Before my grandma married my grandpa, she already married, twice. This was rather shocking for me to learn as a child. But when my grandma told me about it, she talked in a very calm and casual tone, as if these stories had happened to someone else, but not her.
It was all linked back to her father, my great-grandfather, who gave my grandma away to her first husband’s family in order to pay off his debts that are built up by his life-time addiction to opium. His mother — my great-great-grandma, married a man from a rich family when she was very young. She lived a privileged life that allowed her to indulge herself in her expensive hobby of consuming opium. The woman believed that opium was good stuff and could give people energy and pleasure. So since he was a baby, whenever my great-grandfather seemed sick, his mother would caringly blow the smoke of opium to the nose of her baby, because she believed it could help cure the sickness. The air of opium gave my baby great-grandfather an energy boost but also planted in his body a life-long craving for the drug.
My grandmother said, “since I had my memory, I could always remember the smell of the opium in the house. This smell was very unique. Every day, I saw my dad lie on the kang, consuming the opium with a tube. I could see the opium’s smoke go all the way up to our mud roof. Even the snakes that found their homes in the holes on the roof were addicted to the smell. Sometimes when money was tight and my dad had to be frugal about his expenses on opium, the snakes would drop from the roof right to the house floor, looking totally paralyzed, as their addiction to the drug smell was not satisfied — even these cold-blooded animals could not stand to live their life while the smell of the drug was missing.”
I was always fascinated by these stories. I asked her to tell me again and again while I was a child.
From these stories, I learned that my great-grandmother was a very capable woman. Marrying a husband with drug addiction, she took up the responsibility of taking care of the house. Without any complaints, she got up early every day, cooking, cleaning, managing the chaos, and stayed up late, making clothes for the children. She was a sharp and cheerful woman all her life.
In the last days of her life, she probably could feel she could not last long, so she asked to live with my grandmother for some time. And one day, she said to my grandmother that she should return to her son’s house. My grandmother did not understand, begging her to stay for a few more days. Her mother laughed, and said, “My dear silly girl, do you really think I would let myself pass away at your house? People in the village would point their finger at you.” The custom had it that the parents should live with their son on their last day of life. It would be frowned upon if they died at a daughter’s house.
Although quite shocked by the words she had heard, my grandmother did not believe her mother would die soon — she still had a clear mind and good humor, with ever-lasting caring for her children, but my grandma decided to be obedient. She arranged a donkey cart for her mother. Then she helped my great-grandma step into the cart. Sitting in the cart, my great-grandma left, smiling and waving towards my grandma, as the donkey slowly carried her away. When she passed by their houses, she also bade goodbye to neighbors.
Two days later, she died at her son’s house.
Even today, I cannot help wondering: How did my great-grandma feel when she stepped into that donkey cart, and what did she think about during that trip to her son’s house? I don’t have the chance to know the answer.
Contrasting to her consciousness till the last moment of life, my great-grandfather became somehow lunatic in his last days. He was very sick, and his daughters visited. The elder daughter already had a lovely baby son at that time. One day, during one of these visits, my great-grandfather asked his elder daughter to let him eat the baby grandson. “He looks so tasty.” The daughter was horrified.
I don’t like my great-grandfather not only because of his cannibal desire in his last days, but also because I believe that even before he did not fall ill, he only cared about his own business, and the life of his wife and children is of his remotest interest. And I have a good reason to say that.
Because of the opium, my great-grandfather eventually got stuck in heavy debts and surrendered what he had to debtors: first, his savings, then his lands, and last, his second daughter — my grandma, since the first daughter was already married. This happened before the founding of the new China. Although a notorious deed, it was somehow conventional. My grandma was still a teenager at that time. She hated the debtor she had to marry and the family of the husband treated her badly. Eventually, she wanted to suicide.
