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. Continue reading “Little Children”
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”
The toughest part about coming home is also the most wonderful part. Mostly, making time for everyone I want to see.
Except this time, people were expecting more than just me.
“Where’s POI?” Aunt Angelina exclaimed when I showed up for dim-sum.
I shrugged, “He had plans.”
“Is POI here too?” a friend texted.
“Plans,” I texted back, “He had some.”
“Your friend is welcome to come too,” Aunt Jin-Feng said, inviting me to my cousin’s fancy birthday party at Souplantation tomorrow night.
“My friend?” I was confused, then realized I was Chinese and my aunt was Chinese and I shouldn’t have been confused because while the term “boyfriend” exists in Chinese, its application is like that of a pistol: just because you have one doesn’t mean you should use it.
“Ah my ‘friend’ is not here,” I said, “He had some family plans. But perhaps next time.”
The men were less fussed. POI included.
I texted him this morning, “My entire family is like, ‘Where’s POI?’
“Next time,” he wrote.
“Yeah, otherwise they will think I made the whole thing up.”
“You’d be a fiction writer then.”
My uncle Louis swung by and gave me a big hug.
“You’re back!” he said, then nodding almost gravely, asked, “And school. How’s that going?”
“I’m on summer break,” I said, “I start school in two weeks.”
“Great,” he said, then looked around with an expression that said, ‘Something’s missing.’
I braced myself.
“Where’s your mom? I’m supposed to take her to the car dealership.”
Later that afternoon Uncle Jin picked me up for dimsum and asked how my boyfriend was doing in San Francisco.
“SF? He lives in New York.”
He scratched his head, “That’s odd. Why did I think San Francisco?”
I opened my mouth, ready to explain that E, the girl who’d set us up lives in San Francisco and perhaps facts had gotten scrambled while the details of my relationship were being passed from mom to aunt to aunt to uncle, but my grandpa came out of the house just then.
Grandpa waved to me, “Welcome back.”
He gave no indication that he expected anyone else. Asked no questions. I smiled.
“Let’s go,” he said, “Lunch.”
At dimsum, my aunt bemoaned the fact that two years ago my cousin had brought her then boyfriend to meet the grandparents. They broke up less than three months later.
“Had I known they wouldn’t be together three months later I would never have arranged that dinner!” She put her hands to her forehead, “And at this very restaurant!”
I assured her, sitting atop the pile of wisdom I’d accrued in the last year, that she couldn’t have known. No one does, really, until it happens.
“Still,” my aunt said, putting her hand on her forehead, “Grandpa must think she has a new boyfriend every few months.”
I looked at Grandpa, who didn’t appear to be listening. He had eaten more than usual and was probably looking forward to his afternoon nap.
“Do you want to meet POI?” I asked him.
He sighed and shook his head, leaned back.
“You young people. It doesn’t matter if I want to meet him. If you like the person and want to be with him, then I’ll meet him.”
“Good point Grandpa.” I reached for another cream bun, a dessert we both loved, and asked if he wanted half.
“No no,” my aunt said, “just put it on his plate.”
“I’m good,” Grandpa said.
“Put it on his plate.”
I put it on his plate. He smiled, and shaking his head, ate it.
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.
At the beginning of April, I left the bustle of Asia and came home to this:
I flew to New York to attend Columbia’s admitted student’s night and stayed with Albert, an architectural student from Taiwan whom I’d met many years ago through my cousin. He never slept and smoked like a chimney and was constantly complaining about his monumental workload, but ask him if he’d prefer to be studying anywhere else and he’d shake his head. “New York is where I want to be.” His apartment was my temporary home and despite it being dark, with critical windows facing brick walls, I could see how when life is full and you’re doing what you love (and hardly ever come home because you’re at studio), things like that matter just a little less.
|“I haven’t slept in three days,” says Albert, “But I’ll sleep when I’m dead (or when I run out of cigarettes).”|
|I have yet to set foot inside that building.|
|Because sometimes glasses just don’t cut it.|
|Coworkers who turned into great friends, Grace and Enny.|
|Babies galore at Lucas’s (on the right!) One Month Celebration held, where else? At Sam Woo’s in Irvine.|
I took a trip to Charleston to see Grace, a cellist who was playing in the Spoleto Orchestra (longer post to come). I fell in love with the south and southern food, but that was expected. I went to my first southern beach and wondered what the hell southern Californians were so proud of. We wore summer dresses. I let my hair down and played bingo and drank with classical musicians who were surprisingly raunchy when they weren’t playing classical music. We walked a lot, ate a ton, and I pretended to understand the opera she got me tickets to.
|Grace walking at Sullivan’s Beach.|
|When we weren’t stuffing our faces with fried everything we were trying to walk it off.|
|Like that one ride at Disneyland.|
And immediately after that, my mother suggested an impromptu trip to Kauai. She popped into my room one evening and asked, “How much are tickets to Kauai at the end of May?”
