“No matter what discouraging times there are, I’ll never show my tears. Without heart, I’ll hurry and set myself free in order to get rid of memories. Country road, Even though this road continues to my hometown I just can’t go, I can’t go...farwell, country road.”
Feng reached up towards the dusty wooden cabinet, the tips of her toes gently touching the matching wooden stool. The old stool had gone through many uses in her family over the years, though the cabinet above her was hardly touched. The two had come in a set years ago, back when her grandparents had first moved in, along with the dining table and stools around it, which were replaced in future generations with proper chairs. They stuck out like a sore thumb, according to Feng’s grandmother, but her mother liked them, and that was all that mattered.
“Feng!” a voice called out, causing the girl in question to trip over her feat. “What?” She shouted back, recognizing her mother’s strict tone. Quickly, before she fell, Feng jumped down from the stool and moved it back to where it was kept, under the countertop.
“Feng, I’m going out, alright? I’m going to pick up some pineapple tarts. We’ll eat them tonight with the rest of the family.”
Feng frowned. “No,” she said quietly, looking down. “We can’t buy them.”
Feng’s mother heaved an exasperated sigh. “What do you mean, we can’t buy them?” she said, her eyes wide with confusion and anger. “I’m not making them, you certainly aren’t, and it’s not like Lao Lao can this year, so to the store I go.”
Feng’s heart sank down in her chest. Of course, Lao Lao couldn’t make the tarts this year. It was stupid of her to think that her grandmother would even come to the table for the new year, let alone do any of the cooking.
“I’ll do it,” she said, the words slipping out her mouth like air on a cold day, something that hardly ever came about in Taiwan. “I’ll make the tarts.”
A smile came over her mother’s face as she broke into a laugh. “Feng,” she said, her voice lowering slightly. “You know that there’s no written recipe, right? You’ll have to get one from the internet.”
Again, Feng frowned and looked down towards her feet, her eyes glancing towards the old wooden stool under the counter again. The same stool her grandmother had brought with them from Shanghai. Not many things had made that trip, but the set of wooden cabinets and stools had, along with other household items. Household items and memories. Memories that Lao Lao would later describe as painful, but in the moment were just reality.
“I guess I’ll just ask Lao Lao for as much information as I can,” Feng said, looking her mother in the eye. “Or guess. I’m not that bad at baking.”
Feng’s mother sighed again, checking her phone. “Alright. Just be done by diner time. The new year won’t wait for you.”
“Don’t worry, Mama,” Feng replied, pulling out the stool once again. “I’ll be ready.”
With that, her mother gave a wave goodbye and ran out the door, slamming it behind her. Feng ran upstairs to her grandmother’s room, brushing her long hair behind her ears. She brought out her fist to knock, but before it could even touch the door, her conscience stopped her from taking another step.
Feng, the voice in her head stated calmly. Come on. You aren’t really going to knock on that door. She won’t answer. She won’t even remember your name.
Yes, she will, Feng convinced herself. She knows me. I’m her granddaughter.
She knows me.
She knows me.
Feng reached out towards the door again, grabbing the handle with her fist. Without hesitation, she swung the door open, her hand hurting against the cool copper of the door. “Lao Lao,” she said, addressing the old woman sitting on a dark mahogany bed with light blue sheets. Her hair was a light grey, the shade as the blue sheets, though they were still different colors. Almost like the color of waves crashing against the sand. “Lao Lao. I’m making the pineapple tarts this year.”
The old woman nodded, her head shaking as she did.
“I need the recipe, though. Do you have it?” Feng carefully articulated her words, making sure that her grandmother would understand.
The woman blinked, her head now completely still. “No, Xinyi. No tarts.”
Feng’s heart sank. Last time she was Ling, the time before Jing. Now she was Xinyi. At least the previous times all had g’s at the end.
Now, it wasn’t even a related name. It didn’t even sound similar. Every time she walked through those doors, it was a new name. Everytime she tried to speak to her Lao Lao, nothing happened.
To the internet it was.
Feng loosened her grip around the doorknob and ran over to quickly hug her grandmother before leaving back downstairs. Despite her tight grasp around her grandmother’s waist, she didn’t finch once. Feeling tears about to come down, Feng ran back downstairs, wiping away teardrops from her eyes before they streamed down her cheeks. I told you so, the voice said, as she sniffled back more tears. I told you she wouldn’t remember your name.
Shut up, Feng whispered, grabbing her computer and flopping it open. Now, let’s find a recipe.
Her hands still shaking, Feng opened up a new tab and started to type. Pineapple tarts. No, Taiwanese pineapple tarts. As accurate as possible.
