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.  Continue reading “Family Matters: Errands”

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That Betty

Archie Betty and Veronica
A blonde Betty. 

The Post Office in my home town was, up until she retired just a year ago, most often (wo)manned by a lady named Betty, aged sixty-some years. She is a proper Betty, meaning she was born in the forties, a time when the name “Betty” was quite popular for baby girls for whom their parents had grand dreams. These Bettys would go to college, marry well, start families and most likely not name their children Betty. By the time the later decades rolled around, there were other names were more in vogue. Continue reading “That Betty”

Mosquito Bites

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I have – and this may not be the medical term for it but it’s a direct translation from what doctors say in Chinese – an allergy-prone composition. Which means my eyes itch and run quite easily, and I’m prone to bouts of rapid-fire sneezing. When it comes to skin, mine reacts badly to the saliva of jerk-off Taiwanese mosquitoes who apparently prefer American-raised blood as my Taiwanese cousin never gets bitten if she walks with me. Continue reading “Mosquito Bites”

The Eyes Have It

When my grandfather was eighty-six, the spots in his left eye began to impede his vision.

Cataracts, the doctor said, treatable with surgery.

“I’d like to have the surgery,” my grandfather said.

The doctor appraised the octogenarian who appeared much younger than his age. He had bright shining skin, a full head of hair and had walked into the exam room with a sureness of foot that he, the doctor, himself a relatively young fifty-five, rarely saw in men this age. Still, the doctor had over the years seen countless seemingly healthy geriatric patients who were suddenly diagnosed with this or that or who, though healthy this year, experienced a rapid decline into senile decrepitness the next.

Age was a volatile thing. He was also a reasonable doctor, not in it for the money. He operated only when he deemed necessary and in my grandfather’s case, the doctor felt it was not. The patient said that he could see and read through the dingy yellow tint of the cataracts, but that sometimes the left eye was a bit cloudy. This was bothersome.

“Your eyes will serve you well for another ten years,” the doctor said assuringly, though to himself he said, “Though you will likely only need them another five at most.” “If the cataracts are worse by then,” he said to my grandfather, “come back and see me. Then we will remove them.”

My grandfather, not one to take a doctor’s words lightly, nodded and went on his way.

Ten years flew by during which my grandfather read the newspaper each day with yellow tinted eyeballs. The eye doctor continued his practice, advising elderly patients to forgo cataract surgery. He turned sixty-five and some nights, when he was particularly exhausted or not feeling well, he wondered how much longer he had. Twenty years, he hoped, twenty years at least.

The doctor forgot about the eighty-six year old man he saw ten years ago until one day, the man, now ninety-six appeared in his exam room.

“It’s been ten years,” the elderly gentleman said.

The doctor blinked. The man seemed to have aged little. His back was slightly more curved, his skin a few degrees more papery and his eyelids a smidge droopier, but the skin still shone and the walk, though slower, was still steady.

“It has been ten years,” the doctor said, “And the cataracts…”

“I want them out,” said the patient.

The doctor felt a sudden roil of regret in his gut – he had denied this man ten years of better vision. But surely now the gentleman did not have much longer. However, it would be rude too, to say, “Wait ten years more.”

The doctor nodded and, because he was a man of his word said, “We will remove them.” He excused himself to arrange his calendar with the nurse and thought, as he closed the door, you just never know.

A few days later my grandfather opened his eyes.

Grandpa at ninety-nine, three years after his cataract surgery. Wearing a tie that is too long.

His wife and sons and their wives crowded around him.

“How do you feel? What do you see?”

My grandfather blinked and smiled a newborn’s smile, gazing beyond their concerned faces.

“The walls,” he said, pointing at the walls that had always been there, a small, wondering smile on his lips, “The walls are white.”