I looked for her, then asked, “Who are you thinking about going with?”
She seemed surprised, “Oh, you! Do you want to go?”
This is what’s called a no-brainer. So we went, just the two of us.
|My mother thinks about her mother.|
On our last day there, we went swimming in the hotel pool, then my mother took a nap while I wrote a letter to my brother. When she woke, I asked her how she felt about barbecue. She said fine. I ordered it by phone and drove to pick it up. My mother stayed in the kitchen, peeling papaya and when I returned, I saw that she’d been crying.
“Mom, what’s wrong?”
She started crying again.
“I was just thinking about grandma.”
“What were you thinking about that made you think of grandma?”
In hindsight, it was a stupid and insensitive question, but I think my mother understood what I meant.
“I am so lucky that my daughter can travel with me and we can spend time like this, but I can’t do that anymore with grandma.”
I hugged her, because you can’t really do anything or say anything but hug a person who misses their dead mother.
“Let’s eat outside on the balcony,” I said, and she agreed.
I poured us each half of the small bottle of wine we’d gotten from the airline and when everything was served, she raised her glass to me, something I’ve never seen her do. My mother is not a big drinker.
“I wish you a good happy life in New York,” she said. Her voice broke and her face crumpled and I choked up too, but did not cry. I said thank you. I said, “I already have a good and happy life.”
|My mother thinks about me.|
At the end of June, it was time to return to Taipei. This trip was much shorter than the first, but no less fun. For starters, my cousin Karen and I returned to Hong Kong:
|Traveling for business, obviously.|
|Before our feet started to hurt.|
|Do this panorama some justice and click on it.|
|Bubbles and my brother’s tears.|
|Some Ho’s and then some.|
|My uncle at the office. He looks at numbers, then reads Buddhist scripture, and is in bed by 9PM. Every. Single. Day.|
|My cousin Melody was also home from Boston over the summer, taking a break from breaking hearts. Over Din Tai Fung, we talked about the elusive Mr. Right and the ubiquitous Mr. Wrongs.|
|I ate Chinese food as though my life depended on it, unsure of what awaited me in New York. Pasta, it turns out.|
|And a lot of the time, marveled at the fact that this guy was in a relationship with a girl who really really likes him. “I don’t know why either,” he says.|
I returned to California in the middle of July, hoping to return to a somewhat normal schedule, but it was crunch time. There was another trip to Vegas with the girls I go most often and have the best time with:
A short trip to SF. First stop, two nights at Erica and Carson’s:
|TPE – HKG – SF! Taxicab selfies are now a thing.|
|“What about POI? He’s offensive and so is Betty.”|
And the main event: Jaime’s Bachelorette party, which was supposed to be tame but ended up like this:
|The bachelorette and a very drunk man who liked very much to “back it up.”|
My cousin Wendy’s baby shower:
|Remember earlier in the year she was in Vegas!|
|I watched a lot of movies with this girl, equally as obsessed with Benedict Cumberbatch as I was until we realized he was probably gay. But we still really like him.|
|With cousin Michelle in Venice, aping an ape.|
|At plate by plate with Enny, whose outfit was pretty much the talk of the town.|
|Billy’s dad salting seasoning their salmon during a random weekend at their mansion in Upland.|
|With Angie and Lynn at a Phoenix International event.|
|Getting In n’Out with Grandpa.|
|With Auntie Linda, a few days before leaving.|
|Pint-sized houseguests from Taipei.|
|An impromptu mexican feast at Grace’s.|
|The early days.|
|Best moving service ever 🙂 Way better than UPS.|
|And it was never this messy again.|
|Cleaned up and celebrating Charlene’s birthday belatedly, at Robert in Columbus Circle.|
|With bridesmaid Emy, also an old friend from high school and Jaime, one of the most low-maintenance brides in the history of brides. Emy and I always look like her bodyguards.|
|I like to think that some of my photos were better than the wedding photographer’s.|
|The view outside John Wayne Airport, Terminal C.|
My father, a good man, drove with my mother at his side to pick me up from the airport.
|I guess I brought it with me (the rain, if you can’t see it).|
It rained on Thanksgiving day. Loving as my parents are, they had other plans for Thanksgiving dinner, and I found (or invited myself) to dinner at uncle Jimmy’s house. I picked my grandfather up at 6PM. He had not wanted to go, preferring (outwardly) to stay home alone. Thanksgiving was very close to his wife’s passing and was the first holiday he spent without her. But he came with me and was seated next to the youngest member of the family.
|Grandpa, who is a fussy eater, and baby Caden, who is not.|
My uncle Jimmy carved the turkey (from Lucille’s – a delicious deal if you’re not in the mood to make turkey).
