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Here's a Story: My 'Good Grandma'

On September 8, 2022, Queen Elizabeth II passed away with her family present while at Balmoral Castle in Edinburgh, Scotland. She was 96 years old. The Royal family, the citizens of the United Kingdom and much of the world mourned the lost of the longest reigning monarch of 70 years. While vastly admired, her life and reign was not without criticism. For many, she represented the British empire and its colonization of nations that left many disenfranchised for many generations. Still, she has been an easily recognizable, stable figure head known by many a generation and that in itself is significant.

The date of her death was sentimental for me because it was also the anniversary of my grandmother's passing, 24 years ago on September 8, 1998. In my last post, I talked about how our stories are important to understanding the fabric that makes us who we are as individuals but also as a collective community. So, actually a few months before Queen Elizabeth's passing, I had planned to write my grandmother's story. The dates were coincidental, but they make the timing of this story posting all the more poignant.

I was fortunate as a young kid, though I didn't realize I was until I was much older, to grow up in a multi-generational home. For the first nine years of my life, my sister and I were raised by both our parents and our maternal grandmother, who we called Hao Po, which literally translated from Mandarin means "good grandma." I spent hours with her--watching her knit, crochet and play card games. I have her to thank for teaching me how to play cards. We had especially tense games of gin rummy and War. I also watched Chinese soap operas with her and she was patient with me when I kept asking her what was happening because I couldn't keep up with the grown-up dialog and plot twists. She also had a magical (to six year-old me, at least) dresser drawer that she would sometimes allow me to rummage through. It contained what seemed like hundreds of Avon and Shiseido lipstick samples and other cosmetics she had acquired over the years. I'd experiment with the make up and do a big reveal for her, which usually resulted in her squealing in both horror and delight. In the time I spent with her, she told me countless stories of her growing up in China, meeting my grandfather, who unfortunately died before any of his children (my mom included) married or had children of their own. She also told me stories about emigrating to Taiwan for political reasons, the medical practice she built and how she raised her children. It took me decades to realize just how badass she was. And a badass deserves her story be told...

Hwei Feng Chang-Ku, was the eldest daughter born to her parents, in Suzhou, China on February 12, 1913. Suzhou is in the Jiangsu province of China, approximately 100 kilometers from Shanghai. I honestly don't know much about her parents or siblings. She told me very little, despite my prodding. What I do know is that she resented the fact that her mother would not allow her to leave the house for school until she had a bowel movement, which infuriated Hao Po because she loved school and looked forward to leaving the house every morning to be there. So not surprisingly, at the age of 14, my Hao Po made a bold decision to leave home to attend a boarding school...much to her parents' chagrin. But because she received a scholarship to attend this school, they begrudgingly allowed her to go.

While at this high school, my Hao Po kicked serious butt, academically speaking. She was notorious at each school for being one who would study into the twilight hours, despite the lights-out rules. Her secret? She painted her desk lampshade black so she could continue studying without overt light shining through her dormitory window. She graduated at the top of her class and was admitted to university with a medical program, where she also graduated at the top of her class. Unfortunately for her, the university would not award her--a woman-- with a doctor of medicine (M.D.) degree (remember: this was China, pre-WWII) so she accepted a nurse midwife degree, which was second in the hierarchy of medical degrees at the time.

She would later meet her husband, a tall, handsome civil engineer, who dressed sharply in crisp fedoras and tailored wool trench coats and had an affinity for photography and loved taking photos of his bride and would pose her in artisitic ways, playing with natural light and shadows. They would go on to have five children while living in Qingdao during the Sino-Japanese War. During that time, they would lose two of their children. They were two daughters older than my mother, who was the youngest of the five. The older died of childhood leukemia at the age of nine and the younger died as a baby, around 15 months of age. When I was a kid, I remember asking Hao Po if the deaths of those two daughters made her sad. She said that back in those days, you almost expect at least one of your children to not survive due to illness. It was just common. While the death of the baby made her sad, she felt that her heartbreak was healed by the birth of my mother, who was born shortly after her sister's passing. She did say that the death of the older daughter was difficult because she was older and had a very vibrant personality. As a rough -and-tumble tomboy, one of her playmates, coincidentally, was my father, whose family lived nearby and they were classmates. My dad remembers her well and said she was one of the most fun playmates he ever had and it was difficult for him to process her illness and death as a child. Eventually, my grandparents would emigrate to Taiwan with my mother and her two oldest siblings, a sister and brother, to escape communism in 1949.

