Ngin Ngin, my grandmother, died early yesterday morning, October 6. She was 104 years old and would have celebrated another birthday towards the end of this month. She was a master cook; my childhood is steeped in memories–tastes and smells— of the several-course meals she cooked up in her kitchen in the house on Madison Street, and also of the many bowls of (bitter, herbal) "strengthening soup" that we had to down. She sewed clothes (for us, for the department stores) and aprons and everything (including parachutes in a factory in the Korean War). She knitted itchy, bulky, lumpy sweaters that definitely kept you warm, if a little uncomfortable.
Ngin Ngin herself was born in Hong Mi, a village in southern China, and (via a matchmaker) married my grandfather before he left for America in the early 1920s. She was detained on Angel Island on her way into the US and (from reading the documents in her immigration file) "a little something" was slipped under the table to get her off the island. She and Yeh Yeh had five children, my dad being the fourth (and the first son). She was a working mother before anyone thought of that term.
Ngin Ngin did not read or write, either in Cantonese or English. As a girl in pre-Communist China, she wasn't taught to. In the US, she lived most of her life in Oakland's Chinatown and did very fine without English. She spoke only Cantonese and I have never had an actual conversation with her. (Jim though, now a long-time member at many a family dinner around a Lazy Susan weighed down with plates and bowls of Chinese food, is of the opinion that Ngin Ngin knew full well what was being said around her, and that, however much we said we don't know Cantonese (I don't), my cousins and I seemed to do perfectly fine communicating with Ngin Ngin.)
And though I never was able to tell Ngin Ngin what it was like living "back East" or what I thought about visiting Hong Mi and Hong Kong and southern China with her in December of 1993, I did feel we were able to communicate the essentials. I "said" what I had to say by sitting and watching Chinese soap operas with her on my visits home; when I was in graduate school in Connecticut, she gave my parents a Merritt's ice cream container filled with soup made with a really really special fungus and insisted that they bring it to me. My dad carried the soup onto the airplane in his carry-on luggage and, when he and my mom missed their connecting flight, he made sure to stick the soup in a hotel room refrigerator. "Not bad," I said when they finally got to my apartment in Connecticut and I had drunk some soup, freshly reheated in my microwave. Watching me try to pick up one of the fungus things with my chopsticks, my dad said "Ngin Ngin loves you."
I studied "the wrong kind of Chinese"—Mandarin—in college and, whenever Ngin Ngin and I attempted to speak the Chinese we knew to each other, we couldn't understand each other's words. When Charlie was born, high on my list of What I Want My Child To Do Fantasies was "learn Cantonese together." That plan fell by the wayside as we realized the extent of Charlie's speech and communication disabilities. My Mandarin is really, really rusty now but knowing that much in Chinese is communicated via tones and the pitch of one's voice has, on more than one occasion, helped me to understand Charlie's vocalizations: Charlie (more when he was younger) often leaves off the initial and final consonants of a word, so all that one hears is (not exactly precise) vowel sounds and, often, a certain pitch and tone rising or falling or looping around. Years of listening to Ngin Ngin and my dad and mom and aunts and uncles talk, and of non-verbal exchanges with Ngin Ngin, have been an unexpected background in being able to understand Charlie
Ngin Ngin turned 100 in October of 2005 and Jim, Charlie and I were able to attend her big bash bonanza of a 100th birthday party (and Charlie in the photo above has an appropriate look for someone finding himself sitting next to a great-grandmother, Tai Po, who is almost a century older than him). I'm suspecting that Charlie also sensed many things I've long known about Ngin Ngin. She was tough, she could be stubborn and demanding. She had a fierce and thorough love for her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren (Charlie is one of seven) and those connected to her. She cooked and sewed until she just couldn't any longer. (She lost her sense of taste when she was in her 90s and, while everything she cooked looked good, it all had the same blandness.) She loved to stay up all night playing mah jong and to take the bus to Reno where unsuspecting dealers figured she was a little old Chinese lady who didn't know any English; she walked away with winnings in her battered self-made purse and gave them away to all of us in hong baos. She refused to leave the house on Madison Street and so, as the foundation had to be rebuilt to make it earthquake proof, my dad and his siblings arranged to have the house secured on I-beams while a new foundation was put in.
Ngin Ning's house was declared a historic landmark as it had survived the 1906 earthquake. Ngin Ngin herself lived through more than few earthquakes and hard hard times, and—like the time she poured hot water on the (pardon the expression) bum who kept ringing their doorbell in West Oakland when my father was a baby—she was tough and took care of her own. When she passed, she was most certainly not alone. She was in her own home and her family—my parents, her children, grandchildren—were with her.
"Tai Po died," I said to Charlie when I picked him up at school yesterday. "Tai Po," said Charlie. His brow furrowed. "I'm going to have to go to California soon to say good-bye to her," I added. "California," said Charlie. "Yes, to say good-bye to Tai Po," I said.
And to thank her for making all that soup, for all that strength.