Family Matters: Errands

For the first year after my grandma passed away, my grandpa went to her grave at least once a week, sometimes twice. Now he no longer goes that often, but every two weeks or so, my uncle Jin will drive grandpa fifteen miles from Cerritos to the sprawling Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California, neither man speaking much in the car. On these days, my uncle’s white Toyota Sienna, purchased over a decade ago and still in excellent condition thanks to my uncle’s meticulous care, can be seen winding its way up the groomed, curved road of the cemetery, turning right just before the white, futuristic looking Memorial Chapel, where grandma’s funeral was held two Novembers ago. My uncle always parks by a trash can and together, they walk carefully down three yards or so, to grandma’s grave.

From atop the hill where grandma is buried, the view is pleasant. I’m not certain which direction the hill faces – it could be north towards El Monte, east towards Rowland Heights, or west towards Los Angeles – but the hill rises just high enough so you feel you’re above the hazy line of pollution that hovers over the rest of the living.

When we buried grandma, grandpa had nodded towards the view, commenting that it was a good thing my aunt Joannie had bought the plots early.

“The early bird gets the view,” he had said, or something to that extent.

There were – there are – always flowers in the little metal vase provided by the cemetery. There’s one in front of every tombstone, in a little hole in the grass so that the flowers appear to be growing from the ground. If the flowers were not left by Uncle Jin and Grandpa, then they were by Uncle Jimmy. If not by uncle Jimmy, then by Aunt Yang or cousin Angela or Wendy or Kathryn or whomever else took the time to make the drive, to spend a few minutes with a stone and a memory.

After they refresh the flowers and take in the now-familiar view and say a few words to Grandma, Uncle Jin drives Grandpa home. But every three or four weeks, Uncle Jin drives further north, another ten miles to Temple City, a Chinatown comprised of dilapidated strip malls with stores and Chinese restaurants frequented mostly by the local elderly and their visiting children, some willing, some not.

In one such such strip mall, there is a seafood restaurant with dingy tablecloths and mossy fishtanks filled with fresh but lethargic seafood. They offer an excellent lunch special: order three dishes and get another for just $1.99. Soup and rice included. Father and son dine on too much food – grandpa likes a whole fried flounder, uncle Jin likes the cold, slow-braised, chicken. They pack up the rest: for dinner, tomorrow’s lunch and probably tomorrow’s dinner too, and drive another mile or so to another strip mall where the Ever Beauty Salon is situated.

A dim, run-down establishment with chipped mirrors, torn barber seats, and fading posters of chiseled eighties models with outdated hairstyles, the Ever Beauty Salon makes most of its money from Chinese men, mostly old, like my grandfather. Grandpa likes the price almost as much as he likes the price for lunch ($25 for a meal enough for four). A haircut for a man his age starts at $5. A slapdash dye job to hide white hair starts at $12, depending on how much hair the client has. A man might leave with more than a few missed hairs or more dye on his scalp than upon his strands, but for twelve dollars he’s going for the overall effect. The, “don’t stand too close to me and it looks fine” effect. The men who frequent Ever Beauty Salon are not vain. They are not looking for everlasting beauty; they are men well over the hill, heading for the bottom, looking for a good deal. They want to keep the hair off their necks and out of their eyes; they want to keep their comb-overs manageable. They want to look presentable for when their kids and grandkids visit or take them out to lunch.

Those days are long, when Grandpa and Uncle Jin go from cemetery to restaurant to salon and perhaps to the Chinese Grocery Megastore. Uncle Jin prefers to leave grandpa’s house by 10AM, be at the cemetery at 10:30. Lunch at 11AM followed by the salon and groceries and then the long drive back on the perpetually congested 5 freeway. If traffic cooperates, Grandpa can be at home, napping by one, one-thirty PM and my Uncle Jin can be at the Chinese school he runs less than five minutes later.

A few weeks ago I was home in California with just two more days left – Friday and Saturday – before returning to New York, when my uncle Jin called.

“Are you free tomorrow morning?”

I hesitated, having an idea of what was coming.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I wanted to see if you’ll visit Grandma with me and Grandpa. After, we can have lunch together.”

I did not want to go. I had two days left in California, each hour of which I could think of a hundred things I’d rather do than go to a cemetery I’d been to too often. I wanted to swim and read travel magazines. I wanted to laze about in my bed. I wanted to play golf with my mother and walk around my big house because I had the space and hang out with my friends. I wanted to fix my own lunch. I did not want to drive nor be driven to an ugly inland city whose greatest expanse of beauty was a too-carefully groomed cemetery where even the grass looked sterile. I had been enough; I never wanted to go again. Mostly, I did not want to see my grandpa looking at his wife’s grave. Mostly, I did not want to be sad.

“Okay,” I said.

