Visits with my grandma
We used to visit my grandma in Victoria a lot when we were kids. She was quite old and couldn’t get across on the ferry so my dad, my sister, myself and usually a friend or two would come with us over to stay with my grandma for a few days. I always loved our trips across to see her. The whole trip was always a bit of an adventure really but we were the kind of kids who didn’t get bored easily. We would stand outside on open decks with the strong wind nearly blowing us over and imagine what it would be like to be the only house on one of the tiny islands along the journey. We used binoculars to scan for dolphins and whales and pressed our hands hard over our ears when another ferry passed by.
In Victoria as kids
In Victoria we filled our days with activity and shuttled my elderly grandma from place to place. We sat at Beacon Hill park to feed the hundreds of ducks. My grandma always had a bag of dried up bread crumbs for us. We climbed along the edge of the water where the tide pools were filled with purple sea anemones that wrapped around your finger when you poked them. Teeny fish and crabs scurried around between the cracks. My grandma would sit on the chair my dad brought and watch us from the shore as we built driftwood forts and searched out the longest whips of kelp. She would watch in quiet contentedness.
Summer as kids
We spent summer days at Beaver Lake searching for wildlife in the forests, chasing Geese. We would find a big log and hang on to it as we swam across the lake trying not to be completely creeped out by the feeling of creatures slithering against our legs. Not creatures for real, just the green lake seaweed growing along the bottom. One time I actually caught a full grown Canadian Goose and carried it to the truck. I wanted to take it home for a pet but my grandma made me let it go. She wasn’t cross, I think she was more amused that I was able to catch it and I saw one of the rare moments where she felt friendly.
We always went to the same restaurant in China Town for Dim Sum up the long flight of stairs with the tank of live crab and lobster at the top. My straight faced grandmother would always order everything for us in Chinese. She was a stern women who even as she aged was always a bit scary to me as a child. She would glower at us if we fidgeted in our chair or if we turned up our noses as the chicken feet and octopus in front of us. She wanted us to eat all the Chinese food and she wanted us to use our chopsticks. I think she was disappointed in our lack of Chinese culture.
After my grandpa died she moved into a smaller house that was easier to maintain and she kept only a few possessions with her and her photo albums. She was determined to live on her own and did so until the last few years of her life. She stubbornly kept a tidy home and maintained her roses.
As my grandmother aged she changed in the most unexpected way. Her once serious and scolding face gradually turned soft, gentle and truly childlike. The closer she came to the end of her life the more I could see a glimpse of the child she once was. She looked afraid and confused sometimes and other times she would just smile as she held on to a stuffed bear she carried with her. I could see that underneath her hardened surface was the same person inside us all. The person who needs love and affection and the comfort of touch. I knew then that she wasn’t mean really but a product of her upbringing at the life she had growing up as a Chinese women in a Caucasian world born 109 years ago.
She died at 96 years old before I met my husband and before I had my own children. It’s after people pass away that we truly appreciate the photos they left behind. When I look at these photos I can vividly recall the visits we had, her voice and the way she stood so still and straight. Ever since I was young I had a strong urge to capture memories on film. I knew even as a kid that my memories could go and it was so important to me to capture as much as I could because I didn’t want to forget anything.
Photos are stories
The photos of my grandma weren’t for her. They weren’t even for my dad at the time. They were for us to remember that part of our childhood and for us to share stories with our children. Isn’t that how we hold on to our history? Through the stories we tell about growing up and through the pictures that we take. This is why I try to force myself to get in front of the camera. Perhaps ironic that I as a photographer quite dislike being photographed but I really do. Despite feeling uncomfortable at first by being photographed or looking at photographs I know it is important to capture these moments and to create a record for my children. One day when I am 96 years old they will show photos of me in my youth to their own children. They will tell stories about the things I did with them when they were children. They will look at the photographs of their mom as a child and their grandparents and great grandparents. Their family photo albums will be their legacy.
What to read next…. why you should get mom into the photo