After scrolling through a few recipes, Feng nodded, closed her computer, and walked towards the kitchen. Out of the pantry she brought out some butter, flour, and vanilla. Carefully, she scrapped the flesh of the bean out and put it in a large bowl with a few cups of flour and cubed butter, which she smashed with her hands. Vanilla was the secret ingredient, she remembered Lao Lao saying years ago, before she started to forget. Vanilla and lots of butter made the crust nice and flaky.
Slowly, Feng started to add cold water to the butter and flour, gently combining until it formed a ball of dough. After flopping the dough down onto the counter, she began to knead. Left, right, up down. Repeat. Left, right, up, down. Again and again.
“I wish we had a stand mixer,” she muttered to herself. At least kneading kept the tears away.
Left, right, up, down. Until the dough was fully combined.
After a few minutes of kneading, Feng wrapped the dough and put it in the fridge. Luckily, they still had a pineapple, though it was meant for snacking on.
Silently, Feng started to cut the pineapple, reflecting on her visit with her grandmother. Each time she walked across from her own room into Lao Lao’s, it just felt like a punch in the gut. And even worse, she could hear everything through the thin walls of the house. She could hear her thumbling with her medicine, or her mother and father trying to convince her that she was alright and safe.
“It’s alright, Feng,” her mother would say, “Lao Lao is getting better.”
But she wasn’t. If anything, she was getting worse. Worse and worse, as each day passed.
Into the blender went the pineapple.
The vrooming sound of the pineapple being chopped covered over the sounds of Feng’s tears, and she whimpered and cried.
It didn’t matter, anyway. No one was home except for Lao Lao, and she wasn’t going to come down. She never came down.
Feng drained the pineapple and took out a saucepan, turning on the burner ever so carefully not to burn the towel in her hand she was using to wipe away her sweat and tears. After adding about a cup of dark brown sugar to the pineapple and stirring in well, Feng collapsed onto the floor, burying her head into her chest. The pineapple mixture bubbled away, but all Feng could focus on was her grandmother. Would she even eat these tarts she was working so hard on? What if no one liked them because it wasn’t her recipe?
She should have tried harder to get baking tips from Lao Lao, Feng decided. All she knew was to put vanilla and lots of butter into the crust, and even that was just common knowledge among most Taiwanese families. She should have gotten more information out of Lao Lao, not been distracted by her emotions. Now New Years would be ruined by mediocre pastries.
Smoke started to rise out of the pan. Feng quickly turned off the heat and gave the filling one final stir, before deeming it ready. After taking the mixture off the burner to cool, she got the wrapped dough out of the fridge and started to roll it out.
It smelled nice, like vanilla and butter.
Vanilla, butter, and her own salty tears.
Feng began stuffing the filling into little balls of the dough, then pressing them out of rectangle shaped molds. Finally, everything was ready to go into the oven.
The door swung open. “Feng!” her mother called out. “I’m home! Are the tarts ready!”
“They’re baking,” Feng said, her tone dipping down. “About five minutes longer.”
Feng’s mother walked into the kitchen, sighing heavily. “Feng, you’ve made a mess, honey.”
Feng nodded, then burst into tears, grabbing her mother by the waist and pulling her into a tight hug. The woman sighed again, wrapping her arms around her daughter.
“Feng, is everything alright?” she said, her own voice lowering significantly. “Was it Lao Lao?”
Feng nodded. “Mama, you keep saying everything will get better,” she started, a tear rolling down her cheek. “But it never does. She just gets worse.”
Her mother gave a knowing look. “Honey, dementia isn’t going to go away overnight. It takes time.” She paused here, to squeeze her daughter tighter against her. “Time and patience.”
Feng nodded and let go, opening the oven. “I think they’re done.”
Her mother smiled, grabbing her daughter’s hand as she picked up a tart with the towel laid out across the counter. “Honey, these are delicious,” she said, with a bright grin. “Let’s go take one up to Lao Lao, alright?”
Feng nodded again, picking up another tart and slowly biting into it. It wasn’t exactly like Lao Lao’s, but it wasn’t bad, either. A little sweeter. Less tangy.
It was her own.
As Feng walked upstairs holding her mother’s hand and a tart in the other, she suddenly realized something.
Ling. Jing. Xinyi. All meant spirit in Chinese.
Her grandmother might not have remembered her name, but she knew her spirit. She knew the whisper of her heart, even if she didn’t have all of her memories in the right places.
Feng gripped her mother’s hand tighter, as she slowly opened the door to Lao Lao’s room.