At the beginning of spring, our family visits the cemetery.
“Qing Ming is the time when Chinese families pay their respects to the ancestors in the spirit world,” Mama explains.
When we arrive at the graveyard, my cousin Calvin and I dash ahead of the grown-ups. We trample across the cushiony grass field toward our grandfather’s grave. Lao Lao, my grandmother, calls out in Mandarin, “Ming Mei, put on your sweater.” She holds out my sweater. It flaps like a flag on a pole.
The wind is strong; it whistles loudly, as though it has something to say.
The daffodils that we planted around grandfather’s tombstone last year are now in full bloom.
“Yellow was Lao Ye’s favourite colour,” Uncle tells me and Calvin. “He said it reminded him of sunshine and happiness.”
Mama sweeps dirt away from the tombstone. Lao Lao clears away some leaves and twigs. Uncle lays out food. Calvin reaches for a shrimp dumpling, but Uncle shoos his hand away. The dian xin is for Lao Ye in the spirit world.
We lay out a roast chicken and cha shao. Pieces of poppy-red barbeque pork glisten in the sunlight. The meaty barbeque smell wafts through the air. I am sure that grandfather can taste the sweet and salty tidbits. We lay out several pairs of chopsticks and a few plastic forks for grandfather and the ancestors.
Uncle tries to light the longevity candles and incense sticks, but the wind blows out the flame. He strikes the match again and again and again before he finally lights the candles. The flames flicker as Uncle arranges the lit up rods by the tombstone. Smoke squiggles from the top of the incense before disappearing into the air.
Mama holds a wad of gold paper to the candle.
“We have to burn money so that Lao Ye can spend it in the spirit world,” she explains. Calvin’s eyes grow big; he looks confused.
“Don’t worry,” I whisper. “The money’s not real; it’s special paper money.” We watch the paper shrivel into a pile of black ashes. It smells like sandalwood and camping.
“What will Lao Ye buy?” I ask.
“I think he’ll buy a car,” says Lao Lao. “Your grandfather loved those old-fashioned Cadillacs with the tail fins from the 1950s.”
“I wanna drive!” says Calvin. He steers his pretend car and says, “VROOM! VROOM! Beep! Beep!”
“Your grandfather would definitely buy a house,” says Mama. “In his house, he would have a warm fireplace and comfortable furniture. He would hang Chinese paintings and calligraphy scrolls.”
“When your Lao Ye was alive, he bought Chinese keepsakes like jade carvings and ceramics that reminded us of our homeland while we settled in this new country. Such meaningful things turn a house into a home,” Lao Lao explains.
Harriet and I go to my house to help my grandmother, Lao Lao, in the garden. We pick snow peas from tangled vines. We play hide and seek with the tomatoes; they hide, we seek.
Mama tells us to bow three times to pay our respects. One, two, three. We watch the candles melt. A robin flies by. She sings her cheerful song of spring. We hear tree leaves rustle softly nearby.
A squirrel scurries by, probably looking for nuts or acorns or things that squirrels like to eat. When he does not find anything, he runs off, snaking around the tombstones. Calvin chases after the squirrel and I chase after Calvin. We run around and around and around until we have no breath left.
The grown-ups pack the food away. We will eat when we get home.
The wind is gusting and howling when we arrive home. From my bedroom window, I watch the clouds spill across the sky. The breeze whips my hair around and brushes my face. I think about how the wind carries the memories of my grandfather, all the way home.
“My mama says summer is the best season,” my friend Harriet declares while we skip rope in her backyard.
In between skips, I ask, “What (skip)—makes (skip)—SUMMER (skip)—best (skip)?”
“Maybe skipping makes summer best,” replies Harriet. She jumps in. We yell, “Ready! (skip)—set! (skip)—Red (skip)—hot (skip)—PEPPER (skip)!” I spin the rope faster and faster. Jumping red hot pepper makes us hot and thirsty.
Harriet’s kitchen smells like coconuts and curry. We sit in front of the fan so it blows our sweaty faces. Harriet’s mother serves us tall glasses of pineapple orange juice and mango slices.
“Ming Mei wants to know what makes summer best.” Harriet asks her mother after gulping down her juice.
“Sugar-sweet mangoes make summer best,” replies Harriet’s mother.
“Put sunscreen on before you go outside,” Harriet’s mother reminds us. She squirts a blob of lotion on our waiting palms. Harriet rubs the white cream into her cheeks until it disappears into her dark night skin.
Maybe sunshine makes summer best, I think.
