I believe in food for the soul. Growing up in a cramped apartment with my grandparents in Nanjing, PRC, the aroma from grandma’s kitchen woke me up every morning with boiling milk and fresh sesame pancakes, and cradled me to sleep every night with steam from the last pot of water for the day, bubbling. Away in kindergarten, I always imagined that Grandma reigned over the space that was rightfully hers, meticulously assigning chicken or fish parts to everyone’s liking. All of us coming from work and studying and house chores and newspaper reading would crowded over an exhausted grandma and her soup two times a day. And no matter how we lamented or complained, when the soup reached the bottom of the pot, or at least nearly so, all of the life’s frustrations voiced around the table seem to disappear with satisfied bellies and grinning chins glossed with oil. Believing that grandma’s foods would always save the day, I used to steal her peanut chew from her left jacket pocket prior to an exam in hope of good marks. It usually worked.
It has been a long time since I last visited grandma’s kitchen. I came to Washington, DC for school when I was 12 and have only gone back to Nanjing sporadically over summer and winter holidays. Over 10 years, I have gotten used to hot dogs and potato chips. But every time I go back to the wobbly wooden dining room table in our little Nanjing apartment, the smells and the heat all comes back at once. It’s like as if I’ve never left.
My parents broke the news that grandpa left us to me one early morning over the phone when I studied in Europe. I walked in a giant park filled with leaves in October for hours on end, utterly shocked. It was impossible to go back to Nanjing immediately as much as I wanted to. Then I remembered the last time I went back to Grandma’s, two years ago. I had just visited a very sick grandpa in the intensive cardiac unit, had ran home from the hospital and started sobbing violently as soon as I came through the door. Moments later, I felt a gentle prod. I kept sobbing. Another prod. I spotted something on the table without my glasses. It was grandma’s hand, cupping a peeled clementine. I ate it piece by piece, and stopped crying as soon as I finished it. I did not shed tears in the park after remembering grandma’s hands and the peeled clementine – it seems like that this time, she had already sent the fruit to my heart before my parents called.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.