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Ice Cream and Potatoes
“You wouldn’t want to know how crazy I was at biking! Remember the scar on your grandaunt’s forehead? That was because of me! She was sitting behind me and we rolled down the hill together and, well, the wheels even came off. They were rolling with us…”
“Oh grandma, that sounds so dangerous. I can’t imagine you being so rash! Okay, well I need to get ready before lights out. Love you and miss you!”
I hung up the phone and climbed under the blankets. As the lights shut off in our dorm, I thought of my grandmother on the other side of the globe, imagining her young self riding down the hills, and chuckled to myself.
Growing up, the figure of my grandma was something I always looked forward to after school. Even from far away, I could spot her in the crowd by her beige tote bag, from which she would then whip out one or two snacks that she knew I craved: a bag of cheese wafers or a few Ferrero chocolates, nothing really fancy, but it never failed to make me smile when I unfolded the wrappers.
Watching me wolf down the snacks and smiling back at her with crumbs still stuck between my teeth, she would give me a pat on my head, or sometimes a few ruffled bills: “Go get some more from the convenience store - I’ll wait for you here.”
A few summers went by, and my baby teeth were replaced by those slightly crooked teeth of a pre-teen before braces. I began to spend more time outside of my house with friends and got permission from my parents to take taxis. My grandma still reiterated the same life stories at the dinner table. Instead of marveling at her adventures, I kept my head down and mechanically shoved food into my mouth. We grew apart, my grandma and I, no longer melded as one through infantile adoration.
I still vividly recall how much importance I accorded to the first day of middle school. I thought I had managed to make a decent impression of myself with the exclusive Jordan sneakers for which I had begged my parents for months. After school, I made my way to the school gate with these fashionable kicks and a self-congratulatory smile on my pimple-studded face. The feeling of being popular did not last long: my face almost dropped when I saw grandma in her faded blue t-shirt and tarnished leather shoes among the blinding jewels, groovy coats, and Louis Vuitton bags. She seemed excited to share her day with me, to listen to my gibberish, and to hand me my beloved snacks. Her missing tooth became conspicuous, and so did her grizzled hair which she forgot to dye black. I could tell she struggled to settle her 5’3” in the mass. She was the odd one out, just like that missing tooth in her mouth.
I ducked down, pretending to retie my shoelaces. Shame swelled up from inside me. Grandma was the complete opposite of youth and energy, like the languished tree in winter. She was more of a representation of time, to me, of humiliation.
A hundred feet away, I realized that I left something in the classroom. To make this lie look natural and believable, I gasped, stomped the ground, squeezed out a wry smile, and walked away from the gate in relief. A few minutes later, however, I still had to face the reality.
“How was your first day? Oh come here,” she tucked a stray strand of hair behind my ears and patted my cheeks with her calloused fingers. “Why did you go back to the building?”
“Ah, I left my water bottle in my classroom, don’t worry about it. ” I kept on walking, avoiding her eyes which were surrounded by dense and obnoxious wrinkles and specks of age spots.
“Oh, there must be something going on! Why don’t you tell me about it? Is it about your teacher? Your classmates? ”
“I told you nothing happened.”
If I had looked back, I would see her mouth open and close, eyes concerned, wanting to say something more. If I had paid attention to her voice, I would realize how worried she was. If I slowed down my pace, I would be walking by her side, but my footstep was too brisk with the cool shoes on.
As soon as we got home, I demanded ice cream as a snack like usual.
“Sure thing my sweetie pie. School lunch still doesn’t suit your taste right? The school should’ve done better on the food.” Grandma seized my command as an opportunity to chat with me. “I’ll go buy some for you. What flavors do you want?” She replied without batting an eye, as if things were still as they were between us.
“Oh, if you have to go buy it then it’s fine, I’ll just wait for dinner.” I fumbled, feeling the heat of shame rush to my face once more.
“I actually also need to get some potatoes, so don’t worry. I’ll get your favorite brand.”
I watched her leave, her footsteps slowed by age. I turned away and told myself to act like a cool kid.
I will never forgive myself for it. The next thing I knew, groans were coming from the elevator. I dashed outside, still with my new sneakers on. I found grandma sprawling on the floor, not moving. I panicked. I tried to help her up. I called security. I called my parents. I whimpered. Tubs of ice cream were scattered around her, some half-melted and some oozing out from under the covers.
Grandma spent her next six months in bed. During that time, I washed her hair, brought her dinner, and made trips to the pharmacy to get her medicine. She would try to sit up every time I walked in, despite the pain spelled out clearly over her face. I stopped cutting her off when she got herself into winded stories of her past 50 years. Instead, I listened to her stories about how she used to be amazing at biking or how she was escaping from the earthquake while still pregnant with my mom. How could anyone live a more eventful life than this lady with a broken leg? The posh parents in their shiny coats and leather jackets, with their designer bags - could they have pulled it off in the same circumstances? I grew to admire her again, and cherished the warm moments spent at her bedside. However, I was also mortified to admit that, I got to enjoy pickups from my friend’s parents for the rest of the school year.
Weeks after the completion of my first middle school year in China, I transferred to a boarding school in Connecticut. Tucked away on in a small remote village in a valley of maple, I wanted to do anything to get back to my home in China, to the arms of my grandma. Babbling in a foreign language, struggling to stomach cheese-loaded meals, and lying on the mattress with no service and wifi after lights out, I felt an acute pain from the distance between my grandma and me and her absence in my everyday life.
Just the summer before, I wouldn’t have believed this, but there was nothing that I wanted more than seeing my grandma’s wrinkled face and plain outfit on my campus. I yearned to introduce her to everyone so that they could know how lucky I am to have her as my grandma. I could imagine the smile on her face again, perfectly revealing her wobbly teeth and of course, that missing tooth.
A few days ago, my phone rang. It was my grandma.
“Hey, grandma! How are you doing?”
“My little angel, I miss you so much! Your grandma is doing well, but not as happy as when you were around…”
We talked, but actually, she did most of the talking, and I was the listener for once. I was scared that if I blinked, my tears would drop. When I finally managed to sniffle back my tears, I asked her if she was taking good care of herself after the injury in the elevator. I finally summoned up the courage to tell her my regret of sending her on that grocery trip for ice cream and potatoes.
She listened to me, shaking her head and smiling, and then paused before saying, “What potatoes? We always have enough potatoes at our house and I will never go for any fresh produce in the afternoon. Only the leftovers are still at the market!”
New City, New York
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