|Uncle Jimmy, the turkey, and his trademark grin.|
My grandfather had a shot of Jameson from a wine glass and began to giggle shortly afterwards. He was in a pleasant mood that night and I could tell he was glad to be there and not home alone.
|“You talk too much, Betty,” is what he normally says. But on Thanksgiving, he simply said, “Cheers.”|
|My uncle toasts his grandson. Good habits start early.|
The next morning, I woke to the sound of aerobic counting and found my mother, a family friend, Uncle Jimmy and my aunt exercising in the entryway. My aunt and uncle come over early at 7AM, as they’ve been doing ever since the summer, when my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Uncle Jimmy takes her and a family friend who also has Parkinson’s through a rigorous regimen of exercises. The point is to hold off on medications for as long as possible, and uncle Jimmy, who eats like a horse and drinks like a fish but is at his core a doctor of eastern medicine, drives an hour round trip every day to do this for his older sister before heading off to work or to teach more classes. My father makes breakfast for them afterward and that morning, he greeted me with a glass of freshly blended fruit smoothie.
“What fruits do you want in it?”
“Anything,” I said.
“I know just what you’ll like,” he said, and he was right.
When he learned my mother had Parkinson’s he watched her cry for a minute then told her calmly not to worry.
“I will put your shoes on for you when you are no longer able to,” he said.
My mother nodded, recalling that as a young woman she had dreamed about marrying a romantic man who would walk through the rain with her. My father hates the rain, but still, she had found that man.
|“A good man (like me) IS hard to find,” my father says.|
I took a walk on the road I always walk on. It had not yet started to snow in New York, but on that road it would not be strange to ask, “What is snow?”
|A street near my street. 80 degrees that day.|
In the evening the entire family gathered at the Orange Hill Restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner after Thanksgiving. My brother and his wife were not there, but they were moving back from Shanghai and would join us for Christmas. We took many photos together, including the one below of the girl cousins and one male cousin-in-law, Lawrence, a new father to a baby girl.
|Cousins. And who is that stud?|
The next day, the family assembled again, though this time all in black. We found ourselves at the same cemetery and afterward, the same vegetarian restaurant as a little over a year ago, when my grandmother passed away. It was the funeral of a very peculiar man, my uncle Louis’s father who had smoked two packs a day until he turned ninety-six and simply decided to quit. He died quietly at 100, battling nothing really, but time.
|Mr. Yang, Sr.: Laconic, stylish, (almost) everlasting.|
Later that evening, I reunited with my childhood friends in a childhood home for an annual leftover party, in which we simply show up and eat Grace’s leftovers. It is infinitely more scrumptious than I am able to make it sound. Smiling, Grace baked me a pecan pie.
|She may be smiling, but she’s thinking, “The Chinese middle class can suck it.”|
|Friends with pie.|
After dinner, we took turns holding her nephew, a child of improbable cuteness, and above his soft, fragrant head, talked about life and other things.
A year ago today, my grandmother passed away. The day would have gone by without my having given her or my grandfather a second thought had my mother not called me.
It was only 7:30AM back in California and I thought it strange to see my mother’s name flashing on the screen. She’s not one to wake too early, especially not on a Sunday, but I guess this isn’t like most Sundays. When the phone rang, I was standing in the kitchen, mid-sentence with a friend who had spent the night. We were talking about men and blogging. Things important to we the living. I picked up the phone and greeted my mother with the slightest impatience but became quiet when I could hardly hear her speak. She wasn’t crying and did not sound sad, but she seemed reluctant to let her voice rise above a certain octave. She was hesitant to remind me of something. She, along with everyone else, knows that in New York I’m having what is known as “a good time.”
I told my mother that my friend was visiting, hoping she would say, “Oh okay, I’ll call back later,” but instead she said a hollow, “Oh that’s nice,” and finally, after a soft “hmmm,” said, “You know, today marks one year since grandma’s passed away.”
“Oh my God,” I said, “It’s been a year.”
“Yes, so fast,” my mother said softly, “We’re going to her grave later, the family.”
I thought to my grandfather and asked after him, knowing that I would not under any circumstances call or speak to him today. Or tomorrow. Or the day after tomorrow.
“He’s…” my mother hesitated, “he didn’t feel well last night.”
“He felt last night he couldn’t breath and complained of a stomachache. Your aunt Joannie went to visit him and she found him lying huddled on the couch. It made her sad, your aunt said. Just an old man in a cold house, lying huddled on the couch. He told her he felt very cold and very ill.”