I did not know it was going to be one of those long days. My uncle Jin kept this information from me, knowing I would not have come along if he’d said, “After the cemetery we’ll get lunch and a haircut and groceries.” It wasn’t until we’d replaced the flowers, when I’d looked very briefly down at Grandma’s tombstone and then up at the view, and heard Uncle Jin said, “Hi Ma, Betty’s home from New York and here to see you,” and saw Grandpa standing on the empty plot next to Grandma’s with his hands crossed behind his back. It wasn’t until I heard him say, “In a few years, I’ll be here,” and I had wanted to tell him to step back, to not let his shadow fall onto that space because it was bad luck didn’t he know – it wasn’t until we’d all gotten back into the Sienna and Uncle Jin started the car and said, “We’re going to get our haircut now,” that I realized the cemetery was only the beginning and that the day had just started.

“Is that okay?” my uncle asked, looking into the rear view mirror.

I crossed my arms and looked out the window like a sullen teenager on a long road trip I didn’t want to be on.

“What am I going to do if it isn’t?” I said.

My uncle chuckled, wondering if he’d be better off not asking me to join at all. Grandpa said nothing.

“The restaurant is very good,” my uncle said, “I think you’ll like it. And the haircuts, it won’t take long.”

“They’re very fast,” grandpa said, “fast and cheap.”

“And the grocery store is right around the corner,” my uncle added, “I’ll just pop in and out. You can be back home no later than one or one-thirty PM.”

I doubted this, but I was already in the car, beginning to feel bad that my uncle felt bad. He had good if ill-communicated intentions. Also, no one would have guessed that I, family-oriented, old-people loving Betty, would be loathe to visit my grandmother’s grave. No one likes going to the cemetery to visit people they know, just like no one likes going to the hospital – but lately, I’ve loathed it more than usual. I think about my grandpas and how different they were. My father’s father, Grandpa Ho, who never went to hospitals unless he was the one who was sick, who never went to funerals – not his friends’, not his wives’, and had one of his elderly daughters passed away before he did, not hers either.

“Why go,” he had said before, “It’s for the sick and the dead. I am neither.”

And I think about my Grandpa Leu, my mother’s father, who went to the hospital almost daily when my grandmother was ailing, and who shows up dutifully at funerals of both friends and acquaintances and continues to go weekly to her grave with fresh flowers, to look at her smiling portrait lasered into the granite and stand on the empty plot next to her, mentally preparing for that imminent time.

My Grandpa Ho lived until he was one hundred, with very little wrong with him except an old heart. He had been selfish but hearing people talk about him, you would never have guessed. He looked ahead. Went to work. Kept busy. Made plans. Traveled. When a spouse died, he remarried. He was like a sturdy old stone and we, the river, flowed around his wishes.

My Grandpa Leu cannot sit or stand or walk more than a few steps without wincing. He has pains in his legs, in his back, pains surgery can’t fix. He still walks to the park every morning, but lately he sits more than he walks. He asks very little of his kids because he doesn’t want to inconvenience them. He thinks a lot about the past. About grandma. He doesn’t make plans. People make plans for him.

Neither man is right or wrong, neither way of living is good or bad. They are just two men, two ways. But I am beginning to understand – or actually I’ve always known – which way I prefer and why.

But I went along with Uncle Jin and Grandpa that morning. I quietly said hello to grandma, took in the view. I ate the fish, the chicken. I drank the soup. I took photos of my grandfather getting his hair cut and laughed when I found the long hairs on the back of his neck the barber had missed.

“It’s too dim in there,” my grandfather had murmured, rubbing the back of his neck, “And it was five dollars. What can I expect?”

I said very little the whole time, because the whole time, I was afraid of sounding selfish, or unfilial and still I am afraid. The whole time I wished I was somewhere else and the whole time I vowed never to be caught in one of these long days again.

The traffic back was bad, and I wondered how Grandpa’s waist was doing but pitied more my last Friday morning in California. By the time Uncle Jin pulled into Grandpa’s driveway, it was nearly 2PM. I still had another half hour drive back home.

“Thanks for coming with us,” Uncle Jin said, “It’s always nice spending time with you. And we appreciate your spending time with us old folks.”

Grandpa nodded, easing himself out of the car.

“I’ll nap now,” he said, sensing my impatience to go, “You don’t have to come in.”

I nodded, thinking for a minute as my uncle truly did: that I had done some great charitable thing and given them my morning. I thanked my uncle for lunch, just lunch.

“Go, go,” Grandpa said.

And I did. I went home and swam and read travel magazines. I lazed about in my bed. On Saturday morning I played golf with my mother and walked around my big house. I hung out with my friends. In the evening, I helped my mother make dinner. I did all the things I wanted to do and thought about the things I had not wanted to do, but did anyway. I thought too, about thanking my uncle for inviting me on their long morning, a morning I’m unlikely to ever participate in again. But it would mean I was admitting to acting petulant and rude. Immature and selfish. So I said nothing.

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