Marled baby blankets and grandmothers

Unless you’ve had surgery in the Chicago area recently (or you were that rando who facetimed me at two in the morning last week), chances are I haven’t seen you in the past three months, since I’m pretty sure I’ve spent 85% of 2017 in the operating room for my surgery rotation, during which I fell (only) once, hit my head on a monitor twice (happens more often than you think), and was yelled at six times (among my favorites: “you cannot mess up again!” and “DO BETTER!”). It was a grueling, yet rewarding, experience (i poked a kidney), but it did mean being out of the loop on many pieces of exciting news happening back home (engagements, babies, and two rats my parents found in their kitchen). And between surgerying, preparing for my shelf, and double fisting Lorna Doones, there was little time for life’s more substantive activities (i.e. knitting and netflix. knitflix.).

jk, I watched Twin Peaks, GBBO (omg ruby is the worst), Hot Fuzz (again), and season one of Archer (again).

I also knit a baby blanket.If you think this blanket looks familiar (hint: scroll all the way up), that’s because I only have one go-to baby blanket pattern that has never failed to impress (it was a hit at the last knitting guild meeting). Definitely recommend it for anyone looking for a pattern!

And if you’re wondering where the baby is, he/she (can’t use they b/c people will assume twins) is still in utero, which is a shame, because the above photograph is an Easter baby card just waiting to happen. So instead I asked Becky to hold my blanket in front of her favorite wall in the dogpatch, which she did in protest because it’s next to Mr. and Mrs. and she is currently boycotting them for not catering her wedding.DSC_0028Also, her shoes.

While the recipient of this blanket has yet to be born, the soon-to-be father is the eponymous John, who is an illustrator I’m kind of obsessed with. He’s the only person whose Instagram (@johnlorenart) I’ve gone through and (like a creep) retroactively ♥ed all of his old posts. His Office drawings are viral fodder, and out of the kindness of his heart, he is 50% of my Twitter followers. Fortunately, we met over biscuits and pie, so by pastry decree (torte law), we’re essentially best friends.DSC_0978Among the many things that happened in the past three months was my grandmother’s death, which you probably weren’t expecting given the degree of levity in this post thus far (it’s okay, i found out the same way). She died in January, and since then, I’ve been trying to write a piece about her that’s palatable to both those who knew her and to those who didn’t and came here just looking for a kick-ass baby blanket or @johnlorenart (sorry, john, this one’s gonna be a bummer).

Writing is, in some ways, inherently selfish, so I tried my hardest to make this more than just an exercise in cathartic self-expression. My hope is that with any luck (and after a lot of crappy drafts), the following offers something (anything) to all the non-me’s out there (why are there so many of you?!): family, friends, acquaintances, and that rando who facetimed me at two in the morning last week.


Grandmothers

It was midafternoon on a Thursday when I flew home for my grandmother’s funeral. I remember leaving directly from school, stuffing a stiff white coat and a stethoscope between bags of trail mix and a book of crossword puzzles in my duffle. It felt weird, too, taking off like that at two in the afternoon. A bit too easy, I thought, to drop everything like a heavy coat in the doorway and hop on a plane headed half a continent away. It made me nervous, the way things become undone so quickly.

Chicago was cold that day, some time in the middle of January. A dense fog hung low, obscuring the treetops of Washington Park. It was still and it was snowless, and it reminded me of home, which was something I needed. Her death was by no means a surprise. Expected, even, if I had to be completely honest. It seemed just to happen so suddenly. As deaths often do, I guess.

Midway had a relaxed, almost pedestrian, atmosphere to it. People idled through security, carefully organizing their belongings within grey plastic bins before patiently waiting their turn to stand spread-eagle inside the metal detector chamber. And further down, people meandering—bordering on loitering—oddly content with the snail’s pace of the moving walkway. Heads down, phones out, I walked in time with slow and steady ticks, luggage wheels skipping across tile cracks.

I shared a plane to San Francisco with a boys wrestling team from a deaf high school in Indiana. I know this only because I accidentally took the one empty seat among them, instantaneously lopping off sentences and upheaving half-finished conversations into chaos. By the time I realized what I had done, when I looked around and saw the moving hands and silent laughter, it was too late. Doors were locked and crosschecked, seatbelt signs were illuminated. In my own defense, I moved as little as possible during the entire flight, trying to be no more of a nuisance than an unassuming traffic cone along their communicatory highway, but the damage was done. I could feel the confusion and annoyance around me. They leaned left and right, craning their necks to listen past me, talking overhead and raising a shaking hand when they needed to get another’s attention. I imagine it was the equivalent of trying to order a drink at the bar of a noisy club. And I was the DJ.

Perhaps it was the constellation of recent events, the fresh wound of a tragedy partnered with a trigger-happy heart, but I felt an overwhelming sense of aptness being on that plane. Suffering a flurry of jargon (in a middle seat nonetheless), there was a communion between my grandmother and me, in our shared unintelligibility, the anxiety of outsiders. We were the same, if only just briefly, my four hours dwarfed by her better half of a lifetime.

