My aunt invited my grandparents, parents and me over for dinner today. It wasn’t a special occasion or anything, she just bought a ton of groceries and decided to cook, and asked my dad to pick my grandparents up from their home in Cerritos on his way home from work. Dinners like these are a combination of things: an effort to eat healthier (my aunt cooks mostly vegetarian), to spend more time with her parents in addition to the countless hours they spend on the road and at various hospitals, and to spend more time with me. At least I like to think so.
A few years ago I would have shook my head no thanks, opting to stay at home or go out with friends, but in the past year and a half that I’ve been living at home I find myself looking forward to them. I like my aunt’s cooking, despite her dishes being bland and often, unsightly (lord help her presentation if she uses soy sauce or eggs). What’s more, there is the odd family practice of not really paying any attention to the younger generation. Growing up our family celebrations at restaurants and even at home were firmly divided into two tables: adults and kids. There are ten cousins and about as many adults, and my father was usually in charge of ordering for both tables. Thinking himself “hip” to what young people wanted, he would throw a fried noodle, rice or orange chicken dish in at the end of the meal at the kids table, assuming we’d go bananas over that stuff. (Most of the time, we were too stuffed to make a dent and he’d come over and help himself to a bowl, having wanted it for himself all along.) I think even now, with some of my cousins approaching forty and with kids of their own, we sort of still expect to be sat at a table together, separate from our parents.
These days at my aunt’s house I’m just one “kid,” and therefore expected to sit at the table with the “adults,” but their attention turns to me only when they’re concerned that I’m not eating enough or can’t reach a particular dish. It’s not strange until I think about how old I am and, according to society’s life map, where I’m supposed to be. I should be working late or perhaps out with my long-term boyfriend or, if I were married, home readying dinner for my husband and my own kids.
Instead I sit, eat, and listen. They talk about the dishes and how they can be improved (my father and grandma are most voluble when it comes to these matters). They talk about their mutual friends – who has cancer, whose children are getting married, whose parents are aging and on their way out, and who is a little miffed with whom but just too polite to say so. They talk about grandma and grandpa (if grandma and grandpa aren’t present) and their progress and about new and unborn babies, and how different child-rearing is nowadays. They love their children, but sometimes, in the lifestyles and within the marriages themselves, have a hard time recognizing that these children, now adults with houses and children of their own, came from their bodies.
It’s not a bad thing. None of it is bad – and they speak of these things in a matter-of-fact way, between bites of bitter melon, egg and tomato stir fry, pickled cucumbers, pan-fried rock cod, chicken curry, and yam leaves. They are both aware and unaware of time and how fast things change. When my grandparents are present you see on their faces everything that’s being said, those very changes that took place over all the long decades of their lives: the wars and revolutions, the migrations from there to there to here, the marriage and miscarriages and finally the births of these children who branched off into their own full lives with their own migrations and marriages and careers that enabled them to buy large houses in leafy suburbs and eggs in cartons of eighteen. They’ve done their share of fretting over their children. I guess, when you’re eighty-six and your back hurts no matter what position you’re in and you’ve tried every drug in the world, you sort of just realize, “Hey, life is short, don’t try to control what you can’t.”
And my parents and my aunt, they don’t try to control what they can’t. At least not anymore. All the variables have grown up and moved away. I’m not supposed to be around listening to these conversations, where they basically review everything they did right or wrong over the course of our young lives, but I am. What I’m listening to are the memories and realizations of retired tiger moms and formerly stern fathers (not my own, but my grandpa, certainly) who have pretty much stepped back and said, “They, my children, are no longer my responsibility. They have their own lives and I have mine.”
I’m learning a lot – but mostly that life, depending on how you look at it and how you spend it, can be quite short. Or I guess to be more optimistic: it’s long, but it goes by damn quickly.
Case in point:
After dinner my grandma wanted to poke around my aunt’s yard. My grandma loves gardens and plants and she loves to comment on other people’s plants. We encourage this behavior because it means my grandma is doing something somewhat active, even though my grandpa is always in a rush to go back home where he does nothing but sit and stare at the TV or listen to a wailing Beijing opera. We don’t understand his rush to do nothing, but at the same time this sort of pointless impatience seems to afflict most elderly Asian men I know. I think they were programmed to return home to their couches and beds. Anyway, this evening my grandma got up from her chair and walked to the back door.
“It’s so cool here by the door,” she said and without further ado, stepped out without her cane.
“Your cane!” my aunt said. I was done eating by then and rose to bring grandma her cane. I didn’t have to go very far, and since I was already there at her arm, I decided to walk out with her.
It was ten degrees cooler outside now that the sun was lower in the sky and I was instantly glad I had stepped out of my aunt’s warm kitchen. There was a soft breeze, coupled with the smell of grass and whatever plants my aunt kept on my left, that made the air so fragrant. Slowly, we walked around the kitchen window and came to my aunt’s garden patch. I smiled as my grandma poo-pahed my aunt’s plants, laughing at the scrawny tomatoes and tiny apples, but I could tell she was pleased that her eldest daughter, formerly a super successful real-estate agent who couldn’t keep a houseplant alive, now kept a garden at all. (Amusingly, my grandma kept on saying, “Your little garden,” even though my aunt’s yard is roughly, the size of my grandma’s entire house.) Aside from the fact that if my grandma had taken a fall I would have been the one responsible, I felt, standing there by her side, quite young and child-like. I had gone out barefoot and left my phone inside. My parents, aunt and grandpa were still inside chatting and finishing their meal, and for a few minutes it was just me and grandma in the garden.
