On October 8, 2014, this story made its public debut at the I Should Have Stayed at Home-themed, Titillating Tales Told by Titans of Travel literary event at the Mill Valley Public Library. The program featured Michael Shapiro,
Laura Deutsch, Kevin Smokler, Lisa Alpine, Laurie McAndish King, Joyce Maynard and me. It was a pleasure to join this distinguished ensemble of travel writers for the second of a three-part series of literary travel tales from around the globe. For photos at the event, please scroll down to the bottom.
White Doves of Italy
by Jacqueline C. Yau
My grandma lay in her bed in San Francisco, California. Breast cancer, kidney failure and old age wracked her eighty-two-year-old body. Companionable silence stretched between us as I stood by her apartment window, looking down into the garden.
“Niu Niu, when am I going to see my great-grandson?” my grandma asked in Cantonese. I sat back down next to her.
“I’m sorry. There will be no great-grandchildren with J. We’re getting divorced.” My voice broke on the last word. Anxiety tightened my throat and cut off my breath. After having put off this conversation for months — I hadn’t wanted to disappoint her — I finally told my grandma the truth.
She struggled to sit up and felt for her gold cross under her shirt on top of her heart. After a long pause, she said, “Are you sure it’s over?”
“It’s over, grandma.”
She placed her frail, wrinkled, pale hands over mine and raised her head to meet my eyes. “It’s ok,” she replied and looked at me with compassion. I expelled my held breath with a whoosh and lowered my shoulders in relief.
“It’s ok,” she repeated as tears filled my eyes. She patted my hand. “Tell me about your upcoming trip to Italy.”
* * *
When my grandfather met my grandmother, he must have been dazzled by her sophistication and educational background. They met in Hangzhou, the capital city of the Zhejiang province in Eastern China where he was mayor. She was a teacher, born and raised in cosmopolitan Hong Kong and twenty years his junior. Then with the arrival of my dad, she catapulted to number two wife as the only one of my grandfather’s many wives to give him a prized son. As I trace the contours of her life, I wonder if my father’s toddler years were her happiest moments—a time when she was wealthy and carefree, a time when traveling back to my grandfather’s home village meant firecrackers, a procession and a greeting party celebrating their return. Until then and afterwards, she was always the main breadwinner or primary caretaker of the family and had to move from place to place to escape either the Japanese or the Communists in China. How did she endure and find the motivation to keep on going?
Grandma Kit Han Yau grew up in southern China amongst Buddhists, atheists and Confucianists yet chose Catholicism in her late twenties. Although she had revealed glimpses of her early years, she had never discussed what drove her religious choice or what religion meant to her.
My mom hinted that my grandma, in part, became Catholic because she associated goodness with the Catholic nuns and priests who had donated food and clothing to her and other war refugees who fled from the Chinese Communist Revolution to Hong Kong.
Did she seek religion after suffering one too many hardships?
As a child, grandma recounted peeking over the window sill into her father’s second wife’s room, as the wife put on red lipstick and draped herself in long strands of pearls, wearing an ivory silk robe. Grandma had come to plead for money from her father and his newest wife who lived in luxury while my grandma, her three brothers and mother (the first wife) went hungry.
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