One recent afternoon my father was hacking up another watermelon when my aunt phoned. I was eating left over Indian curry from the night before, chewing slowly while trying to catch the gist of the conversation from my father’s end.
“Don’t worry about inviting so and so,” he was saying, “The old man wants to take people out to dinner, then let him, but just keep it small…
“…I know this is a special occasion, but there’s no need to make him go all out and take us to Sam Woo…it’s too expensive, there’s no need…”
Sam Woo is the Cantonese seafood restaurant in which my family practically celebrated every birthday, Father’s and Mother’s day. They specialized in crab and lobster stir-fries, which were always begun with a server bringing the live animal to our table to show you both how large and alive it was. My father, who usually did the ordering, would peer into the bucket and smile, nodding both to the server and back at us, “Oh, it’s a big one.”
We ate there so often that for a while, I feared going there. But now, having been away for school for so long, it sounded like a refreshing treat. Assuming “the old man” was my Uncle Louis, my ears perked up and I wondered if indeed, we would soon be dining at Sam Woo. My Aunt Joanie and Uncle Louis moved less than a year ago to a house less then fifteen minute’s walking distance away from ours. They often ate dinner together, alternating houses as well as palates (heavy, salty and meaty at our house, light, bland and vegetarian at theirs) and occasionally they would choose to take the party outside and treat the other family to a restaurant meal.
My father hung up and returned to butchering the watermelon, taking occasional hunks and putting them into his mouth. Between stupendously slurpy sounds, he said, “That was your Aunt Joannie calling (slurp), Grandpa Yang wants to treat everyone to dinner (slurp) and she’s getting a headache deciding where.”
“Grandpa Yang?” I said, my expression bordering on incredulity.
“He said those words? He said, “I want to take everyone out to dinner?”
“Are you sure? He said the words? He spoke?”
My father understood my disbelief yet let me sputter on for ten minutes as I asked him variations of the same question. It seemed incredible to me that the “old man” had opened his mouth to speak, when the only sounds I ever heard from him were soft snores from when he was asleep on the mechanical massage chair, which, after his bed, was his second favorite spot in my uncle’s home, and the slurping of soup when he ate. At ninety-eight years old, he reminded me of my own grandfather, who had passed away last year at one hundred at one, but Grandpa Yang was nowhere near as vain or health conscious as my grandpa was.
For one thing, he disliked the taste of water so would drink none of it and ate about as many vegetables as there were worries on his mind, which were few if any at all. Additionally, it was only this past year that he quit smoking two packs a day, a habit he had sustained for nearly seven decades. When I asked my aunt why he quit, she shrugged.
“He just did.”
For the better part of my childhood, I saw Grandpa Yang only at large family gatherings, especially the ones my Aunt and Uncle hosted at their home in Cerritos, though Grandpa Yang didn’t live with them. After his wife passed away he moved to a sparsely furnished house in a nearby city and recommenced a short-stint of bachelorhood. I distinctly remember his arrival at a Chinese New Year party one year, walking through my Aunt’s wrought iron door with a short, squat woman trailing behind him. Her name was Grandma Miao and her face was round and wrinkled like a dried Chinese pork bun that had been left out too long. She must have been around sixty-five or seventy at the time, way past the “dating” age in my book, and yet she was introduced to the children as Grandpa Yang’s “girlfriend.”
I must have snickered, but not any more than the adults did. I could detect a tiny hint of sarcasm in my aunt’s voice whenever Grandpa Yang’s girlfriend came up, while my uncle sounded slightly defeated. But the secret to old age, they realized, was to care little for what others thought, and so Grandpa Yang came and went with his girlfriend on his arm, utterly oblivious to what the younger generations were saying about them. I grew to see them as a sterling example of love’s second wind.
My mother snorted when I shared my view on Grandpa Yang’s relationship.
“It’s more that a man can’t live very long without a woman,” she said, citing my own grandfather’s multiple marriages as sterling examples, “It’s not love, Betty, it’s companionship.”
Maybe so, I said, but I couldn’t help but see them as an “item” – an utterly adorable couple who had the luck to find each other after their first loves had passed away. I imagined them holding hands, sitting side by side on the couch while Chinese game shows glowed at their hunched figures from the television. I imagined Grandma Pork Bun fixing breakfast for Grandpa Yang each morning, rising early to make sure the congee was just the right texture for the few real teeth they both had left. I imagined them sharing their pasts with each other, shopping for groceries together, playing mahjong and laughing with friends together…
“No way,” my aunt Yang said to me the other day, when I shared my geriatric fantasies over dinner at her house. Grandpa Yang was silently drinking soup, though to me, he appeared to be asleep.
