Columbus Park

Written by Alma Mark-Fong

Edited by Emerald Liu

When I was a little girl I spent my Summers with my grandmother in New York City. Her little one bed, one bath apartment overlooked a small garden behind her building where she would often go to practice tai-chi with the other old Chinese ladies in the neighborhood. We didn’t go to join morning tai-chi sessions much the last Summer I spent in the city; I could never wake up early enough to join her. When we did go, however, I would wait for her on a stone bench under the shade of a tree. It was the kind with soggy leaves that began to smell in the heat waves that often hit New York. Ants would sometimes crawl up the bench and onto my bare, tanned legs, forming a rather formidable army, marching forward in a straight line. I would cup my palms, waiting for ants to crawl over my fingers. Po-Po didn’t like me playing with the ants. She would shout at me smacking away the bugs with a rolled up newspaper. Dead ants peppered my bare thighs in tiny black specks, just below my khaki shorts. Her friends might invite me to join them, teaching me different tai-chi poses. I’d always do them wrong and my face would redden when they laughed. They would always scold Po-Po because I was too skinny, and she would redden too.

Po-Po took me to Columbus Park every day, except on days when it was raining. She’d bring boiled sweet potatoes carefully wrapped in paper towels and Chrysanthemum tea packaged in yellow juice boxes. She’d call me down from the monkey bars when it was time for lunch. We’d sit quietly under the smelly, soggy trees and peel back the skins of our potatoes. Sometimes she tossed the skins on the concrete for the pigeons that inhabited the park, laughing when they began to crowd around us. I’d scold her, pointing to a sign nailed on the metal fence that read, “Don’t feed the pigeons.” She would shrug her shoulders and say in her weathered Cantonese accent, “I can’t read it.”

For the rest of the day, we might run errands or visit the vendors in Chinatown. My favorite stalls had animal keychains, and wind-up koi fish, and toy-guns that made bubbles. Once, I eyed a yellow bunny keychain with buck-teeth and a carrot embroidered on its belly. I dared not to ask. Po-Po said these things were a waste of money. Instead we would walk to a store with Chinese movies. I’d scan the aisles for something in English, but finding none we’d leave empty handed. She’d feel bad then, saying she was sorry. “Suk-Bing,” she’d tell me, “If you learn Chinese I’ll give you fifty dollars.” I never learned though.

Po-Po didn’t like sweet things in her house. My friend’s grandmothers baked them cookies and bought them sweets, and I felt most envious of them when Po-Po and I would sit down for a desert of orange juice and acorn jelly. God how I hate acorn jelly. I’d pinch my nose to swallow it down and urge it to not come back up.

On days when it rained we could not go to Columbus Park or to Chinatown’s streets of vendors. We were forced to stay inside and find other things to occupy our time. Most of the time Po-Po would sew in silence while I would sit in the room where my grandfather (lower case) once slept before he died. It was less of a bedroom though, and more of a repurposed closet. I never understood why my grandparents slept apart, especially with my grandfather in a dark, windowless, tuna fish-can of a room. Nonetheless I’d sit in that room and make up stories with my stuffed animals while Po-Po sewed me new shorts for the Summer weather out of my Winter sweatpants.

The last day I spent with Po-Po that Summer, we walked the streets of Chinatown hand in hand. She bought beef in tomato-rice with egg, my favorite meal, from a fancier restaurant than usual. On our way home, we passed by the vendor with the animal keychains and she stopped. She pulled the yellow bunny off of its hook and began bargaining with the woman about its price. Nestled in a black plastic bag, she handed me the keychain and told me, “It’s your going-away present.” I hugged her tightly and didn’t let go, whispering “do ze, do ze Po-Po.

We went home and ate the tomato beef with rice, this time with lychee fruit for dessert. We watched a Chinese drama together without subtitles, but I didn’t need them to understand anyway. Later, my mom picked me up to take me back home and I waved to Po-Po from the back-seat window. It felt strange somehow, something undefinable lurking in my gut. A few months later she fell ill. (fell ill) That was the last time I saw her.

I see her in everything. Sometimes I think I see her face in a crowd of people, or in the reflection of a store window. But she’s never really there. I mourn a lot of things. I mourn not learning Chinese before she died, and the fact that I’m beginning to forget what she looks like. But mostly it’s the lost time I grieve over. I’ll never get to proudly show her my college acceptance letters, and she’ll never get to show them off to her tai-chi friends in the park. I remember getting caught in the rain in Columbus Park once, and we took shelter under the smelly, soggy trees. We had to walk home covered in dirt and smelling like wet dog, but it’s funny now to think I miss it. Still too skinny, but a little older I walk around an emptier Chinatown without her and I hope she’s proud of me.

Illustration by Angie Orbeta
Instagram: @angel___xie

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