Memories of my grandmother are numerous yet silent. She took care of me most days after school when I was younger, but neither of us was sufficiently bilingual to communicate anything meaningful. As a result, we spent most of our time side by side, watching cartoons or Chinese soap operas or making crayon drawings on continuous form paper. But, unavoidably, there were times when context clues weren’t enough and our game of charades fell short. Like when she taped aloe vera leaves to my forehead every time I fell asleep on the couch, or when she stuck a metal crochet hook in my ear, or that one afternoon when she sat me down at the kitchen table and forced me to drink Hawaiian Punch—a simple enough task until I learned she had boiled it on the stove just minutes before. Whether these acts were punishment or therapy was beyond the scope of her English vocabulary, but either way, I complied without question. Like you would in a dream, where inexplicable logic is the norm and the absurd becomes banal.

The automatic doors whooshed open and I stepped out onto the Arrivals landing at SFO. I took a moment to bask in the temperate sixty and cool breeze coming off the coast just miles away. I hadn’t been gone more than a couple weeks but it felt so good to be back. Even under the circumstances. Sarah, my older sister, pulled up to the curb in our old Honda Odyssey. I recognized it at once—weatherworn and pockmarked with dents, rims caked in dust from the late night road trips we used to take. Unfamiliar sunrises, apple orchards and wind farms, Garrison Keillor hushed through the shoddy backseat speakers. It was dawning on me, exactly how much I missed home, the steady nostalgia creeping up like the prodrome of a slowly advancing virus.

My parents leapt out of the car before the hazards had a chance to start blinking. From their excitement you would think that I had just come home from war or narrowly escaped an equally perilous journey. My father walked toward me in his blue puffy down jacket, which seemed like overkill to me after having spent three years in Chicago. I hugged him tight. My mother does this thing where she stomps her feet quickly as she approaches. Her way of running to you when she’s only three feet away. I hugged her tighter.

We spent much of the weekend watching old home videos. My parents sifted through the basement for hours trying to dig up our VCR player until my mother stumbled upon it in the living room, tucked in the bottom cubby of our wooden entertainment center. It was still connected to the television from the last time we had watched a VHS over a decade ago. Our house has always been like that, messy and dissonant and strictly adherent to Newton’s first law. Things in our house seem to persist indefinitely until deliberately disposed of or displaced, which, for some reason, happens only very rarely. It explains the VCR player as well as the contents of many of our cooking cabinets, why we ate out of Barney and friends plastic ware until I was in high school and the ever-watchful Furbie sitting high on our kitchen shelf. At its best, it’s a remedy for nostalgia; at its worst, it’s an early sign of hoarding and the reason why, one Christmas morning, plans for a waffle breakfast were quickly dashed after my father discovered a slowly dying, uneaten waffle already occupying the iron. An unsavory ghost of Christmas past.

Ngeen ngeen flickered on screen. My father’s mother had died when I was in high school, and it shames me to admit it, but I was surprised to see her. I’d forgotten that I’d forgotten her. And the way she strolled through our front door, so boldly, with such nonchalance, like no one had told her she’d been gone for the last ten years. She stepped deftly over my three year old self splayed out on the living room carpet and took a seat on the couch next to Ally, my younger sister. What do you have there, moi moi? It was Christmas morning, 1993, and my sister drank lazily from a bottle with a malassembled Mr. Potato Head in her lap. My mother crossed the screen. She permed her hair back then. She was still in pajamas. We all were. My father stood up from the debris of wrapping paper and walked toward the camera and

Snowstorm. Bars of primary colors and then both of my grandmothers together, sitting on a bench in Michelangelo Park. July 1997, my seventh birthday. The camera was shaky and the pixels painfully large, but there they were, the two of them, watching us play on Technicolor grass. Ngeen ngeen wore her horn-rimmed sunglasses with a bowtie scarf she had knit wrapped snuggly around her neck. She turned and said something to paw paw in her thick, Toisan dialect and they both broke out laughing. Paw paw’s gold tooth gave off a brilliant gleam. They sat in the background falling in and out of screen, behind the chaos of children running and parents trying to keep up. I wore an oversized white T-shirt with dinosaurs and smiled at the camera. My friends were high on sugar and rambling tangentially. So many conversations going on at once, but there was only one I wanted to hear. What I wouldn’t give, I thought to myself.

Snowstorm.

The service was held at Green Street Mortuary in North Beach, located just a few blocks from our house. It’s a small, worn building with beige walls abutting a faded brown awning, its sole embellishment etched in gold on a jade green plaque aside the double doors. It’s situated at the border of Little Italy and Chinatown, and the contrast is stark—on one side, raucous sports bars and a cabaret theater, and on the other, open produce markets, rows of consignment shops, and Mimi’s fortune cookie factory. This was the preferred mortuary of choice for many of our relatives, so I was familiar with the layout as I walked in. Musty and unchanged with thick, red carpet running alongside ornate columns and obscure impressionist art. Windowless. Soft piano hymns playing in a loop overhead. When we arrived, the hall was empty except for floral wreaths that lined the walls, gifted by long-distance friends and relatives. My grandmother laid center stage, and I approached her cautiously. Medical school had inured me to death in abundance, but not like this. This was death tailored for the living. This was death dressed up as life.