“They didn’t get along at all.”
“But they were together for fourteen years!” I sputtered.
“Yeah, but this one” – she nodded towards Grandpa Yang – “only got older and more deaf. Grandma Pork Bun complained that he was stingy, and that he was a pervert.”
Somewhere between my high school graduation and my semesters at college, the adults had become less wary of talking around me and it was through this new access to adult conversations that I learned my rosy colored vision of Grandpa Yang’s relationship had been grossly idealized. My mother was right; it wasn’t love that brought the two together but a need for companionship. Because the dating pool for people in their eighties was extremely limited, our family thought it had struck gold in Grandma Miao, the widowed mother of a woman my mom knew through Chinese school circles. A set up was arranged and two people were brought together for no other reasons than that they were old, their spouses dead, and they were of the opposite sex.
Their first meeting, I’m certain, went well. It was only recently that I became interested enough to take a good close look at Grandpa Yang’s physiognomy, which, though old, is far from decrepit. Grandpa Yang, at fifteen years younger than his current ninety-seven, showered and groomed, must have presented remarkably well. He was tall and thin with a full head of hair, which he slicked back with hair oil. He had a swarthy complexion, which had been passed down to my uncle and two of my cousins, the older of which was often mistaken for a Philippine, and regardless of whether it was hair oil or face cream, he always sported a shiny forehead that gave him an air of health and vitality.
When in books I first learned the phrase “aquiline features,” I immediately thought of Grandpa Yang, who with his prominent nose and beak-like mouth, reminded me of a regal hawk or owl. This comparison complimented Grandpa Yang’s career as a police officer in China before immigrating to the United States. He had been an eagle-eyed officer, vigorously chasing after thieves, burglars, and prostitutes. My uncle told me that Grandpa Yang had been a formidable figure both on the task force and at home as a father, but his stern countenance belied the fact that he had been a Chinese Casanova.
“He only married once,” Uncle Louis told me, “but he had many girlfriends. He was very handsome. Very handsome.”
Grandpa Yang and Grandma Miao had money issues. Grandma Miao complained that he was stingy – an iron rooster who refused to part with even one feather- while he sat stoically when accused and only shook his head. She wailed that he never gave her enough money for groceries, yet when my uncle inquired to see if this was true, he discovered that Grandpa Yang had been giving her enough grocery money to feed a family of four. As for the accusations of being a pervert, my aunt merely shrugged and said that the old man did enjoy an off color joke every once in a while. But my mother would later tell me an interesting fact that Grandpa Yang had revealed to her many years ago: when he was younger and when his creative juices flowed more freely, he liked to write erotica.
“I would strip naked and write them,” he said gleefully, “and I sent them in to be published too!” My mother edged herself away from him but understood that he was, after all, a man. However, to Grandma Miao, whose sex drive had all but deserted her and to whom nature had bestowed a face reminiscent of a steamed Chinese delicacy, Grandpa Yang’s testosterone-fueled interests were appalling.
Their relationship ended not too long ago. The deafness that plagued Grandpa Yang’s ears grew too much for Grandma Miao – she had walls enough back home to speak to – and she left in a dramatic huff. Grandpa Yang, I’m guessing, didn’t even say goodbye. The bachelor pad was sold and my aunt and uncle briefly entertained the thought of putting Grandpa Yang in a senior home. They had just purchased their new home for less than a year however, when Grandpa Yang was brought over for a visit.
By then he rarely spoke, unless it was a soft “Yes, yes” in response to a question or a querying look, no matter what the right answer was. In his old age, he became a “Yes, yes,” man, as in “Yes, yes, please be quiet,” and “Yes, yes, I’ve been alive much longer than you can imagine and my deafness suits me fine because you younger people make so much fuss and noise.” And deafness makes other activities less enjoyable. He slowly stopped watching television, preferring instead to stare contentedly into the atmosphere, and as his walking slowed to a shuffle, he did that less too, choosing to sit for hours at a time in a single spot while the world moved around him.
