“Steven?” my grandma asks.
“Hi, Grandma—no, it’s me, Frankie.
Steven is your oldest grandson.”
We’re sitting at my grandma’s table in her small, cozy kitchen in Memphis, during our annual Thanksgiving visit. The table, as always, is filled with small eats: A plastic container of never-ending peanuts that have been marinated in soy sauce and roasted. Open plastic bags of crunchy rice crackers with their glossy surface of soy glaze. Peeled clementines resting on a paper napkin.
“You don’t look like Frankie,” my grandma replies as she delicately reaches for a peanut. “How old are you?”
“I’m twenty-nine years old, Grandma.”
“Twenty-nine?! That can’t be.” I see her pause, her thoughts swimming within the depths of her cognition. Her brain reaching for the surface that is her memory only to be swallowed deep into the past. To her, Frankie is her youngest grandson, a child, not this adult looming before her.
“You should have a bride by now!” she exclaims. “Are you married yet?”
“Not yet, Grandma,” I reply.
“I know some eligible ladies,” she says with a smile. “I can introduce them to you. They live down the street from us in Taipei, all very pretty.”
“That sounds great, Grandma.” I’ve eaten half the container of peanuts without even realizing.
“Hi, Grandma. It’s Frankie.”
“Yes, your youngest grandson. Do you remember?”
“Yes, I do remember. You look like Steven.”
I sigh. “I’m just older now since you’ve last seen me. I’m almost thirty years old!”
“Wow!” she exclaims. “Are you married yet?”
I turn to my mom, my raised eyebrows expressing what I can’t say out loud as I think of my boyfriend back home. My mom, who has an uncanny ability to read my thoughts, responds with a glare that insists now is not the time.
“Actually, yes, Grandma, I am!”
Her face lights up.
“In fact, I have eighteen wives.” “Eighteen?!?!” My grandma lets out the biggest belly laugh. For someone so fragile, her laugh is a guttural response that comes from the belly, requiring the core strength of someone much younger as she grips her wheelchair and throws her head back, her eyes closed as she howls in pure enjoyment. It always makes me smile.
“Yes, eighteen! I did quite well.”
“You sure did!”
“Hi, Grandma. How are you today?” “I’m good. Are you Steven?”
“No, it’s Frankie, Grandma.”
“Ah, okay. Frankie then. You look much older, when are you getting married?” There’s so much I wish I could tell her. “One day, Grandma. One day.”
I grab a sliced half of hard-boiled egg that’s been marinated in soy sauce, its yolk orange like a sunset captured in a deep brown. A dish that has been a consistent companion at my grandma’s kitchen table for as long as I can remember.
“Grandma, will you teach me how to make this one day?”
“Yes, of course. We can go to the market later today to get the ingredients.
We can make soy-marinated eggs, steamed bao. . . . I’ll make many dishes for dinner tonight.”
My grandma has been bound to a wheelchair for a few years now, where her body and mind have both been trapped. But even as her mind struggles with the present, her memory flourishes in the past. She’ll describe how we’ll go to the Chinese market, where she’ll pick out the right cut of pork shoulder. She tells me her plans for how she’ll make me the silkiest dan bing (Taiwanese egg crepes) for me in the morning like she has since I was five. She’ll walk me through dinner prep: finely dice Chinese chives to mix with rice noodles for chive pockets; hand mix pork, ginger, and scallion until the fat binds with the meat and is perfectly sticky; knead dough five hundred times until it’s bouncy for that perfect QQ (a Taiwanese term loosely translated to “al dente” or “perfectly chewy”) texture. I capture glimmers of recipes as she speaks, faint wisps of her vast breadth of knowledge, holding onto everything in my memory for as long as possible. It’s an ensemble of ingredients and dishes of my childhood for a feast that she’ll forget within the half hour.
“Hi Grandma, it’s me, your youngest grandson, Frankie.”
“Frankie.” She pauses. “Where’s your father? 金濤? Is he here?”
I place my chopsticks down near my plate of sliced cucumbers. I don’t hear my dad’s name very often. It only comes up when I hear my grandma ask for her son year after year. I want to cry but I physically cannot. Not because I’m choosing not to but because my mom is too scared that the emotion will give away the reality of my dad’s whereabouts. The answer would literally give my grandma a heart attack. I give the same response from years past.
“He’s on a business trip to China,” I reply.
“How is he doing?” she asks. “I haven’t seen him a long time.”
I nervously pick at the cucumbers in front of me, the slices soaking in a glistening pool of acidity from salt and rice vinegar.
“He’s doing good, working very hard, always traveling. He’ll be back to see you soon.”
My grandma continues to eat and I instinctually go to the bathroom. I turn the fan on and pull a sweater over my head to muffle any sound as I let everything out.
Back at the table, my grandma’s eyes meet mine.
“Grandma! Yes! Hi! It’s me!”
I scoot my chair closer to her. “You can
tell it’s me?”
“Hah!” she yells. “Really? How could
I not recognize my youngest grandson?!”
I hold my grandma’s delicate hand, its fragility a mirage for what it’s truly capable of in the kitchen.
“Grandma, you know I love you, right?”
Her attention is back to the small eats, the roasted peanuts.
“I love you too,” she says.
“Well, I love you too,” I reply with more enthusiasm.
“I LOVE YOU!” she yells back at me.
“I LOVE YOU!!!!” I scream back in her face.
We’re both belly laughing now.