by Bowen Lee, writer/artist/educator, Monterey, California
On the morning my grandmother died, I squeezed the juice out of citrus fruits and strained out the seeds with a fork so I wouldn’t drink them. My grandmother told me when I was three or four that if you swallowed seeds they would grow inside your stomach. But that is not why I didn’t want to drink them.
I know my chemically-charged digestion will obliterate the seeds into their primal molecular components if ingested—that all the great potential contained in those seeds, those new trees waiting to grow, flourish, develop, would be incorporated into me, would nourish me, become part of me. Although I swallowed dozens of watermelon seeds when I was young, not one watermelon ever grew in my stomach, somewhat to my disappointment.
My grandmother knew seeds were better in the ground than taking the long journey through my digestive system, so she let me spit watermelon seeds into her garden. When I was small she had an amazing garden, lush and verdant and full of smells, colors, and textures. Later, when she moved into a little one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of Oakland’s busy Park Street by Lake Merritt, she grew trees in pots from the seeds she saved from squeezing lemons. I have never been able to grow a lemon tree from a seed, but she knew how to coax them to grow, flourish and bear fruit.
On the way to work I was thinking about my family’s legacy in California, and how it was more than names in a logbook or dates on a document. People change the land they live in, but also the land changes them. The thin, wiry peasant stock my family came from undoubtedly changed into the robust, well-built bodies of native Californians in a few generations.
My grandmother came from that third generation of American Chinese. The land, the sea, the clean, abundant water and the bounty of food made that generation of my family strong, athletic and tireless. They had the energy to build communities, families, opportunities. They were the establishing generation. In the succession of growth in an ecosystem, the land is first settled by pioneers, made stable by secondary growth, and becomes dominant in the third stage of succession. My grandparents were the ones who sunk deep roots into the land. They were the trees that gave the forest its name. They were Chinese-Americans.
And my grandmother sunk the deepest root of all. At 106 years old, she outlived her four sisters and three brothers. She outlived everyone in her generation of my family. She held her great-great-granddaughter in her arms a month before she died. I was imagining the root of her sinking into the bedrock of this country, firmly anchoring her family to this place…when my mother called on the car speakerphone to say that my grandmother passed away early that morning.
I felt like a great tree had fallen, toppling like a bridge, cutting off our access to the past, to the rest of the family that came before us. We will not know who they were, or what they were like, or what happened to them, because the last one who knew them is gone, too.
But though the tree has been cut down, my grandmother’s roots were profoundly deep. She anchored us with her presence, with her still being alive and healthy and spunky as a spark plug. Keep going. Do your best. Don’t give up. All those old lady admonitions I tired of when young and impatient, but desperately needed to hear when I grew older and times grew tougher. Her favorite song was “Always.” I’ll be loving you, always. With a love that’s true, always.
I sang it as I was squeezing lemons and putting aside the seeds. I’ll remember you always, Nan.