It was this older, quieter, seemingly detached version of Grandpa Yang that came to visit Uncle Louis’ new home and after slowly touring the house’s many rooms, the glittering swimming pool out back surrounded by a sun-soaked lawn, and the flat, mostly one-story layout, the bachelor noticed that the only other inhabitants of the house would be his son and daughter-in-law, both of whom were nearing senior-citizen status themselves.
It would be a quiet house, Grandpa Yang thought, and relishing this thought, he spoke the longest sentence since a while.
“I would like to live here at Louis’ place,” he said.
My aunt and uncle obliged him immediately and moved the old man in, bringing over his few belongings – an old TV set from the early eighties and a few clothes that now only hung upon his wiry frame.
Now, living in my uncle’s home, he sank deeper and deeper into his own world. He was far from senile, but his ears were giving out and he disliked wearing a hearing aid for the same reason my grandfather disliked it: it was too loud, the sound too crisp – often, they heard more than they wanted to. His head bathed in a perpetual aural cloud and drooping eyelids threatened to cover his sight, but he remedied that by choosing to close them in slumber most hours of a day. And just like that his first, then second, then third, fourth, fifth, and sixth month passed under the wing of filial hospitality. My aunt and uncle continued to talk loudly inches away from his ear when it was time to eat or bathe, and he alternated between a lawn chair in the backyard, in which he sat directly under the sun’s rays for five hours straight and the massage chair in the living room, in which he logged so many hours that the leather arm and headrests began to thin. In this way, we all expected him to live out the rest of his days, saying nothing, seeing nothing, wanting nothing.
And so the sudden desire to treat the entire family to dinner. It came out of the blue, utterly independent from anyone’s coaxing or prodding, and, according to my aunt, was a startling show of energy from a man she had begun to see as a social lost cause.
Without further ado, a restaurant was chosen, the dishes selected, and the guests rounded up – unfortunately, the children were excluded. The dinner passed without a hiccup, except that by then Grandpa Yang had reverted back to his old, stoic ways. He had sat quietly at the dinner table and spoke to no one, merely nodding when Uncle Louis put more food on his plate. When he was full, he leaned back and waited for the rest of the guests to finish, nearly falling asleep. The bill came and Uncle Louis paid with the cash Grandpa Yang had him take out of his bank account on the night he suggested the dinner. Only in that it was Grandpa Yang’s money could the dinner be attributed to him; cash aside, it was as though he hadn’t been present at all.
“It was very strange,” my aunt admitted, several days after the dinner occurred, “I don’t know where he got all the breath but he was positively enthusiastic when suggesting the dinner party. ‘Invite everybody!’ he kept on saying, ‘I want to take the whole family out to dinner!’” my aunt paused to look at me, “your expression is very strange,” she said.
And so it was, but I couldn’t help but remember my own grandfather’s actions in the months leading up to his death. Less cryptic than Grandpa Yang, but no less telling.
He was one hundred years old and it was winter. The following summer would mark his one hundred-and-first birthday, a mark he knew he would hit. But beyond that – well, perhaps he knew as well. Like Grandpa Yang, my grandfather had become mute – his ears were not hard of hearing, but he chose not to hear. It had been like that for the past five or so years, that grandpa stopped talking, and we were used to it. That winter however, he looked up suddenly one night at dinner and noticed how big the round table was and, in comparison, how few family members were sitting around it. He had spawned a larger clan than this, he was certain of it.
“I’m old,” he said, and the family froze to listen, “I haven’t many days left, but I would like it if we could eat dinner together as a family for the rest of those days. All of us.”
He motioned for my aunt to call my aunt and uncle and two cousins down from upstairs to have dinner and she obeyed. Moments later, the round table was filled with his sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren, save for my brother and I, who were in the states at the time. Less than half a year later, he passed away.
“It’s not exactly the same,” I said to my aunt, “but perhaps he knows his time is coming, and he wanted to give something back.”
“Perhaps, perhaps,” my aunt said. We were in her kitchen then, clearing the dishes from another bland, home-cooked meal. The soft whirr of the mechanical massage chair could be heard from the general direction of the living room. I walked over, drying my hands on my shirt and stood in front of him, blocking the glare of the television. He must have sensed the sudden change in light, or perhaps the machine shifted gears, but he opened his eyes and gazed at me.
Knowing he couldn’t hear me, I waved but couldn’t stop myself from thinking, “Is it time?” Certain I wasn’t going to say anything he smiled, lips sealed shut. He didn’t have to say it, now or ever – but the answer, as always, was “Yes, yes.”