The young woman was thirty-two, the same age as my aunt, and forty-eight years younger than my grandfather. And she was beautiful. Petite with strong, high cheekbones, full lips and a full head of thick hair, a shock of surprise rippled through the family when they met her for the very first time. She was beautiful, my aunt recalled, but she had a hard look about her, as though something or someone was forcing her to marry this drastically older man. But far from it, her decision to marry my grandfather was entirely her own.
She was working as an administrator at an appliance company, filing forms and payments on air conditioning units and refrigerators, when a coworker, the sister of an aunt, suggested that she meet an elderly man she knew.
I was two at the time and living an ocean away in a leafy suburb of southern California, utterly oblivious to any grandmother but my mother’s mother, who lived in the neighboring city and made sweet buns for us at Chinese New Year’s. As I played in American sandboxes, the union that would provide me with a Taiwanese grandmother was being arranged in the humidity of Formosan air. The mental intricacies that would push a young woman of thirty to agree to meet a man of eighty with the implied expectation of a partnership remained uninvestigated for years, but as I grew older and my grandparents’ relationship became clearer, I opened my ears and became very still when my grandmother was out of the room and the other women remained behind. In this way I pieced together a shadowy history of my grandfather’s last wife.
Five years prior to her marriage to my grandfather, she had been in love with a man closer to her own age. They had both come to Taipei from the poorer southern city of Tainan, hoping to make a new life for them in the big city. A friendly and sociable woman whose confidence was boosted by the move to a bustling city with the love of her life, she quickly found a job at the appliance sales company and worked diligently, saving most of what she earned towards buying a house with this man. He on the other hand, remains largely a mystery – my grandma only ever told my mother once, vaguely, about what happened – but what’s clear is that after five years of life in the city, her savings close to what was needed to buy a house, she came home from work one night to find the house empty and the man gone along with every penny in the bank.
I’m not sure what sort of conversations they had on their marriage night or in the days after, but I believe that my grandfather asked no questions. The ease with which he lived was the same ease by which others conducted themselves around him. His new wife felt this immediately. My grandmother, the only one I have ever known on my father’s side, did not marry for money per se – though of course the money was welcome – rather, she wanted a decent man. I am not one to explain the psychological process that leads one to marry a man forty-eight years older – maybe my grandmother was a little crazy – but in all the years I have known her, and him, neither grandma nor grandpa ever gave any indication that they were nothing but meant for each other.
Just as with wife number four, my Grandfather lavished his new bride with gifts and countless trips around the world, except this time with grandchildren in tow. Which suited my grandmother fine, because she was as humble as my grandfather was vain. She delighted in the old man’s vanity and even encouraged it, for she loved to comb his hair for him, to buy him the latest Japanese beauty creams, and to pick out brilliantly colored ties and handkerchiefs. In China, she bargained fearlessly for the best prices on suits and shoes, her Mandarin saturated with a heavy Taiwanese accent that would normally cause mainland vendors to disregard her, but her easy laugh and friendly nature made her hard to dislike. And while in the first decade and a half of their union my grandfather was fully capable of doing all these things himself, he delighted in her company and the looks they drew as they walked down the street and into restaurants.
Had the age difference not been so wide, they would still have made a strange couple, for my grandmother was notoriously the most tackily dressed member of the family. She wanted none of the finery so coveted by the fourth wife or the social status of the third. She wanted only the security of being with a good man, and my grandfather, aside from his narcissism, was a good man. It wasn’t until after his ninety-sixth birthday that the first signs of senility began to show, but even then my grandmother rose to the occasion. Though she had the financial means, my grandmother refused to hire a caretaker for my grandfather and gamely assumed the role of nursemaid, chef, driver and secretary. Despite his growing need to sleep and a diminishing appetite, my grandfather maintained a robust social schedule, keeping memberships at several of Taipei’s ritziest hotels, to where he treated his friends for lunch. When these men, many of whom were also retired customs officers had begun to die off, my grandfather took to treating officers from later generations or his colleagues’ grown children and their families. These elaborate, time-consuming meals were by no means exclusive to customs officers. I remember many a summer afternoon whiled away at a ritzy hotel buffet or within the dim, wood-paneled dining room of an upscale steakhouse. My grandfather specialized in treating people to the business lunch: three courses for the price of two. These meals became a family tradition – a rite of passage for anyone who wanted to know the family better and it was during these meals that any outsider, and the family as well, acknowledged just how necessary my grandmother was to my grandfather’s wellbeing.