Grandma’s Cushy Afterlife

When my maternal grandmother died we burned a whole paper mansion for her. It was the size of a dollhouse, complete with paper doll servants. Ashes flew up on the crisp winter air and floated down like soot-colored snowflakes. The Chinese believe that burnt paper replicas of everyday items will join their ancestors in the afterlife. I’ve long stopped believing the dead benefit from our efforts or attention, but I still like the image of my grandmother in her mansion, on some cloud, being waited on. A servant brings her grapes on a platter while she lounges by the fountain, in her courtyard.

My grandmother had been my grandfather’s concubine, or second wife. The story of where Grandma came from was never told, but she was uneducated, indicating her family had probably been poor. She met my grandfather when he employed her to work in his store. In Chinese tradition the best thing parents can do for their daughter is to make a good marriage arrangement for her. My Grandmother’s need to work for a living indicated that she had been orphaned before her marriage could be arranged. Despite being married himself, Grandpa got my grandmother pregnant. Eventually, he took her on as his second wife. Though this title doesn’t entail much privilege, grandma adored him for the rest of her life. She probably knew of men who were not kind enough to do that much for their mistresses. When she wasn’t warming my grandfather’s bed, Grandma was working in his restaurant or cleaning his house. Most of her labor contributed to household expenses; if she was provided with a stipend, she didn’t have anything to show for it.

When Grandma came to live with us in America she brought a suitcase full of clothes and a quilt.  She cooked and cleaned for us for her keep. Beside her I learned how to hand-scrub clothes in our cast-iron tub. Afterwards, she would hang them on the fire-escape to dry. She would also babysit sometimes, though she never entertained me. She would nap while I played with my friends. When we got thirsty I would rouse her from bed to get us a drink from the fridge.  At the time our fridge required skill to crack. I didn’t want to disturb her nap, but after throwing all my four-year old weight about the fridge handle, pulling up, then yanking, pulling sideways and yanking, jerking down on the handle, I usually had to procure her aid. Still, Grandma never complained about being awoken or berated me for not being smart enough to figure out how to open the fridge. She didn’t chastise me for wanting a cold soda instead of drinking water from the sink. She simply opened the fridge for me.

I had always known my grandmother to be giving. Even when she was living on government assistance, every Chinese New Year’s Grandma would give me a red envelop full of lucky money. Sometimes she did this from her bed, where the assistance railings reminded me of the bars of a prison cell. By this time she had become too infirm to perform household chores and was living with my aunt. Grandma chose to live with my aunt so as not to burden my father. My aunt would charge the government rent for the room in her house that she gave her mother.

When Grandma eventually died there wasn’t much to get rid of. The room Grandma spent her final years remained as naked and bare as clouds. Now, we burn her paper items and leave strips of blank paper on her gravestone. These are supposed to represent pocket-change, so that my grandmother, who barely had an earthly possession, will always have money to spend in Heaven.

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We Should Try Not to Hate

When I was three I learned my first lesson in discrimination. At the time my mother would give me extra assignments to get ahead. This never turned out too well as I fought the whole process. When mom finally did succeed in getting my attention she attempted to teach me more than she had initially promised. A fifteen-minute lesson would turn into twenty minutes. This only strengthened my resolve to avoid studying. When she wasn’t around she would recruit the aid of my aunt, who lived with us at the time, to give me my lessons. My aunt had no investment in making me work overtime. If I finished the assignment we could do whatever I pleased. I quickly completed the worksheet and asked to go to the park. The area where we lived in the South Bronx had a few parks nearby. The population was mostly Black and Hispanic.

I took my tricycle and my aunt led us to the smallest park closest to us. It was dinky, only a quarter of a block in size. It had more hard dirt and stones than jungle gym. There was a tired swing set that still had a few swings on it and a wooden sandbox that was treated like a landfill. Everyone knew better than to play in it. It wasn’t long after our arrival that large, stuffed animals started pouring down on us, the cheap, garish kind won at carnivals. Trying to find the source of them I looked around, towards the tenement building across the street. Activity had ceased. Everywhere dark faces, child and adult alike, were turned to us: on the street, in the park, looking out from bedroom windows. It was a gallery of angry masks. No one said anything, but their message was clear, we weren’t welcome. They didn’t want to play in the same park with Asians. My aunt led me away. She had just come to live with us from Hong Kong and I could tell, even she was stunned by this treatment. This was supposed to be my reward, but instead we slunk back to our apartment. With our exit I heard merriment return to the park behind me. My aunt told me not to share this episode with my parents, but there would be other such incidences with my parents present.

Years later, when I was attending elementary school in Chinatown, where most of the student body was Chinese, a black kid transferred into our class. His stay with us lasted roughly two weeks. No one ever threw anything at him, but he was alienated. The other kids wouldn’t play with him and called him “black devil” in Chinese. I never participated in the teasing, but I neither interceded nor befriended him. The part of me that didn’t sympathize, felt vindicated.

