When my maternal grandmother died we burned a whole paper mansion for her. It was the size of a dollhouse, complete with paper doll servants. Ashes flew up on the crisp winter air and floated down like soot-colored snowflakes. The Chinese believe that burnt paper replicas of everyday items will join their ancestors in the afterlife. I’ve long stopped believing the dead benefit from our efforts or attention, but I still like the image of my grandmother in her mansion, on some cloud, being waited on. A servant brings her grapes on a platter while she lounges by the fountain, in her courtyard.
My grandmother had been my grandfather’s concubine, or second wife. The story of where Grandma came from was never told, but she was uneducated, indicating her family had probably been poor. She met my grandfather when he employed her to work in his store. In Chinese tradition the best thing parents can do for their daughter is to make a good marriage arrangement for her. My Grandmother’s need to work for a living indicated that she had been orphaned before her marriage could be arranged. Despite being married himself, Grandpa got my grandmother pregnant. Eventually, he took her on as his second wife. Though this title doesn’t entail much privilege, grandma adored him for the rest of her life. She probably knew of men who were not kind enough to do that much for their mistresses. When she wasn’t warming my grandfather’s bed, Grandma was working in his restaurant or cleaning his house. Most of her labor contributed to household expenses; if she was provided with a stipend, she didn’t have anything to show for it.
When Grandma came to live with us in America she brought a suitcase full of clothes and a quilt. She cooked and cleaned for us for her keep. Beside her I learned how to hand-scrub clothes in our cast-iron tub. Afterwards, she would hang them on the fire-escape to dry. She would also babysit sometimes, though she never entertained me. She would nap while I played with my friends. When we got thirsty I would rouse her from bed to get us a drink from the fridge. At the time our fridge required skill to crack. I didn’t want to disturb her nap, but after throwing all my four-year old weight about the fridge handle, pulling up, then yanking, pulling sideways and yanking, jerking down on the handle, I usually had to procure her aid. Still, Grandma never complained about being awoken or berated me for not being smart enough to figure out how to open the fridge. She didn’t chastise me for wanting a cold soda instead of drinking water from the sink. She simply opened the fridge for me.
I had always known my grandmother to be giving. Even when she was living on government assistance, every Chinese New Year’s Grandma would give me a red envelop full of lucky money. Sometimes she did this from her bed, where the assistance railings reminded me of the bars of a prison cell. By this time she had become too infirm to perform household chores and was living with my aunt. Grandma chose to live with my aunt so as not to burden my father. My aunt would charge the government rent for the room in her house that she gave her mother.
When Grandma eventually died there wasn’t much to get rid of. The room Grandma spent her final years remained as naked and bare as clouds. Now, we burn her paper items and leave strips of blank paper on her gravestone. These are supposed to represent pocket-change, so that my grandmother, who barely had an earthly possession, will always have money to spend in Heaven.