100 Years of Vanity, Part II

A man born in Shanghai carries Shanghai with him forever. Thus my grandfather neither bid farewell to Shanghai nor did he abandon all hopes of reunification with his daughters – he communicated with them frequently via letters and kept every epistle his daughters sent. When relations between China and Taiwan resumed, he returned twice each year to his native city and made sure his daughters and their children (by then two had married) were financially secure. But mostly now, his attentions were directed at his new wife, his three sons and, unwaveringly, upon himself.
It is hard for a vain man to be emotionally available, and my grandfather was no exception. Once I asked my father whether he recalled any heart to heart conversations with his father and without pause my father replied, “Nope.” But by no means was grandpa a cold man – he smiled generously and loved his wife, his sons and his friends in the best way he knew how: by spending time with them. He spoke little during his children’s upbringing, preferring to smile and watch rather than talk and interact. It was his third wife, my biological grandmother, who kept household affairs running smoothly, made sure their finances were in order and disciplined the boys; it was my grandfather’s job to go to work everyday, come home to dinner, and smile as they talked to each other. He appreciated the finer things in life and was lucky that his business-minded wife trained her three sons to be business-minded as well, buying land as a future investment, teaching them the value of the dollar and pressuring them to pursue graduate studies in the United States. My grandfather, in all his thrift, agreed with her, but pursued his own interests in ballroom dancing and attending parties. He loved to dine out (but never drink), dance and be seen at parties with his wife on his arm (a beautiful woman was always his best accessory) and he easily became the life of the party without saying more than a few words. His presence alone put everyone around him at ease and this was largely due to the fact that he neither tried nor was interested in persuading, entertaining or getting to know others. This was the other side of his vanity – the desire to know only himself, and superficially, those closest to him. As his sons grew into successful businessmen and his peers began to appear more and more disheveled and wrinkled with age, my grandfather seemed to grow more youthful with pride at his sons’ successes and his wife’s financial prowess.
“I never asked for any of this,” his smile seemed to say, “But you know, I am a lucky man.”
Luck, by definition, does not encompass the death of a spouse or, in my grandfather’s case, the death of multiple spouses. I should mention here that his second wife had died in Shanghai of tuberculosis shortly after she discovered my grandfather could not return from his post. His first wife had succumbed to the same disease. Thus twice widowed and in Taipei, my grandfather married a third time to the woman who would bear him three sons to pass down the family name. When my father had been working for only one year at his first job out of graduate school, his mother was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Perhaps she had worried too much – her sons’ futures, their girlfriends (none of whom she liked, my mother included) and about the family’s finances – while her husband worried about nothing, but the cancer spread quickly and she was dead within a year. The whole family mourned along with much of Taipei’s high society, for by then my grandmother had, by shrewd investing and thrift, amassed a small fortune for the family, providing her sons with the capital to start their own business.
My grandfather was saddened but his two younger sons were consumed by their grief – they had been immensely close to their mother. My father, the eldest, was working in Hong Kong through much of her sickness, was sad but strangely detached – also, his relationship with his mother had been strained during her last months; she disapproved of my father’s wanting to marry my mother, of whose poor background she disapproved.
“Your grandmother was vain in a different way,” my mother said to me, “She worried about the face, the reputation of the family while your grandpa was always more concerned about his actual face.”
And it was true – less than a year later, my grandfather was on the hunt for wife number four, believing that the best beauty treatment to keep wrinkles at bay was to marry someone young and beautiful who would worry about the things he couldn’t be bothered by. With his children grown and their success growing, my grandfather felt it less important to find a “motherly” figure for his children than to find a stunning woman with whom he could be seen with out on the town. Likewise in his youth, my grandfather, at the ripe old age of seventy, was still quite a catch and there was no shortage of women who wanted to marry him. He finally set his shallow sights on a beautiful fifty-eight year widow who had in her younger days been a B-list movie star. She on the other hand, had her sights set on his money. 

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