A Story of My Grandparents

Love, courage, and dedication in the time of madness

I got a call from my mom during the Memorial Day long weekend, she told me that grandfather was hospitalized. He rode the exercise bicycle in the morning, then started coughing in the afternoon, which quickly developed into pneumonia, followed by high fever — things all of a sudden went out of control.

“I’m afraid he can’t escape this time,” my mom sobbed.

Buddhism calls sufferings ‘Kalpa’, meaning a long period of time (by human calculation) in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. It is the period of time between the creation and recreation of a world or universe. When you escape a ‘Kalpa’, you escaped from danger. When you can’t, you go into the endless ‘Kalpa’ and ‘Samsara’ (life and death reincarnation).

I know I’m sad and worried, but it took me weeks to realize that he is preparing himself to leave. I know the loss would be great and I would grieve terribly once he dies. What I didn’t realize is that the grieving had already begun.

Here I am, giving myself an opportunity for closure, writing what I remember about him. He has had a marvelous life.

His name is Ji Rong (季荣, meaning Honor), but that’s not his real name and I don’t really know what his real name is. He just had his 90th birthday, so I guess that means he was born in 1930 (The Chinese way of calculating age is that you are 1 year old when you are born). I know that he was born in a landlord family during the ‘golden ten years’ of the Republic of China under the ruling of Nationalist Party, and I guess he spent most of his childhood and teenage years in wartime — 1937 to 1945 the second Sino-Japanese war, 1945–1949 the civil war.

When he was 12 (if I remember right), he walked for over a week to a neighboring city to join the Red Army. Of course, he would, he is an idealist person, and I guess joining the communist party in the 1930s is a progressive thing. As to how long he served in the Red Army and what he did, I have no idea. He never really explained. The only two things he told us were 1)he changed his traditional ‘feudalist’ name to a communist progressive one, and 2) he ran back home after he joined the party and persuaded his parents to give away lands to peasants. Seems unreasonable, but it actually ended up saving his entire family in the land reform in the 1950s. Under the agrarian reform law of 1950, the property of rural landlords was confiscated and redistributed, which fulfilled a promise to the peasants and smashed a class identified as feudal or semifeudal.

He is smart, definitely a smart guy.

His story with my grandmother was never romantic. Her name is 冯安英 (meaning comfort hero). She was introduced to him when she was 18. She lost her father in the war, who fought for the nationalist party and died in South China. Her mom remarried to a farmer and had two more children. She really wanted to go to school and grandfather promised to sponsor her. She went to primary school when she was 18 and did very well. She aspired to become a teacher, but got pregnant with my aunt in the first year of her teacher training and had to drop out because of that. For this reason, she holds resentment towards grandfather for a long time.

He likes reading, novels, history books, biographies. During the cultural revolution from 1966 to 1976, the Communist Party tried to get rid of ‘old fours’ — old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Books are considered as capitalist influence polluting proletariat thoughts. He hid all his books under the bed, but grandmother reported him.

They have four kids, all girls. He worked hard and had a lot of street smartness. My mom told me that even during the Great Chinese Famine period (1958–1961), the family was able to have protein almost every day. He retired as a director in our local business bureau. Not a very prominent title, but enough to gain respect among neighbors.

I lived with my grandparents for almost my entire childhood. Every day I went back home from school, my grandfather was busy cooking meals for everyone. Summers were hot and humid, he was always topless, firing the stove, preparing foods, washing dishes.

My fondest memory with him is to play ‘chicken-rabbit’ math game. He would ask me “in the cage of rabbits and chickens, there are 5 heads and 18 legs, how many chickens and how many rabbits”, my cousin and I would compete who can give the answer faster. We played this game almost every day and I never get bored of it.

He is extremely frugal, saves every penny. But he is very generous with his kids and grandkids. When every cousin of mine goes to college, he would give us a substantial amount of cash as funds, telling us to focus on study and not worry about money.

In the last decade of his life, he became less mobile, but he is always very playful. He would stay up watching TV till 2 am, make jokes at whatever I ask him, and try to impress me how capable he is at everything!

Grandmother has dementia from years ago, she doesn’t remember who he is. She would still argue with him, thinking he is annoying around her. But this time when he was at the hospital, my mom told me that grandmother finally remembered him. She couldn’t fall asleep by herself and kept asking when the old guy would come back.

That is their story, two wars, two governments, four kids, and seven decades together.

He died a few hours after I wrote this article, on Father’s Day June 16, 2019, at 7:25 pm GMT.

The combination of words, numbers, and stories makes life

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