Amourence Lee · LIKE IT IS with MAYOR LEE
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  • Writer's pictureCouncilwoman Lee

Letter to my 100 year old grandmother

Dear Popo,

One hundred years is "too long" you say!

As I craft this message on my computer with high-speed internet, 100 years ago was the first first time music played on the Waikiki radio from the mainland 4,660 miles away. Popo, you were just two months old when women in the U.S. started voting for the first time. Two years before you were born, the federal women's suffrage amendment was introduced to the senate and defeated - two votes shy. After a second senate defeat by just one vote, numerous arrests, a hunger strike, violent attacks to protestors by police and soldiers, in 1919 the women's suffrage amendment was passed by both houses. June 28th, 1920 in San Francisco the Democratic Party supported ratification and the women's suffrage plank at the DNC.

Popo, you were always a bright star, even your dad praised you as the most clever and capable of your 9 siblings - never qualifying your intellect with the fact that you are a girl. You were responsible for keeping the books for your dad's grocery store when bread was $0.05 cents a loaf. During the depression, you and your siblings wore hand-sewn clothes from rice sacks long before up-cycling was trendy. In 1938, you graduated from Sacred Hearts Academy as valedictorian - a coveted education for Chinese on the island. On the other side of the world, that same year Hitler invaded Austria and my maternal grandmother and her family fled to the U.S.

Brilliant and beautiful as ever - Popo you were a Beauty Queen at the University of Hawaii where you were trained as speech therapist and taught ESL. It was only a matter of time before Gonggong, a tall and handsome engineer in the army put a ring on your finger. The two of you were newly weds in 1941, when Pearl Harbor was bombed 20 minutes away from your home.

Three babies came quick, after all, women had little to no family planning services or reproductive health rights. It would take years for Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick to find the funding and scientists to invent the pill and overturn the laws in some thirty states that prohibited the sale or advertisement of contraceptive devices.

In 1955, Gonggong felt the boundaries of Richmond Chinatown closing in on his hopes for "the real" American Dream. Popo, you bravely ventured into white-only San Francisco neighborhoods only to have the door shut in your face again and again. It took an ally and friend who smoothed the path with realtors and got written permission from all of the adjacent white neighbors to purchase the Carmel Street house in Twin Peaks for some $11,000. It was the first and last time you bought a house, which you sold in the 70's. In spite of the fact that Gonggong helped design housing developments all over the Bay Area you two remained renters for over half a century.

A few years later, you were recruited to teach a hula dance class and met Ruth Asawa, your artistic mentor, best friend and neighbor for 30 years. I can only imagine the bonds of sisterhood that you shared raising your kids together and being the woman behind the most influential post-modern artist of her time. Your friendship has markers all over San Francisco, including the bronze-cast bare breasted nursing mermaid in Ghirardelli Square.

We all sat through hundreds of hours of Gonggong's socratic lectures and cried our way through countless tissue boxes that you quietly and lovingly passed around. Gonggong's love was fierce with sharp edges, thankfully you were there to pat our shoulder and occasionally lock eyes, compassionately telegraphing, "Sit there as long as it takes, don't even think about disrespecting your grandfather." After almost 73 years of marriage with all the ups and downs, Gonggong passed. You graciously said, "I still love him, no blame."

In 2016, it seemed we were owed some good news and eagerly awaited celebrating the election of the first female president. Remember how shattered we were, crying for our country. I never gave you the leather bound journal with the golden stencil engraved words, "Madam President." The years passed, and you have defiantly held on for your 100th birthday waiting to receive your official birthday card from the White House. You say with a grin, "I can't wait to mail it back!"

As our matriarch, you taught me to cook with exacting directions but never once measured the ingredients, you always listen more that you speak, often correct my posture and grammar, need only flash a side-eye to quiet the room, you forgive and laugh with ease, and to your credit each one of us, including your 13 great grandchildren, knows creativity, loyalty, and honesty in our bones.

Popo you've been on this planet for 100 years and outlived every one in your generation and family. It is a truly an incomprehensible amount of time and I am grateful for every minute. I love you. You are my hero and guiding light.


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