100 Years of Vanity, Part V

She was a terrible cook, but nobody could peel shrimp, crack open a crab or a lobster, a mussel or a clam, or disassemble a German pork knuckle as adroitly as my grandmother could and to her liking. No one else could make friends with servers and maitre’ds and managers alike despite being with the most difficult customer many of them had ever known. She knew his appetites better almost, than she knew her own, and it was at the table that we learned how little we knew how to communicate with him – the least we could do was follow her lead. But it was too obvious, to both ourselves as well as to the rest of the world, that the family was at a loss on how to appease my grandfather should grandma step out for a moment.
But these moments were rare – for twenty years she was unfailingly by his side, always there to cater to his vanity, and on the morning of his one-hundredth birthday, she was there as well.
God knows what he dreamed during the night, but at four am his eyes shot open with an all-consuming hate for his aged complexion. Perhaps it was the thought of appearing before four hundred guests under bright ballroom lights, but being an innately vain man, he decided to take extra precautions. He shuffled resolutely into the bathroom and turned on the lights. A few feet away, my grandmother stirred in bed. Having spent the last twenty-years sharing his biological clock (one that wakes often at odd hours of the night to use the bathroom or read the paper-or both), she simply turned the other way and pulled the blanket up to her chin. My grandfather ran his fingers along the shelves, silently reading the minute labels until he found what he was looking for. He began his work.
The balcony, where my grandpa usually stood doing his morning exercises was empty. The bathroom door was closed, a strange phenomenon, for in his old age, the fear of an unheard fall led him to bathe with an open door. She was worried – aside from the hundred ticking clocks of my grandfather’s collection, it was oddly silent. No running water, no brushing of teeth or wringing of frayed undershirts. She went to the door and knocked. Nothing. She knocked again but not before hearing the distinctive click of a compact being closed.
“Can I open the door?” She asked.
“Hmm.”
“What are you doing in there?”
When my grandfather failed to respond she held her breath and turned the knob, bracing herself for what she was not sure, but certainly not to find her husband, a distinguished gentleman to all who knew him, with his face done up like a retired geisha who had failed to remove the makeup from her last night at the teahouse. He turned slowly, a crazy, hunched wax man, and had he the humor to give her a devilish grin she might have died of fright. Instead he said nothing, nodding subtly as though using up an entire bottle of foundation on one’s one-hundredth birthday was de rigueur, and went back to work.
My grandmother rubbed her eyes, not sure if she was dreaming. Why the mask? Why the rosy cheeks? Did he intend to celebrate his one-hundredth year as a lunatic? A transvestite? But the man had laid out his suit and shoes the night before, pairing a red-silk vest with a red-silk handkerchief and now, he apparently wanted his cheeks to match. Between gnarled fingers he held, gingerly, the blush compact in one hand and the brush in the other. Round and round he went on his left cheek, seeing only the perfection of perfection- he was merely enhancing what he always had. He was a handsome actor preparing for his greatest role ever.
Grandma, now fully awake, stepped in.
“You look…” she considered his one hundred year old ego, then thinking about the four hundred guests and her seat next to him, she considered her own, “You look ridiculous.”
I was getting my own beauty rest two floors above, but I imagine a small tussle took place in the master bath that morning as wife tried to wrestle away blush compact from husband.
But he said nothing. Chuckling softly at his handiwork, he handed the compact to her.
An hour later grandma had exhausted an entire box of Kleenex and half a bottle of makeup remover. Her husband’s skin glistened once again in its natural beauty and his cheeks glowed with the faintest pink, from having been rubbed with tissues.
“See,” my grandmother told him, tossing the final Kleenex into the wastebasket with its makeup-laden siblings, “You don’t need any of that makeup – you are handsome enough as is.”
He looked in the mirror and agreed, touching his face and enjoying the softness. Then he looked at her, his patient, adoring wife who had always known best. He looked at her tired face, the dark circles under her eyes, her fuzzy hair – she looked that way because of him, because of all the energy and love she spent on him. He loved her for that.
Still, it was his birthday and she would be sitting next to him.
“We haven’t much time,” he said, handing her the compact, “you’d better get started.”

