My grandparents used to live in Almaden, CA, thirty minutes away. I don’t remember what the backyard looked like, but I know it was big, with a little bridge to cross and persimmon trees. What did the first glimpse of spring look like on them? How did the light shine in the summer?
Some days my sister and I would spend the night, sleeping in the guest room or on the floor of my grandparents’ room upstairs. I remember watching my grandma take off her makeup from my spot on the futon—pale pink, silky, with embroidered flowers—the light dim, my eyes dimming.
In the morning we had okra water from my grandma and then, sneakily, Ritz crackers. While my grandparents were off on their daily walk, my sister and I would climb onto the kitchen counter to grab snacks from the cabinet. She would hold the tube of buttery coins in her hand and we’d pull them out, one after another, putting whole circles on our tongues, or biting into them, leaving crescents of Ritzs. A painting of weeping Jesus looked over the kitchen.
I don’t remember much of what I did in the house—did I wander aimlessly? Did I read in all the rooms, my legs lopped over the couch arms and then the dining table chairs? I was too young to care much about time—it was all just a vast substance that clung to me, moved me, invisible and inconsequential.
Surely, if I could go there now, I’d spend all day in the backyard with a book of poems, feeling the California sun, listening to suburbia. I might make myself a cup of okra water and sip in silence, my eyes consuming the array of textures and colors. In my mind, the backyard is bountiful, Edenic, and I am reverent. I might imagine my grandparents walking through the foliage, over the little bridge, twenty years ago and still the same way today, and smile.
My grandparents live in Cupertino now, in the same dining-shopping-living complex where I’d meet my school friends, only ten minutes away—senior year, if we were fast, we could make it there and back to campus in the fifty-minute lunch break. Since they’re closer to home, we see them more often now: dropping off groceries, picking up my grandma’s mung bean stew, saying bye to them in-person when I’m leaving home for a while—when my grandpa hands me an envelope of spending money, my mom swats his hand away, but he insists.
The space is smaller than their old house, one floor, but I think they like it. On New Year’s Day, my grandma and mom and Auntie Susie and Auntie Christine make dumpling soup and stir-fried glass noodles and battered zucchini. The kitchen is cozy with their movement and chatter and the stove heat. My cousin and sister and I used to play hide-and-seek in the Almaden house, but now we talk, or just sit, the sun’s light dim, dimming. Air from the open window ripples through my grandpa’s white undershirts, tinted orange when we are lucky to have that kind of sky.
We eat orange wedges and skinned apples between dinner and cake—blueberry, from the Korean bakery. Then we might watch TV, whatever’s on, and I might give my grandpa, and then my Auntie Susie, a back massage. Then we’re full in every way and we go home content, thankful, tired.
I don’t remember where the door to the backyard in the Almaden house was, and I wish I tried harder to preserve it. At the time, I hadn’t considered the imminent escape of the backyard from my consciousness, life’s tendency to grow and gather and crowd out childhood. My memory consists of bullet points: the size, the bridge, the persimmon trees. Would the knowledge of the sliding door’s shape and location lead me to a fuller image of the backyard, a held one? I wonder if I could have let that backyard furnish my mind, a slice of the irretrievable outside hanging like a painting on my inside, to be known and thus loved—the first glimpse of spring, the light on leaves in the summer.