On Wednesday, grandpa turned on the computer.
“I haven’t looked at this machine in a long time,” he said, “This was something your grandma liked to play.”
He was referring to solitaire, a game I used to associate solely with grandma until I started looking down on my way through airports and airplanes and noticed many people playing on their tablets and iPads with trancelike stares. It is an addictive game. In elementary school I thought it complicated; for some reason the numbers on playing cards signalled to me that the game involved math, but one afternoon my brother patiently explained:
“It’s easy,” he said, not really verbally explaining but showing me on the monitor. He moved cards with a simple click and drag of the mouse, “You put things in order. At the end it just sorts itself out.”
I liked the neatness of the game: it fed benign obsessive compulsive tendencies of mine. There was something deliciously militaristic about dragging the cards to their proper place, where they were prettily displayed in alternating colors. It frustrated me when I reached the limit to the number of cards I could pull from the master deck, but that was part of the challenge. What’s next? Could I work with it? Would I be stuck? I especially loved, when everything was squared away, the exhilarating explosion of the conclusion: a seemingly infinite number of cards bouncing insanely out of their decks, the ultimate joke: all that labor to sort things out and then what? Bonkers! Bananas! Now deal again. Now start over.
|Meredith Frampton A Game of Patience, 1937 Ferens Art Gallery, UK|
It may have been over a decade ago now, judging by the looks of the desktop, but someone, perhaps my brother or a cousin, or my uncle who runs a Chinese school and has a hoard of janky computers, set the PC up at my grandparent’s house. The idea was not to “connect” them – my grandparents never had internet – but to install some of their favorite games to help pass the time. Or keep them sharp. I’m not sure which, but both were achieved.
Grandma was an active woman, not that she exercised, but she kept herself busy around the house, in the garden, and in her kitchen. But sometimes when the weather was bad or when she didn’t feel like making buns (most likely her freezer was already full, waiting for hungry grandkids to come and empty it out), she’d set herself down in front of the computer and open solitaire. She played with an admirable concentration that seemed unlikely for someone who played purely out of boredom (I don’t think I ever saw a bored expression play across grandma’s face), and for some reason the image of her, playing solitaire by the sunny window that faced the neighbor’s wall is somehow, in hindsight, a paradoxical picture of elegance. Elegant precisely because it is not. The technical term for this, I cannot recall.
Objectively speaking, there was nothing elegant about my grandmother’s bearing. She was confident, but neither stylish nor poised. She had not exactly aged well. Some of the deepest wrinkles I ever saw were the ones that stretched in all directions across grandmother’s cheek. I can honestly say those wrinkles worry me because I know my skin-type is identical to hers. She gained weight in her old age, due largely to her voracious appetite rather than a slow metabolism (though this did not stop her from pointing out other fat people and shaking her head at them), and her hair, thick, curly and wiry, a Shandong Afro, was kept short in a low-maintenance haircut. On anyone else I would have said, “Butch cut, if there ever was one,” but on Grandma it was the only way her hair could be acceptably styled. A non-style, and in that, utterly her style. The hair stood up stoutly all on its own and grandma, if she was going out somewhere, would simply use an Afro pick to tease it up a bit before stepping out the door.
At home though, she was the epitome of low maintenance. Which is not to say she didn’t have her vanities: she liked having her nails painted and never turned down a bag or blouse or piece of jewelry her kids and grandkids bought her, but compared to the average female, whether Asian or Caucasian, she was, in her dressing and grooming habits, decidedly unfeminine. At least in her old age. She was most comfortable in loose elastic pajama-type pants and roomy collared shirts, which gave her upper body more definition than the soft roundness that was actually underneath. For additional adornment and truly special occasions, she alternated between an old diamond or ruby ring, a black pearl pendant, gifts from my mother, and preferred simple pearl studs in her ears. Around her thick, strong wrist she would wear a thin silver watch with a minuscule band of diamonds around the face. But at home, which is mostly where I saw her, she left those things on her dresser.
So solitaire. I just now recall an old deck of cards sitting on the kitchen table. The smiling cherubic faces of the odd looking angels and mermaids on the backs slowly being rubbed away, white edges stained yellow over the years with a thousand flips and shuffles on tables where countless dumplings were made by grandma’s hands and then consumed by our young mouths. She used to play with these tangible cards and it was only until after the computer was installed that the deck was put away. I never saw it again. It’s still in the house somewhere I’m sure, tucked away behind my grandfather’s knickknacks or old bottles of nail polish, the pigment long separated from the oil. Spare belongings for spare people.
On quiet afternoons, after lunch or perhaps an hour or so before dinner, when the dumplings were made and the vegetables washed and all that was left to do was boil water and drop them in, grandma would pull out the chair before the computer and play. Grandpa would be reading the paper just behind her or sit in front of the TV. Aside from the TV there would be very little noise. They were together but apart, in their own little worlds – she in solitaire and he as well, though a different kind. But they were together, living.
|Edward Hopper Four-Lane Road, 1956 Oil on Canvas Private Collection|
Most Wednesdays, my uncle takes grandpa to Rose Hills cemetery. Grandpa brings flowers, if he can find a nice bloom, and they either sit for a while in the car or stand on the grass, near the grave, depending on the weather. I’m assuming. I don’t know. I don’t go with them, nor do I want to. Right now I think in terms of a single year, or when I’m being only slightly more realistic about how life tends to work out, two or three years.
“I hope I get into grad school next year.”
“I hope I find a job before I graduate.”
“I hope I meet someone before I turn thirty.”
It’s limiting, but digestible. My grandparents were nearing their 70th wedding anniversary when grandma passed away and this number I find both awe-inducing and bone-chilling. A few days before grandpa turned the computer on I drove him home from lunch. He was in a good mood and brought it up first. The next five years.
“I think I will still be around,” he said.
“Of course you will,” I said, sneaking a glance at him, “You said you wanted to see me get a master’s and maybe…well, if you’re up for it, maybe I am too, a PhD.”
He looked out the window and when he spoke again his voice had became thick.
“I say I can live for five more years, but one never knows. Your grandma was fine the week before she went into the hospital, and even on certain days in the hospital. She never knew what was coming next or that she had so little time left.”
“It’s true,” I said, “You never know. But still, it’s nice to look ahead.”
But that was the 27-year old speaking, not the 86 year old widower who was born pessimistic to begin with.
So on Wednesday after lunch, he stood up, turned around and saw the computer. He reached behind it and switched it on. I don’t think he planned to, he just did. I was still at the table, not yet ready to clear the dishes, and I watched him double click on the Solitaire icon. The cards were beach themed, absurdly sunny on the outdated monitor. I thought about the upcoming summer and laying out by the pool, going back to Taiwan for my brother’s wedding and my eventual move to New York City. The simple image of the sun shining over a colorful beach umbrella brought all these thoughts and more. My year ahead.
Grandpa clicked and clicked, dragged and dropped. He said nothing and played for five minutes or so. I did not see his face, but I sensed he was not concentrating; his expression, if I walked over to look, would be blank. There was something about his posture – his back was slightly stooped – and the placement of his hands, right hand resting only lightly on the mouse. As though it were moving it than the other way around. His chin rested on his left hand. The pose of a daydreamer, except he was not daydreaming. He was passing the time, playing patience.