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A Woman in the Hometown
There are many places you will visit in your life, some of which you could return to, some of which you couldn’t. Those places that you can't go back to are called the hometown.
It was sixteen degrees Celsius in Shanghai. They were both in the muggy car. The engine started and the car took off. She had mixed feelings about what was happening to her lately. The tension between her mother and her was still so tangible that she could hardly breathe. Don’t know if the old lady they are going to visit is alright. She reached out for her phone to put on some songs, but this seemed to block her father's view of the GPS navigation. She sighed and put on the audiobook instead. When she heard the story of Lord of Chun Shen in the ancient Chinese empire, it occurred to her that this was the reason why Shanghai was called "Shen". Then she became hallucinated, feeling unconscious, and fell asleep.
When she woke up, the air in the car was stuffy. Sunshine was glowing on her cotton trousers, and her stomach was a little queasy. She was wearing five pieces of clothing this day. She swaddled herself in a plain white down jacket on which the tan fur blended in with her brown hair in the sunlight. Her cheeks slightly flushed in the sweltering heat, which made it clear that she was a teenage girl on her way back to the old home that she would return to every year. Her neck was sore. Though swinging her head from side to side, she was still uncomfortably hot. She lied down again with her head on the other side, by which time the storyteller had reached a part of the story she could not understand. As luck would have it, she fell back to sleep, and by the time she woke up, it was time to get off the highway.
Her father hadn't said much on the way, very much in keeping with his quiet temperament. By gazing at him, one word lingered in her mind: homecoming. It was a perfect phrase to describe her father. It was then she realized that it was time to arrive home. The car turned off an avenue in Diao Pu and drove into the lanes between the villages of Jiang Qiao. The further you drive in, the more memories are evoked by the scenery you see.
"You recognize it, don't you," her father had been saying since just now, the impeccably white highway was indeed a bit hard to recognize, but it would be unforgettable not to recognize where they were now driving into.
"Yes," the banner reading "Crackdown Gangs" caught the girl's eyes as the car turned the corner. She sniggered, amused.
The car drove down the narrow damp concrete. On either side beyond the ditch were farmlands possessed by the families here. The green saplings planted at intervals on either side of the path were still at the same height after all these years. The sky was covered by a grey, translucent veil expanding to the far north.
The car kept going, vestiges of memories became to recover. An old man with a black cotton cap and a hunchback gave way to us. The only grocery shop in Jiangqiao appeared on the left of us, still with the radio on and the doorway full of miscellaneous items.
"I'll recognize everything after crossing this bridge." She blurted out.
The white vintage bridge had been repainted only a few years before. It wasn't long, but every time she went back home this bridge was a must. She had walked over it countless times with her father, her sister, and all of her father's relatives. She had remembered this bridge for as long as she could remember. Driving onto this bridge signaled that they were arriving home.
It was the same location, the familiar gate. She got out of the car first and saw some unfamiliar people. She didn't go into the house alone but waited for her father to park the car and then went in with him. After she took a breath outside the car, she was so disoriented that she couldn't tell if her head was still dizzy or not. The cold air of her hometown penetrated her body. She zipped up her down jacket, ready to go. Now that she thought about it: if she didn't go back home but bought such a warm down jacket, there would be nowhere to use it. She smiled bitterly.
Under the white flowery eaves, Grandma sat as she always did. The sunlight was pouring over her. Grandma was wearing a purple fleece hat, a purple down coat, and a pair of burgundy cotton shoes. Sitting quietly in a rattan chair, she wasn’t aware of the guests. The girl felt at once that there was something different about her. Her cheeks were still dark with uneven brown patches. She could not see her eyes very clearly. Today her lips seemed to have deflated and she had aged a lot at once. Recently the girl had been counting her grandmother's age. She realized that Grandma had aged relatively early for her age. There was another person next to her, someone the girl had not seen before. This must be the nurse they invited. The nurse was younger, probably in her fifties or sixties. She looked much healthier. Grandma's lips quivered slightly as she watched as the girl and her father enter, then she slowly straightened up, her deflated mouth looking like she was about to say something. My father showed his most handsome and lively smile as he approached my grandmother and said, "Do you recognize me?" He spoke, of course, in dialect, which the girl understood but did not speak very well.
"I'm Wansuo!" Dad said loudly in case she couldn't hear him.