The End 

100 Years of Vanity, Part IV

The young woman was thirty-two, the same age as my aunt, and forty-eight years younger than my grandfather. And she was beautiful. Petite with strong, high cheekbones, full lips and a full head of thick hair, a shock of surprise rippled through the family when they met her for the very first time. She was beautiful, my aunt recalled, but she had a hard look about her, as though something or someone was forcing her to marry this drastically older man. But far from it, her decision to marry my grandfather was entirely her own.
            She was working as an administrator at an appliance company, filing forms and payments on air conditioning units and refrigerators, when a coworker, the sister of an aunt, suggested that she meet an elderly man she knew.
            I was two at the time and living an ocean away in a leafy suburb of southern California, utterly oblivious to any grandmother but my mother’s mother, who lived in the neighboring city and made sweet buns for us at Chinese New Year’s. As I played in American sandboxes, the union that would provide me with a Taiwanese grandmother was being arranged in the humidity of Formosan air. The mental intricacies that would push a young woman of thirty to agree to meet a man of eighty with the implied expectation of a partnership remained uninvestigated for years, but as I grew older and my grandparents’ relationship became clearer, I opened my ears and became very still when my grandmother was out of the room and the other women remained behind. In this way I pieced together a shadowy history of my grandfather’s last wife. 
Five years prior to her marriage to my grandfather, she had been in love with a man closer to her own age. They had both come to Taipei from the poorer southern city of Tainan, hoping to make a new life for them in the big city. A friendly and sociable woman whose confidence was boosted by the move to a bustling city with the love of her life, she quickly found a job at the appliance sales company and worked diligently, saving most of what she earned towards buying a house with this man. He on the other hand, remains largely a mystery – my grandma only ever told my mother once, vaguely, about what happened – but what’s clear is that after five years of life in the city, her savings close to what was needed to buy a house, she came home from work one night to find the house empty and the man gone along with every penny in the bank.
I’m not sure what sort of conversations they had on their marriage night or in the days after, but I believe that my grandfather asked no questions. The ease with which he lived was the same ease by which others conducted themselves around him. His new wife felt this immediately. My grandmother, the only one I have ever known on my father’s side, did not marry for money per se – though of course the money was welcome – rather, she wanted a decent man. I am not one to explain the psychological process that leads one to marry a man forty-eight years older – maybe my grandmother was a little crazy – but in all the years I have known her, and him, neither grandma nor grandpa ever gave any indication that they were nothing but meant for each other.
Just as with wife number four, my Grandfather lavished his new bride with gifts and countless trips around the world, except this time with grandchildren in tow. Which suited my grandmother fine, because she was as humble as my grandfather was vain. She delighted in the old man’s vanity and even encouraged it, for she loved to comb his hair for him, to buy him the latest Japanese beauty creams, and to pick out brilliantly colored ties and handkerchiefs. In China, she bargained fearlessly for the best prices on suits and shoes, her Mandarin saturated with a heavy Taiwanese accent that would normally cause mainland vendors to disregard her, but her easy laugh and friendly nature made her hard to dislike. And while in the first decade and a half of their union my grandfather was fully capable of doing all these things himself, he delighted in her company and the looks they drew as they walked down the street and into restaurants.
Had the age difference not been so wide, they would still have made a strange couple, for my grandmother was notoriously the most tackily dressed member of the family. She wanted none of the finery so coveted by the fourth wife or the social status of the third. She wanted only the security of being with a good man, and my grandfather, aside from his narcissism, was a good man. It wasn’t until after his ninety-sixth birthday that the first signs of senility began to show, but even then my grandmother rose to the occasion. Though she had the financial means, my grandmother refused to hire a caretaker for my grandfather and gamely assumed the role of nursemaid, chef, driver and secretary. Despite his growing need to sleep and a diminishing appetite, my grandfather maintained a robust social schedule, keeping memberships at several of Taipei’s ritziest hotels, to where he treated his friends for lunch. When these men, many of whom were also retired customs officers had begun to die off, my grandfather took to treating officers from later generations or his colleagues’ grown children and their families. These elaborate, time-consuming meals were by no means exclusive to customs officers. I remember many a summer afternoon whiled away at a ritzy hotel buffet or within the dim, wood-paneled dining room of an upscale steakhouse. My grandfather specialized in treating people to the business lunch: three courses for the price of two. These meals became a family tradition – a rite of passage for anyone who wanted to know the family better and it was during these meals that any outsider, and the family as well, acknowledged just how necessary my grandmother was to my grandfather’s wellbeing. 