Today, I try not to let my childhood experiences dictate my behavior. I try to maintain an open and friendly demeanor. If anything these experiences have taught me how easy it is to draw lines and hate. It’s up to us to work harder to discover what we share in common.

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Patrons of the Met Escape

For those afflicted with mental deterioration the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosts a gallery tour, called The Met Escape. This takes place about once a month. Since patrons aren’t capable of registering for the program themselves, or attending of their own accord, someone must enter them in and escort them. I’ve signed my mother up. It was something she enjoyed in her full capacity and still does. It’s something I enjoy myself as museum guides would take us to look at paintings and discus them in more depth than the place-cards.

In my many visits I have found two distinct group of patrons. There are those like my mother, younger, still mobile, if not in legs, then in body; they toddle to museum doors or are pushed in hospital wheelchairs, escorted by impatient or loving progeny, beleaguered spouses, or friends. I comprehend these patrons, such as Nancy, brought to the program by a kindly friend-neighbor who watches her charge as a naturalist deciphering animal behavior. Cherub-cheeked and reticent, Nancy fills blank page after blank page with rainbow-colored rain. When I greet her, her response is girlish, nervous laughter. In the sound I interpret her query, “we’ve never met before, how do you know my name?”

These patrons aren’t always able to vocalize their sentiments or thoughts, but the presence of their escorts makes them more accessible. There is someone to interpret their actions or mumbles or explain their lives before. Sometimes their interactions alone hint at the person they once were. There’s Wilma, a diminutive woman with a string of pearls and white hair. She hangs like a doll off the arm of her hulking, security guard son, who escorts his mother to the Mother’s Day program in his uniform. Her reference to him as tiny is an obvious inside joke. She glows with pride at her son, who turns bashful at his mother’s light-hearted heckling.

Then there are the patrons who come dripping in jewelry and dressed in freshly pressed slacks, dress shirts and blazers; they are pushed in throne-like wheelchairs by bronze-skinned strangers. They seem the furthest along in the disease, barely capable of speech or auditory perception. If they had lives before their aides don’t know or tell. Their identities are entombed in their mummy-like-bodies. I have never met a loved one of these patrons. Their caregivers remain faceless. Requests for their entry into the Met Escape are uttered by silhouettes in museum-like rooms, and born by the wind.

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Solace in the Sound of My Own Breath

In my formative years of competitive swimming, when the Olympics seemed like a certainty, I was a jock. I religiously listed and remembered my best times, I carb-loaded, trained, and lifted weights with the rest of the team. My school friends noted I had the body of a gymnast. At the time my 7th grade Biology teacher tried to hint that athletes made worse students. Research has since shown otherwise. (1) Recently, I was reminded of all this while running laps in a gym class I signed up for. I don’t know why most of the people were there, or where their athletic prowess lay, but as I led the pack for the first time in weeks I felt secure. This was where my power lay; the sound of my breath brought comfort. No one has ever doubted my abilities when I exercised.

When a former teammate, Daphne Abdela, coerced her boyfriend to murder a homeless man (2) in Central Park our swimteam suddenly made front page news of the New York Times. In the article another teammate said Daphne “… would stop too often in the water.” Blasphemous of a competitive athlete. Anyone who has competed at high levels knows that the key to improvement is to attend practice, to do the prescribed exercise, attack them at your greatest capacity without hurting yourself- and don’t stop, don’t complain. This is how I stoically attended to my gym class exercises and as I observed fellow classmates lagging behind I found myself remembering the disdain in which I overtook fellow teammates who weren’t willing to push themselves.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my professional career. Perhaps I should have applied the same principle to my jobs. Don’t stop. But in all honesty, the gym has been one of the only areas in my life where I have excelled. In the water or on the road no one has ever faulted me or called me a failure. No one has attacked my exercise gear because they were jealous of my muscular body. It was indisputable that I had earned it and all the accolades that accompanied my hard work. In exercise there were no words to offend my coach or instructor or vice versa. In exercise there was only the road or the water and the sound of my breath, my Mother Mary, my sanctuary, my church nave.

(1) In a Columbia study “The volunteers [who exercised]… showed significant improvements in their memory…” pg. 191

Reynolds, Gretchen (2012).  The First 20 Minutes, New York, New York: Penguin Group (USA).

