I was born upon thy bank, river,
My blood flows in thy stream,
And thou meanderest forever
At the bottom of my dream.
Henry David Thoreau
This morning, during breakfast, a man phoned asking for my mother.
“She’s not in,” I said, “She’s in Taiwan right now.”
“What about your dad?” the man asked.
“He’s in Taiwan too.”
I detected the slightest tinge of worry in his voice, but when I asked if the matter was urgent, he said, a little too quickly, “No, not too important.” He was calling from the Southern California Association of Chinese Schools and wanted to talk to my mother regarding something beyond me. I couldn’t help him and the woman who could was three thousand miles away. To divert his attention from the fact that I had neither my parents’ cell phone numbers in Taiwan nor our house numbers, I assured him that even if he had their numbers, they’d be all but impossible to reach.
“My grandfather passed away last summer,” I said, “So this summer, they’re performing some sort of uh – my brain clawed at the appropriate words – death anniversary. They’re probably going to be in the temple for the next few days.”
The man seemed embarrassed after that, for attempting to hunt my mother down when she was in the middle of such heavy family affairs, and before I could say that it was alright, that if he emailed her I was sure she would respond to him post-haste, he denied that he ever needed to speak to her at all and told me not to worry and that he could wait patiently (for a month) until my mother was stateside once again and ready to deal with the real world.
Well, those were not his words exactly, but they were what I thought when I hung up and imagined, rather enviously, of my mother reaping the benefits of being in Taiwan. She no doubt had received the man’s email – and while she will respond and most likely call before comes back to the US, for the time being, she is allowed the luxury of being “abroad,” of having her daughter field her phone calls in America, of reading emails and not being compelled to respond right away for fear that the writer might become impatient and call, of taking a step back from her real world and indulging in a breath of humid air, unattached to the million pressures of daily life that await her back home.
For us, Americans with ties to Taiwan, such was the magic of that charming little island.
My parents traveling to Taipei without me and my brother is nothing new, but in the past, during these summer months, it has almost been de rigueur for all four of us to be in Taipei for my grandfather’s birthday. I have just turned twenty-four, and in all my twenty-four years, there has never been a summer during which I did not say, “I’m going to Taiwan for my grandpa’s birthday,” except for last year, when “funeral” was substituted for “birthday” and the face of summer changed forever.
As a child, I didn’t understand that traveling once a year to Taiwan was a luxury until I noticed that many of my family and friends could not afford to do it. In college, when the value of a dollar became even more apparent, I still pushed the envelope, traveling more often to new locations, yet still maintaining my yearly pilgrimage to Taipei. Always, I went under the guise that I had to visit an aging grandfather. Sometimes I went twice a year, and for a while I felt that my relatives were beginning to tire of hosting me, the excitement in their expression lessened somewhat when they saw me walking out into the arrivals lounge. But my grandfather always smiled when he saw me, and life was so easy and carefree in Taiwan that there was absolutely nothing negative that prevented me from going back year after year.
In Taiwan, I was nobody of importance. My identity was that of “visiting relative” and my responsibilities consisted of dining out with family and friends, picking which movies to watch, and choosing which air conditioned mega-mall to while away the afternoon. My grandfather made sure my pockets were flush with cash (and my brother’s even more so) while grandma kept our appetites sated and our stomachs bursting from the endless buffets we ate in Taipei’s fanciest hotels. There were years, when my grandpa was still in his eighties, in which he traveled with all the children to Korea, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong. My memory, being poor, is fed by the photographs from those trips – here’s Grandpa posing with a monkey on his knee; here my cousins and I are, screaming with glee as an elephant lifts us with its trunk; here our hair is braided and our faces sunburnt; here my brother, Grandpa, and cousin Larry (before he was called Larry) are, standing in a row wearing their Japanese style bathrobes, arms crossed, faces unsmiling yet comical.
My clearest memories however, are those in which we stayed in Taipei, for that city alone meant vacation to me. Far away from my California home, yet familiar because it too, was home. Even my Taiwanese cousins felt like they were on vacation when my brother and I arrived, for it meant more opportunities to get out of the house and less supervision from their parents. They continued to attend cram schools and piano lessons, but there were movies and games and shopping with their American cousins to look forward to afterward. As we grew however, so did their responsibilities. Our vacation time shortened to two or three weeks rather than the month and a half we used to stay. We aged into our late teens with high school and college flashing by and suddenly, my cousins were moving out of the country to pursue master degrees. I still took trips – to Shanghai, London and even Paris – with my cousin Karen, she on vacation from her masters programs and I just along for the ride, but even amidst all the fun we were having, the larger responsibility of the “real world” loomed over us. We could no longer enjoy ourselves as freely as we had in our younger years.