Taipei, Taiwan, became their new home. There, my Hao Po would open a private midwifery practice with a small clinic attached to the family home, but she would also do house calls on bicycle to provide prenatal care and of course, deliver babies. My mom told me she remembered there was a bell attached to the wall outside her office where frantic husbands would either come on rickshaw, bicycle or on foot, and often in the middle of the night, ringing the bell and shouting, "Dr. Chang! Dr. Chang! My wife is in labor!"

Despite my grandmother's degree, which was clearly printed on a plaque on her office door as "nurse midwife," everyone in the community referred to her as "Doctor Chang." She was so well-loved and respected her actual title didn't mean anything to anyone. She was a doctor, for all intents and purposes. She completed the schooling and was smart as a whip, no doubt. In addition to her expertise in midwifery, she also provided immunizations, acupuncture (which she obtained a separate credential for) and even some dermatologic procedures. In fact, she was known to perform a very unorthodox but very effective acne treatment that made her very sought after, especially from teenage and young adult patients desperate for relief and a clearer complexion! By the time I was a teenager suffering from acne breakouts I asked if she still remembered how to perform her amazing acne treatment. You can imagine my disappointment when she told me she didn't feel comfortable trying it at her age with her arthritic fingers and poor vision from cataracts. My mom remembered watching her mom get out of bed during those calls late at night, slowly getting dressed and putting her medical supply bag on her bicycle and pedaling off into the night.

When not working all hours of the day or night, she cared for her family--grocery shopping and cooking and playing mah-jong with friends in the evenings. With her ability to strategize while chatting, cracking jokes and singing along to her favorite pop songs, my grandmother would often rake in the chips from her friends and neighbors complete with bragging rights!

As the years passed, her older children grew up, moved on to college and careers in the United States. While my mother was still an undergrad in nursing school, my grandfather suffered a stroke that left him aphasic (unable to communicate verbally) and homebound. My mom helped Hao Po care for him until he suffered a second stroke that he was unable to survive. Shortly after graduating, my mother immigrated to the U.S., to join her older sister, my aunt, and her family in Bowling Green, Kentucky. With my uncle earning his PhD at Columbia University, my widowed and retired Hao Po was by herself in Taipei. The siblings would find their way to the Los Angeles area by the late 1960s/early 70s and Hao Po would then join her children and move into an apartment in Pasadena with my mom. She would continue to live with my parents after their wedding and help welcome and raise both my older sister and me. She was always a force to be reckoned with. Even though she stood about four foot nine with a kyphotic hunch in her back, she was spunky and protective of her grandkids. She could still haggle with shopkeepers and hustle her own kids and relatives at mah-jong. As a kid, I would skip over to the table where they played...mostly to eat their snacks, but I would ask who was winning and most of the time the response was, "...Your grandma, again..."

One of my favorite memories of Hao Po was how big a Los Angeles Lakers fan she was. She loved the Showtime era Lakers--the fast plays run by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would have my petite grandma literally on the edge of her couch, leaned so close to the screen, I thought she might tip over. She transformed into a different person entirely during these games. She cheered so loudly during games her neighbors would knock on the door and ask if she had hurt herself. Her love for Lakers basketball was the number one reason I had to learn how to program the VCR to record games, as they often coincided with family dinners, which she of course loved, but also very much looked forward to catching up on the game afterwards. She made me love the Lakers, too, but what I loved most was watching her watch them. Nothing was more amusing or entertaining. Win or lose, her emoting would give us belly laughs. She would openly criticize the coach, Pat Riley, but also make comments about how worried she was about how gray his hair was becoming or how thin he appeared. She debated offensive and defensive strategies with my uncle and dad, as if she could step in as assistant coach, pacing the sidelines while arguing with the referees. And whenever the Lakers played their big rival, the Boston Celtics, my Hao Po was never louder in her cheering and jeering. She even loved the post-game shows, re-watching the plays in slow motion and even rewinding to watch again and again...

