Earlier this evening an old friend of my parents joined us for dinner at Grandpa’s house. My parents told her not to bring any dishes – Grandpa doesn’t each much and they’d cooked enough to ensure leftovers for at least two more meals – but Mrs. R– hopped in ten minutes late carrying a big pot of “lion head” meatballs and a smaller platter of stir-fried cucumber and sliced fish cakes.
“We told you not to bring anything,” my parents clucked, but Mrs. R– smiled brightly and presented it with a flourish. She had to demonstrate to Mr. Leu Sr. that she could cook a decent meal.
“You’ll have to try one of my lion heads!” she chirped, attempting to serve one to grandpa.
He shook his head and waved it away.
“I don’t eat that,” he said. Instead, he slowly lifted dumplings that his caretaker, Mr. Hu had made that morning, and one by one placed four on his plate. “This is good enough for me.”
I raised an eyebrow, amused by what happens to manners when people age. I wondered if Mrs. R– would be hurt, but unfazed, she giggled instead.
“Just as well, I bought the lion heads from the market! But cooked the Napa cabbage and seasoned it myself!”
She helped herself to some dumplings as well.
“These look great,” she said, “Mr. Hu seems to have good technique.”
We went about complimenting Mr. Hu’s leek and shrimp skin dumplings, comparing them to my late grandmother’s, whose dumplings were for many years the only dumplings my entire family would eat because they were plentiful. She was happy to make them by the hundreds.
“Pretty good,” we murmured. Though it wasn’t a fair competition since it had been a while – and would be forever – since we’d had grandma’s dumplings. We all cried a little when we ate the last bag that’d been kept in the freezer.
“Mr. Hu is fast, ” Grandpa said.
“Faster than Grandma?”
Grandpa thought about this, “I don’t know. He came this morning and made dumplings for three hours. I didn’t count them…but here you are, enough for all of us. I suppose he takes a lot of time to chop the fillings.”
And so on and so forth.
Mrs. R– was widowed. Mr. R– passed away from stomach cancer some five or six years ago. She had two grown sons, Matt and Dan – not Matthew and Daniel, just Matt and Dan – and she saw them just often enough to not be labeled an overbearing mother-in-law.
A lion head, I thought.
Matt was forty-three.
“Forty-three!” I said, half a lion head in my spoon. I remembered going to their house when I was a child, and seeing the two lanky boys, Dan with cleft lip, walking around dazedly as teenaged boys seemed to do around their parents’ karaoke crazy friends.
Dan was forty, with a thirteen year-old son.
“Wow,” I said, “Just wow.”
“Are you and Mr. Tom planning?” Mrs. R– asked, not meaning the wedding.
“Probably a year or so after we get married,” I said.
She nodded, “Yes, that sounds about right. You don’t want to wait too long. It just gets harder. Matt didn’t want kids when his first wife wanted them. Then he did want them when she didn’t want them…”
Matt was now remarried with a seven-month old daughter.
“He sings to the baby every night, the same songs I use to sing to him,” she said, smiling at the thought, “But it’s so hard for them. You don’t want to wait too long. How old are you now? Twenty-six, twenty-seven?”
“Thirty-one next week,” I said, and she sat back too, an uneaten bite of lion head on her spoon.
“Whereto does time fly?” she said, shaking her head.
I imagined lanky teenaged Matt and Dan holding babies, and shook my head too.
I drove us home. My mother pulled out her iPad and opened the slot machine app before I even reached the 91 freeway.
“I won’t play for long.”
“Why can’t we just talk?”
“I can talk and play this just fine. This doesn’t take too much thinking.”
That’s my whole point.
After a few minutes’ silence my mother said without looking up, “She’s seventy-two.”
I was surprised, even though it made sense since Matt and Dan were so much older than I was, but she didn’t look nine years older than my mother. I thought about her smooth complexion. Bright eyes. She didn’t have money for things like expensive creams or facelifts, but she was doing something right. There was a lightness in her step, a girlish lilt in her voice. Widowhood, at this point, suited her.
“She’s having a great time,” my mother said, “She likes to drink now.”
I laughed. My mother frowns at drinking. Not knowing her own limits (half a glass) she imagines other people’s are similar, or ought to be.
“I like some red wine (half a bottle) from time to time,” I said, rooting for a mostly harmless past time.
“Now she says red wine isn’t strong enough,” my mother looked up from the screen and stared straight ahead for a moment, “She likes whiskey.”
“Ohh,” I said. I wasn’t quite there yet.
“The Lawyer was taking her home after a party,” (“the Lawyer” was one of their other old friends, whom they’ve always referred to as “the Lawyer” and never by his name. To this day, I’m not sure if the Lawyer is a man or woman”) my mother said, “And she threw up all over the car.”
I laughed, thinking about all the times (two) that’s happened with my friends.
“Girls just wanna have fun,” I said.
I wondered who took care of Mrs. R– the next morning, when she was hungover.
My dad was sitting on the floor of the living room when we came in. He was watching a Chinese drama on the iPad. An empty bag of Sun Chips on the glass coffee table.
“Shh,” he said, gesturing toward the screen, where three thousand years of Chinese history was unfolding.
One of the first things my dad told me when I got home was that at his last checkup, he learned he was pre-diabetic.
“You better watch yourself,” I said, thinking of all the chips and crackers he ate, most of it around midnight.
My dad had shrugged, “If you think about it, everyone’s pre-diabetic.”
He had a point.
“Don’t sleep too late,” I said to him now, though I doubt he heard. I went to check on my mom, mostly hoping she wasn’t still on her iPad.
She was brushing her teeth.
“Good night Mom,” I called into their bedroom, “You should sleep earlier tonight.”
I wanted to add, “No more iPad,” but sucked my teeth in and let it go.
As though they had actually listened to me, they ushered themselves into bed a little before midnight.
In my room, I looked for something to read. Everything on the shelves was so dense and heavy; no wonder most of the books on my shelf remained unread for over a decade.
The bottommost drawer of my bookshelf. I opened it and thumbed through Where the Sidewalk Ends: Poems and Drawings, among other old favorites.
I felt a rush of desire. For a child to read to. All the Roald Dahl and Harry Potters and Little House books. I’ve been saving them, knowing they’re more valuable than any of the award-winning bestsellers I’ve read in recent years. The proof wasn’t so much myself – I am, after all, unemployed and living for the time being in my childhood room, still eating dinners cooked by my parents – but in the idea of myself. A future version, I suppose, who sets some reasonable rules, expect some reasonable things of reasonable children, imparts some wisdom with some authority.
The same that had been given to me, but for no reason other than the passing of time, was my turn to pass on to someone else.