On What We Leave Behind

What you leave behind is not what is engraved in monument stones, but what is woven into the lives of others.

Pericles

On my island paradise, benches line the walkway by the sea. They have plaques on all of them, each dedicated to the life of someone who has passed. I stop and read these epitaphs as I walk along the shore early every morning and I sip on my coffee. Many of them describe a life well lived: a dedicated father, a faithful mother, a beautiful daughter taken too soon. Being on the seaside, there are references to the love these individuals had for this stretch of land on the gulf, and I feel a kindred spirit with these souls. It seems we all found our solace in collecting shells, listening to the waves crash on shore, and watching breathtaking sunsets while the bell rings to mark another day passing. One day, when I am gone, I think I would like a bench in remembrance of my life, to keep company with those who shared my affinity for this magical place.

This past weekend I was in another part of Florida, my late grandmother’s home. She lived a long life, full of adventure, heartache, bravery, challenge, triumph, and love. I usually stay in her bedroom, the place where she passed, and I feel her presence in all the things she left behind. On the bed is a blanket she made, on the dresser a tablecloth she crocheted, the collages of pictures she chose that denote the stages of childhood of her children, their adulthood, the births of her grandchildren, and great grandchildren, all covering the walls. Portraits of people who passed before I was born, like my great grandfather, are displayed on a shelf above her hope chest. Inside the chest, there are old letters and more photos, and magazines she kept, with knitting projects marked she had planned to make but did not get to during her life. My grandmother loved to crochet and knit, and when I was a child living in her home in New England, she taught me the craft. I always feel a certain peace in her room, the same feeling I would every evening when she would make tea, a ritual that she kept all her life from the days she lived in Indonesia before World War II destroyed her plantation, took the lives of many of her family, and she immigrated to the United States, the only country at that time taking refugees. For that, she instilled into all of us, her children and grand children, a love and gratitude for this great nation.

My grandmother led a colorful life, and at the age of 31, she reinvented herself in a small blue collar town in New England. She had lived a life of privilege on the tropical plantation, with servants to care for her and her family, before the war took everything, except the most precious: her life, the life of her husband, and her children. She adapted as well as she could, but she would tell me stories of how she didn’t know that windows got dirty until she couldn’t see out of them clearly, how she had to learn to cook and struggled to find substitutes for the Asian ingredients to make Indonesian dishes, and how she had to learn to endure the cold, harsh northern winters after living in a tropical climate most of her life. She painstakingly learned how to take care of things from scratch, to restart her life, and raised her family, which grew by 3 more children, with grit and determination.

My grandmother was a strong woman, with strong opinions, and as I lived in her home after my parents divorced until I went to college, she was a strong influence in my life. She was a nurse, caring, pragmatic, and blunt, but always loving. She would tell me how, when I lived in Holland, I would call her and speak fluent Dutch to her. I remember how she would make me cheese raviolis when I was in grade school and would come home for lunch (the elementary school was down the street). Memories of nights she and I would stay up until 1, or 2 or 3 am, watching Jackie Chan movies, cheesy Sci Fi movies like Buckaroo Bonzai, and Mystery Science Theater, when she would be babysitting us while my own mother worked nights as a nurse herself. We would gossip about my school; I would tell her about the boys I liked, problems with my friends, and my classes. She would tell me not to worry about boys, but focus on school, as there would be plenty of time for love (which was easy, as I was a nerd and not popular with the boys anyways). The summers during my undergraduate college years I spent in Florida, where my grandmother had finally retired to escape the winter chill. There we would crochet, make crafts together, garden (though I still have my black thumb, she tried to teach me), and she taught me to cook Indonesian food. My grandmother was there to dry my tears when my Fairytale romance imploded at 24. She told me “Life is full of goodbyes. I have said goodbye to my country, to my life, to people I loved who died too young. You have to be strong. Life goes on. You will be okay, just like me. Cry, then keep going.”

My grandmother passed away 5 years ago, but her presence is still felt as I gaze at the photo of myself in Providence RI taken at sunset that she has in her home. She told me that it was her favorite picture of me. I see her features in my slightly almond shaped eyes, their wide spacing, my nose, and the full chipmunk cheeks. I see her wavy, thick hair in mine. But the intangibles my grandmother left me, her indomitable spirit, her will, her pragmatic view on life, are the things that stay with me that are what I am most grateful for as I have faced adversity and change in my life. And my love of B-movies. Especially our favorite, Big Trouble in Little China. We both have a thing for Kurt Russell.

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