I had but a single memory of my grandfather Yuan: on Sundays, when my parents drove us to my grandparents' sand-colored bungalow, Yuan would retreat to the small, single-window kitchen and labor over an egg whisk and a round tin to produce an airy, perfectly round sponge cake. I could remember no visit without it. Yuan hardly set foot in that corner of the house, aside from this weekly ritual. It was the only thing he had any desire to make, and years later, the only thing he had any desire to eat.
Yuan was unhurried as he cracked the eggs on the countertop, and steadfast as he beat them to a thick and opaque froth. His was an economical man; no movement went to waste. He slowed his stirring as each ingredient was added. Finally, he poured the pale yellow batter into a parchment-lined steamer, which was placed over a pot of boiling water. He slipped a towel under the lid of the pot before leaving the kitchen. "To catch dripping water," he said, when I shyly asked, and I imagined tiny raindrops threatening the sponge cake.
Those Sundays, the cramped kitchen was also occupied by my grandmother as she prepared the heart of the meal: thick oily noodles, fried strips of pork, leafy vegetables in a pool of glistening sauce, packed bowls of steamed rice. She shouted in Chinese over the hiss and crackle of the food to Yuan, and then in bumbling English to us. "Why her hair so long?" she protested to my mother, meaning me. "She should keep it short. Out of the way."
After lunch, wedges of cake were served on blue and white porcelain that, afterward, I would help clear from the table and stack by the kitchen sink. Only a few crumbs were the remaining evidence of Yuan's toil.
"Oh, that sponge cake," my mother always sighed, once we were back in the car. She glanced at me in the flip-down mirror while reapplying her lipstick. "I've been eating it since I was your age."
"Ma Lai Go," I said quietly. It was what Yuan had whispered to me when he removed the lid of the pot and a cloud of steam rose toward his face. It was the only time I ever saw him smile – as soon as the steam cleared, he always returned to his normal, serious self.