My grandfather’s death only affirmed this. His last few years were a golden era for the children. As long as grandpa was around, we would always be “the grandkids,” which gave us the special glow of youth, even though we were undeniably adult. And though he never intended to, he took to the grave our childhoods, our days of indolence and excess and irresponsibility for anything or anyone but the afternoon and ourselves. His death meant a shift up the ladder for our parents and for us, and rather than a family of three generations we have become a family stalled at two – the younger set sprawled out across three continents, moving forward, but also, and now I can only speak for myself, paralyzed about what to do next. I had paused beneath my grandfather’s 100-year-old shadow for so long that now, squinting into the sun of the “real world,” I’m uncertain of where to go.
Not to Taiwan, not this summer, anyhow. The thought of not being in Taiwan at this time was strange, but the physicality of it, of staying put in The Park, regardless of where my parents are, feels right. My family in Taiwan is doing a bit of their own reshuffling – my cousins are abroad except for one, who is knee deep in her own graduation anxieties and planning to fly the coop in less than half a year. My aunts and uncles are nearing retirement and planning on taking a few trips of their own – some to visit their children abroad, some to go out and see the places they had always wanted to see, but could never bring themselves to be away for that long. They had dinner to cook, clothes to wash, money to earn.
Not too long after my grandfather passed, my grandma began the monumental task of moving out of their bedroom. The building in which I had spent so many summers and winters was to be hollowed out and stripped down for a long overdue refurbishment. My uncles had decided to put the remodeling on hold until Grandpa had passed away. In the weeks leading up to the funeral I saw my grandma, her face stony with grief, taking down bits and pieces of their life together. Faded photographs she had taped to the mini-fridge, invitations to a hundred weddings, birthday parties and company dinners – being one-hundred years old in Asia makes you quite the lucky charm and an oft-requested presence at such events – paintings, a hundred ticking clocks, and many hundreds more of other little doodads that caught my grandpa’s eye at one time or other and made it into his collection of things-that-make-him-happy. Their room, with its giant bed and massage chair draped with an assortment of blankets stolen from airlines and stuffed animals, stuffed with memories both tangible and not, was disappearing before my eyes. I did not stay to see it go completely.
After the funeral my brother and I were the first to leave; a cousin on our mother’s side was getting married the next day in California. Next to go were my parents, and not too long after them, my cousins left one by one, each to pursue their own futures in other countries. Would they come back? Certainly, but not to this home. To the address, to a new home, but not this one. The house emptied until at last, there seemed to be no one left but my grandmother – he had left her an island, unconnected by blood and separated by vast oceans.
She was the last one to leave. A few months ago she moved into a new apartment on the outskirts of Taipei to begin her new life as a widow. My cousin Karen talks to her most out of all the grandkids, but being in London limits their communication. The last time Karen was back however, she told me she had seen grandma driving down Ren Ai Road. “She drove by so quickly she didn’t see me wave,” Karen said, “I wonder who she was taking out to lunch.” Grandma kept in contact with all of Grandpa’s old friends – they had become her friends too, so we weren’t the only reason she’d come back to the city center – but it was strange to hear my cousin describe it thus, as though she had sighted a ghost haunting its old grounds.
The last time I spoke with Grandma was over three months ago. She said, “You can stay with me this summer. I have an extra room for you.”
I feared that she would hear my voice break, but I wanted her to know that I wouldn’t be going back to Taipei this summer, that I had to find a job.
“Oh that’s right,” she said, “It’s time for that now, isn’t it.” She was disappointed, but supportive. I feared that she would think I didn’t see the need to go to Taipei as often anymore because grandpa was no longer there, but there was nothing I could say at that moment to put her heart at ease. I was terrified of losing it.
But as we continued speaking, I realized I wasn’t alone in acknowledging that a golden era of childhood fun had passed. I had forgotten that we had grown up before her eyes – and that while her husband had passed away, she was still there, and she wanted us to become the responsible, caring adults our parents were, the adult she had been for us. It was time, in a sense, to return the favor.
“Study hard. Get a job,” she said sternly, “Then come back and buy me dinner.”
She was a widow, but never a ghost. My grandmother was alive and well and so was I. We had a million new memories to look ahead to, but now I was no longer a child.
“I’ll buy you a hundred dinners,” I said, “It’s about time I treated you to something.”
She was silent for a moment, then, “Don’t worry about that,” she said, “It’s your heart that counts. Do what you have to do, and come back in the winter when you’ve graduated.”
I smiled into the receiver, “I will, Grandma.”