100 Years of Vanity, Part III

His sons were horrified. They warned their father about the rumor they’d heard: the woman’s last husband had died in a mysterious manner. Though extremely rational and normally disdainful of anything that bore the slightest whiff of the superstition, my uncles went to consult a fortuneteller (most likely on the recommendation of my second aunt, who seems to know all the good fortunetellers). The prophetess said this: “Beware this fourth wife: she has the qi (energy) of a husband killer!” What the fortuneteller meant was not that she had murdered her last husband, but she had a ruinous air about her – whoever married her would succumb to her insatiable karmic appetite and have his life drained from him. But my grandfather chortled, “Husband killer! Doesn’t she know she’s wife number four?”
Filial piety bound my uncles to let their father do whatever he wanted, including squandering a small fortune on the wedding, gifts and anything else his high-maintenance bride wanted. They honey-mooned for what seemed like half a decade, traveling across the world twice and taking photographs in front of every famous monument – their pictures have an air of glamour about them, my handsome grandfather in his three-piece pin-striped suits, arms crossed confidently across his chest, and his beautiful wife, dressed in luxurious silk and linen pantsuits, elegantly at his side. On the surface they were a beautiful couple, and when they weren’t abroad they were entertaining at home, attending parties and premiers, concerts and theater.
The things that brought them together – her beauty, his wealth – could only last so long, and as her looks faded she became more and more demanding, wanting each year to transfer more and more property to her and her children’s name. When his sons approached him to put a stop to it, my grandfather shook his head lightly and shrugged, “She loves money. What can I do?”
He put himself first and this meant avoiding confrontation at all costs. He would never be the one to suggest a divorce, or even think it. They were messy and in bad taste. Instead, my grandfather continued to live. It was around this time however, that he began to practice selective hearing and while his wife’s screeching for money became louder and louder, he perfected his inner calm, tuning her out to gaze at her once beautiful face.
One day, after nearly ten years of marriage she became enraged after being refused one thing or other and screamed, “I want a divorce!” Before she had paused to take a breath to reevaluate my grandfather stood up from his desk.
“You got it,” he said, and walked calmly out the door.
The marriage ended and my uncles breathed a sigh of relief, though they wondered if their stepmother had escaped with her life. However, not too long after, she too passed away from illness. She was a year shy of seventy.
By now, my grandfather was eighty years old, but looked not a day over sixty. His daily regimen persisted through the years and had served him well; it became apparent that he was in impossibly good health for a man his age – he would live a very, very long time. No one knew this better than my grandfather.
Months after the divorce he called in his second son’s wife, a sociable young woman with a large network of friends and family.
“I want to remarry,” he said.
“Of course,” she replied, “You’re in excellent health and have plenty of years ahead. You ought to remarry.”
“To marry someone young,” he said.
My aunt smiled, “I’m sure we can find someone who knows a nice woman of sixty or seventy.”
“No.”
“No?”
“No.”
At this, my grandfather leaned in and said more words to my aunt than he had spoken to anyone else in a long while, “I’m eighty,” he said, “And I know I will live for a very long time. If I marry someone now who is sixty or seventy, in ten years they will be seventy or eighty – and I don’t need to be a fortuneteller to know that they’ll need someone to take care of them by then. I don’t want to be old with old. I need someone who can take care of me – for however long I live.”
My aunt was stunned, perplexed. How young was her father-in-law thinking? Certainly not someone younger than fifty? A thirty-year age difference was cause for scandal, but then again, so was a money-grubbing B-list movie star. My aunt kept the conversation to herself, replaying it in her head and wondering what to do. She didn’t have to wonder long. A few days later, it was announced that for the patriarch, a new bride had been found. 

