(A Chinese translation of this is available below the English.)
My grandmother died early this morning, aged 94. She was so strong and full of grit that part of me believed she would never die.
When my mom called to tell me, she didn’t say grandma died, she said, “Grandma left.” As if grandma went out on an errand. But I knew what she meant.
My mother is 61 years old and a grandmother herself, four times over. But she said to me, her voice breaking, “It’s unimaginable navigating this world without a mother.”
Grandma lived in Taiwan, and I was born and raised in the U.S., so I didn’t really get to know her until I was a teenager and we traveled back and forth more often. My mom’s relationship with her mom is so deep that I remember sometime around first grade, feeling really envious of grandma. Who was this woman my mom loved so much? By the time I was old enough to understand, I only wanted to spend more time with Grandma Rock, the ultimate survivor. The kind of survivor that made me believe she’d never die.
Grandma’s surname is Shih, which literally translates to rock. And it’s fitting. She’s the oldest of six siblings, a well-known educator and later in life, one of Taiwan’s earliest female politicians.
She’s also two-times a war refugee — surviving the most devastating conflicts in recent Chinese history. When the Japanese invaded “Manchuria” in the Sino-Japanese War during WWII, she and her family were forced out of their home in Northeast China and migrated to central China. Decades later she had to flee again, many of her siblings in tow, during the brutal Chinese Civil War, when Mao’s communists defeated Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalists. She wound up in Taiwan until her death this morning.
She didn’t merely live. Grandma sucked the marrow out of life until the very end. She first worked as a teacher, but quickly became a principal and headmaster of the most elite women’s high schools in Taiwan. She was a working mom who never seemed to have any of our modern American angst about it. She had my aunt Linda, uncle Steve and her youngest, my momma, while also molding generations of young Taiwanese women at the schools she led. Those women have gone on to become artists and scientists and politicians and the brightest stars of Taiwan’s society. I remember visits to Taiwan and going out to eat with grandma in different cities. More often than not, we’d run into a former student who would recognize her and come by to say hello and thank you.
They recalled her being strict and exacting. I recall her being tough but warm, and how she found so many things delightful and humorous. She laughed with her whole body. One time when I was 12, we were in the backseat of a cab that was taking too long to get some place, and my externally sober grandma decided to show me her stupid human tricks to pass the time. Let’s just say she’s crazy flexible. She also showed me that you can do more than just roll your tongue in half — you can fold it three ways, like a flower. So now I too, can do this, if you ever want to see. (Apparently the ability to do this is genetic, so I guess grandma expected I’d be able to follow suit.)
While she expected excellence out of everyone, she reserved the toughest standards for herself. I have never seen her flub anything, especially when she spoke. When she came to my wedding in Amsterdam, she was 87 and still the sharpest one in the room. She spoke at the ceremony and at the reception in her native Mandarin Chinese. My friend Drew said afterward, “I couldn’t understand a word she said, but when Grandma speaks, we all know to shut up and listen!” She commanded the room like no one I’ve ever seen and probably will never see again.
The other thing I remember vividly about Grandma is her emphasis on 社會責任 (social and civic responsibility). She talked about it all the time. “Why’d you have three kids when you were so busy in your career?” 社會責任.” “Hey, why’d you retire so late?” “社會責任.”
After she retired from her education career in Taichung — her final posting as principal was at a top all-girl’s high school there — my grandma continued breaking glass ceilings and served as one of the only women representatives to her political party’s national congress. “Why’d you get involved in the rough-and-tumble of politics when you could have just enjoyed yourself?” “社會責任.”
By the time she died, she was the matriarch of a huge extended family. She was a mother of three, grandmother to six and a great-grandmother to five. (Thanks to her side of the family, I have about 70 cousins and second cousins and we all kinda know each other.)
Despite her age, it was unexpected when I got the news of her passing because she had just come out of a scary gall bladder surgery a month ago and was doing really well. I video-chatted with her last week and she was looking and sounding great. She spent all day yesterday playing mahjong, which she has enjoyed in her final years, after she stopped all the international travel, yoga practice and ballroom dancing of her seventies and eighties.
My newborn Luna was going to meet her great-grandma Rock on Monday — we’ve had tickets to Taipei for weeks. We missed her by mere days. But grandma went in peace, at her home, and with my mom by her side. She knew the love of family, which is what she wished for us, especially after her own siblings were split up during China’s external and internal wars. She spoke about it often. So I’ll end this with what grandma said in her own words, from a speech she gave the family at a reunion in 2009:
“During China’s political turmoil our family was separated in an effort to flee to safety. Consequently, my siblings and I grew up during a very trying time where everyone was forced to fend for themselves. We lost contact with one another. Our biggest regret was not being able to enjoy the blessings of family warmth and sibling love.