“It’s stress,” I said, not sure if I was using the right word in Chinese, “Today is a terrible day for him and it stressed him out last night. I would probably feel sick too.” But I knew exactly which couch and how cold. The house had been warm in theory when my grandmother was alive and well and it was filled with the smells of her cooking and lots of bodies coming in and out to eat with them. But in the winter, when the stove was off and it was just the two of them, when they were napping or quietly playing solitaire, the house could get incredibly cold. It was two stories, the second of which they never ventured to, and possessed an old heating system that struggled against the high ceilings and thin, drafty windows. I often walked in on winter evenings to find grandpa wearing a cap, hands stuffed into the deep, fleece-lined pockets of a black puffy down jacket my cousin Andrew had passed down to him. I would sit and chat, fully aware that my fingers and toes were turning purple.
“The heater…” I would say, and most of the time, grandpa would respond, “Such a waste. Just two people in a big house. We don’t need it.”
I didn’t know how to say ‘heartache’ in Chinese, or not the way I wanted to say it. I knew to say, “Heart hurt,” which was accurate, but for some reason, when applied to Grandpa, seemed just the opposite. It didn’t go with his tough-guy mien. But in any language it is apt, there is no better word for it. Still, I didn’t use it.
I could sense my mother nodding on the other end, looking off somewhere.
“He said he did not feel very good at all.”
“Are you guys going to take him to see the doctor?”
“I don’t know,” my mother said, “We’ll see.”
I looked over to my friend, who knew my family well and knew that my grandmother had passed away. She looked concerned, but I didn’t want her to be. There wasn’t much to be done from here, by either of us. I wanted to hang up and continue talking about men, about blogging, about the future.
“Well,” my mother said after a short silence, “Tell Angie we said hello.”
I said goodbye, almost adding, “I hope Grandpa feels better,” but stopped myself. It wasn’t a cold he had.
Certain days in New York, when I’m walking down the street and see an elderly man or woman sitting alone on a park bench or shuffling slowly somewhere, I remind myself to call my grandfather to see how he’s doing. Mostly, I know. Or I think I know, in the general way you think you understand the feeling that comes with losing someone you’ve been married to for nearly seventy years. So I don’t know. I just know what he’ll say when I call to ask, “How are you doing?”
“Ma ma hu hu,” he’ll say, the Chinese equivalent of “same old, same old,” or more accurately, “Whatever.”
Most days, he means this to be funny. My grandfather likes to play Negative Ned to my Positive Polly. It’s our special thing – he thinks I’m a ridiculous smart-ass ray of sunshine, mostly because he doesn’t read my blog and also because with him, I steer clear of certain topics that once broached would make me cry until I had no tears. I don’t always want to cry when I see him. Most of the afternoons we spent together were mild, happy affairs. I cooked a simple meal we would eat together, then I would ask him to split a dessert with me. He would say no. I would shrug and say, “Your loss.” He would chuckle, arms crossed over his chest and shake his head.
“You complain about gaining fat and you always always eat dessert.”
In between bites of chocolate ice cream or cookies or cake I would nod, “Very astute, Grandpa.”
And it went like that. I’d clear the dishes. He’d watch the Chinese news, read another article or two from the Chinese World Journal, and between 1 to 1:30PM, would stand up slowly, wincing as his bones creaked and say, “Nap time, nap time.”
I’d nod and say “Good night,” and he would roll his eyes because it wasn’t nighttime.
“It’s good afternoon,” he’d correct me.
“Good afternoon,” I would stand corrected.
He would nap for an hour. Sometimes, I slept too, lying on the couch in front of the TV with a book on my belly. Grandma used to nap here, and when she was here and I was here, she’d nap in the bedroom and let me have the couch. Now, Grandpa would wake before me and come back quietly to take his seat at the dining table. He would read like a literary phantom behind me until I woke and realized the time and turned to find him there, still and scholarly. An ancient man in a modern Chinese-American painting.
“I’ve been awake for a while,” he would say, and I would rub my eyes and yawn dramatically, kicking my legs out and stretching my arms past the edge of the sofa towards the garden my grandmother used to tend to but is now under grandpa’s care. I’d feeling comfortably childish like a granddaughter just risen from a warm delicious nap and who together with her grandpa, was waiting for grandma to wake too.
But it remained just the two of us for a good part of the afternoon. Grandpa would move to his favorite chair in front of the TV, turn it on in time for a travel-through-China show he liked to watch, and I’d read some more back at the kitchen table. Sometimes I would go to the garden and collect some snow peas, yam leaves or tomatoes and grandpa would be pleased, because he chose to keep watering the plants his wife had loved so much rather than let them wither. Sometimes I would vacuum and grandpa would lift the chairs even though it strained his back. Sometimes we’d talk, though hardly about grandma. And around two or three, I would get ready to go.
I’d stand up and start packing away my books and magazines. He would look up and say, “Going?”
