I loved my former husband’s grandmother with all my heart. She never spoke English and I couldn’t speak very much Cantonese but I had a love for her regardless of our language problem. Grandma Lee was the first person that said I was a good woman and would bear many sons. She was wrong about the sons because I bore three daughters and adopted a son long after she passed away but she still loved me too I think. I want to tell you about this amazing woman.
Grandma Lee was born in China around 1900. She was born into a wealthy family and had only one brother. Many single women could not survive without the kindness of a family and so when Grandma was a young girl her father took as his second wife a woman who had no way to support herself. Taking a second, third or more wives was a culturally acceptable and honorable way to provide for these women in need. There were no children born to this woman but she became a second mother to Grandma Lee. Sometime after this Grandma Lee’s father wanted to immigrate to Canada as many Chinese families did at that time. He had a problem though; he could only take wife number one with him so he left wife number two at home to raise Grandma Lee and took his son and wife number one with him. His family worked very hard, some say that they ran a Chinese laundry and some say no it was a restaurant and still others in the family have said that it was both. I don’t care really, I just know that they worked hard and made money and became wealthy. Grandma Lee was raised with maids and servants and never had to work but she was educated and learned how to read and write which was rare for women in her generation.
Wife number two was worried about Grandma Lee getting married and wanted to arrange a match. It was customary for a girl to be married by age fifteen or as soon as her monthly cycle began but her father said he would arrange a match when he came back to China. So Grandma Lee kept studying and learning and living her life in a beautifully decorated Chinese upper class home. She had a maid that combed and braided her hair, washed her clothes, massaged her feet, and anything that she wanted within reason was given to her. We would say that she was spoiled.
Her father returned to China when Grandma Lee was twenty-three years old and found it very difficult to find a husband for her because she was considered well past her prime and her feet were not bound as was the custom for many women at that time. She had been lucky she would say because her feet were never bound up in cloth to keep them small, not like her mother and second-mother’s feet. After some time a match was finally arranged with a family from a neighboring village and she was preparing for her wedding. She and the groom would not meet until the wedding night as was the custom but she was told that everything would be alright.
The wedding dowry, another Chinese custom, was long and they had to hire men from not only their village but the neighboring village to carry all the gifts she was bringing to her groom and his honored family. Her eyes sparkled as she told of the many gifts and the miles that the procession extended. Each gift was carried by one or two men so the length of her Wedding procession was long. There were gifts of gold and silver as well as jade. There were gifts of linens and bolts of silk and other fine cloths as well as clothing. There was a new elaborately carved dining table and chairs as well as stools and there was also a new living room set to be presented to her prospective parents. She told how they brought a new bedroom set for everyone in the family to include the bride and groom’s bed. And there were many animals such as pigs and chickens, ducks and geese and even food items. In the middle of the procession was Grandma Lee sitting in the traditional Wedding Chair being carried by four men and she was dressed in her silk red Chinese Wedding outfit and wore many gold and jade pieces of jewelry around her neck, on her wrists and fingers. Her memories of that day brought back the youthful anticipation of long ago as she described this day to her three grandchildren and one grandchild-in-law.
I was full of many questions and so through one of her grandchildren I was able to ask and given an answer. She said arriving at the home of her groom was a bit of a shock to her because she had no idea what to expect but she noticed that the family lived on a farm, a pig farm, and seemed to be very poor. The gifts were presented and the feast was begun but she was hidden away from the festivities until the evening when her husband came to their bedroom for the first martial night. The wedding feast lasted a week and much food and drink was consumed by many guests from both villages as there were lots of people attending the wedding.
