What color is the orchid today?

A drawn orchid engulfing an elder woman's face.

Today, the orchid is a shade more vibrant– the subdued lilac has a kick to it. After all, we are celebrating today–I’m sure graduation day has been marked on Yi-Ma’s calendar for years. If only the calendar didn’t stop in 2018.

Yi-ma’s wardrobe hid a rainbow behind closed wooden doors. Her blouse selection was a palette in disguise: it determined what hue today would hold. From baby blues to decadent crimsons, my grandmother communicated simply through color.

She exuded love in her rich platters–mosaics of fresh vegetables, seasoned fish, and the fluffiest white juk anyone could imagine. Her colors were not always so direct. Sometimes, she would nestle a smidge of blue in a disappointed frown. Red spewed from the top of her head whenever she was ready to scold someone. I am proud to say that I was never the cause of her crimson shift –at least, not that I can remember.

Underneath this prismatic facade lies a sad, gray heap of regret. I sometimes wish she didn’t have to rely solely on color to speak with me. If only I could speak the same language, then maybe the colors we shared wouldn’t get so muddy.

For years, I’ve felt estranged from my own culture. Growing up in America, I never appreciated the value of learning our native tongue. I let Fuzhounese words slip through my mind until I could no longer understand what Yi-ma was saying. I guess I’ve always relied on her vivid hues to tell a story. I’ve relived her childhood through her theatrical hand gestures and journeyed through time with the colors of her voice, but I can hardly remember anything she has said.

That isn’t to say we didn’t make the most of the world we shared. Everything around us became our blank canvas–there was no color, no object, and no gesture that wasn’t included in our palette of communication.

One day, my mother brought an orchid home. An innocent lavender tipped the petals, which leaned hopefully towards the warm sunlight. It rested on a glass table that stood in between our kitchen and family room and served as a warm greeting for us in the early mornings when sunrays spilled into the morning room.

Yi-Ma was particularly fond of the blossoming succulent, or maybe I just always imagined her surrounded by lilac. She loved anything purple and anything natural, as revealed by her daily floral shirts. The flower was her tiny blessing every morning before she started hacking away at the fish for the day’s dish. It provided a common ground for us to express our admiration for its simple beauty without speaking.

Around the same time she lost her sense of communication, the orchid began to wilt. Yi-Ma no longer changed into her blouses. Rather, a loose, black slip-on was the only thing keeping her warm. The emotive shades of her facial expressions subdued. Days started blurring into melancholy grays, and the worst part was that there was nothing to restore the color.

As she turned into a shell of herself, I watched the rich hues of my culture begin to fade with her. She was the glue that tied our family to our history and grounded us in our roots. Slowly, her secret recipes went erased, stories of her childhood were never told, and our family’s history became a distant recollection.

The birthday cards I wrote for her were stacked neatly in the drawers of her bedside table. They held words she didn’t understand, but I made sure the hearts I drew were neon and bright enough to communicate my endless love… Even they started to lackluster. Dust collected on the crisp edges of paper. The room remained closed, and all that her wardrobe could do was age silently.

I think I underestimated my grandmother’s colorful spirit. I forgot that her rainbows could pour over the divide between life and death.

She was the glue that tied our family to our history and grounded us in our roots. Slowly, her secret recipes went erased, stories of her childhood were never told, and our family’s history became a distant recollection.

The orchid had wilted away before she passed away. We never bothered to get a new one; its remnants rested sadly in our kitchen, but we always halfheartedly imagined it would blossom again.

Right after the funeral, our home was desolate and unfamiliar. The last hints of color seeped away. The kitchen no longer smelled like warm rice and pungent fish sauce. Instead, cold air wafted through the empty space and erased the distant memories of our loud family gatherings. The scent of hot oatmeal she made for me every morning no longer filled my lungs when I woke up. Instead of the chaotic game shows she loved watching, I came down to a black TV screen. The in-law suite was shrouded in a foggy silence.

However, something bright caught our attention. It probably wasn’t that bright, but amidst a gray landscape, anything would stick out. Pure white petals were emerging from the dead orchid’s stem. No one had watered or cared for the flower ever since we started losing Yi-ma, yet life was blooming. I could see hints of purple painting the young white buds.

It was almost like Yi-ma was smiling at us.

Her passing rekindled an appreciation for our culture. I smelled wafts of her recipe the day after Thanksgiving, when my oldest aunt made turkey juk out of the leftovers from the night before. I found myself wanting to know more about where I came from and how my grandparents created a life for themselves here by changing a black-and-white landscape into one where we could live colorfully.

Maybe I am a bit late, but Yi-Ma’s color palette never runs out of paint. I’m starting to make art on my fresh, new canvas.

My robes were the perfect color: a rich red, the color of celebration and prosperity in our culture. Yi-Ma would reserve her bold fuschia and crimson dresses for special occasions, artfully paired with some red lipstick. I’d like to think she’d pull out one of her bright dresses to celebrate together.

I visited her right before graduation. Of course, we brought along a bouquet of happy flowers to place next to her–there was a mixture of purple and fuchsia, just as she’d like. I made sure to update her on everything and simply thank her for being the best grandmother anyone could ever ask for.

A week later, graduation day was perfectly clear–it was the type of day that a kid could draw with crayons. Walking down the aisle, I saw my humongous family squished together in the first few rows of the pavilion. They were all wearing some brilliant shade–even my uncle decided to bring out his pink shirt. My best friend’s black summer dress was decorated with pink roses–there is a reason why Yi-Ma loved her so much.

Graduation was a memory painted on a canvas. If only I could frame this image and share it with Yi-Ma. After all, our silent exchanges were nothing short of art.

When I go back home, there is one thing I am certain I will see. The orchid still rests happily on the glass table in our kitchen. I can’t wait to see how much it has grown when I return.