“Going,” I said, “I’ll see you __,” whatever day I was scheduled to come next, though it was a self-imposed thing. I was unemployed and needed structure. Even more, I think, than Grandpa. I’d take my bag, wait a bit while grandpa rose from his chair to let me out, and I’d walk down the driveway towards my car, which was always parked across the street along the neighbor’s curb, beneath a shady tree.
He’d stand in front of the drafty old house, with its red brick and wrought iron front gate. The small, two door garage filled with old Chinese school textbooks and odds and ends from various points of their grown children’s and their children’s lives. Old Christmas gifts and filing cabinets. Large stock pots and steamers my grandmother had used during Chinese New Years’ past. There was a single rose bush near the living room window. There he would be, standing slightly stooped with his arms behind his back, a ballast of sorts, holding down this fort that was and was not his.
“See you later, Grandpa,” I always called out from my window. He’d smile and wave and, seeing my car wend around Sunshine Park and out of sight, he’d slowly turn and go back inside.
In those summer months before I left for school, I didn’t worry about whether he would feel cold. Alone, of course, but not cold.
The Cerritos Library employs a small army of vigilant volunteers who patrols the stacks with straight backs and stern expressions that become sterner if its bearer spies a prohibited Starbucks cup or neon bag of Cheetos. They interrupt the quiet yet unfocused studies of various sleepy, glum-faced students and say, “Sir/Miss, you’re not allowed to have that. Please throw it away outside.” It is no wonder the Library, though having been renovated nearly a decade ago, is still pristine. Continue reading “Taking my Grandpa to the Cerritos Library”
A few years ago I visited my grandparents at the same time an old friend of theirs, Grandma Dai, was visiting. She and her husband, a short man with spectacles and a shiny head shaped like a cod liver oil pill, were my grandparents’ longtime mahjong buddies. When they were all in relatively good health, Grandpa Dai would drive to grandma’s house, where an aluminum card table and four folding chairs would already be set up in the garage, along with a small TV dinner table where they would put nuts, an ashtray, and thermoses of tea. They would crack the garage door just enough so that the fumes from their many cigarettes would have somewhere to go, and the game would commence, stretching from the late morning until late evening.
It was an unspoken agreement my grandparents had with their children: either call before you visit, or simply drive on by when you noticed an unfamiliar car parked before a partially open garage door. My grandparents lived in a curious sort of denial: they didn’t smoke if we didn’t see it. They didn’t play mahjong for hours and hours if we didn’t see it. On occasion however, if my brother and I or any of my cousins happened to be in the vicinity, we would drop by anyway and what could my grandpa do but open the garage door fully to let us in? (For some reason, most of my family prefers to use the garage door as their home’s main entrance, leaving the front door for “company” and trick-o’-treaters.) The garage door would raise slowly, creakily, and an impressive amount of acrid second hand smoke would waft out. Even by the time the door was fully raised, much of it still lingered, casting a carcinogenic haze around the mahjong table and its players. A single 60 watt bulb lit the garage, hanging bleakly over the shiny white tiles. It was a depressing sight, and looking back, I wonder why they didn’t just play in the backyard where the sun was shining, the air was fresh, and they would be surrounded by my grandmother’s fragrant fruit trees.
On one such impromptu visit, I recall seeing my grandfather standing imposingly at the front of the garage door, several feet away from the recently vacated mahjong table, his hands behind his back, an impatient expression on his face. I had never played mahjong at the time, but I remember how the table looked: the long flat clear green plastic bars standing against a stout army of green-backed white tiles still unplayed. A small pile of used tiles sat in the middle: there was no mistake that we had interrupted them in the middle of an epic game. He bid us hello, and through the haze we saw Grandpa and Grandma Dai sitting at the table but in process of pushing themselves away. Grandma and Grandma Dai’s hair seemed to blend in with the smoke. Each had a small pile of pennies in front of them, small stakes for a game whose tiles are based on ancient Chinese currency, and on the tv tray next to them I spied the small lacquered guitar-shaped ashtray, a kitschy relic from God knows where, filled with smoking butts, some of which still burned like incense.
“Hello, children,” Grandma Dai would say, and we would say hello and nod politely, stiffly, for we knew that smoking was wrong and caused diseases and we could sense my grandparents’ discomfort that we had seen this relatively reckless side of them.
Sometime before I went to college or perhaps when I was in college Grandpa and Grandma Dai stopped coming around, and my grandparents gave up smoking. We no longer saw Grandpa Dai’s car in the driveway and the garage door was either completely open or completely closed. The Mahjong table stood folded next to the refrigerator in the garage, alongside the plastic drawers where my grandma stored her “special” shoes for going out. Over the years the smell of smoke, which had permeated the wooden walls of the garage, dissipated and was replaced by the smell of laundry, footsteps, and dust.
