CHANG SHIH YEN
As I became a teenager, Grandma became nothing more than a shadow from my past. I went to school, studied hard, passed my exams and went out with friends. Grandma was just an old woman who stayed at home and prayed, or went out to her temple and prayed. She was praying all the time. I didn’t share her faith. I didn’t understand.
Long forgotten were those times when Grandma had played childhood games with me. Even then, we laughed because Grandma couldn’t understand the simple concept of ‘scissors, paper, rock.’ Long forgotten were those times when Grandma had eaten kuaci (sunflower seeds) with me, letting me collect the kuaci shells in the skirt of my dress, so I could gather up their shells and throw them in the dustbin. Long forgotten were the times when Grandma had told me about Buddha and Kuanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. She told me about Hell and the tortures that bad people endure in Hell. Liars would have their tongues cut out and bad people would be beaten in Hell for all eternity. She told me about Kek lok si kai, about paradise, where one could eat whatever one wanted. One would only have to think of food and it would appear in front of you just like that. Magic. They were just stories to me.
Once, she showed me one of her prayer beads. It was the biggest bead on a string of beads. All the beads were green like jade. In the centre of the biggest bead, there was what appeared to be a round hole. She held the bead up to the light and made me look into the round hole on the bead. As I put my eye towards the hole I saw inside, the bright and beautiful Kuanyin. It was like magic!
My Grandma wasn’t into classical music, but there was one piece she liked. Pachelbel’s Canon in D. I don’t know how I knew that; it wasn’t like she ever said so. My piano was just outside Grandma’s bedroom door. I would practice playing the piano on one side of the door, Grandma praying on the other side.
Maybe I got the feeling that she liked Pachelbel because she would come out and listen when I played Pachelbel. She would stand or sit silently and watch me play, prayer beads clasped in one hand. Pachelbel’s Canon in D was my favourite piece and it still is to this day. Back then, I used to get annoyed when Grandma listened to me play. I’d be learning a new piece and would get embarrassed whenever I made a mistake, and my fingers fumbled for the right key, missing and stumbling on the wrong note. I would feel impatient and take my frustration out on Grandma. I felt that her eyes were boring into my back and I would tell her that she was breaking my concentration by breathing down my neck.
Time passed. I grew up, left home and went away to study. Grandma grew old, stayed home and one day, Buddha came down and took Grandma up to her Kek lok si kai. Grandma was prepared. She had been preparing for this moment for a long time, maybe half her lifetime. Perhaps all her prayers and visits to the temple were in preparation for this one final moment. Towards the end, Grandma refused food or water, but finally when the long awaited moment arrived, Grandma, weak as she was, managed to get off her bed, get down on her knees and bow her head down to the floor, welcoming Buddha. Grandma was alone, and that was how they found her, on her knees, hands and head touching the floor.
Half a world away, it was a normal day for me. I went shopping, bought some books, a new pair of shoes, and sushi for dinner. That night I chatted with a girlfriend until late at night. It wasn’t until almost a month later that I found out about grandma.
I came home. A week went by before I sat down on my piano stool, comforted by the familiarities of home. My music books lay dusty where I had left them, the little knick-knacks on my piano untouched. I lifted the white cloth that covered my piano and ran my hand over the smooth, ebony wood of my piano. I could still see my face reflected in the surface of my piano — even though it badly needed a polish. I lifted the red, velvet cloth that covered the piano keys and lightly caressed the keys. They weren’t dusty even though no one had touched them for ages. I touched a white key. When I was little, I had thought that all piano keys really were made from ivory. I felt so sorry for the elephant, which had given up its tusks; I almost quit piano lessons.
The piano greeted me like an old friend, not once questioning my long absence. I found old music books to play. I played Mozart and Beethoven sonatas, then a Bach prelude. And then, I dug out a music book with Pachelbel’s Canon in D. The black notes on the white page were like a meeting with an old, old friend — familiar and comfortable, yet a part of me wonders if anything has changed. I started playing. My fingers tentative and unsure, but after the first couple of bars, it all came back to me. My hands gliding confidently across the keyboard. I could feel the music coursing through me and I played with feeling, understanding the black notes on white paper and transforming them into an expression of the heart. Halfway through, a lump seemed to form in my throat and my eyes moist.
The notes on the page blurring and I could hardly read the music at all. But I didn’t need the notes. I believe it was my most emotional rendition of Pachelbel’s Canon, but I was alone and nobody heard. When I played the final chord, my eyes were filled with tears, my ears filled with the music of Pachelbel. The room was silent, but the silence was heavy with the echo of chords still thick in the air.
Afterwards, I sat down and cried. I cried for a childhood that had passed, I cried for a grandmother who had passed on, but most of all I cried for a grandmother who would never again breathe down my neck.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chang Shih Yen hails from Malaysia. She graduated in English and Linguistics from the University of Otago in 2001. She is currently doing her MA in Linguistics at Otago, with a research area in Chinese dialects.