Since we endured childhood loneliness without family, it is our wish that the future generations will see the value and enjoy the blessings of one another’s love and support. It is our hope the ties of our family love will be our legacy that is passed on to all future generations.”
You can read this in Chinese, after the jump.
媽媽在電話裡沒有說外婆死了，她說：“外婆走了” 好像外婆就是出個門, 但我知道她的意思。
外婆住在台灣，而我在美國出生長大，所以直到十幾歲，我比較常回台灣之後, 才真正認識外婆. 媽媽和外婆的感情深厚，我記得我大概小學一年級的時候，對外婆這個人物充滿羨慕, 常常想知道媽媽怎麼會這麼愛她的媽媽？當我年紀大到可以理解的時候，我也和媽媽一樣想花更多的時間與外婆相處，她是那種在最艱難的環境裡也能生存下來的倖存者, 那種讓我以為她永遠不會死的倖存者。
外婆經歷了兩次戰爭 – 倖免於中國近代史上最具破壞性的兩次衝突。當日本在二戰期間入侵中日戰爭中的“滿洲”時，她和她的家人被迫離開了東北的家園。以後當毛澤東的共產黨打敗蔣介石的國民黨，中國內戰最殘酷的時候，她不得不再次逃亡到台灣，並在台灣終老, 直到今天上午去世。
外婆不僅僅是活著。她活到生命的骨髓裡，直到最後一刻。她原來擔任教師，但很快就成為台灣最精英女子高中的校長。做為一個職業婦女，她從來沒有像我們這些現代人那樣焦慮。在教養三個子女, 我的姨媽琳達，舅舅史蒂夫, 和她最小的女兒, 我的媽媽, 的同時. 她在所領導的學校裡, 塑造了幾代傑出的台灣女性。這些女性成為藝術家，科學家，政治家, 是台灣社會最亮眼的一群。歷次訪台期間，和外婆一起吃飯, 不管在哪個城市, 總會碰到她從前的學生，她們認出她，熱情地過來打招呼，感謝她的培育。
她們回憶外婆對學生的嚴格要求, 但我記得她強硬之外的溫暖，我記得她如何在生活裡發掘眾多幽默和令人愉快的事。我記得她笑得時候是整個身體都在笑。我12歲的時候有一次和她坐計程車出門, 車行緩慢，令人難耐, 這時我那永遠處變不驚的外婆決定教我幾樣小把戲來殺時間, 她告訴我, 舌頭不但可以捲成一半, 還可以折成三折，像一朵花一樣。我到現在還會，如果你想看, 我可以表演給你看。 （顯然捲舌頭的能耐也是有遺傳性的，所以我猜，外婆希望我能夠繼承這個技巧吧。）
雖然她期望每個人都有出色的表現，但她保留了最嚴格的標準給自己。我從來沒有見過她失態，她永遠從容優雅. 她來阿姆斯特丹參加我的婚禮時已經87歲, 仍然是房間裡最出色的人。她在婚禮和隨後的婚宴上用中文母語致詞, 我的朋友德魯後來跟我說，“雖然我聽不懂妳外婆說的話，但是當她說話的時候，我們都知道要趕緊閉嘴和聆聽！”她駕馭場面的本事是我前所未見的，可能再也見不到了。
另一件我清楚記得的是外婆一再強調社會責任（社會和公民責任）。你問她 “您在忙碌的職業生涯中為什麼還要有三個孩子？答案: “社會責任“ ”您為什麼這麼晚才退休?“ 答案: ”社會責任“。
外婆從台中的教育事業, 台中女中校長任上退休後, 依然繼續打破玻璃天花板，擔任國民黨最年長的婦女國大代表。 “您為什麼在剛剛退休, 可以享受自己自由生活的時候參與政治的粗暴浪潮?” 答案: “社會責任”。
我新生的小女兒露娜本來星期一要來和外婆見面的, 我們的機票幾星期前就買好了, 卻錯過了, 只差那麼幾天。可是外婆在自己家, 在媽媽身邊平靜安詳地走了, 這又是多麼大的福氣。她特別珍惜家人的愛，她希望我們都能享有這份愛，她經常談論她如何和她的家人在戰爭中分散, 失去了家庭。現在我要用外婆自己的話來做為結束. 這是她在2009年的家庭團聚中說的：