My grandmother's hands: rough, calloused. Many crevices dug into the sand-colored skin, etched into her hands by the trials of time. Each wrinkle contained the understanding gained after each year passed. Each crack a lesson learned. Her joints bulged with the stories of the labors they had endured, a lifetime of toil.
It was those hands that enclosed mine. Those coarse fingers that grasped my hand: a soft, smooth, hand covered in a liquid peach skin, so small and petty that they disappeared completely within the vastness of her wise hands.
It was those hands that guided my pencil as it danced upon the white paper: slide down, kick up to the left, leap high, sashay across, pivot turn diagonally down to the left, leap high, another sashay across, pivot turn diagonally down to the right. And bow.
"Ni kan, zhe shi she me zi?" asked my grandma while pointing at the new character before me. I looked hard.
"Shui," "Water," I replied.
"Hen hao, zai lai yi bian." Praising me, she asked me to write it again.
"Wei she me?" "Why?" I whined, peering at the clock and realizing I was going to miss my show. Like any child, I preferred my favorite Saturday cartoon to any lesson in writing Chinese.
"I'm going to miss my show," I said, trying to get her to let me go to watch TV.
"You should finish writing first." She frowned slightly while responding in Chinese. I looked down at my crooked, sloppy writing. The dancer had done a poor job.
"But I'm going to miss my show," I reiterated, wanting nothing more than to be done with the lesson, to be done with writing, to be done with learning Chinese.
My grandmother sighed and closed my lesson book.
"Hao ba," she agreed and let me go.
I didn't have another thought about the lesson as I dashed to the living room. Not bothering a second glance, I couldn't have known of my grandmother's disappointed shakes of the head as she put the books away in the closet. I couldn't have known of her sadness each time I read English books for my own enjoyment and evaded those words of Chinese. Nonetheless, there in the living room I stayed, feeding my childish eyes on nothing more than juvenile pleasure with the flashing colors and frenzied music.
Not one, but all my Saturdays back then passed that way. My refusal to learn Chinese endured along with my grandmother's persistence in teaching it. But she always relented in the end, perhaps out of exasperation or perhaps out of resignation. I still don't know.
But yes, I remember now, this is how all my Chinese lessons truly went. How was I to know that my foolish resentment of the language would cost me the value of its knowledge? I could speak it, quite fluently in fact, but I had shut the doors to the vast world of literature, the power of the written word and all that it could offer. How could I have known?
Regret is a wretched, dejected feeling. And yet those were the thoughts that raced through my mind in the car ride to the gravesite that one miserable June afternoon. The sun and warmth of the air didn't register on my cold, clammy skin. I got out to climb up the steep, rocky hill, trailing slowly behind my parents with leaden feet and aimlessly kicking each jutting rock.
Why was I there? I didn't want to be there. I could never have imagined myself there.
But there I was. One moment later we stopped before the tomb, the dull gray stone covered with fresh white flowers and crisp incense sticks. We were silent. We stared, not quite knowing what to do with our eyes. My mother began to cry and turned away. My father put one hand on her shoulder and kept the other in his pocket while looking out over the landscape before him. When both of them weren't looking, I knelt down and my shaking finger slowly traced the indents in the stone as I remembered how those rough calloused hands had once guided mine.
I tried hard not to, tried my best, but I couldn't help it as hot, stinging tears sprung into my eyes, leaked, and cascaded down my cheeks. I began to sniffle as my free hand wiped at my runny nose. My eyes blurred the image of the stone, a stone indented with my grandmother's name.
A stone, I realized with furious shame, that I couldn't ... even ... read.