While she waited for her husband she had what we would call ladies in waiting to assist her with anything she may need as well as chatting and preparing her for the first night with her husband. As soon as he appeared the ladies went to the marriage banquet to enjoy the evening. I asked Grandma if she was uncomfortable meeting a man who was now her husband for the very first time and she said that she was afraid, perhaps more shy than afraid. She told us that she thought him very handsome but a little drunk and so it wasn’t long and he was asleep. He told her the next morning that he had agreed to marry her with the understanding that he would be sailing to Mexico at the end of the marriage feasting time which was either one week or three weeks long, I could never figure out which it was. Perhaps the Wedding Banquet was one week-long and then the normal time for the bride and groom to spend together were three weeks, I am uncertain. Either way, he explained that his leaving was part of the agreement her Father had agreed to when arranging the marriage.
Her husband was the youngest of three brothers, the eldest had gone to the United States to work for the railroad and the second brother had gone to Canada to work in the mines. He was going to Mexico to work in the silver mines and wanted to make his fortune but didn’t know when he would return. She would remain in China with his aging parents and the other two childless wives of his brothers. Because she was the youngest brother’s wife her standing in Chinese society now shifted from the highest to the lowest. She would be made to work on the farm and help with the cooking and all that farm work requires. This frightened her. She talked about how hard the work was and how tired she would be.
You see when a Chinese woman marries in the old tradition as she did, she left her family and would never receive any inheritance or money again. She would never share in her parent’s wealth and was no more a woman of position within the community because the family that agreed to take her in marriage, and was paid handsomely through the dowry, were dirt poor. She told what a shock this was to her and thankfully in time she was the only one to have a son, which elevated her standing in the family above the other two wives. This was important to her because she didn’t have to work as hard as she tended to her son. She raised her son and tried to educate him as best she could but it was difficult in those years as China was in turmoil and civil war broke out.
When her son was about fifteen years of age she arranged a marriage for him to a young girl from a neighboring village. She could read the signs and newspapers and knew that she didn’t want her family to live under Communist rule. When the Red Guard came through her village they turned the wealthy out of their homes and made them beg on the streets for food. They told everyone in the village that anyone who was caught helping these people would have the same done to them. Many turned their back on these poor people and some died. Grandma didn’t turn her back on these people. In fact she knew that it could have been her that was turned out of her home had it not been for her low position marriage. She bundled food into bundles that looked like garbage and left it out near the garbage for former friends to have something to eat in order to survive. She was smart and could tell what was happening and helped these people to live.
Grandma Lee sent her son to Hong Kong to find work and soon he sent for her and his wife and they escaped before the Communists infiltrated their village. It was hard times and hard work in Hong Kong but the family survived and even thrived.
Eventually the family immigrated to Canada and more hardships were endured but because of the faithfulness of Grandma Lee to former friends in China whom she kept alive, there was help for the family and a place to stay. One of the couples who Grandma Lee had slipped food and necessities to during those dark days in China made it all the way to Canada and was now prosperous. They took Grandma and her family into their home and helped them to make it in Canada.
Grandma was not a Christian during any of this but in Canada she searched out a Chinese pastor and Chinese speaking church for her grandchildren to attend who were Christians. Through this pastor’s compassion and her grandchildren’s prayers Grandma Lee became a Christian in her later years. She had overcome so much in her life. She never saw her husband again when he left China because Mexico was not a prosperous country and he died there. She forged a new beginning so many times in her life and each time she showed strength and character. I loved this woman, this little wrinkle-faced Chinese woman who had a mouth full of gold teeth and a jade bracelet on her wrist and always wore black pants and shirt for her clothing. I loved her because she was a woman of substance who was forced into many changes in life but in the end achieved the freedom for her family for which she longed. She had a massive stroke and lingered for years in a nursing home but I know that God was with her even then. I can’t wait until heaven where I can talk to her in a language we both will understand. I think she will have some marvelous stories to tell. Her life was so different from mine, than most of us but in the end she thanked God for all He had done for her in the years she was not a Christian. She knew God had been with her. When times have been tough for me I think of her and others who were once in my life that were strong women, women of good character and filled with love. I then realize that my troubles are pitiful compared to what Grandma Lee went through and I smile. She was a woman I admired and still love and she made it to her reward. Thank you God, for Grandma Lee being in my life.
Until next time…Katherine