My grandfather had a pair of black-rimmed reading glasses. It sat perched atop a five-drawer dresser that I could only reach if I stood on my tippy-toes on top of a stool. Precarious as that was, I was the designated fetcher, the sole person approved for the responsibility of getting and returning his glasses.
“Shanshan!” My grandfather would call on rainy afternoons when I stayed home from kindergarten, using my xiao ming (小名), the affectionate “little name” parents and grandparents use for the kids of the family.
“Fetch my glasses, it’s time to learn some characters!”
I would grab a stool, run to the dresser, barely manage to snag the glasses with the ends of my fingers, and hand them over to my grandfather with a mischievous grin. Let the stories begin.
Every character had a story. From the dots in the character for rain (雨), conveniently pitterpattering on the roof tiles above our heads, to the two little sleeves and a person’s head in “clothes” (衣), to the walls surrounding a king in “country” (国), my grandfather recounted them all. Dozens of characters a day, I heard over 3000 stories before I started first grade.
On rainy afternoons in the summertime, my cousin and I would leave wide open the tall, folding wooden doors to the courtyard. Sitting right inside the threshold watching lightning pierce through black clouds, we would see who flinched first at each round of splitting thunder. When the storm lost our interest, we turned around to play cards on the stone floor, staying quiet and out of the way.
Our grandparents would be mopping the wooden floors in the living room, taking advantage of the humidity, certain to keep the dust down. If we were good, we’d be allowed to run barefoot on the clean floorboards until dinnertime.
There was an attic above us with things from my mother’s childhood, a sink by the window in the living room, above which hung hand towels stitched with our names so my cousin and I wouldn’t fight for the towel color preference of the moment.
We had to walk by several of our siheyuan neighbors’ doors to get to the front door, opening out onto our street, one barely wide enough for two bicycles to pass each other. There was a back alley too, even smaller, but I never visited there because that’s where the little gray wolf lived. If I didn’t behave, the little gray wolf would surely come to pay me a visit.
Some years later, the aged wood walls of the living room would be painted white, and a framed black and white picture of my grandfather would hang across from the main door. Nobody lived here anymore. My parents and I left for America years ago, my cousin lived with his parents closer to his high school, and it was just too risky and inconvenient for my Parkinson’s-ridden grandmother to be by herself in an old house.
On a visit home, my mom and I paused in front of my grandfather’s picture. Not saying a word, we then climbed to the attic to get my mom’s violin–that was why we came. On our way out, I peeked in the kitchen, daring to look through the back window at the alleyway, where the little gray wolf lived. I didn’t see him.
Another decade later, this past Christmas, my parents and I climbed over bricks and fallen walls, curious if we would still be able to make out the foundations of my grandparents’ multi-family courtyard house.
We had high hopes. Despite demolished facades and collapsed roofs, most of the houses we were passing along the way still had plenty of discernible rooms and features.
By the time we got to ours, between the standing walls of the two neighboring houses, there was nothing to see except scattered piles of broken bricks.
My aunt said that meant demolition contracts had been signed with every family who had lived around our same courtyard, whereas contracts for the half-standing houses probably had not been finalized.
The city planned to develop a commercial center.
Of all the things I wanted to tell my grandfather as I bowed three times in front of his grave, I made sure to keep that one to myself. Instead, I thought good thoughts about his house in the sky as I watched the wind carry away the ashes of burning paper money, to wherever ashes go.