I never realized how lucky I was to have all four of my grandparents alive and healthy for so long. Illness and death were such intangible notions that never crossed my mind. Four years ago, when my grandmother had her first stroke, I remember being confused, fervently denying to myself that this was it. Well, I suppose it was the beginning- of personal growth, physical decline, and the loss of a long battle for life. She, along with the rest of our family, lost the good fight two weeks ago.
When I think of my grandma, I think of this photo that we snapped of her during her first visit to the U.S. It’s my favorite picture of her. It captures the woman that she was- beautiful, innocent, happy. During her year-long stay, we took her on several mini-vacations, Ocean City, the Poconos to ski, historic Williamsburg, and took her to most of the museums in DC. My favorite outing, however, was an apple picking trip to a pick-your-own orchard during the fall.
It was one of those bright, crisp fall days that makes you want to roll around in a pile of leaves. We asked her to pose for a picture, and instead of standing and smiling, she began to hop around, blowing on the fuzzies from dandelions. We caught her mid-laugh, mid-hop. She was always so happy like that, so positive. There was a beautiful, beaming, rosy-cheeked child in her that was rare and precious. Though she had this side to her, she liked to be mother hen to her family. She loved her brood above all else. She cared so much for my grandfather after years of marriage. She must have had a million things going on inside her head at all times, just fretting and worrying about everyone in the family.
I miss her. I’ve missed her for four years. She was bedridden during this time, from her paralysis, and for the latter half, her condition gradually worsened, with her loss of vision from glaucoma, and the final loss of any lung function and the ability of speak. Her once robust appetite withered away and her stomach shrank, accepting only pureed foods, then medicine only. I remember baking her shortbread cookies, blending them down with water, and feeding it to her through her food tube. She couldn’t speak, but she’d squeeze my hand.
She had one hell of a sweet tooth. She loved ice cream; any flavor, but her favorites were strawberry, coffee, and red bean popsicles. When I was really little, she’d always buy me a cone when we were out, and one for herself too. (I have a sinking suspicion she sometimes used me as an excuse to get herself ice cream!) At the end of her US stay, she’d put on quite a bit of weight, her face was so full and round, her skin became shiny and taut. We let herself indulge in all sorts of junky foods- pizza, ice cream, chips, cake. She lived it up; when would she ever get the chance again?
During this time, I regret most my not letting her love me to the fullest, by pushing her away. I was a teen, and going through that awkward “I’m too cool for parental units” phase. I walked home everyday from school, and she’d come meet me halfway, but I’d often ignore her and walk many paces ahead. She’d come home and laugh it off. She never got angry with me, which made me more mad. I regret not letting her more into my life, because she could have taught me alot. It wasn’t until years later that I realized my mistakes.
I remember her laugh, a deep almost silent, drawn-out laugh emanating from the depths of her diaphragm. She’d try to talk but no words would come out. Her eyes would tear up, and more silent chuckling would erupt into fits of coughing and laughing mixed together. She was funny like that.
I’m remembering all these things about her, nothing of which bears any resemblance to the invalid who she was for the past four years. Though that time proved to be a huge challenge in all our lives, and forced me to grow up in more ways than I can imagine, I want to remember her as my laughing, playful, hopping and skipping grandmother. The woman who knit me sweaters, fix the buttons on my blouses, who ate her ice cream and left traces all over her lips and face.
I wanted to make her a special dessert that I could also enjoy, while thinking of her. She’d probably love it too. I think she would be really proud of my cooking, since none of the women on my mom’s side of the family can. She was proud of all her grandkids, no matter how big or small the achievement. I think of her now, and I’m glad she’s finally at peace. Us kids are all grown up now, and she’s finally free of any suffering. I hope she’s really happy somewhere, maybe watching over us, maybe not, with a lot of good ice cream, and plenty of space to play in. What a strong spirit she had for her to have held on as long as she had. My iron grandma, with steely will and stubborn strength. I’m like her in this way, and so is my mom.
Before I left Beijing this time, my aunt gave me the biggest compliment of my life. She told me how mature I am- that I always put others before myself. I was extremely proud because this is how my grandma always was too. For her, her children and family came first. The sacrifices she made throughout her life for us weren’t sacrifices for her, they were a joy for her because of the happiness she could impart on others.
Being able to write and cook these few days after the funeral has given me some sort of peace. It has allowed me to organize all of the jumbled thoughts like thick weeds that have crowded my mind for the past couple weeks. Grieving is difficult. My way thus far of coping has been through writing and cooking. Somehow, it all starts and ends in the kitchen for me.
Sweet Cream Ice Cream with Red Bean Sauce
yields 1 quart
Sweet Cream Ice Cream:
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
3/4 cup sugar
4 egg yolks
1. In a heavy saucepan, heat milk, cream and 1/2 cup sugar over medium heat to 175F, stirring often. Remove from heat. Meanwhile, whisk together yolks and remaining 1/4 cup sugar until pale and thick. While whisking, pour in half of the hot milk mixture. Pour this back into the saucepan, and back onto the burner.
2. Over low heat, stir with a wooden spoon, and heat mixture to 180F. At this point, the milk should be thick and coat the back of the spoon. Remove from heat, and let come to room temperature.
3. Strain the mixture and pour into your ice cream maker, and let it churn and chill. Pour the contents into a quart size freezer container, and let harden in the freezer.
Red Bean Sauce
1 cup dried red beans (adzuki beans)
8-9 cups water
1/2 cup sugar
2 strips orange peel
1. Soak beans in water overnight. Drain in the morning.
2. Combine beans and water in a large pot, and let come to a boil. Turn heat down to a simmer, and cook for 2-3 hours (depending on how soft you like them), adding in the orange peel halfway through. The beans are done when they are soft, and give no resistance.
3. Stir in the sugar and cook for 10 more minutes. Let come to room temperature and refrigerate. Serve chilled over ice cream, or by itself.