Upon The Ancient Brick House

by Yilin Sun

Awash with smells of farm animals and soil, the damp air filled the little girl’s nose as she stepped out of her grandfather’s ancient brick house on a rainy morning. Yawning, she frowned as she saw the muddy little front yard filled with tearful faces that she could not recognize. Confusion marked her juvenile face as she looked around for her father. She could not find him, and tried to hide herself in the corner of the small yard. The seven-year-old girl frantically scratched her body and tried to tear off the uncomfortable white mourning dress that her father had made her put on. She was lost in the middle of the crowded yard with no one with her — everyone else was busy tending the guests and getting ready for the big rituals — until her wet-eyed father came, handed her a black-and-white portrait, and hastened her to catch up with the long funeral contingent. Clutching the cold metal frame of her grandfather’s portrait, she walked blankly behind her sister, who was holding a small jade urn of his ashes, and crying so hard that she could barely stand straight.

It was July, it was raining, and it was my grandfather’s funeral. The long white-colored funeral queue marched down the muddy village as my family members started to burn the colorful wreaths to ashes. Hired musicians started to play bizarre instruments that made unpleasant sounds. As people got down on their knees to pray for the dead, my father forced me to kneel down on the muddy corn field. The blurry white color of people mourning, my father’s soft whisper of “Grandpa can never sit up and talk to you again,” and waves after waves of people crying and yelling first filled my little head with confusion, and then loathing: “Why are they crying so hard? Why do people take this so seriously? Who wants to get up early in the morning, hold a portrait, and walk all through the village in front of everyone in funny, uncomfortable white clothes with weird rituals going on?”

That is everything I could remember about the funeral. My grandfather was a farmer and lived in his brick house for his whole life, and despite my father’s frequent request, he refused to move to the city and stay with us because he was never used to life here. But, during his short visits, he would always help tidy up our home and shut all of the windows and doors before he left. My only clear memory of the old man is his hand-made tobacco: he would take a thin rectangular piece of paper, shove cut tobacco into it, roll it up, and light some old matches with his wrinkled, dark-colored hands. I also remember him asking me questions about school and my life, but the juvenile me chose not to answer him because I could not understand his heavy accent.

My grandfather’s funeral when I was seven was also one of the very few visits that I can recall to my grandfather’s ancient brick house. As the only child of my father and the sole family member to leave the remote village, go to college, and have a family in the capital city, I grew up receiving the best education in the country and was surrounded by the advanced technologies of the metropolis.  My family sent me to the best kindergarten in the neighborhood, and later to private schools so I could learn English from a fairly young age. I took expensive piano lessons and learned Chinese calligraphy in school. I grew up with a variety of intriguing books that my mother carefully selected for me at different ages and had the opportunity to travel around the world with my parents. I was used to getting whatever I wanted: I got my first cellphone in fifth grade and my first laptop in tenth grade. As a child, I never wanted to visit my grandfather’s old brick house, nor that branch of my family. It took two hours by car and millions of turns and bumps to get from the train station to the brick house, and the village was always muddy. With air smelling like cow, the area had such few lights at night that I could not see my fingers when holding up my hand. The small, smelly ancient toilet was located outside of the house. In winter, it would get so cold that I usually could not feel my ears when I woke up. The town was secluded and far from everything. The nearest shop was three miles away, the nearest post office was ten miles away, the nearest school 23 miles away, and there were no parks, cinemas, bars, restaurants, or WiFi. The only place to have fun was a senior activity center which was basically a clearing in the middle of the corn field where the elderlies danced to ancient countryside music. Worst of all, the people of the village spoke a dialect that I could never understand.

All of this motivated me to make up excuses to escape the visits to my grandfather’s brick house. During the times when I had to go, I felt completely like an outsider. My aunts, uncles, cousins, and other unfamiliar people that seem to be related to me treated me like a guest, not like family. All the conversations we had entailed of “When did you get here?” “Three days ago.” “You are… in a third grade now, right?” “Yes.” “Is school hard?” “No.” “Do you play any… sports?” “No.” “And about clubs? Have you in any?” “Nope.” “When are you… leaving?” “Maybe the day after tomorrow.” “Okay, great.” My cousins never played with me because I never knew what they were playing or why what they were playing was fun. When they asked me about my life they never understood my answers on calligraphy classes or some great architectures I saw in Europe, so they gradually stopped asking. People would kindly smile at me, but beyond that, there was no communication.

I barely knew the family there. I did not know what their jobs were, how old they were, when they got married, or even who they married, and I did not even bother to ask. I was embarrassed when they were unable to understand my words. I did not know that my grandfather had a brother, nor that my cousin’s family moved. I was never familiar with the people there; they were just acquaintances. That is why I did not understand why people were crying so hard at the funeral of my grandfather. I was felt like I was attending an acquaintance’s funeral, and that was why my family said that they picked the wrong person to hold the portrait.

As I got older, my father stopped urging me to visit the ancient brick house, and allowed me to spend as much time as I wanted with my mother’s family, especially with my loving grandma (my mother’s mother), who raised me when my parents were busy working. The one-hour-long car ride to the adjacent city, Tianjin, where grandma lived, was one of the things I looked forward to the most when I was a child. Tianjin was not as wealthy as the capital city, but it was convenient, beautiful, and quiet. The little tidy apartment my grandma lived in was nothing like my grandfather’s brick house. Grandma’s homemade noodles and dumplings were always the best memories of my visits to her.  