100 Years of Vanity, Part II

A man born in Shanghai carries Shanghai with him forever. Thus my grandfather neither bid farewell to Shanghai nor did he abandon all hopes of reunification with his daughters – he communicated with them frequently via letters and kept every epistle his daughters sent. When relations between China and Taiwan resumed, he returned twice each year to his native city and made sure his daughters and their children (by then two had married) were financially secure. But mostly now, his attentions were directed at his new wife, his three sons and, unwaveringly, upon himself.
It is hard for a vain man to be emotionally available, and my grandfather was no exception. Once I asked my father whether he recalled any heart to heart conversations with his father and without pause my father replied, “Nope.” But by no means was grandpa a cold man – he smiled generously and loved his wife, his sons and his friends in the best way he knew how: by spending time with them. He spoke little during his children’s upbringing, preferring to smile and watch rather than talk and interact. It was his third wife, my biological grandmother, who kept household affairs running smoothly, made sure their finances were in order and disciplined the boys; it was my grandfather’s job to go to work everyday, come home to dinner, and smile as they talked to each other. He appreciated the finer things in life and was lucky that his business-minded wife trained her three sons to be business-minded as well, buying land as a future investment, teaching them the value of the dollar and pressuring them to pursue graduate studies in the United States. My grandfather, in all his thrift, agreed with her, but pursued his own interests in ballroom dancing and attending parties. He loved to dine out (but never drink), dance and be seen at parties with his wife on his arm (a beautiful woman was always his best accessory) and he easily became the life of the party without saying more than a few words. His presence alone put everyone around him at ease and this was largely due to the fact that he neither tried nor was interested in persuading, entertaining or getting to know others. This was the other side of his vanity – the desire to know only himself, and superficially, those closest to him. As his sons grew into successful businessmen and his peers began to appear more and more disheveled and wrinkled with age, my grandfather seemed to grow more youthful with pride at his sons’ successes and his wife’s financial prowess.
“I never asked for any of this,” his smile seemed to say, “But you know, I am a lucky man.”
Luck, by definition, does not encompass the death of a spouse or, in my grandfather’s case, the death of multiple spouses. I should mention here that his second wife had died in Shanghai of tuberculosis shortly after she discovered my grandfather could not return from his post. His first wife had succumbed to the same disease. Thus twice widowed and in Taipei, my grandfather married a third time to the woman who would bear him three sons to pass down the family name. When my father had been working for only one year at his first job out of graduate school, his mother was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Perhaps she had worried too much – her sons’ futures, their girlfriends (none of whom she liked, my mother included) and about the family’s finances – while her husband worried about nothing, but the cancer spread quickly and she was dead within a year. The whole family mourned along with much of Taipei’s high society, for by then my grandmother had, by shrewd investing and thrift, amassed a small fortune for the family, providing her sons with the capital to start their own business.
My grandfather was saddened but his two younger sons were consumed by their grief – they had been immensely close to their mother. My father, the eldest, was working in Hong Kong through much of her sickness, was sad but strangely detached – also, his relationship with his mother had been strained during her last months; she disapproved of my father’s wanting to marry my mother, of whose poor background she disapproved.
“Your grandmother was vain in a different way,” my mother said to me, “She worried about the face, the reputation of the family while your grandpa was always more concerned about his actual face.”
And it was true – less than a year later, my grandfather was on the hunt for wife number four, believing that the best beauty treatment to keep wrinkles at bay was to marry someone young and beautiful who would worry about the things he couldn’t be bothered by. With his children grown and their success growing, my grandfather felt it less important to find a “motherly” figure for his children than to find a stunning woman with whom he could be seen with out on the town. Likewise in his youth, my grandfather, at the ripe old age of seventy, was still quite a catch and there was no shortage of women who wanted to marry him. He finally set his shallow sights on a beautiful fifty-eight year widow who had in her younger days been a B-list movie star. She on the other hand, had her sights set on his money. 

100 Years of Vanity, Part 1

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At dawn on his one-hundredth-birthday, my grandfather shuffled quietly to the bathroom, closed the door, and began to powder his face. Though “powder his face” is an understatement. What he really did was raid my grandmother’s cosmetics cabinet and use up an entire bottle of foundation. He was working his way through a new blush compact when my grandmother intervened.

July

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My grandfather was interred on a hillside in the outskirts of Taipei city on a muggy July afternoon. As tradition dictated, we turned our backs on his coffin as the gravediggers dropped him into the ground. There is nothing sinister about a man dying from old age, but there is too much mystery about death to take chances, so by turning away, we were protecting our spirits from following his into the grave. Continue reading “July”