This year, I decided to draw them.
My family returned to China every summer to visit our relatives. We’d open our five suitcases the morning after we arrived and pile up all the pills, krill oil, and powdered milk. There were brand name shoes, large and extra large tee shirts (in case they didn’t fit), real leather purses, things that weren’t as expensive at home.
No matter how old I turned, I was always that little American grandchild. I was the youngest out of my immediate cousins, the only granddaughter, the one my grandparents saw the least, and so, of course, I was spoiled. They’d give me rocks, shells, toys, various baubles from the vendors lining the streets. And so, a couple years ago, I decided to give them something too.
The first year, it was a tie-dye friendship bracelet. Then, a flower drawing- calligraphy. I always made the gifts. But on the second to last day in Fuzhou, where my paternal grandparents lived, I realized I hadn’t prepared anything. Grabbing some paper and a pen, I did a quick sketch. It was in ink, my favorite medium for portraits. The paper was thin, yellow, and waxy- not particularly high quality; it was the kind that my cousin had used for practicing his Chinese characters when he was little, with faded green boxes on the front- though it gave off a soft, comfortable glow.
I promised myself I’d do the same for my grandfather in Wuhan. He lived alone in the corner of the thirteenth floor. It was a lonely scene, almost sad, until you got to know him well- he wasn’t particularly fond of social interaction. My grandmother had passed away years earlier.
Thus, I sat at the dining table, listening to the humming of cars outside. I’d leave before dawn the next morning for the airport; I was hurrying, rushing to get the drawing finished. I wanted it complete, of course; that’s what my grandfather deserved.
I’d debated earlier whether or not to include my grandmother in the drawing. I had only two pictures of the two together- both taken in Chicago, where I was from. You couldn’t make out their expressions very well, only that they were squinting. The glare of the sun cast harsh shadows on their faces, and the shading was awkward, though I didn’t have much time to dwell upon that. I sighed contentedly. My grandfather was done, and it didn’t look too different from him, with his head cocked to the side, hair combed out in wisps, and a slightly amused, slightly bemused, look on his face.
I bit my lip. It was time for my grandmother. I drew slowly and carefully, so much unlike my relatively carefree styles. My strokes blotted the paper, rough and reluctant. It was almost as if I was in debt to her.
But by the time I finished, I realized that my grandmother and the woman on paper looked nothing alike. The latter had fuller, darker lips, and higher cheekbones. She was pretty- too pretty.
I tried again. This time, I drew her first. My strokes were light and cautious still, the ink suspiciously tiptoeing onto the page. Her features were a bit more realistic, though nothing had been shaded in yet, just a simple outline. Maybe I’d add makeup, I thought stupidly. I made her eyelashes long and curled, lined her eyes and colored her cheeks, then held the paper in front of me to look at my work.
Her funeral was the first I’d ever attended. It was in early February, around the time of Chinese New Year; winter break had ended a couple weeks ago, and I was missing school. The ceremony was first, with a man I didn’t recognize speaking up front, then my mother. Our relatives were lined up neatly, and when the ceremony ended, they filed into the back room into a scribbled line.
It moved slowly, passing by a glass case. I wasn’t tall enough to see what was in it, or why my great aunt began bawling. There were red ropes around a box with glass walls. When we finally reached it, I peeked inside. There was a person- short, wearing nice clothes. Her eyelids weren’t fully closed.
“Who’s that?” I asked my mother, who was staring at the case.
“Your grandmother,” she replied softly.
I looked again. That was not my grandmother. She was still, her face caked with heavy makeup, hands limp at her sides. She reminded me of the wax figures at a Canadian museum I’d visited earlier. They’d scared me so much I ran outside, ignoring my parents’ instructions to stay in sight.
I was doing what they’d done to my grandmother, I realized, trying to make her pretty but turning her into someone else instead.
I returned to my first sketch, and folded the paper so there was only my grandfather and a blank space to the right of him, and began drawing.
She had wrinkles, and a lot of them; papery skin, drooping cheeks. Salt and pepper hair, frizzy because of the wind. There was a trace of a grin on her face, and she wasn’t looking at the camera but the person holding it.
These were the things I missed, and as I held the paper back up for inspection, I recognized her a little bit more.
I gave the paper to my grandfather, who chuckled. “This is you and Grandma,” I told him. He nodded; we went our separate ways.
Later that night, as I was staring out the window, I saw a reflection move in the corner of my eye- my grandfather, still sitting at the dining table. He held up my drawing against the light, looking at it for a long time.