(2) Kleinfield, NR (1997, May 27) Suspect’s Ex-Teammates Recall Coldness. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1997/05/27/nyregion/suspect-s-ex-teammates-recall-coldness.html?pagewanted=2&src=pm

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What My Mom was Going Through

It’s finally a beautiful spring day, the one whose arrival we’d been waiting for through the winter chill and my mind drifts back to the process of getting my mother her social security disability benefits. It had been more than a year after which she qualified, but my father hadn’t taken any further steps towards obtaining her due benefits than inform me that we (meaning I) should submit the required paperwork. At the early stages of my mom’s Alzheimer’s I was no longer living with my parents. All I knew of what she was going through was my father’s condemning remarks that she was losing her mind. Even though I had my own apartment, I still spent weekends with my parents and I remember my mother leaving the house at progressively earlier times. Sometimes she left for work up to half an hour earlier. This was alarming since I had inherited my mother’s tardiness. I remember the repeated outfits worn consecutively, something unheard of from my fashion conscious mother. Close to the time she was discharged from her job she would return home fuming with claims that her boss was out to fire her- but she never provided further details. One day after her diagnosis, while we were jogging, I asked her what she wanted to do after she retired. By this point her memory impairment was becoming evident even to me and we both knew she most likely wouldn’t be doing what she answered, but I asked anyway. She wanted to volunteer. She wanted to help people.

While going through her application for SSD my father stoically handed me her termination papers. The reports were heartbreaking. Her supervisor had apparently been trying to give her work, but she kept on forgetting he’d given her any. My mind flashed back to her countless reports that work was boring, they didn’t give her anything to do, she played games on the computer all day. Apparently, her co-workers had also  witnessed her bizarre behaviour, reporting them to her supervisor: Her consumption of a co-worker’s slice of pizza, her erratic behavior in the women’s room- two corner stones of her present behavior. I think of all her pride (the care she put into her appearance, bragging about the way supervisors fought to employ her under their management, the chutzpa it took for her to leave her family and home at eighteen to pursue a higher education in a foreign country) and I can’t help feeling horrible to read these things. Who would want this for themselves? If anything, my mom’s disease has taught me to cherish and be grateful for every moment, even the little ones like added warmth in the air, because we never know when we will unwittingly cease to be able to acknowledge these things.

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What I find beautiful

The adjective beautiful has always been so limiting to me. Why is only a well-shaped woman beautiful? Or the sunset? I’ve always found the feel of the sun on my skin beautiful or a hot shower in the morning, the warmth enveloping my chilled body. I find the taste of a good tea beautiful. It’s heat rising from the mug. As a child I had no particular fondness for tea. It ended every dinner and was an accompaniment to dim sum, but as an adult I love the nuances of the different varieties and the subtly of their flavor. I am not afraid to describe the taste as beautiful.

When I run or swim, I find the way the air or water parts to make way for my body, beautiful. There are people without the benefit of limbs to propel them. I relish the existence of mine by exercising. One can cleave the air on a motorcycle, but it’s not the same as feeling the efforts of your body making progress in the passing scenery. I love the way my blood heats up and feels like fire running through my veins. I love the way my body feels electrified, the beat of my heart passing through every part of my being. I find this beautiful. In the same vein, I find moving my body in the act of creation, writing or cooking, beautiful. My efforts create something that previously didn’t exist, like a magician, but the results are very real.

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What I learned from Story Pirates

Anyone who knows me well knows I am a harsh critic. I attribute this to the lesson my mother inadvertently taught me.

A few months ago I was visiting a friend, a fellow Chinese-American. Her mother was there and complimented me in front of her daughter: I had such a nice figure. I still looked like a Miss. She didn’t say the rest, but it was implicit in the ensuing silence, in comparison to her daughter who hasn’t been able to lose her babyfat since having her second child. When my friend teased that her son preferred me, her mother promptly replied, “It’s because she’s pretty.” I’d forgotten such barbed commentary since my mother’s illness. Now mom barely talks, but when she was well she was guilty of this behavior as well. She complimented everyone but me. My roommate was pretty, my neighbor-friend was smart, my aunt calculated faster than me- but she never used those words to describe me. I didn’t realize I’d taken on her severe and comparative way of looking at the world.

This philosophy is so different from what I learned from the Story Pirates, a volunteer organization based in Los Angeles and New York. They go into schools and teach children how to write stories, then they get other volunteers (like me) to read and comment on them. They gave us the basic formula: start with enthusiasm (Dear Justin: Thank you for submitting your wonderful piece to us), mention parts of the story you liked (I loved it when the shark started dancing with the fish), ask questions in areas where the story could use improvement (Did the shark’s parents yell it for dancing with the fish instead of eating them?), then end the piece with encouragement (Keep up the good work!).  At times it was hard to figure out what to say when there were quite a bit of gaps in logic, but it felt oddly liberating to be constrained to solely discussing the affirmative. I find this works in life as well, compliments light people up; by concentrating on the positive I’ve found there’s always something good to say.

To learn more about Story Pirates and to volunteer check them out at: http://storypirates.org/

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