My grandparents still played the occasional game of mahjong, with whom I know not, but as the years stretched on, occasional petered out to never. I suppose hours and hours of the same game can get exhausting, but on some level mahjong, along with smoking and whatever other things they enjoyed in their younger years, seemed to them a thing of the past, intrinsically tied to their younger years (“younger” is also relative. I am talking about their seventies). When I visited and happened to see the mahjong table, I would ask about Grandpa and Grandma Dai, and my grandparents would say, “They are doing well, I think.” Then a few years back, before I saw Grandma Dai again, the story changed to “Not too well, Grandma Dai is sick.”
She had some sort of intestinal thing, my grandparents couldn’t say exactly, but each time I mentioned her grandma would shake her head and say, “She hasn’t got long.”
Then that day a few years ago, I was at grandma’s house when Grandma and Grandpa Dai suddenly dropped by for a visit. She came walking in through the garage door and I was surprised to observe that she was much thinner than when I’d last seen her. All the silver that had been in her short, curly hair back in their mahjong days had disappeared. Her entire mane had become a pure, clean white, as though her sickness and its subsequent “cure” had shocked her. Her complexion was clear, free from sunspots and though at that moment her body radiated fatigue and frailness, her eyes seemed bright. Whatever disease she had, she had fought it and now had energy to stay and chat a while to chat with grandma, whose health at the time was still quite robust.
When the Dai’s left, I turned to grandma and said, “She looks quite good, and she’s lost some weight.” Grandma huffed and shook her head in the way she does when it’s clear there are too many things I don’t understand, “She’s too thin, and she is weak. She hasn’t got long.”
That was many years ago.
Last Sunday November 11 at my grandmother’s funeral, I spotted Grandma Dai’s white mane from a mile away. She walked slowly on her granddaughter’s arm towards the chapel where two long lines of grandchildren stood all in black to welcome attendees. As her figure grew closer I saw that she wore a single black glove on her right hand and oval spectacles fitted with transition lenses. Aside from the mournful expression on her face, she appeared to be in good health. She had maintained her slender frame despite having shrunk a few inches since we last met and walked more steadily than my grandmother could in the last two years. Grandpa Dai was just a few steps behind, also in good health. They both moved, at least it seemed to me, without pain or shortness of breath, without walkers or canes, apparatuses that had become necessary in my grandmother’s last year. When they saw my grandfather, now an old widower, grandma Dai broke out into silent, heaving sobs. He patted her on the back and told her to buck up.
“My old half is in a better place,” he said.
After the service my family stood in a line, facing those who had attended and thanked each guest. They made a long line that wrapped around the chapel to view the body for a final time and when it was Grandma Dai’s turn, she crumpled again, grasping each of her departed friend’s children and burying her face into lapels and black cardigans. From where I stood near the end of the line, I could see her white hair disappearing into the arms of first my uncle, then my aunt, then my other uncle and my mother. She made her way slowly down the line until the casket was in view again just beyond her small figure.
Soon she was standing before me, the frail woman my grandmother had so many years ago, said with utmost certainty would not make it. She cried with hearty gasps of air into clear, healthy lungs. I thanked her for coming and she grasped my hands, putting the gloved hand on top of mine, an odd combination of paper and cloth. Grandpa Dai nodded with a sad smile. She let go of my hand and I watched them go, certain that they had more than a few years ahead of them. I looked back at the casket, my grandma’s own salt and pepper hair just visible atop the cherry wood edge. I wished her spirit patience. She would have her old mahjong gang back to play at a celestial table with heavenly cigarettes whose fumes would form clouds – that was certain as Mahjong’s prevailing East wind – but she would have to wait.
My aunt invited my grandparents, parents and me over for dinner today. It wasn’t a special occasion or anything, she just bought a ton of groceries and decided to cook, and asked my dad to pick my grandparents up from their home in Cerritos on his way home from work. Dinners like these are a combination of things: an effort to eat healthier (my aunt cooks mostly vegetarian), to spend more time with her parents in addition to the countless hours they spend on the road and at various hospitals, and to spend more time with me. At least I like to think so.
A few years ago I would have shook my head no thanks, opting to stay at home or go out with friends, but in the past year and a half that I’ve been living at home I find myself looking forward to them. I like my aunt’s cooking, despite her dishes being bland and often, unsightly (lord help her presentation if she uses soy sauce or eggs). What’s more, there is the odd family practice of not really paying any attention to the younger generation. Growing up our family celebrations at restaurants and even at home were firmly divided into two tables: adults and kids. There are ten cousins and about as many adults, and my father was usually in charge of ordering for both tables. Thinking himself “hip” to what young people wanted, he would throw a fried noodle, rice or orange chicken dish in at the end of the meal at the kids table, assuming we’d go bananas over that stuff. (Most of the time, we were too stuffed to make a dent and he’d come over and help himself to a bowl, having wanted it for himself all along.) I think even now, with some of my cousins approaching forty and with kids of their own, we sort of still expect to be sat at a table together, separate from our parents.
