I found out my grandmother had passed away while I was in Chiang Mai, her hometown. It was not a surprise — she was 102 years old, after all — but it hit me all the same, amplifying by a thousandfold all the memories I had of her.
I remember her as quiet and unassuming. She loved the color pink, showed affection the old-fashioned Thai way (by hom, or smelling your cheek deeply) and giggled at my lame jokes when she didn’t understand what I was saying. She also harbored strange opinions, like her abhorrence of pants in public because she thought only Chinese people wore them (I myself am a devoted public pants-wearer). She spent her last years in Bangkok, even though we often said we would travel to Chiang Mai together.
We called her “jiao yai“, which I thought was something everyone called their mother’s mother. Only far, far later did I learn that it meant she was a sort of princess, the granddaughter of Prince Intavaroros Suriyavongse, who served as ruler of Chiang Mai for 9 years before his younger brother took on the role. The title was eventually dissolved, the kingdom incorporated into Siam upon the marriage of my grandmother’s aunt, Dara Rasmi, to Rama V. My grandmother never spoke of her childhood, and for some reason, we never asked her. Everything we knew came from snippets told to my mother and then passed on to us, like a game of telephone.
Despite her upbringing as a jiao, my grandmother knew tragedy in her life. I was once told of my grandmother’s first marriage, to a man of similar background. He died by suicide, and the police were called in to investigate. The investigating officer was my grandfather. Her first baby with him caught smallpox, and could only stand to sleep on a banana leaf in the night air during his final few weeks. Later, she would be in a car accident that took her sister’s life. She escaped with a broken collarbone.
Yet I only knew my grandmother as a kind, gentle person. She was not much of a cook, preferring to leave most of the food decisions to my grandfather, who reveled in planning lunch and dinner menus. But she did introduce us to our first taste of Thai snacks and candies: sweet-and-sour preserved plums; sweetened milk tablets; pulverized sweet durian, fashioned into logs and cut into coins. The one that most sticks out in my mind were the dried watermelon seeds, which she would crack with her teeth, one by one, pushing the unshelled seeds across a Thai newspaper on her lap to my greedy, grasping paws on the other side.
Watermelon seeds are stingy stuff, gleaning little meat, an even more paltry prize for the effort than cracking swimmer crab legs. But my grandmother stuffed me full of these watermelon seeds, cracking as many as my little stomach would take, because I loved their salty, nutty pops of flavor. When I see a pack of dried watermelon seeds now, in the market or occasionally at my super, I think of her, and all the work she had to do for so little reward.
After she passed, I could not shake the thought of those watermelon seeds. I wanted to eat the seeds, but lacked the generosity of spirit to deshell them for anyone, even myself. That meant I could not simply buy them in the market. So I waited for my family to leave, nursing a plan to dine on watermelon seeds in a restaurant on my own, mulling on it like one would mull over plans to meet a lover. Once they left, I took the Skytrain to Err and ordered their toasted watermelon seeds the minute I sat down, cushioning it with other dishes like yum kai dao (fried egg salad) and fried rice balls with salted fish so that I wouldn’t look like a weirdo. The watermelon seeds came, dressed in lime juice and a little bit of fish sauce, with finely slivered kaffir lime leaves and chili. I ate them all.
They were good, but not as good as my grandma’s.