At dinner my mother reminded me to prepare red envelopes for my aunts and grandmother back in Taipei, in celebration of Chinese New Year.
“This is the first year you’re working full time, with a salary. You should share that with them.”
I nodded, wondering how much I ought to give.
“A nice even number,” my mother said, “Even numbers are good luck. Except for 4.”
Four, in Chinese, is almost a homonym for “death.” There is a slight tonal difference, but not much.
I read this at work today, during my lunch break. The Modern Love column is the NYTimes’ own nostrum to the bitter feelings their Weddings and Celebrations section might induce. Being multi-faceted, I read both sections religiously.
Today’s column struck a chord.
“A STORY that haunts me involves a woman I know whose fiancé went out to inspect a potential apartment for their married life and never came back. He wasn’t dead in a ditch. He was just gone, without clarification.”
When she was 30 years old, my grandmother made the very strange decision to marry an 80-year old man. She was introduced to him through a coworker who knew that she’d been jilted in love.
“Just meet him,” the coworker said, “He’s old, but doesn’t look it. He’s taken good care of himself. And he’s got a good family. They will treat you well.”
My grandmother simply nodded. She was tired. She was always tired after the day she returned to Taipei from her mother’s funeral. She put on an ugly green corduroy skirt and a fuzzy orange sweater, and went to have dinner with the 80-year old man and his family.
My grandmother’s story haunts me, even though I have only ever heard it from other women’s lips.
“She was dating a man for a long time. They came up together from the south and took low-paying jobs. Anyone on the outside could tell he was a lowlife. He had a hard time keeping his jobs, but she worked hard and saved almost every penny. She wanted to buy a house, start a family with him.
“Her mother grew ill then passed away. Your grandma took the train back home to be with her family in the south. She wasn’t gone for long, but he stayed up north, who knows what he told her. When she returned to Taipei, he was gone. He had taken the money too. Every dime she had saved for their life together.”
Once, upon hearing that my grandma had bought herself a $6000 mattress, my mother asked her why. The mattress stood in for a million other useless things my grandma has bought for both herself and others. She is generous, to say the least and to watch her spend, it would appear that savings accounts had no purpose.
My grandma shrugged, “Life is short,” she said, “I want to be good to myself. I have no children and no parents to leave it to. Whatever I can’t spend, I’ll give away to charity.”
My mother wanted to frown and say, “Please keep some for a rainy day,” but stopped herself. My grandmother’s rainiest day had come and gone.