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.
“Your great-grandma couldn’t compete,” she’d tell me. “She was an uneducated peasant woman from the village, who didn’t know how to woo and keep your great-grandfather, a merchant marine who traveled the world.” As the only girl, grandma was responsible for cooking and cleaning for the family and raising her two younger brothers.
She survived the Japanese invasion of China in the 1940s, the loss of her first love—a poet, the demise of her husband’s wealth and stature with the communist revolution in China, poverty, the humiliation of having to beg for work, the death of her prematurely born twin boys, ill health, and her cherished, intellectual and idealistic youngest brother’s death in a communist labor camp. Her wrinkles, personality and demeanor were honed by each of these events. She could be funny and loving but also prone to negativity and scowls.
Grandma immigrated to the United States in 1973, when I was four, and watched over my younger brother and me. Every day she’d wake up early, do calisthenics, sweep the house and make breakfast. At noon, she’d begin preparing dinner for our family, usually three dishes and a soup, simmered for three to four hours. Her religious faith, self-discipline and fear of illness (after cataracts and painful bouts of kidney stones) fueled her healthy lifestyle. That included a daily walk, and cooking with fresh vegetables and meat, sometimes a chicken from our backyard in Palo Alto, at each meal.
* * *
Although I hadn’t planned the trip as a pilgrimage, I knew I was traveling to Italy partly to better understand my grandmother. Despite kidney dialysis three days a week and round-the-clock care, her health and cognitive function continued to deteriorate. I contemplated canceling or postponing the trip. My mom gently reminded me that we couldn’t know when she would go and we shouldn’t postpone living our own lives. A casualty of the dot com bust and in the midst of a divorce, I also sought solace and hoped to find the strength to put back together the shattered pieces of myself.
After landing in Rome, I felt immediately drawn to St. Peter’s Basilica. In the cathedral, a pure white dove appeared to fly toward me amidst a starburst of light. It was Bernini’s 17th-century Dove of Peace, a luminescent stained-glass window. The dove represented the Holy Spirit, surrounded by twelve rays, symbolizing the apostles. I ran my fingers over the cool sprawling mosaics carpeting the church walls, stopping only when I reached Michelangelo’s achingly sad Pietà, a realistic marble sculpture of Mary with the lifeless body of Christ lying across her lap.
As the sun rose, I climbed to the cupola gift shop located on the rooftop of the nave at St. Peter’s and bought my grandma a rosary. As I picked it up from one of the many bins of religious tourist tokens, long-forgotten memories surfaced. I saw my mom handing me a gleaming strand of mahogany-colored beads, a favorite and cherished rosary from her childhood, and the four-year-old me reciting the Lord’s Prayer first in Cantonese and then in English as she tucked me into bed.
More memories tumbled forth as I ran my fingers lightly over each small pale wooden rosary bead – my grandma wrapping her arms around me and tucking my small body beneath her chin as she spoke of the Japanese raids in China during World War II, of binding her breasts and rubbing soot on her cheeks to disguise herself as a boy, of praying for safety while hiding in an unfamiliar doorway.
At dusk, I bid farewell to Rome and boarded the train to Naples where I planned to meet a friend at the airport. The train pulled away and picked up speed, blurring the world outside the window.
The flashing images of the scenery outside evoked my grandma’s Technicolor water-and-ink painting of Jesus Christ, the thick paper yellowed with age, propped against a 1940’s black and white photo of her and my grandfather, on her dresser.
With grandma on my mind, I called home from the dimly lit Naples airport visitors’ area.
“Mom, I saw the most amazing sight at St. Peter’s Cath—“
“Jacqueline.” The tone in my mom’s voice penetrated the phone line static. My stomach dropped. I clutched the receiver with my suddenly sweaty hand. “Your grandma passed away. She died while your brother read to her from her bible.” My heart jackhammered against my ribs and I flushed hot at the news.
I could only think to ask, “When?”
“Late last night.”
While I stood in St. Peter’s Basilica early that morning, mesmerized by the dove and holding a strand of rosary beads, my grandma exhaled her final breath in San Francisco. My neck and shoulders clenched with remorse and grief.
“I’ll arrange to fly back first thing tomorrow.”
“No, no, stay. It’ll take at least a week to make all of the funeral arrangements. Don’t worry, your brother and I can take care of everything for now. Let’s talk in a few days.”
The news left me feeling somber and restless. I woke up the next morning in a cozy stone farmhouse in a small Umbrian hill town near Orvieto. I had planned to park myself on the porch, read a book and soothe myself by looking at the white cows sauntering across the golden landscape. But, after nibbling on a biscotti and a tossing back a strong demitasse of espresso, I realized I needed action; I had to live fully to counter death. It made yin-yang sense to me. So, I hopped into a car and drove to Assisi, home of St. Francis.
I followed Umbria’s undulating hills flecked with dense clusters of broccoli-esque trees. A large white dove suddenly flew in front of my car and hovered right above the hood, seeming to lead me. As I curved around the hill, it flew up, around, and in front of my car repeatedly, playing with me, flirting with me.
The dove appeared otherworldly, its stark white beauty suspended against a powder-blue sky. When I reached the valley floor near the foot of Assisi, the dove flew off. My brain whirred with possible explanations. Before that moment I had never seen a dove outside of a magic show. I drove on through the sun-drenched countryside and then up and up until I reached Assisi, suspended high above the surrounding patchwork of browns and greens peppered with tall clumps of cypress trees and silvery green olive groves.
At the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, doves appeared in murals depicting the saint’s life. As I viewed St. Francis’s remains and walked through this holy site, I felt a prickling up my spine. Had grandma somehow timed her death to coincide with my visit to the heart of Catholicism, St. Peter’s in Rome? Could the dove be my grandma saying good-bye? The idea comforted me and helped soften my guilt for not being by grandma’s bedside when she passed away.
I returned home to San Francisco to attend my grandma’s funeral. Through a veil of tears, I placed the rosary I’d brought her from St. Peter’s into her coffin, laying it next to my mom’s cherished mahogany-colored beads.