While I was an undergrad, I visited my grandmother at her retirement home and I still have the first time she failed to recognize me burned in my memory. See, I cry easily. Ridiculously easily. I could barely stifle the hot tears when she asked me who I was and why I was calling her "Hao Po." My mom could see my struggle and distracted her with something while I slipped out of her bedroom and sobbed in the kitchen. Months after this, we watched her health steadily decline. Her mental status waxed and waned. It felt like every other week I was being told that Hao Po was being admitted, then discharged, then readmitted to hospitals. One hospital visit I made, I sat with her for a full afternoon. She told me it was a teaching hospital and she didn't much care for the groups of medical students, interns and residents who would stand in a semi-circle around her hospital bed staring at her and jotting notes and nodding at their preceptor while he talked and sometimes quizzed them. She said she felt like she was under a microscope. One of these groups entered while I was there and while the attending physician was rattling off her age and medical history, she blew me away when she cleared her throat and said in English, "I have renal failure, stage four." Before this, the only English I ever heard her speak were bits and phrases like hello, thank you, how are you, Filet-O-Fish (her go-to McDonald's order)...I didn't even know she knew her medical diagnoses at all at this point, let alone in English! Needless to say, the residents were surprised, too, as they had been directing all of their questions to me. One of them asked what her profession was and I proudly told them she held a medical degree and practiced medicine in Taiwan. The room shifted. Suddenly they were all smiles and gave my grandmother thumbs up and patted her on the shoulder as they filed out into the hallway. She, bewildered, asked me what I said to them. I said, "I told them you're Dr. Chang!" She blushed and swatted me playfully, saying I shouldn't have said that because now they'll probably expect her to speak more English now!

She passed away peacefully with my uncle at her bedside on September 8, 1998. For the first time in my life, I saw my own mom...the rock of my existence, become a scared little girl who just lost her mommy, while I felt like a scared little girl myself, because I had just lost one of the most important people in my life, too.

For her memorial service, I wrote, with my mom's help, of course, a brief version of Hao Po's life story. I wrote it first in English, then had helped translating it into Mandarin and wrote it out phonetically because I can't read or write Chinese beyond the skill of a four year-old, if even that. I do recall reading this eulogy at the service and will say that reading her story in my non-dominant language helped me keep it together at the lectern. While my sister and older cousins shared their eulogies in English, I was drowned in my own tears and snot sitting in the pew.

Twenty-four years later, I still have her picture in my den. I wear some of her old jewelry when I miss her. I passed on a turtle carved from stone that she gifted me when I was 13 to my now 13 year-old younger daughter. She gave it to me on a day when I told her I felt invisible, that I didn't matter to anyone. She told me turtles live a long time and she wanted me to live long and appreciate life, because we're only given one.

When the Queen's death was announced I glanced at my watch and noticed the date... While Queen Elizabeth II was indeed one of the oldest monarchs or our time, I was reminded that she was also a matriarch. She was mum, granny and great-granny to a royal, but still very human family. While my grandmother didn't live long enough to see her grandchildren marry or get to meet any of her great-grandchildren, I'm happy to be able to write her story and pay tribute to a woman who helped shape me and my family. I'd like to think that I inherited some of her spunk.

My mom now holds the beloved moniker of Hao Po to her four grandchildren. Recently, my younger daughter asked me what I would want my future grandchildren to call me and I told her that traditionally the maternal grandmother is called "wai po" and that I was okay with that. She grimaced and thought for a few seconds and said, "That doesn't feel right. You should be called Hao Po just like your mom and your grandma." It's a big title and if I do get to be called that, I hope I will be able to be half the grandmother she was...and I'll make sure I have a dresser drawer filled with make-up and other treasures...and a few carved turtles.

*Author's note: I took several weeks to write this post because I wanted to get some facts clear like dates and the order of events. Even though I had written my grandmother's biography for her memorial service, I didn't save what I wrote, because that would require some kind of organization on my part. So I want to thank my sister, Shirley Nakamura, my cousin, Pamela Ku-Bosley and my uncle and aunt, Drs. Teh-Lung and Theresa Ku for their help and for lovingly walking down memory lane with me. I know the memories brought joy but also tears. If I got any details wrong, I'm sorry. My intention was only to honor her legacy, as the glue that held our family for so many years.


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