwan to seek further treatment. Two weeks later, she was diagnosed with dementia.
In fairytales, everything slips into perfect alignment when the clock strikes twelve. Cinderella finds her prince, and the princess kisses the frog. Perhaps I had been playing make believe for too long, but growing up playing dress-up and believing there was good in the world, I never expected my everything to fall apart at twelve.
5. ヘイ·ジュード / Hey Jude 0:29
There is a photo of my grandmother and me from the Lunar New Year celebration in my thirteenth year, her in a red and black baseball cap and bright red cardigan, me in a gray sweater. She was staying with us because she needed easier access to leave the home, and the steep staircase of her own home did not allow for that freedom of mobility. Donned in a backwards baseball cap, hands clutching red packets tightly, and face tilted upwards with an expression of ecstasy, she looked so carefree. I remember she laughed a lot that day, smiling and holding up a peace sign in every photo we took that weekend. This was the year I discovered the Beatles and the words to Hey Jude. In that single second of photographed bliss, she taught me the lesson of seizing happiness, even in the most dire of times. I had a 52-set of Crayola crayons that my aunt had gifted me a couple years prior, and as we scribbled drawings later that night, I realized that I still had much to learn from her, and that it would be up to me to find out what she was saying.
6. エーデルワイス / Eidelweiss 0:35
Entering my grandmother’s house, I notice that her armchair— usually situated right in front of the television— has been replaced by a wheelchair. I am sixteen now, my most recent experience marked by attending boarding school in the U.S. for just about two years. There are three hundred and sixty five days in a year, and I missed out on every single one of those with her this past year. But time doesn’t stop. Time keeps marching forward, and all I can do is make the most of it. Even if the dances I promised to her at seven are now just my cousins and I wheeling her around the room singing 舞女 at the top of our lungs. I made a white cardigan for my grandmother this summer, intending for it to keep her warm in the winter. Her wrinkled fingers clutched at the wool of the cardigan, tracing the patterns over and over and over again. At one point, she held them up to the light, staring up at the ceiling the same way she used to whenever she found ripped jeans in need of “repair,” in the laundry. The way I learned it, Edelweiss was a lullaby, and as I helped her into bed at 10:00pm, the realization of our reality in which our roles were reversed, sinks into me. Grandmother and granddaughter. Caregiver and Patient.
I can tell with every time her eyes fixate on mine that she’s trying to talk to me, trying to tell me how she feels or what she wants. Sometimes she cocks her head, as if she is trying to figure out who I am and what I am doing in her house. I gaze back at her, hoping that for some miraculous reason, seeing me would ignite a memory in her. Patient. I don’t know how or when the clock stopped working, but it was at that moment that I felt the absence of the rhythmic ticking I had grown up with. The round musical clock hanging on the plywood staircase screen is paused mid-Edelweiss, the numbers paused mid-rotation, the pendulum hanging in mid air.
I wish that my grandmother could look me in my eyes, reassure me just once more that I am still her granddaughter and that she remembers me— that she remembers my name. I wish that she could look in a mirror and recognize who she was. The her she saw reflected in the deep amber wood and polished glass and Swarovski crystals of the singing clock the day she picked it up. Because of all the things I consider mine, she was the one thing I never expected to lose.