Harriet and I go to my house to help my grandmother, Lao Lao, in the garden. We pick snow peas from tangled vines. We play hide and seek with the tomatoes; they hide, we seek. We pick the cherry red ones. Lao Lao grows bubblegum pink peonies with a sweet perfume smell.
“When the peony is in bloom, it is more precious than a handful of money,” says Lao Lao in Mandarin.
“Maybe gardens make summer best,” says Harriet.
After lunch, Harriet’s older sister Tasha takes us swimming. Harriet and I swim in the shallow end. Then, we glide down the curly slide and land in the water with a great, big, gigantic SPLASH!
“Maybe swimming makes summer best,” says Harriet.
Harriet’s mother invites Lao Lao and me for a picnic dinner with their family in the park. We all eat barbeque jerk chicken and spare ribs with guava sauce. Lao Lao brings pyramid-shaped zongzi. She shows us how to unwrap the bamboo leaves to eat the glutinous rice dumplings. For dessert, we have key lime pie.
“Maybe picnics make summer best,” says Harriet.
That evening, Harriet and I camp out in her backyard. We lie on our backs with our heads outside the tent. Crickets chirp; a dog barks. We sing “Twinkle, twinkle, little star…”
As my eyelids start to get heavy, I ask Harriet, “Do you know what makes summer best?”
“I give up, what makes summer best?”
“Being friends makes summer best.”
It is fall, and Mr. Boyd is taking our grade two class on a trip to the apple orchard. My classmates and I are so excited that we can hardly sit still. We can’t wait to pick bushels of apples straight from the tree.
All of the boys and girls from grade two scramble onto the yellow school bus. Ms. Russo drives the bus down Spadina Avenue, past the tall buildings, over the bridge and onto the highway. The highway turns into a country road, and soon our grade two class arrives at the apple orchard.
“I bet there are a million apples on those trees!” I exclaim. The apple trees stand in straight rows, the branches heavy with fruit.
“Pick as many apples as you like,” instructs Mr. Boyd. “But be sure to leave some for others.”
“I’m going to pick the biggest apples,” I say.
“I’m going to pick the reddest apples,” says Sumita.
“I’m going to pick some of each—red, yellow and green apples,” says Harriet.
“I’m going to pick the sweetest apples,” says Jimmy.
“How do you know which ones are sweetest?” I ask.
“I just do,” says Jimmy.
“You sure picked a lot of apples,” says Mr. Boyd to me and my classmates from grade two.
“I picked spies and empires,” I reply.
“I picked red and golden delicious,” says Jimmy.
“I picked McIntosh,” says Sumita.
“I picked them all,” says Harriet.
“You’ll need a big appetite to eat all these apples!” Mr. Boyd says as he counts the overflowing bushels.
“How big?” we ask.
“This big,” answers Mr. Boyd with his arms spread way out.
My classmates and I bring apples to school every day that week, and every day the next week and every day the week after that. For three whole weeks, we eat apples: crispy sweet ones and juicy tart ones. We eat apples in the morning, at lunchtime and in the afternoon. Every day, one or more apples a day; day, after day, after day. Soon, my classmates and I get tired of apples.
“Mr. Boyd, there are too many apples,” I tell my teacher.
“I’m afraid we can’t eat them all,” admits Sumita.
“What shall we do with all these apples?” Mr. Boyd asks all of the boys and girls from grade two.
“We could throw them away,” says Jimmy.
“My mama says we shouldn’t waste food,” says Harriet.
“We could save them for winter,” suggests Sumita.
“They may go rotten,” says Mr. Boyd.
“I could give some to my babysitter,” offers Jimmy.
“My grandmother says sharing is a good idea,” I say.
“We could give apples to our family and friends,” says Harriet.
“Yes, of course!” we all shout.
“Then, we can have a big apple party,” says Sumita.
“What a fabulous idea!” everyone agrees.
After school, Mr. Boyd, my classmates and I give apples to our family, friends and neighbours. I take apples to Ms. Lee, the storekeeper in Chinatown. I leave apples for my mother to share with the nurses and doctors at the hospital where she works. Jimmy gives apples to Tasha, his babysitter, who already got some from her sister Harriet. Harriet gives apples to Ms. Russo, who shares them with her young nephew, Ming Mei’s cousin Calvin. Sumita gives apples to Ms. Jones, her piano teacher. Mr. Boyd gives apples to all his friends from his running club.
Then, everyone comes to Apple-Fest.
