The Unfinished Glass of Water
by Tammy Ho Lai-Ming
My nephew’s third birthday party in July was unlike most of my extended family’s gatherings, which tend to be rushed affairs that take place in a restaurant, with the dishes scurrying through on the Lazy Susan. Instead, we got to sit down and chat at my sister’s apartment for a couple of hours.
My aunts and my mother talked of their childhood memories and memories of their father—my deceased grandfather.
Growing up poor and bored, their childhood was pitiable but also strangely enviable. The anecdotes they recounted to us seemed, with the safe distance of time, to be not that bad at all.
My mother, the eldest of the siblings, used to bring a lunchbox to her youngest brother at school. Because he was the youngest, and a son, his lunchbox was slightly better than those of his brothers and sisters. My mother recalled, somewhat guiltily but also with an uncharacteristic girlish glee, that when my uncle left food unfinished, she would finish it in his place, relishing the sliced pork cooked in black bean sauce and garlic. As time went on, she came to expect that her younger brother would leave much of the food untouched and she could finish it.
My two aunts talked of climbing up to the roof of the one-storey house and running on it. Houses were mostly like that then, in the New Territories at least. The two of them ran and jumped so hard that holes appeared where they stomped the hardest. When it rained, rainwater leaked into the house, much to my great-grandmother’s annoyance, and they had to place buckets in numerous spots to collect the water. My mother, surprisingly, said she also climbed onto the roof, and recalled how easy it was to do. She has always given me the impression of being strict and not one given to fun. She said she climbed a tree near the house as well. Its fruit my mother and my aunts found impossible to describe and they said it is very rarely seen in the market these days. When I asked them the name of it, they said they didn’t know. They never knew. I wonder if it really existed.
I have some memory of that house through old pictures that these days sit in photo albums behind sticky plastic film. And I did spend some time there as a toddler.
I don’t have many memories of my grandfather, except that he was always very kind to me and my sisters, though also somewhat stiff in his disposition. At the party, my mother and aunts explained the reasons for his sternness and reticence. He came from a relatively well-off family; his father was a government official and he had servants waiting on him. He was expected to grow up to be a gentleman. Well-bred and rather educated, he had high standards of how one should behave and conduct oneself. But the Civil War and the flight of the Kuomintang changed everything. His father was persecuted and the family’s fortune confiscated. My grandfather’s first wife, the one before my grandmother, committed suicide, unable to deal with the pressure. Though my family don’t know all the details, they imagine it was around about this time that my grandfather arrived in Hong Kong.
I remember vividly that when I was very young we moved to a public housing estate in Tuen Mun; my family (my parents, my sisters, my paternal grandmother and me) lived on the third floor and my maternal grandparents on the fourth. By then, my grandfather had difficulty walking and always carried a cane. Whenever we visited, he would offer us bread with peanut butter. Every time we saw him in the playground downstairs, he would beckon us over and give us a few coins to buy snacks. I remember the elation of having other children witnessing this exchange. I don’t remember ever having a meaningful conversation with my grandfather, but I remember his kind face, and his peanut butter bread. I don’t even think I have a single picture of us with him from that pre-digital age.
My own father is a grandfather now and he loves my niece—his granddaughter—very much. He wants to keep healthy, live long, and see her grow up to be a successful and happy woman. I never had this close relationship with my grandfather. Did he also wish to see me grow up? Did he ever think one of his grandchildren would become a tenured university professor?
In his last years, my grandfather became so ill that he had to live in a home for the elderly. One time, he was driven back home to have dinner with us. He asked for a glass of water. And he held on to it, not drinking much, knowing that once the water was finished, he would have to go back to the hospice.
About the Author:
Tammy Ho Lai-Ming is the founding co-editor of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, the English Editor of Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine, and an editor of the academic journals Victorian Network and Hong Kong Studies. She has edited or co-edited eight volumes of poetry, fiction and essays, including Desde Hong Kong (2014), We, Now, Here, There, Together (2017), and Twin Cities (2017). Tammy’s translations have been published in World Literature Today, Chinese Literature Today, Drunken Boat and Pathlight and by the Chinese University Press. Her first poetry collection is Hula Hooping (2015) and she has books forthcoming from Delere Press, Math Paper Press, Palgrave and Springer. She is an associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University and she serves as the Vice President of PEN Hong Kong and a Junior Fellow of the Hong Kong Academy of the Humanities. She is a recipient of the Young Artist Award in Literary Arts, presented by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council.