My father seemed to give up on me, seeing that even a funeral could not change my mind. Time flew by as I made my effort to get into one of the most prestigious middle schools. I succeeded in the high school entrance exam and started my high school life with the most competitive students in the city, and I decided to apply to colleges in the United States. As I got offers to make the final decision, I could recall my father talking on the phone with his family about me. I could not understand most of the dialect he was speaking, but I could tell he was constantly updating family members about my life. I seldom visited them since my grandfather’s funeral. Most of the time he was cheerful and proud while he talked, but at some moments, he would stop talking, sigh gently, and shake his head, vaguely saying something close to “maybe she will visit next year.”

It was the last Spring Festival I spent in China before leaving for college in the United States when I started to make plans to visit my family. This is the practice for all Chinese people who will travel a long way: stay with their parents or loved ones for about three weeks, and celebrate this grand festival with wonderful traditions, including setting off fireworks, watching the Spring Festival show with the family all night, and put coins in dumplings. I spent every Spring Festival with my loving grandma, who cooked all the food I liked during my time with her. But this year, on the way back from my mother’s family, my dad broke the silence with a question: “Duoduo, why don’t you…spend this Spring Festival with your grandmother?” My childhood nickname suddenly brought up pieces of incomplete memories with my grandfather as I nodded yes to my father.

The muddy roads and the smell of cow did not change, but grandma did. Without cabbages growing in the small front yard, the little patch of land seemed bleak in the cold winter blow. The animal house, which was filled with geese in my childhood memory, was empty and dilapidated. Grandma, whose hair turned white completely, was trembling while she walked out from the familiar brick house. Dressed in the old, thick, dark-colored overcoat, she was wearing a pair of shoes with patches all over them that left one and another footprint in the thick snow covering the little muddy front yard. The brick house did not change either, with the toilet outside the house and no WiFi, except it looked empty with only grandma living in it. Though there were no more cabbages growing or geese wandering in the yard because grandma was too old to take care of them, the endless field outside the house still had corn all over it as it did when I was young. Time seemed to slow down in the small countryside, except for grandma’s tears in her eyes.

“Grandma, I’m home,” I carefully said the words, giving in to my father’s constant urges.

“Duoduo, is that you?” She leaned over slightly and tried her best to stare at me. Softly brushing my hair with her old wrinkled hands, she mumbled, “Wow… you’ve grown. Duoduo is a big girl now…a big girl…”

She was both smiling and crying as she led me through the small yard and sat me down at the edge of the heated brick bed, which warmed me up from the tiring car ride and the freezing weather. As she hurried to get me some fruit, an apple rolled off the plate because of her trembling hands. I stopped her before she tried to bend over and pick it up.

“I… I heard you are studying abroad. That’s…very good.” It was the first sentence she managed to put together after a long awkward silence.

“Yes.” I answered as usual, not able to come up with another word.

“I am so…worried, I called Zhiwei (my father) so many times, asked him not to let you go, why just find a school near home?” I tried to catch all the words she cautiously said to me amidst the heavy accent.

“Grandma, I have made up my mind,” I mumbled as my sight wondered around the old, cracked walls of the small room, looking for some other places to stare at.

She slowly started to tell me how much she missed me. She said that she called my father all the time to check on me; she told him how glad she was when she learnt I succeeded in school and decided to go to college in the United States and how worried she was when she imagined me being alone on the unfamiliar other end of the planet. She did not know exactly what my major “psychology” means but she believed me. She knew I did not like to visit the countryside, but she was always proud of me whenever I went. She was so well aware that I could not understand the dialect that she spoke as slowly as she could, and when she spoke, I noticed her dry lips moving up and down. She stuck out her hand several times in an attempt to hold mine, but she was intimidated and awkwardly put it back in her pocket. Sometimes she did not know what to talk about with me, so she just sat at the edge of the brick bed and peeled the oranges, one after another, and handed them to me.

As my aunts and uncles arrived and talked to my father, I started to understand what kind of person I was in their eyes: I was the different one. I was the one that received advanced education in the capital city and had the chance to study abroad. I was the one that was not destined to be a farmer her whole life, spoke a different language, and did not enjoy visits to the countryside. Despite that, they were still trying their best to approach me, talk to me, and learn more about me.

It was not until the visit that I realized it was me who had been rejecting them, not the other way around. It was me who refused to bond with them because of the discomfort I felt around them. My family always saved a place for me in their heart; there was always a slight hope every Spring Festival and summer vacation that I would come visit them and talk to them about my life. There was always the belief that I would be able to bond with them and see them as my family. I realized that it was me who made myself an outsider, and my father’s family had never stopped stepping forward to me. It was I who needed to take a step closer to them.

The tradition of the village is to visit the dead family member on the morning of the Spring Festival. When I was small, my dad would let me sleep in and skip the event because I hated getting up at five in the morning. I hated being stuffed in a small car with a bunch of unfamiliar relatives, smelling tobacco during the hour long ride to the tomb and spending the freezing morning saying prayers to the dead. My dad would usually sigh and tell me that they would be back before I noticed.

But that day, I got up. I climbed out of the warm blankets, carefully dressed myself in all red, and helped my grandmother get ready for the car trip. Watching the morning sun slowly rising behind the surrounding mountains in a thick fog, I dragged myself out from the crowded car to approach the tomb. After more than a decade, the tomb was covered with a layer of grass, with the tombstone hardly visible. Trying my best to neglect the numbness on my nose and ears, I helped set up the fire to burn the paper money and set off firecrackers. Looking around, I saw my aunts and uncles and all the faces I remembered from the funeral. They were still unfamiliar, but time has left marks on them. They were older. Time did pass so fast in this small village, and there is no more time for me to lose.

I got down on my knees, closed my eyes, and whispered in tears: “Grandpa, it’s Duoduo… I am going off to college. Your little girl has grown up… I will be always praying for you.”