My grandfather was interred on a hillside in the outskirts of Taipei city on a muggy July afternoon. As tradition dictated, we turned our backs on his coffin as the gravediggers dropped him into the ground. There is nothing sinister about a man dying from old age, but there is too much mystery about death to take chances, so by turning away, we were protecting our spirits from following his into the grave. I don’t remember if I was crying, but I do remember waiting for the sound of the coffin hitting the bottom of the grave. I was unaware of the charcoal then. My aunt would later explain why it had all been so soundless. It was such a violent sound: a heavy coffin hitting the cold, hard dirt. No family needed to hear that, so the gravediggers lined the grave with charcoal sticks to absorb the sound – a pillow of ashes to save our ears and to cushion my grandfather’s final fall. But I did not know about the charcoal then and so for the longest minute, I stood, ears alert, wondering if the coffin would crack or if my grandfather’s body would jostle, if his suit and tie would wrinkle. I remember thinking, “Everything will be different from now on,” and heard no sound until suddenly a voice said, “It’s finished.” Confused, I turned around to find that the coffin was no longer propped over the hole but in it, entirely out of sight.
And just like that my grandfather was in the ground, having taken with him our childhoods.
In the past, all of my July’s except for one have been spent on the humid island of Taiwan. My grandfather’s birthday was sometime in the middle of July – I never did get the exact date, as the family preferred to celebrate by the Lunar calendar, which changes every year – and his birthday party was the big event of our summers. Depending on what age he was celebrating, these “parties” (really just extremely long, multi-course dinners) ranged from intimate gatherings of two or three tables populated with close friends and family, to enormous, wedding-sized banquets in fancy hotels, complete with emcee, printed program, and champagne toasts. And even in life, as in death, my grandfather was a silent man. Towards his last few years anyway. I have heard countless stories about him arguing with my father, younger versions of either man shouting at each other across the living room while the rest of the family looked on, stunned that such harsh words could be exchanged between father and son and more stunned to see that the two men could sit down a few hours later at the same table for a civilized meal, as though nothing had happened at all.
As time passed however, my father’s voice grew in strength while my grandfather’s lessened, though by choice rather than biological processes. My grandfather considered himself a tasteful, tactful man and chose the high road when it came to aging. He turned his nose down on members of his generation who couldn’t shut up and let go of certain things: how their kids and grand kids treated or didn’t treat them, which of their friends were sick and dying, which were having money troubles, which stiff joints/diseases/digestive issues were acting up again, etc. etc. With age my grandfather clammed up, calmed down, preferring tranquility to fuss, learning earlier than most that the best way to live was to let life take its course. He saw firsthand, on funeral invitation after funeral invitation that stress and anxiety kill much more swiftly than age.
Despite the stories I heard about his shouting matches with my father, there were other vignettes of him from an earlier age. He loved to dance. When his youngest son was still a light-boned young boy, he would pick him up and twirl him around the living room to practice new steps with the hazy, soothing sound of the latest records playing in the background on the Victrola.
“And what would you be doing?” I asked my father.
He shrugged, “Your uncle Kwang-Hong and I would be reading on the couch, or just watching.”
I tried to picture my uncle Kwang-Hwa dancing with my grandpa – I had seen pictures of Kwang-Hua as a young boy – he was delicate, with a thin neck, full lips, and wide, open eyes – an almost feminine face that he would pass on to his eldest daughter twenty-some years later. Did he enjoy dancing? It’s hard to say: my father’s memory is as spotty as mine, but some forty years later my uncle has never been known to do any such steps. At least not in front of us.
Steps learned, my grandfather would take off for posh dance clubs dressed to the nines in three piece pin-stripe suits, matching tie and shiny shoes, leaving his wife at home to stress over the housekeeping, bookkeeping, and the education of their three sons. My grandmother, according to family lore, was not the type to let life glide by. She attempted to rein life in like a rogue mare, with an iron bit and thick whip, until finally she slipped and it trampled her.
There were rare occasions during which my grandfather raised his voice – at whom or what, I forget – but I was startled to find it deep and booming, coming from an invisible depth one could not fathom, a voice incomprehensibly formed and contained in his short frame. For most of my existence, the years of which make up a very small percentage of my grandfather’s life, my grandfather spoke little aside from the occasional, “Eat more.” Even in the rowdiest of crowds, he preferred to sit back with his hands crossed over his belly and take in the sights. The ultimate flaneur, I like to think; a pleasant, laconic man with a Mona Lisa smile.
Now that he’s gone, having passed away precisely when my foray into “real” life began, I no longer need to go back as urgently. Though I want to. I really really want to. Instead, I’m working. My cousins are working. Our parents are nearing retirement and working less. A strange trade off, though for the most part, we all live at home or variations of home (i.e. living rent-free in houses owned by our parents). And though our mindsets are not too far off from our younger selves, there’s a pressure gnawing at the backs of all our skulls, chewing us out, telling us to go forth and become adults.