Last Thursday, we met — or perhaps it’s more accurate to say we “missed” — my grandfather at Euston Station in London. The exodus of passengers dwindled to a trickle, and he was nowhere to be seen. But soon after, we spotted a diminutive man cutting a dapper figure in his immaculate blazer, a red poppy tidily affixed to his hat.
He had taken a three-hour train from Preston to London to visit with my brother, my partner and me. (It seemed that pregnancy trumped age when it came to inter-city travel.)
Minutes later, we were comfortably ensconced in a pub. After putting in our orders, my grandfather reached into the lining of his blazer and said: “I have something for you. Your grandmother wanted you to have it.”
The last time I had seen my grandmother was almost three years ago when we were on holiday. We had moved a reclining chair into the shade of an olive tree. I remember her eyelids shadowed with veins, the swollen ankles beneath the swaying hem of her dress, her hands intertwined in her lap, cradling something unseen. She died four months later and only two months before their 62nd wedding anniversary.
Afterwards, every time I saw my grandfather, I would link arms with him, much in the way he and my grandmother had done in the years before her death. And so in London — whether out of affection or habit — I reached for his arm whenever we were standing, and for his hand whenever we sat down.
And now this unexpected gift: A gold pendant with a Chinese dragon, its tail swimming in the sky between tendrils of cloud (or were they tree branches?).
“Thank you, it’s lovely,” I said, turning the freshly polished medallion over in my hands.
“When you were teething, you used to chew on it,” he said with a grin. (Thankfully, I couldn’t make out any bite marks.)
I knew that the Chinese dragon was more magnanimous than its Western counterpart — a benevolent figure rather than a fire-breathing behemoth. More importantly, it was a good-luck charm from my grandmother; a talisman that provided me with new memories that I could share with the baby.
* * *
I was born in the Year of the Dragon. Perhaps that was why I was drawn to the pendant as a child (although it’s more likely its lustre and proximity were the main attractions).
I’m not a big believer in Chinese — or your garden-variety — horoscopes, let alone their description of a Dragon’s core attributes:
“Conformity is the Dragon’s curse. Rules and regulations are made for other people.”
Incorrect. I love order. I adhere to social conventions and prefer public decorum. I don’t like to rock the boat. (If I weren’t a Dragon, I would be a sheep.)
“A Dragon’s self-sufficiency can mean that he or she has no need for close bonds with other people.”
Categorically and unequivocally untrue — for me.
“Your home is a blank slate to make as ‘large and majestic as your personality’”.
At the very least, I’ve got the wide, open spaces covered although I’m not sure anyone would describe my personality — or house — as regal.
But the Chinese Zodiac did get a few things right:
“Dragons maintain their cool by implementing a daily routine and doing yoga to soothe the mind and body.”
Yes, I can admit I aspire to do all of the above.
“Dragons are sentimental at heart.”
Absolutely. (And now that I’m pregnant, even more so.)
Even if I’m skeptical of Chinese astrology, I still believe in the power of keepsakes: It seems less foolhardy to imbue a sentimental object with meaning than to lend credence to a blueprint for the future built on the backs of 12 animals.
Anyway, the pendant was always about my grandmother’s memory rather than the symbolism of the Chinese dragon.
If memories are invisible keepsakes that have the benefit of portability, but the prejudice of inaccuracy, then keepsakes are a tangible trigger that can help fill in the gaps between memory.
* * *
Two years ago, my grandfather gave me the ultimate keepsake when he transferred raw footage of our family from an old video recorder to DVD. Most of our memories had been relegated to dingy albums and even dingier slides. It was fascinating to finally see my younger self in motion.
In one scene, I was wearing a dress, white bows fastidiously tied around my fleshy shoulders; socks with sandals completed the ensemble (a fashion misstep that plagued me until the tender age of 10). I dangled from my grandmother’s hand as she paraded me in front of the camera.
My grandfather’s narration eventually crackled through the silence: “Funny how little girls do strange things when they are being photographed.”
In another scene, I plodded towards my grandmother like a day-old elephant. She scooped me up with an energy and physicality that I had forgotten.
And so my grandfather’s gift did more than fill in the gaps, it resurrected a long-departed memory — you might even say it created the memory from scratch. And the best part of it was that I could just hit ‘rewind’ whenever I wanted to see it.