When my mother yells in her singsong voice, “Food’s ready!” I, as instructed, trudge from the confines of my room only to be greeted by an unwelcome sight. Arranged atop the flowery tablecloth is a frightening matrix of dishes. It is splendid in its enormity. There is pai gu, ribs, and chao fan, fried rice, all of my Mother’s favorites. She has succeeded yet again in over preparing for every meal.
My grandmother, whose legs, in old age, have been rendered almost completely useless with crippling spasms, stands beside the table. She leans on a gnarled branch she claims is her cane. With a deep inhale, my Grandmother’s eyelids flutter close. The withered old woman considers the scent and gives a single, decisive nod of her head. My mother’s cheeks flush a deep crimson. “Did you see that?” she whispers, brows arched in a merry question.
I confirm the miracle.
Soon, the entire family is seated around the dinner table. Like me, my father and siblings eye the dishes with apprehension. We know the fragrance that wafts from each dish is but a curse in disguise. Mother, with her ebony hair coiled in a nervous bun and papery lips that spew no lack of diatribes, has never allowed a scrap of food to remain on the dinner table. Even the most minuscule bread crumb is detected by her eyes. We have all suffered through her tedious lectures, at the end of which each victim feels scarfing down the remaining food is a far better option than listening to one more word hurl from her mouth. My grandmother, I think, is the only one who has never been the recipient of Mother’s talks. The two share a strange frugality in the consumption of food.
Today, Grandmother takes the first bite: rou bao, pork buns. While she chews, gazes are exchanged between the rest of the family. We have, through years of training, acquired tactics to comply with Mother’s peculiarity. My father, once a fanatical marathon runner, offers two words of advice: pace yourself. We begin the journey with this. A few minutes later, however, the unimaginable happens: I am halfway through my first plate of buns, conversing with my Grandmother, when I feel the pizza. Eaten earlier in the day, it makes its reappearance as a boulder in the depths of my stomach, refusing to budge despite my incessant groaning. The taste of pepperoni is suddenly fresh in my mouth. “Stomach acids, do something!” I hiss.
Grandmother, whose ears prove to be surprisingly functional, croaks, “What?”.
“Nothing,” I mutter, but inside my heart launches into a tap number. For the next torturous minutes I gnaw on a piece of pork until it is mush in my mouth. I swallow. It climbs down the walls of my throat, forces through the canals of my intestines, and slides to a stop next to the slice of pizza. They stay: a boulder and a pebble in a crevice of my body. Unmoving. In that moment I am infuriated, both at myself for the heedless purchase from Domino’s and at my mother for her ridiculous rule. Underneath the table, I wring my hands into an anxious tangle.
“Mom?” It comes out as a rasp, inaudible over the chatter of the crowd. I clear my throat, and proclaim: “Mom. I can’t finish.” All heads swivel to me. My father, a hulking figure of a man, is shaking his head in a painstakingly slow, deliberate way. My mother’s eyes narrow: “Claire, we’ve talked about this. You know I hate it when you waste food.”
My hands clench into fists.
The single word lingers in the brisk air of the room. There is nothing but silence. Eerie, dead silence that seems to drape over the dining room. Everyone watches as my mother rises and approaches until she is an eyelash away from my face; we breathe the same air. All I see is her nose, contracting and flaring with each intake of air. I count her breaths. Finally, when I see her nose start to wrinkle in erratic patterns, I brace myself against the back of my chair. Her lips part. Yet the sudden sound of wood against marble echoing throughout the room stops my mother before she can speak. My grandmother materializes to stand before me.
Her lips are pressed in a grim line. When she speaks, her voice is hoarse and rough like sandpaper: “Have you heard of the Cultural Revolution?”
“My family and I lived through it. The government, Mao, targeted the upper class, the intellectuals. My father was sent to labor on the fields. Mother, your great grandmother, never mentioned his name again. The Red Guards, groups of Chinese teenagers tasked to enforce Mao’s policies, ransacked our house almost every week. Any paintings or artifacts were taken and destroyed. It broke my mother’s heart. She was a scholar, a learner, much like yourself.”
Here, my grandmother pauses, hands clawing at the skin of her thighs. She continues: “Worst of all was the hunger, this permanent ache in our bodies, like a monster unsatisfied and unrelenting. People starved to death everyday. The corpses were tossed into holes in the ground, one body atop another; when a hole was filled, they dug another. As children, we did not understand what was happening. We fought over meals when we had them; no crumbs were left on the plates. My mother often offered her share of food to us and went days without a meal.”
Grandmother’s eyes glint with a steely coldness. I am rigid in my seat. All that escapes my lungs is a choked sigh that disperses in the air.
“Your mother and I come from a generation that does not waste because we could not afford to.” She looks directly at me and the coldness is gone. Instead, a murky depth of memories I do not understand floats to the surface.
Holding her gaze, I inch my chair to the table, wincing at the sharp squeak, and avert the gazes of concerned relatives. Holding the fork with a trembling hand, I slip a spoonful of food into my mouth. It is meticulous, the scooping and swallowing of food, and I do so until my plate is completely bare. Head bowed, I exit the room to sink down the wall. I lie, sprawled across the cool marble floor. For the life of me, I cannot conjure the memories I had seen so recently in my Grandmother’s eyes, but the weight of them feels heavy in my hands.