These days at my aunt’s house I’m just one “kid,” and therefore expected to sit at the table with the “adults,” but their attention turns to me only when they’re concerned that I’m not eating enough or can’t reach a particular dish. It’s not strange until I think about how old I am and, according to society’s life map, where I’m supposed to be. I should be working late or perhaps out with my long-term boyfriend or, if I were married, home readying dinner for my husband and my own kids.
Instead I sit, eat, and listen. They talk about the dishes and how they can be improved (my father and grandma are most voluble when it comes to these matters). They talk about their mutual friends – who has cancer, whose children are getting married, whose parents are aging and on their way out, and who is a little miffed with whom but just too polite to say so. They talk about grandma and grandpa (if grandma and grandpa aren’t present) and their progress and about new and unborn babies, and how different child-rearing is nowadays. They love their children, but sometimes, in the lifestyles and within the marriages themselves, have a hard time recognizing that these children, now adults with houses and children of their own, came from their bodies.
It’s not a bad thing. None of it is bad – and they speak of these things in a matter-of-fact way, between bites of bitter melon, egg and tomato stir fry, pickled cucumbers, pan-fried rock cod, chicken curry, and yam leaves. They are both aware and unaware of time and how fast things change. When my grandparents are present you see on their faces everything that’s being said, those very changes that took place over all the long decades of their lives: the wars and revolutions, the migrations from there to there to here, the marriage and miscarriages and finally the births of these children who branched off into their own full lives with their own migrations and marriages and careers that enabled them to buy large houses in leafy suburbs and eggs in cartons of eighteen. They’ve done their share of fretting over their children. I guess, when you’re eighty-six and your back hurts no matter what position you’re in and you’ve tried every drug in the world, you sort of just realize, “Hey, life is short, don’t try to control what you can’t.”
And my parents and my aunt, they don’t try to control what they can’t. At least not anymore. All the variables have grown up and moved away. I’m not supposed to be around listening to these conversations, where they basically review everything they did right or wrong over the course of our young lives, but I am. What I’m listening to are the memories and realizations of retired tiger moms and formerly stern fathers (not my own, but my grandpa, certainly) who have pretty much stepped back and said, “They, my children, are no longer my responsibility. They have their own lives and I have mine.”
I’m learning a lot – but mostly that life, depending on how you look at it and how you spend it, can be quite short. Or I guess to be more optimistic: it’s long, but it goes by damn quickly.
Case in point:
After dinner my grandma wanted to poke around my aunt’s yard. My grandma loves gardens and plants and she loves to comment on other people’s plants. We encourage this behavior because it means my grandma is doing something somewhat active, even though my grandpa is always in a rush to go back home where he does nothing but sit and stare at the TV or listen to a wailing Beijing opera. We don’t understand his rush to do nothing, but at the same time this sort of pointless impatience seems to afflict most elderly Asian men I know. I think they were programmed to return home to their couches and beds. Anyway, this evening my grandma got up from her chair and walked to the back door.
“It’s so cool here by the door,” she said and without further ado, stepped out without her cane.
“Your cane!” my aunt said. I was done eating by then and rose to bring grandma her cane. I didn’t have to go very far, and since I was already there at her arm, I decided to walk out with her.
It was ten degrees cooler outside now that the sun was lower in the sky and I was instantly glad I had stepped out of my aunt’s warm kitchen. There was a soft breeze, coupled with the smell of grass and whatever plants my aunt kept on my left, that made the air so fragrant. Slowly, we walked around the kitchen window and came to my aunt’s garden patch. I smiled as my grandma poo-pahed my aunt’s plants, laughing at the scrawny tomatoes and tiny apples, but I could tell she was pleased that her eldest daughter, formerly a super successful real-estate agent who couldn’t keep a houseplant alive, now kept a garden at all. (Amusingly, my grandma kept on saying, “Your little garden,” even though my aunt’s yard is roughly, the size of my grandma’s entire house.) Aside from the fact that if my grandma had taken a fall I would have been the one responsible, I felt, standing there by her side, quite young and child-like. I had gone out barefoot and left my phone inside. My parents, aunt and grandpa were still inside chatting and finishing their meal, and for a few minutes it was just me and grandma in the garden.
We didn’t say much, I just stood by and watched her examine a leave here and there. Despite having no strength in her legs my grandma was quite strong in the arms and leaned heavily on her aluminum cane as she reached for a young fruit or browned, dead leaf, which she would pluck off with surprising vigor and thrust to the dirt. Eventually she decided my aunt’s garden was not hopeless and kept on walking beyond it to the pool, where two old lawn chairs sat side by side. She poked at one with her cane and, deciding that she didn’t care about the crusty bird shirt that covered the edges, sat down after bending her legs for what seemed like five whole minutes until her bottom touched the beige mesh of the chair.
