Buttons and Goodbyes

“Grandma is leaving—she’s going back to China.”

“She’s not going to come to America anymore, you know…”

“…well? Aren’t you going to say goodbye?”

I shake my head stubbornly and let hot tears inch their way across my cheeks. My grandmother is sympathetic. She tugs her suitcase along with a sparkle in her eye and good-naturedly pulls out brilliantly-colored envelope-openers, pretty brooches, brass pins. She lays them out with long, wily fingers and exaggerated gestures, looking all for the world like some foreign merchant plying her goods on market-day. She is about to be hurled into the sky by some flighty metal thing with wings and yet I cannot spare a simple word for her.

Instead, I stump about on short legs and demand my rabbit and my book, both of which had been left on my father’s black, office-type chair back at home.

“I want to read my book.”

The steel-haired woman shrugs helplessly and attempts to offer me a red, lady-bug pin instead. My mother bats it away and apologizes for me. The speaker announces something about boarding a flight and I glare at the floor.

My grandmother runs a hand over my arm and it clings for a moment.

“You’d better take her home so she can read her book,” is all she murmurs in Chinese.

“Don’t worry, Mama. She’s just throwing a temper tantrum.”

“You should get on the plane now. You’re going to miss your flight. She’ll be fine.”

“Ashley,” my mother prompts.

Her pronunciation of it is always somewhat off. She pronounces it like the Chinese word for snow, ice, cold. Ah-xue-li.

I swivel in the opposite direction and stare nonchalantly out the window at the big things they call airplanes.

She gives up and sighs and I hear the sound of my grandmother’s suitcase rolling away.

“Take care,” my mother and grandmother repeat to each other like some sort of sing-song mantra.

“Takecaretakecaretakecare….”

“You really should’ve said something to her,” my mother told me disapprovingly once Grandma had gone out of view.

I shake my head and hum and reach into my pocket to jangle two smooth, wooden buttons around in my hand. I’d stolen them from my grandmother’s green sweater the previous day. She wouldn’t mind. I don’t understand the concept of leaving but I do understand stories and, at eight, life is just one big story (and don’t stories always have happy endings?). Side-characters were ushered off of the stage occasionally, but they would return in the next chapter, the next scene. And, until then, the hero (or heroine) would take some sort of memento along to remember them. I had performed the scene and I had my memento. She would return.

When we get home, I place the buttons into a little tin with the other bits and pieces of my magpie-collection. The buttons made dull, clattering sounds against one another. They sound of promises and I grin as I shut the tin and slide it into a drawer.

You won’t be forgotten, I pledge in turn, I’m waiting. It’s a promise well-suited for my age—eight. It’s a promise as vast as the sky I thrust greedy, eager hands at and it’s too big for me to keep. Her departure is slow and planned out—nothing like the sad, sad stories in which loss is violent and sudden and swift as a knife. She eases out of my life as if she is simply heading out to run errands, and I forget.

Six years later, I am searching for trash. Anything, really, because it is Mom’s pre-New Year’s cleaning day (out with the old and in with the new) and, if I do not find something to throw away, I will possibly die of mysterious causes before 2010 arrives. I feel through the drawer. Only sentimental odds and ends remain. Three shards of sleek liquid-black mica from a long-gone friend, a stack of empty mini-notebooks that I said I would fill with glorious stories, glossy post-cards from a pen-pal I did not keep.

I find the tin again and open it. The lid has gotten stuck over the years and I have to pry at it with short, stubby fingernails until it flies off and lands somewhere on the floor. The polished, wooden buttons are still there, whispering their same sad tune of clutters and clanks, and, with the meticulous mind of someone who hates leaving things unfinished, I realize something. I flash through years of precariously ordered memories, from a girl sitting upon an airport bench with legs too short to touch the floor without straining to a now-vacated bedroom in China and something other than a story teaches me.

“Oh.”

I forgot to say goodbye.


Ashley Zhang, Age 15, Grade 10, Hunter College High School, Silver Key

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