We didn’t say much, I just stood by and watched her examine a leave here and there. Despite having no strength in her legs my grandma was quite strong in the arms and leaned heavily on her aluminum cane as she reached for a young fruit or browned, dead leaf, which she would pluck off with surprising vigor and thrust to the dirt. Eventually she decided my aunt’s garden was not hopeless and kept on walking beyond it to the pool, where two old lawn chairs sat side by side. She poked at one with her cane and, deciding that she didn’t care about the crusty bird shirt that covered the edges, sat down after bending her legs for what seemed like five whole minutes until her bottom touched the beige mesh of the chair.
She sighed and looked up at me, then twisted her neck around as though realizing for the first time that she was in her daughter’s backyard, “It’s quite nice here, isn’t it?”
It is, I said. Seeing that Grandma was safely seated, I stepped into the pool, wanting to cool my legs. I kicked a bit, stirring to the middle fallen leaves that had collected around the water’s edge.
“Oh my goodness!” my grandma exclaimed, “You kicked out all the dirty things.”
“They’re just leaves, Grandma,” but it was still light and I spotted my aunt’s pool net. I got out of the water and grabbed it, then tried as expertly as I could to gather up all the leaves I’d caused to float to the center of the pool.
“You missed a spot.”
I turned around. My grandfather had come out too and was standing at the opposite end of the pool, near the spa with one arm behind his back and another stretched out and pointing at the water.
“Got it,” I said, and moved to clean the area.
“Maybe you could work for your aunt and clean her pool,” my grandpa said, and chuckled to himself. What a jokester.
“I could, but I’d like to be paid in cash and not in vegetarian dishes,” I said.
He laughed, then walked around to where his wife sat. He bent down to brush the seat off, then sat down gingerly, wincing slightly as the crick in his back acted up.
I put the net down and walked over.
“Are you comfortable?” I asked, already knowing what his answer would be.
“At my age, there is no comfortable. There is only bad and not too bad.”
“Well, hopefully you’re not too bad.”
“Not too bad,” my grandpa nodded.
We sat, the three of us – they in the lawn chairs and me on the floor with my legs in the pool for the better part of an hour, talking about my cousins and their children, and guessing at who would marry next.
“You need to find someone,” my grandma said, then she thought about it and said, “Well, don’t rush it. It takes time to find someone really good.”
My father came out to take a phone call and we could hear his voice breaking in and out over the white noise of a garden in the evening.
My grandma turned to look, “Who’s he talking to?”
“He’s on the phone,” grandpa said.
My grandma looked at me, “Not sure what you, your mother, brother or what your grandpa and I did in our past lives to get a father, husband and son-in-law like him, but we are very blessed.”
I laughed. So I’ve heard from them many times.
My grandpa nodded in agreement, and for the next few minutes we didn’t say anything. Suddenly the pool lights came on along with the waterfall. My aunt had turned them on via remote control from her study. I waved at the window and saw a slim white arm wave back. The pool light, chosen by the previous owners who had no doubt predicted wild booze-filled pool parties, glowed in a myriad of garish colors: red, blue, white, then green. Silently we watched the water change colors, pausing just a few seconds on each hue before slowly changing to the next.
The three of us watched the colors change as though in a trance until my father finished his phone call and came to join us.
“I saw you clean your aunt’s pool.”
“I told her she could clean her aunt’s pool for a living,” my grandpa said again, and my father laughed.
“Oh no,” he said, “She’s going back to school. At least, that’s what she tells me.”
“That’s the plan,” I said.
“Good, good,” grandpa said, “School is always good.”
My father scoffed, “Yes, but this one doesn’t study. I’m worried I’ll be throwing my money away. She majored in English and all she ever did was read a few novels.”
“Saying you study is like watching ghosts fight.”
I thought my father was saying something poetic, about how a writer’s struggle is invisible, and for a minute I thought he was coming around. That he understood that my “studying” or “working” wasn’t always something you could chart. But just to make sure, I asked.
“What does that mean?”
“Have you ever seen ghosts fight?”
“There you go.”
I rolled my eyes. What was there to explain? Nothing really. It was a nice evening. We had just eaten a healthy, home-cooked meal. I had just cleaned my aunt’s pool and was now sitting with my feet in the water. It felt good, and looking at my grandparent’s faces, they felt good too. My father, with his arms crossed and his phone back in his pocket, was smiling.
My grandpa must have noticed something then. The sun was nearly completely gone, but there was still enough light to see barely, the outline of their faces and mine too.
“You’re at your best right now,” he said suddenly, “this is your best time.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant: was he referring to my youth or intellectual potential or fertility? Maybe all three. Was it warning? Or perhaps in the dimming twilight my grandfather had briefly forgotten that I was twenty-six and spoke to me as though I were still a child, having just left the children’s table to accompany them to the edge of the pool.
I didn’t know and there was something about the moment that told me not to ask. His statement had been issued and I could do with it what I wanted. I kicked my feet up a bit and caused the water to ripple. The lights changed again, then again, and again, casting a glow on all our faces, sometimes warm and red, sometimes a cool blue and white. I wondered if the pool light had a sensor. If I jumped in, would the lights stop changing? Probably not.