Sunday, July 20, 2014

Update on Mama

July 2014

Mama is now in her mid seventies and, in addition to her seven children and twenty-plus grandchildren, she is now a great grandmother several times over.  Although not always in good health - her kidneys often trouble her - Mama continues to spend most of her days living independently in her own small house behind elder brother's home in the town.  She has a few chickens and still likes to tend her small vegetable plot.  Every day she gets up at dawn, if not before, and likes to sleep soon after the sun sets. From dawn until dusk, there is a steady stream of visitors to her home which is within easy walking distance for all but two of her seven children.

These days, if she's not there it is likely that she may once again be found in the village.  A couple of years ago my husband and his two brothers decided to demolish the unused red-brick house built in the mid eighties in order to build three modern homes on that same plot of family land.  The house had stood empty for more than ten years and with village land being reclaimed by the government or sold to developers, they knew that their rights to the ancestral village might just disappear if they did nothing.  The idea was at first just to put up a basic new structure, nothing but a concrete shell, but slowly but surely the brothers' yearning grew to have roots there once again.  Along with the brothers, we now have our very own impressive home standing tall in the village, waiting to greet us whenever we make time to visit.

However, although the red-brick house was replaced, we repaired the tiny, single-storey adobe home in which Mama had given birth to all of her children in the 1960s and 70s.  It symbolises a special part of the family's history and I think Mama especially loves to see it still squatting opposite the gates of the large new homes with its new roof and freshly varnished wooden beams.   Although the new homes have modern kitchens, Mama seems to prefer pumping water from the well outside the old home.  The family also tend to cook in the dark kitchen of the old home, opting for the taste of food cooked in the giant iron wok over the wood burning stove.  These days, it's not usually Mama who cooks.  It's a sister-in-law or two, though Mama is never far away if a large dinner is being prepared - washing, chopping, refueling the fire - always busy and helpful.

Younger brother now frequently stays in his new village home at weekends and we've also visited a few times over the past few months.  Whenever we return, Mama moves in with us, pleased to spend time in the village and eager to take care of us. When we leave, she sometimes likes to stay on for a few days although the family, concerned for her safety, don't like for her to sleep out there alone.  She waves off their concerns but has to settle for the company of one or two burly grandsons who take over as 'bodyguards' if she stays out there.  This year, for the first time in over fifteen years, there are pumpkins, watermelons and chili pepper plants growing in our village yard, planted by Mama in the spring. 

Though so few faces from the past remain in the vicinity, Mama is clearly glad to have the chance to spend time there again.  The last time we were there three tiny, white-haired ladies tottered into our home.  Mama told me they'd known each other for more than half a century.  All three were now widowed, each living alone in dilapidated old homes scattered around the neglected village, their children all elsewhere.  It was obvious that Mama treasured their friendship and I thought: in spite of the many sorrows Baba brought into her life when they lived in the village, it had also been a place of deep friendships. 

Last year about twenty family members - including most of my husband's siblings - found time to take a three-day trip to a famous mountain.  Though Mama and Baba still avoid talking to each other, they both agreed to come along.  It was the first time for us all to journey somewhere together like this.  It felt significant, no, it felt incredible to be hurtling along the highway together in a minibus, listening to but barely comprehending the banter between them.  Back when I first met the family, Mama and Baba were still rice farmers and no one in the family had two yuan to rub together, who ever would have imagined we could ever enjoy such a trip?

Mama is sprightly but she found that mountain climb difficult and so we arranged, in spite of her protests, for her to be carried up the steepest part in a bamboo sedan chair.  I snapped a photograph of Mama looking so beautiful and happy, shading her eyes from the sun while two strong strangers - one in front and the other behind - made it possible for her to reach the peak with us.

Mama has continued to be a devout Buddhist.  I have never heard her explain her beliefs but I've watched her light her incense every evening.  I also know she avoids eating certain foods - beef, snails, shellfish - because in that part of China a Buddhist should refrain from such tastes.  Over the years, our youngest son, observing her devotion at temples, has somehow learned to follow her lead, kneeling quietly and bowing reverently at temple altar tables even when Mama is not there. 

It makes me happy to know that by building the new homes in the village, Mama is able to enjoy time out there again.  I imagine how for so many years Mama, as a mother, was so needed, so vital... giving all that she could day after day to each of her children.

Spending time with Mama brings nothing but joy into my heart and she is dearly, dearly loved.  Perhaps even by Baba. Sadly, I don't think anyone will ever hear him acknowledge this, though we all wish he could.

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