She sighed and looked up at me, then twisted her neck around as though realizing for the first time that she was in her daughter’s backyard, “It’s quite nice here, isn’t it?”
It is, I said. Seeing that Grandma was safely seated, I stepped into the pool, wanting to cool my legs. I kicked a bit, stirring to the middle fallen leaves that had collected around the water’s edge.
“Oh my goodness!” my grandma exclaimed, “You kicked out all the dirty things.”
“They’re just leaves, Grandma,” but it was still light and I spotted my aunt’s pool net. I got out of the water and grabbed it, then tried as expertly as I could to gather up all the leaves I’d caused to float to the center of the pool.
“You missed a spot.”
I turned around. My grandfather had come out too and was standing at the opposite end of the pool, near the spa with one arm behind his back and another stretched out and pointing at the water.
“Got it,” I said, and moved to clean the area.
“Maybe you could work for your aunt and clean her pool,” my grandpa said, and chuckled to himself. What a jokester.
“I could, but I’d like to be paid in cash and not in vegetarian dishes,” I said.
He laughed, then walked around to where his wife sat. He bent down to brush the seat off, then sat down gingerly, wincing slightly as the crick in his back acted up.
I put the net down and walked over.
“Are you comfortable?” I asked, already knowing what his answer would be.
“At my age, there is no comfortable. There is only bad and not too bad.”
“Well, hopefully you’re not too bad.”
“Not too bad,” my grandpa nodded.
We sat, the three of us – they in the lawn chairs and me on the floor with my legs in the pool for the better part of an hour, talking about my cousins and their children, and guessing at who would marry next.
“You need to find someone,” my grandma said, then she thought about it and said, “Well, don’t rush it. It takes time to find someone really good.”
My father came out to take a phone call and we could hear his voice breaking in and out over the white noise of a garden in the evening.
My grandma turned to look, “Who’s he talking to?”
“He’s on the phone,” grandpa said.
My grandma looked at me, “Not sure what you, your mother, brother or what your grandpa and I did in our past lives to get a father, husband and son-in-law like him, but we are very blessed.”
I laughed. So I’ve heard from them many times.
My grandpa nodded in agreement, and for the next few minutes we didn’t say anything. Suddenly the pool lights came on along with the waterfall. My aunt had turned them on via remote control from her study. I waved at the window and saw a slim white arm wave back. The pool light, chosen by the previous owners who had no doubt predicted wild booze-filled pool parties, glowed in a myriad of garish colors: red, blue, white, then green. Silently we watched the water change colors, pausing just a few seconds on each hue before slowly changing to the next.
The three of us watched the colors change as though in a trance until my father finished his phone call and came to join us.
“I saw you clean your aunt’s pool.”
“I told her she could clean her aunt’s pool for a living,” my grandpa said again, and my father laughed.
“Oh no,” he said, “She’s going back to school. At least, that’s what she tells me.”
“That’s the plan,” I said.
“Good, good,” grandpa said, “School is always good.”
My father scoffed, “Yes, but this one doesn’t study. I’m worried I’ll be throwing my money away. She majored in English and all she ever did was read a few novels.”
“Saying you study is like watching ghosts fight.”
I thought my father was saying something poetic, about how a writer’s struggle is invisible, and for a minute I thought he was coming around. That he understood that my “studying” or “working” wasn’t always something you could chart. But just to make sure, I asked.
“What does that mean?”
“Have you ever seen ghosts fight?”
“There you go.”
I rolled my eyes. What was there to explain? Nothing really. It was a nice evening. We had just eaten a healthy, home-cooked meal. I had just cleaned my aunt’s pool and was now sitting with my feet in the water. It felt good, and looking at my grandparent’s faces, they felt good too. My father, with his arms crossed and his phone back in his pocket, was smiling.
My grandpa must have noticed something then. The sun was nearly completely gone, but there was still enough light to see barely, the outline of their faces and mine too.
“You’re at your best right now,” he said suddenly, “this is your best time.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant: was he referring to my youth or intellectual potential or fertility? Maybe all three. Was it warning? Or perhaps in the dimming twilight my grandfather had briefly forgotten that I was twenty-six and spoke to me as though I were still a child, having just left the children’s table to accompany them to the edge of the pool.
I didn’t know and there was something about the moment that told me not to ask. His statement had been issued and I could do with it what I wanted. I kicked my feet up a bit and caused the water to ripple. The lights changed again, then again, and again, casting a glow on all our faces, sometimes warm and red, sometimes a cool blue and white. I wondered if the pool light had a sensor. If I jumped in, would the lights stop changing? Probably not.