All the neighbours cook specialty dishes for Apple-Fest. Someone brings caramel apples; someone else brews hot apple rum cider. There are apple pies, apple pancakes, apple chutney, apple risotto, apple strudel, apple salads, apple bread pudding and even grilled apple sandwiches.
Everyone eats and sings and dances and plays. Old friends are remembered and new friends are made. Mr. Boyd, my classmates and I declare Apple-Fest a grand success.
“Good thing we picked a million apples straight from the tree,” says Sumita.
I pat my full stomach and say, “Next year, we should pick pumpkins.”
“Brrr! I do not care for the cold, wind and dampness,” says Lao Lao in Mandarin.
My grandmother does not like winter. I tug on my boots and pull on my hat. Lao Lao slips on her mian yi. She wears her old-fashioned, quilted jacket with the fancy frog buttons all through winter.
Lao Lao and I walk to school. Her glove holds my mitten. We meet my friend Sumita and her mother, Ms. Choudhury, along the way.
“Is Beijing cold in winter?” Ms. Choudhury asks Lao Lao in Hindi.
“Is Beijing cold in winter?” Sumita translates to me in English.
“Is Beijing cold in winter?” I translate to Lao Lao in Mandarin.
“Dui!” Lao Lao nods her head, and Ms. Choudhury smiles. When we talk, smoky clouds puff out of our mouths like chimneys.
In the schoolyard, Lao Lao says, “Ming Mei, remember to listen to your teacher.” Yesterday, she said, “Remember to share your crayons.” Lao Lao’s words sound stern, but her eyes are warm like Ovaltine. Lao Lao always reminds me to work hard. I learn all the messages by heart because she says them twice, sometimes three times each.
The next day, I get ready for school but I cannot find my mittens. Lao Lao looks everywhere—in the closet, behind the sofa cushions and under the welcome mat.
“Aiya!” Lao Lao shakes her head. “I forget your mother washed them last night.” Lao Lao gives me her gloves. In the schoolyard, Lao Lao forgets to tell me to be good. She just heads home with her hands in her pockets. I want to cry out, “You forgot something!” But my tongue feels frozen.
“Why are you wearing grown-up gloves?” asks Jimmy. “Why doesn’t your grandmother have a proper winter coat?”
I look away and pretend not to hear him.
“Why doesn’t she speak English?”
A chill sweeps over my heart.
Later, I arrive home for lunch, but something is wrong. Why doesn’t Lao Lao greet me at the door? I rush into the kitchen. It’s smoky; something is burning. Mama is in the kitchen scrubbing the wok in the sink.
“What happened?” I ask Mama. I stand still like a statue, waiting for her answer.
“Lao Lao had some trouble with the fried rice,” my mother replies. “Ms. Choudhury will take you to school this afternoon because I have to go back to work.”
“Don’t worry, Ming Mei,” says Lao Lao. “Today the sidewalks are too icy for an old woman to walk.”
Sumita, her mother and I walk briskly to school. We shuffle over the slippery patches. The wind feels frosty even though I wrapped my scarf around my neck twice. When we get to the schoolyard, Ms. Choudhury says something to me in Hindi.
“Sometimes when people get older, they forget things,” Sumita translates her mother’s message to me. “Maybe you can help your nanni remember.”
Ms. Choudhury’s eyes are warm, like Lao Lao’s, but not the same. Lao Lao has Ovaltine eyes; Ms. Choudhury has milky chai ones. I think about helping Lao Lao, and I feel a little fire light up my insides.
When I come home from school, I put my mittens in my pockets before I hang my jacket on the coat rack. Lao Lao pours me a cup of jasmine tea.
“Drink your tea while it’s hot,” Lao Lao instructs me.
The next day, I get ready for school. Lao Lao asks, “Where are your mittens?”
“Here they are!” I reply, taking them out of my jacket pocket.
“Wah! What a sensible girl you are!” Lao Lao wraps my scarf around my neck twice.
On Saturday, the sun shines bright, and the ice has melted. Lao Lao and I go shopping in Chinatown. We buy bok choy, lotus root and shiitake mushrooms from the fruit and vegetable stall. We buy dried leaves and bark from Ms. Lee’s herb store to make soups that give energy and protection from the blustery cold. As we make our purchases, I check off each item from our shopping list so that we don’t forgot anything.
Mama makes shrimp wontons in steaming noodle soup for lunch and serves us jasmine tea.
“Drink your tea while it’s hot,” Mama instructs Lao Lao.
“Brrr! I do not care for the cold, wind and dampness,” says Lao Lao, sipping her tea.
“Winter’s not so bad,” I say, slurping my noodles, “especially when it’s warm inside.”