I scrolled all the way down my Instagram today to some thirty-five weeks ago, when I still lived at home. I stopped at this photograph I took of my grandfather, probably on a Monday or Wednesday afternoon, since those were the days I went and had lunch with him. He’s reading a newspaper clipping with a magnifying glass and though I’m taking a photo of him, I was probably reading something too.
It’s summer – Grandpa is wearing a frayed white undershirt and an old oatmeal colored windbreaker. His silver Rolex, a gift from his kids some twenty years ago, hangs loosely from his left wrist. Because of the photo’s angle, his left hand seems larger than his head, swollen almost. His right hand holds the plastic magnifying glass and if I were a single character peering up at him from the printed page, I’d see a man well past his prime, eyebrows bordering on unruliness and fluffy white hair. Lips pursed, corners turned down – not because he’s unhappy, but because he’s reading. Thinking. Large ears, sunspots. Too many moles and birthmarks to count.
I stood in my apartment having just come back from dinner with a friend and without removing my shoes or coat or hat, checked my email then Instagram. Perhaps I was still warming up from the cold air outside. It had just begun to snow as I emerged from the subway and my expression mirrored those of the people around me.
“We are sick of winter,” our faces said.
“And I,” I glared at the sky, “Am sicker of it than most.”
I had walked stiffly up five flights to my apartment and letting the door slam behind me, stood by the stove and scrolled. I scrolled through this morning, the ongoing relentless winter in Vermont and New York, three spaced-out bouts of sunshine in Miami, India and California, and the fall, which seemed to stretch on forever because I was new to New York then and wanted to document everything. Fall gave way to the bright photographs of summer, in which I seem ten shades darker than I am now. I smiled my way in shorts and sundresses through Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vegas and at home in California, where I swam and walked and read at my grandfather’s kitchen table. And somewhere in the middle of last summer, thirty-five weeks ago, I found my grandfather. Summer colors are warmer anyway, but the filter I applied makes that day almost golden.
I called my grandpa tonight. I had promised myself I’d call him at least once a week after I moved to New York, but that didn’t happen. At best, I called him once every two and a half weeks. And often after my mother asks me, “Have you spoken to Grandpa lately?”
I hate being reminded because it means I broke my promise, but I am also glad to be reminded because otherwise it would be much longer than two and a half weeks between our short, shallow conversations.
They always go something like this:
Two rings, maybe three, if he is sitting in front of the TV.
“Hi Lao Ye!” I always make my voice sound cheerier than I am, because this is how one is supposed to sound when talking to their grandfather’s. Also, louder.
“I’m fine, I’m fine, no need to worry about me.”
“That’s good. I wasn’t worried.”
“Good, you needn’t worry. Everything is fine. Your mother/Aunt Joannie/Uncle Jin is here and we’ve just finished dinner.”
“Was it good?”
“It was not bad. Have you eaten?”
“Yes, I ate a while ago.”
Here he will look at his watch and be reminded of the time difference.
“Oh it’s very late there!”
“Just 10PM, grandpa, not too late.”
“So you’re getting ready for bed then?”
“In a bit, grandpa. I still have some reading to do.”
“Ah yes, reading. That’s easy for you though.”
“I know it is.”
“Well, there’s nothing more to say. I’m fine and you’re fine. Thank you for calling.”
“Okay, Grandpa. Okay.”
Tonight my uncle Jin was with him and they had noodle soup. My aunt brought beef broth to grandpa’s house last night and tonight, Uncle Jin brought the noodles. When you’re just one old man, a large pot of beef broth goes a long way. Father and son eat simply and quickly. Both have bad teeth and a medley of health problems, but both prefer McDonald’s breakfasts, In ‘n Out Burgers and Costco hot dogs and pizza. Occasionally, Grandpa eats a banana.
“Noodle soup, eh?” I say.
“Yes, yes,” Grandpa nods.
“Come and have some beef noodle soup!” my uncle calls from the background. I know exactly where he’s sitting: on the low chair opposite Grandpa in the small living room. I can hear the Chinese news – or is it one of those cheesy variety shows? – playing in the background. Uncle Jin is watching with his father’s frown playing on his face. I smile.
“I wish I could,” I say, “Tell Uncle Jin noodle soup sounds wonderful. It’s just started snowing here again.”
Grandpa chuckles, “Noodle soup is very good for a cold day. It’s too bad you’re so far away.”
“Yes, too bad.”
I tell him I plan to go home sometime in the summer, but that I’m also looking for a job to occupy what might otherwise be an expensive, unproductive summer in the city.
“Yes,” Grandpa says, “You should work while you can. A summer job is a very good idea. Don’t worry about coming home to see me if you have a job.”
I don’t worry, I tell him, but I want to see him and the rest of the family. The babies are growing up. My mother and father are slowing down. Even if I got a job I would make time to go home, I say, “At least for a week.”
“Oh that would be good,” Grandpa says, “But you know, I’m not going anywhere.”
There’s the silence that always comes before Grandpa’s blunt truth: there really isn’t too much to report. He’s fine, I’m fine, let’s just hang up now.
“Okay,” I say, “Enjoy your soup. Tell Uncle Jin I said goodbye.”
“Good night,” Uncle Jin calls out.
“Bye-bye,” Grandpa says, “Good night.”