My grandmother bought a dose of poison, hid it secretly at a corner of the house, and waited for a good moment to take it. Maybe she was also scared. After all, she was still a teenage girl at her puberty. She was about to bloom before falling into this trap. It was lucky (also to my relief) that the husband’s family found the poison before the Death caught her. Because of the tension built up between them and her, the family immediately assumed that my grandma was about to use the poison to kill them. They turned her to the police.
While my grandmother was struggling with her first miserable marriage, the new China has come into being. The government advocated for the rights of women. The local law court took the case. My grandma said she wanted to kill no one but herself because of her great suffering from this miserable marriage. Eventually, the court decided to give her less severe punishment. Instead of being convicted of attempted murder, she was only sent to do a two-year transformation program at a labor camp.
The first time when I heard this story, my jaw dropped in surprise. What?! My grandmother was once treated like a criminal and was sent to do a transformation program. I mean, look at her! I mean, what?!
But when my grandmother told me about this story, she did not even show a single sign of self-pity. To her, the self-transformation program was not a nightmare at all. The real nightmare already passed. She felt so relieved that she could leave the family of her ex-husband since next to getting the punishment, she was also granted a divorce by the court. She would become totally free when the transformation program was over — this hope warmed her heart during the two years at the labor camp.
After the transformation program was over, she left the labor camp. Soon, she married a man from another village. This man was from a very poor family, but he cared about her. She gradually developed a strong affection in her heart for him. Soon later, my grandma became pregnant with her first son. As her belly was becoming bigger, she saw the twilight in life, with the happiness being promised.
Back in those days, school education was not affordable for men from poor families. Her husband worked very hard to support the family, but a job that this poor man could find was just hard physical labor. Her husband had to work in crop fields or construction sites day in and day out.
One morning, my grandma’s husband was about to leave for work. She noticed that his face had a sickly green pallor. She told him that she was worried. Her husband went to check the color of his face in front of a mirror. “Your face almost has the pale color of that of a dead man,” she said worryingly. The husband laughed away, and replied jokingly: “if I become dead soon, find yourself a new husband.” Then he still left for work.
In that afternoon, dire news came to my grandma that her husband died out of an accident at work. He was pushing a fully-loaded cart on a slope when, unable to bear the weight, he fell suddenly. The cart ran over his body and killed him. My grandmother collapsed upon hearing the news. Then she told me that she regretted the jokes terribly — she thought the jokes must have brought bad luck to him.
Still carrying the baby son, my grandmother grieved every moment. When she missed him too much, she would go to weep by his tomb. Then she told me that one day, while she was again weeping in the graveyard, she felt something around her suddenly. Seeing no one in the vicinity, she felt so frightened that even her bones started shaking. She ran crazily away from the graveyard and never went there again. She thought it was a sign of the blame from the dead. She realized that she probably spent too much time and energy mourning her loss. The right thing to do was to stop the grievances and be strong because she would deliver a baby soon.
My grandmother buried her sorrow deep and gave birth to a baby, my uncle.
As a widow in a poor family with a child, my grandmother faced with an extremely hard life. Her parents-in-law tried to offer her a hand, but could not support her in a long term. To survive, she married — this time, my biological grandpa.
My uncle stayed with my grandmother at her new home until he grew into a toddler. He was then taken back home by his grandparents. He was obliged to return since he was the last one in this house who carried the family name. No one would doubt the legitimacy of continuing a family name of a house back in those days, even though this means that he ended up growing up separately from his mother and his step-father.
My grandpa lost his father while he was still a kid. While men were the moneymakers at that time, a house without a man was destined to be poor, and a young man from such a family was destined to suffer from the difficulties of finding a wife. That was exactly what happened to my grandpa. He could not marry even after his friends all got wives and children. And even when he finally could, his wife was a widow who also had a kid — that was not a sought-after marriage in the eyes of most people. However, poverty had taught my grandpa to cherish what he could get in his life. He was a very good husband. Finally, the vessel of fate that carried my grandmother settled her down in a peaceful harbor where she could escape from her heartbreaking past.