"Ah… Wansuo ah…" The girl shifted her eyes to the old woman. Her eyes were red, a few tears already dripping from them, his mouth slightly opened, drooping as if in disbelief. She cried, causing more furrows to then wrinkle on the brown skin around her eyes, which all became red in no time. She slowly wiped her tears away, her deflated mouth closed again, and the girl thought she was trying to calm down. The girl saw her aunt coming from the kitchen, but she wanted to go to the toilet first, so she ignores her aunt for now. The tissue paper in the toilet was no longer in the closet, probably because it was removed by the nurse. The girl felt a bit sorrow. When she came out of the toilet she called out to her aunt and Grandma.
The nurse asked Grandma "Do you know who she is?"
Grandma said vaguely, "Who is this…? She’s my daughter-in-law who…"
The nurse laughed and father said, "She’s your granddaughter!"
Grandma remained quiet for a moment and then spoke "Ah… I don't know…"
Father took out his phone and showed Grandma a picture of the girl and her brother, both of whom she said she didn't recognize. The girl later found a picture of Grandma and her brother together. She pointed to the old woman in the picture and asked her who she was, but she couldn't answer for a moment. The nurse said, "That's you!" Only then did she respond, "Ah… Oh…"
The nurse pointed to the girl again and said, "She’s your granddaughter! She's calling for you!"
The old woman repeated, "Granddaughter…" She choked on her words and began to cry again, "How long has it been since I've seen her? …" She mumbled "You're far away... You're abroad… You wouldn’t come back…"
The girl would indeed have to go abroad in the future. Her Grandma still remembered something about her.
The nurse laughed at Grandma, joking she was like a child and said "She's coming back!"
The girl said very firmly at that moment, "Tell her I'll be back for New Year!" The nurse relayed to her.
"Will she come back for New Year's Eve...? Good..." As if she had received some comfort, the old woman’s eyes were wet and red, her toothless lips resting feebly on her chin as she said, "It's no use... She's married far away... It's hard to be back..."
The girl handed her a tissue to wipe her tears, smiled, and said "I'm still a student! Not yet married!"
At night, the temperature in Jiangqiao was below zero degrees Celsius, which was freezing cold for the girl. Even with her down jacket, she couldn't help but shiver and worry that she might catch a cold. The concrete floor was too dark to see, except for the lights at long intervals along the path. Dust flew in the air. The nurse and other relatives had already placed Grandma in her wheelchair, covered her with a blanket, and buckled her seatbelt. Lips compressed together, she moved very slowly through the process as if her joints had to be carefully bent with each movement. Did she know why she was in a wheelchair？ A despondent question arose in the girl's mind.
The birthday feast began when we arrived at a restaurant at the front of the village, where the tables started with cold dishes of sliced beef, salted chicken, and almonds. The girl wondered if Grandma would be able to chew it. The girl thought of their lunch today. The five of them sat around the old wooden table, with Grandma, the birthday girl, facing south. Watching Grandma's mouth deflate as she lost all her teeth, her pale skin sagging and patchy, her cloudy eyes gazing at the area where the girl was sitting, the girl wanted to leave the table.
The aunt brought in the longevity noodles she made and bent down to distribute the bowls to everyone. The girl noticed that her aunt was wearing a white coat jacket today, which was so tight due to the layers of clothes underneath. Her long hair had been cut short, although the top of her head was still bald. So, she had now reached the age when she had to take care of her grandchildren, and by the way, she had to take care of Grandma.
The girl tilted her head to father and murmured, "Can grandma chew noodles without teeth?" The father replied in his normal voice, "She'll use her gum to bite through the noodles." The girl understood. This time Grandma picked up a large pile of noodles with her chopsticks, opened her mouth a thin slit, then shoved the pile of noodles into the slit, and slowly rub the noodles with her gum.
The girl remembered the scents of noodles that her grandparents and her family once had around this table. The noodles, thick and flat, had been rolled out by Grandma herself, always with a pile of greens and spring onions and yellow oil floating on them. The taste of that noodles had long been ingrained in her mind, whereas today she had not eaten much of this bowl because it was too bland for her.
Many relatives now came to toast Grandma. Aunts, cousins, and others lined up to clink wine with her. The girl hesitated for a while to go, but she gave up when she remembered her broken old family language. Grandma watched the guests come to wish her, but just stared blankly with her mouth open and with a wooden expression as if she hadn't realized what was happening. Later on, the children blew out the candles and cut the cake themselves. The cake was with double layers and the girl gave the first piece of the cake to Grandma, who insisted on letting her eat it instead. The girl blurted out a series of birthday wishes in dialect and left the cake with Grandma. By this point in the meal, relatives and friends were chatting away, but Grandma was sitting very quietly at her table facing south. Does she remember it was her 80th birthday ceremony? The girl thought.
