My grandmother, my last living grandparent, recently died. She was 84 years old. Because I’ve just come back from Taiwan where I participated in all of her funerary rites and delivered a eulogy therein, I’ve been thinking a lot about memorializing the dead. Is there such a thing as a “feminist” or feminist Christian way to remember the dead? What, if any, are the components of a feminist eulogy?
My grandmother saw incredible change in her life: she was born under Japanese rule, lived through the decades-long imposition of martial law (after Chiang Kai-Shek and the Nationalists fled the mainland in defeat from the Communists in 1949), and witnessed firsthand the “Taiwan miracle” of rapid industrialization and growth in the latter part of the 20th century.
I knew her best, however, in the context of family: as a woman who worked alongside of my grandfather who was a doctor in southern Taiwan, who served as something like a home caretaker/nurse for him after he became semi-paralyzed mid-life from a stroke, and who capably raised four kids and then came to cherish her ten grandchildren from them.
I reproduce below a slightly redacted version of the eulogy I delivered, which my mom then translated into Taiwanese. I confess that as I was writing (and even delivering) it, the feminist in me was worried that I would be reinforcing–as opposed to interrogating–the idea that “good” women should serve others selflessly. (And that was a particular concern of mine because I knew a good portion of those assembled believed that).
A-ma was a constant presence in my life, even though she triangulated between our house, my auntie and uncle’s house in San Marino, and her own and other relatives’ homes in Taiwan. My earliest memories of A-ma was of her cooking, cleaning, taking care of A-gong [grandfather], and reading the Bible. I can’t recall one episode when I heard her complain; she accepted her caretaking responsibilities with grace.
Even with our language barrier, she did whatever she could to help my brother and me. When I was in elementary school, A-ma would generously send a large package of new clothes every summer for my brother and me to wear – this was in the late 1970s and 1980s, before clothes became inexpensive in the U.S.
I also remember that in fifth grade, A-ma sewed me a beautiful pink dress and pink hat for “Civil War Day” and I won first prize for my costume. She was very proud.
My fondest memory of A-ma when I was little girl, however, was when we used to go digging for clams. We would roll up our pants and the sleeves of our shirts and feel for clams with our toes. A-ma always managed to find the largest ones. After soaking and rinsing them, she would steam them for our whole family to enjoy. These were some of the best meals of my life.
Apart from the birth of my two children in the last five years, Ama was present at every major milestone in my life: from my college graduation, to graduate school graduation, to my wedding day.
I will also never forget the fun times we had when we were on vacation. I especially remember the look of glee on her face when she helped to reel in a 150 lb. marlin in Cabo San Lucas and then began practically lecturing the person cleaning and filleting the fish not to waste any of it and to keep the eggs.
The only memory I have of A-ma upset about anything was on our trip to Alaska. When we were walking around town one afternoon, we came across a fishery that was giving away two 15-20 lb. salmon to each adult for free. This kind of giveaway was relatively common for fisheries in Alaska to control the prices when the supply was great, but it was probably a novel experience for her.
She could barely believe that without doing any work or paying any money, our family could bring home approximately 75-100 lbs. of fresh salmon. We literally had to drag her away from the scene; and every time we thought we had convinced her to leave (because we didn’t have any way to transport the fish all the way home to California), she would double-back and beg us to find a way to bring the fish home. We were all laughing and almost crying from laughter at the same time.
The story that I will end with is what I learned most from A-ma. It was nothing that she explicitly taught me, but something I learned nevertheless from her example.
Many years ago when I was in junior high, I watched her once sweep the kitchen floor with a broom. She then got out a dust pan and brushed all the dirty stuff into it. In the dust pan was what you’d expect to find: bits of paper, hair, bread crumbs, and grains of rice. What she did then totally shocked me. She carefully separated out the grains of rice from the rest of the trash. She then washed the rice, patted each grain dry, then put the rice grains back in the place where my mom stores her rice.
As a young teenager I marveled at how she went through that much trouble to save, say, 10 grains of rice. But as I matured I came to reflect on what she vividly demonstrated for me:
Food is precious and should never be wasted.
Some things in life are meant to be thrown away; some things are meant to be preserved.
It is worth the time and effort to save the things of value.
We should cherish what we have and not take anything for granted, as all our blessings come from God.
Thank you Ama for being in my life and for modeling for me service, hard work, and love. You will be sorely missed.
While I had eulogized my grandmother for her work ethic and thrift– virtues that generally raise no in-principle objections from feminists, I had also highlighted her selfless devotion to family–and readers of this blog know that feminists have long interrogated the trope of the endlessly self-sacrificial woman. I know that critique to be warranted and I also really did experience my A-ma’s gentle and dutiful care of others as a virtue (not a tragedy) and a mark of character.
I remain, then, with some (feminist) cognitive dissonance. At a minimum, I was grateful that the eulogies offered by the pastor as well as my brother and two cousins in absentia not only highlighted some of the themes that I had, but also lifted up unique aspects of who she was. How she could often get my grandfather’s patients to comply with “doctor’s orders” when he couldn’t. How she loved roller coasters even as a senior. Or how she had opened up a noodle shop in her 70s in Taiwan “for fun.”
What do you think? Ought feminists to memorialize the dead “differently”? How so?
Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology and Co-Director of the Center for Sexuality, Gender, and Religion. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is working on two co-edited book projects–one on Asian American Christian Ethics, the other on a theological exploration of women’s lives. You can learn more about her life and work on her personal website.