Double Blossom xx – Week 5
Grandparents day at school happened every year and I never had any to bring. While my paternal grandparents lived to meet my brothers and me, my maternal grandparents, pictured here, did not; by a long way. My grandfather a Kuomingtang general of the Chinese Nationalist Party, died in 1946, fighting the Communists in the Battle of Siping. He left behind his wife and four children. My mother, the second child, was 11. In the following six months, she would lose her older brother. Five years later, she was orphaned completely because her mother died of cancer.
The few stories I have about my grandparents barely scratch the surface of what I want to know. For instance, what compelled my eighteen-year old grandfather to ride twelve hundred solos miles on horseback all the way from his family home in Northern China down to Guandong, at the Southern tip of China? His destination was Whampoa Academy, the military school of the Chinese Nationalist Party, comparable to Sandhurst or West Point. But why? I am told by some elders that he was an idealist, fighting for a cause; that of the Chinese republic. That may have been true when he set off like any young naïve recruit but my interpretation of the Chinese Civil War is that it was a murky affair; less about ideals and more about the egos of various power hungry, narcissistic men. But then again as the story goes, when word reached my grandfather that his men were preparing for a battle that they knew they would lose, he went to be with them and lead them. He knew he would die. He was miles away on leave and didn’t have to go. But he felt duty bound to his men. He died a hero, at least that’s what accounts of the battle say. In amongst the family photos on display that we grew up with was a black and white photo of my grandfather in full uniform next to a rather imperious Chiang Kai Shek. So we thought my grandfather was a hero too. But I’m not sure my mother actually believes the myth herself. Whenever she tells the story, she poses this question, not without some bitterness, “And yet, he did not feel duty bound to his family? Hmmph.”
The real hero of this story is my grandmother. I love the way she looks in this photo, so mod with her short hair cut like a boy’s and studious glasses; other show her reading. She gave my mother a western name, Mary, because she thought it was more modern.
Within six months after my grandfather’s death, my grandmother lost her oldest child and only son to a tragic accident. She also discovered that my grandfather had also left behind a mistress and a son he had with her. By extending a hand to her husband’s mistress and his son, the only male heir to the family name, my grandmother formed a new family. The two women and four children escaped to Taiwan and set up a new life together. My mother speaks of this time as the happiest period of her childhood. They were in one place with a semblance of stability. Sadly, her world was rocked again when my grandmother died of cancer five years later. My heart breaks for the heartache that I imagined my brave, compassionate and kind grandmother must have suffered. I often wonder how she found the strength to keep going after losing her son and discovering her husband’s unfaithfulness, posthumously. She was denied the privilege of asking him WTF? With a war on and four children and a young woman dependent on her, she probably felt that she had no choice but to just get on. Having been diagnosed with cancer a few years earlier, she also lived with the stress that she would not see her daughters grow to adulthood. And that she would eventually have to leave them behind to fend for themselves. But that is another story.
In my dreams, I am chatting with my grandmother over a cup of tea and telling her what an inspiring modern woman she is.
With love, Xtine.
The above post is part of Double Blossom xx, an Instagram project I started with photographer Christina Wilson Elms during lockdown. Each week we post a photo of ourselves and write a letter to the other on an agreed theme. If you are interested in reading our stories, you can find us on Instagram at Double Blossom xx — Two London sistas share stories about being Chinese in the UK and the US. Same age, same name; almost.