The next day when the girl woke up, she was aware that the day was not going to be easy, as she and her father had to leave almost before lunch. They drove Grandma to town along with them to have breakfast. When the father and daughter enjoyed their meal in the restaurant, Grandma could take a walk in the parking lot with her nurse. Grandma was assisted into the car by the nurse, both floundering. Grandma bent over and moved into the car bit by bit as if each step might take all her strength. When she finally sat down, the nurse put her crutch next to her seat and stepped over her to get into the inside seat. The father and the daughter both wanted to say: "Why don't you just go in through the other door?” Yet both ladies sat down like two statues of Buddha as if urging the driver to drive faster.
Mealtime was very pleasant for the father and the daughter, but the father left the restaurant first because he didn't feel reassured with Grandma waiting outside.
Grandma sat in the sunshine. The nurse stood next to her, peeling her oranges, but whether it was because they were cold or something else, she refused to let the nurse offer her more oranges with her hands, holding her cane with one hand and pushing the nurse's hand back with the other, her tan skin golden in the harsh sunlight, her wrinkles looking less deep. She looked like a living statue to the girl. The sunlight reflected from her silver hair under her mauve hat reminded the girl of the release of life, of indifference.
When the old woman got back into the car later, she bowed again and moved slowly in the narrow back seat for a long time. Her hands clutched the front seat on which the girl was sitting. The girl turned and her eyes were just in front of Grandma’s eyes. How long had it been since she had looked closely into her eyes? And all she could see beyond the murky patch of grey were the wrinkles on her grandmother's eyelids, drooping over eyes through which she could no longer otherwise see clearly. The girl put her hand on the old woman’s. Cold. The girl held it tighter, perhaps to help her keep balance, or perhaps she just wanted to grip her grandmother's hand, which she could not remember touching for as long as she had memory. The old woman, oblivious, continued to move her body, struggling to get the lower half of her body over the back seat, finally settling into it. The girl had somehow released her hand and turned around reassured that they were ready to leave for home, for the last time today. She thought as she looked out of the window at the shops in town.
The moment had come after all. They were packed up and ready to go back to Shanghai. When the girl came downstairs, Grandma was still in her wheelchair, her eyes looking out into the gate and the yard next to the garden as if waiting for someone. After hearing the words relayed by the nurse, she repeated in a daze, "Ah, going back? Not staying for lunch?" Her eyes remained fixed on the father and the daughter.
“Not staying for lunch! I have to work tomorrow!" Dad said to her with a smile. "Got to work! To go back to Shanghai and make money!"
The nurse repeated in her shrill voice again, afraid that Grandma wouldn't hear her.
"Ah-it's only been two days since I saw you, and you're leaving again-" the old woman said breathlessly, the questioning tone no longer coming out.
The girl murmured: “We’ll be back in the Spring...”
"Well, no more talk! Let's go!" The father looked about to walk away from the grandmother to start the car engine.
The girl chased after him, saying, "Won't you tell the grandmother we'll be back for the New Year?"
The father seemed to reply, don’t give her something to look forward to. The girl understood, but she felt even more miserable inside.
As the car drove out of the house, the girl kept waving to Grandma in Jiangqiao until she could no longer see her. Under the eaves, the nurse had been standing next to Grandma, who had been sitting dazedly in her wheelchair, watching the car leave.
Even last night the family was still lit up. Relatives and friends had come to celebrate her big birthday. The sky was full of splendid fireworks for her. Guests' laughter and wishes were all for her. Today, the courtyard had returned to its former stillness, same as that when she came in a day ago, same as when her grandparents were both at home. Grandma’s eyes kept looking towards the gate as if waiting for someone to return.
A few years ago, under the eaves of this house, Grandpa was asleep in a wicker chair, the sun shining right on him. My father and I came in through the gate to wake him up. As soon as he opened his eyes and saw us, he smiled. How much joy and bitterness after a long separation was behind that smile. I asked my father later in the car, "How did she react when you left before?” Dad said, "She didn’t have reactions! This’s the first time she remembers who I am."
I remembered when the firecrackers were set off yesterday during the daytime, it was my aunt who lit them all. When the crowds began to disseminate afterward, Grandma anxiously asked, "Wan Feng (my aunt) had lit the firework. Did Wan Suo have the chance to light it?" We stared and tried to recognize what she was asking for so urgently. The nurse laughed and explained to her, "There are still firecrackers! There are still more! More at night!" Only then did she settle down, reiterating, "More at night...
When we got back to Shanghai, my father told me that Grandma didn't eat her lunch. She was crying for hours because we were leaving.
It's only been two days since we saw her, but we were leaving again. Hometown is the place we keep leaving from, but not always returning to. Without my Grandma, hometown is only a town, not home any more.