An Ode To My First Reading Buddy

My paternal grandmother was my first reading buddy. One of those dear and rare people you can read in peace beside. They share books with you. They know when you wish to rest your eyes or chat or snack or all of the above. They know when to leave you alone, and they’re not afraid of silence.

The Natural Mother of the Child cover

On the day Grandma passed away, my love and I were in New Orleans. We had just returned from my haircut, settling in before a floor-to-ceiling hotel window to watch the sky change colors. Once, while visiting Grams on Maui after leaving for the Mainland in 1998, I freed my go-to topknot. She gasped and said, So long your hair. As silly as it may sound, I feel like my waist-grazing waves connect me to home as I move from not-Hawai‘i to not-Hawai‘i. If Grandma, after passing, visited loved ones, she would discover me thousands of miles from my home of homes, but hair down and longer than ever. On the table, she’d glimpse a bookstack from Baldwin & Co.: Krys Malcolm Belc’s The Natural Mother of the Child, Ly Tran’s House of Sticks, and Crystal Wilkinson’s The Birds of Opulence. Perhaps she’d admire the top cover then bend to read the colorful spines. When my father called with the news, I was dipping a bamboo spoon into a delivery container of vegetarian pho.

In an early photograph snapped at my grandparents’ restaurant, my brother and I sit at the bar-style seating, fishing noodles out of our bowls of saimin with chopsticks. Two stools over, my grandmother and I would rest between chopping garnishes, folding wontons, and washing dishes. From middle through undergraduate school, I spent cherished swathes of time with her there: after-school hours, summer months, college breaks. Behind the privacy buffer of a plant and cardboard table tent for donated quarters, we sat. Pastries, hot-fudge sundaes with extra nuts, and instant ramen cups with a whispered Don’t tell Grandpa shuffled in and out of our semi-private nook, but our staples remained: each other, glasses, and reading material.

Grams liked newspapers, tabloids, ghost stories, and local literature and mythology. I, an adoring granddaughter, liked everything she liked, plus glossy magazines, novels, and poetry. (Unfortunately, I didn’t track my reading until 2014. That I don’t know what I read in those treasured memories deepens the loss.) Shielded by green leaves, we disappeared into words until the bell above the door announced someone’s presence. Leaving our comfort bubble and my pages always saddened me, but I fixed my disappointment into a smile to fetch red plastic tumblers of water for customers.

Looking at the angle of my head in that grainy picture, you could remove the steaming bowl and replace it with a paperback, and no one would suspect a thing. In my grandparents’ restaurant, books and noodles, for me, were interchangeable. To Grandma’s wonder, I imbibed both at alarming rates without growing sick of them. Away from home, they have become their own sort of home. Detectable by my posture of passion: gentle tilt of the neck, loving downward gaze.

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls cover

The night of my grandmother’s passing, I couldn’t sleep, so I reached for Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden, a book me and my soul sister had (serendipitously) planned on rereading together for our two-person book club. Sometimes, books have a way of meeting us at the perfect moment, precisely when we need them. This was one of those times. I needed a book that hugs you, singing and screaming, like a best friend. I needed to crack up and ugly sob. I needed a story about family, grief, Hawai‘i, nostalgia, and soup. Lost in the night, I lingered on the opening sentences of “Why You Like It”: “I wanted love the size of a fist. Something I could hold, something hot and knuckled and alive.”

At Grandma’s house, we spent most of our shared time at her kitchen table. Between talking story, clumped hours unfolded while we read in front of her big window. If we weren’t looking at each other, our food, or our texts, we gazed out onto the lawn, at the patch of sky. I’ve always been writing for that girl, who couldn’t find herself in books. I write for my grandmother, too: for her shake-the-room laughter, her pregnant pauses, her surprising tangents, how she stared into the middle distance before returning with a magical tale. In those bookmarked moments, she taught me how to not only tell stories but how to tell stories in which we are the stars. I never got to ask her if she was looking for herself in her thumbed pages, too.

Imagine Us The Swarm cover

In New Orleans, the morning after Grams passed, I ordered Spam musubi and ramen with sautéed bok choy, fried garlic, and spice to soothe myself. Once it arrived, I slurped it next to the window with Muriel Leung’s Imagine Us, The Swarm. On the last page of “A Careful List of All My Failures,” I placed a sticky flag next to a line that stole my breath, that still renders me breathless: “The sky of my love is full of tumult. That, I know.”

There are myriad special things about reading with my grandmother. There aren’t many people I can happily be quiet with. She was someone I wanted to be with devotedly: everything off and phone stored away. Sometimes, I wish I had taken more pictures of her, recorded her anecdotes. But, a glittering silver lining, those feelings of having been present with her buoy me. To encourage what we had with others, those encased-in-golden-love moments, I brainstorm ways to honor her. One morning, as I watch the Mississippi summer rain, an answer arrives. Inspired by her and Silent Book Club, I ask my beloved to be my standing hushed-reading date every week.