She wore a cheurng saam that she had made herself, this one in an elegant violet. A string of pearls lay around her neck, and her hair was impeccable. Grey to black with a streak of white, coiffed high in scalloped curls. This was not her everyday wig. I thought back to that one Thanksgiving, when, on a whim of playfulness, she allowed us to try on her hair. We passed it around, taking pictures and selfies, comparing ourselves to the celebrities we were only one good hair day away from becoming. We were having so much fun, and I wondered why we hadn’t done this sooner, until the end of the night arrived and my grandmother was still wigless. She sat stone-faced and rigid as we searched for the missing headpiece in silent guilt. My mother eventually found it, like she did our VCR player, like she did most things. It was underneath my father, who weighs just north of two hundred pounds. We peeled it off the floral seat cushion the same way Bugs Bunny picks up potholes right off the street.

Before the service, a mortuary attendant stood before my grandmother with a pile of fabrics in her arms. Purple, blue, silver, intricate embroideries of gold on ruby red, she balanced a tower of luxurious silks and satins while explaining how the ceremony would proceed. These were blankets, my mother had explained to me, to keep her warm in the afterlife. The afterlife. The same nebulous dimension that received our oranges and incense every Ching Ming Jeet, the final destination of charred tissue paper money, its woody aroma and windswept ashes, the accumulation of silent bows, millions upon millions of them, but reliably divisible by three.

I approached the casket and held the blue fabric gingerly in my hand. It was the kind of blue you wished were more than just a color. Deep and expansive, like it could go on for miles. The attendant held the other end, and together we stepped forward, laying it over my grandmother delicately. Beneath my blanket were those of everyone who had gone before me. Sarah’s was a checkered pink, my parents’ a simple purple. Within the stack I noticed Josiah’s blanket, a smoke blue chenille throw that I recognized from a Pier 1 Imports catalog. It bulged out from beneath the others, enough so that there was concern the casket wouldn’t close correctly. I shook my head and could feel my ancestors shaking their heads with me. My cousin would be the one to bring an actual blanket to the blanket ceremony, I thought. This is the same cousin that would later send me money for Chinese New Year via Venmo rather than crisp two dollar bills within red envelopes.

I heard shuffled footsteps and muted voices behind me. The service was about to begin.

A step back and a deep bow. She slept peacefully in response. My jaw ached from holding back tears.

I remember a story my mother used to tell me about her mother, how many years ago, in order to escape a communist attack, my grandmother fled her home village in China with my Auntie Susie, who was just an infant at the time. They stumbled upon a small boat, and together they rowed out to sea, dropping to the floor at the slightest hint of an approaching plane, Susie held tight against my grandmother’s chest.

This was a familiar story, one my mother shared often, but when it came up one evening at a family dinner, my grandmother held a look of perplexity. That time the communists attacked, we prompted her. With the boat. And Susie. She chuckled and poked at her jai with shaky chopsticks. She thought we were playing a joke on her. We thought she was doing the same to us. We prodded further, reminding her that she herself had told us that story on multiple occasions, but she remained unmoved and unconvinced. She had no idea where we had gotten such a tale. Certainly not from her, she was sure.

I used to ask myself how someone could forget something like that. Fleeing your home and hiding for your life and the life of your daughter on the bottom of a boat. That would be the stuff of nightmares, I imagined, the kind of thing that follows you, even across an ocean. But as her funeral sifted through the events of her life, from illegal immigration to cricket soup to a thirty year, multigenerational feud, it dawned on me that that night may not have been among the most memorable evenings of my grandmother’s eighty nine years, that our respective definitions of extraordinary and tragic and everything in between may have differed by orders of magnitude.

From the stories shared that morning, my grandmother, at many times in her life, seemed more befitting of a spy novel or daytime soap opera—prone to drama and intrigue and inscrutable odds at every turn—and I wondered if she ever recognized that, if she saw the sublime in her everyday, the extremes she endured that are theoretical to most. It is all a matter of perspective, of course. I know that. We have no experience but our own. But her life was held in such close proximity to mine that it’s hard not to be curious, to wonder what constantly toeing the line of credibility does to a person, what breaks and what forms when truth is stranger—and scarier and sadder—than fiction.

As I left the funeral hall, I received two tiny envelopes. One red, one white. I opened the white one first and quickly popped the starburst in my mouth. I put the dollar bill and quarter from the red envelope into my coat pocket. There would be a family discussion as to what dessert we would purchase with our combined dollar twenty fives, but now was neither the time nor the place. I dropped my starburst wrapper into the trash bin that was already half full of waxy husks. Pastel pink and orange and yellow, meager attempts to wash away the putrid taste of death.

I was a pallbearer, so I stood by the main entrance and pulled on a pair of clean, white gloves. Someone pinned a flower to my jacket pocket. I had never been a pallbearer before, but the process as it was explained to me seemed simple enough. My father said that one time when he was at a funeral, they made his brother jump over a flaming skillet of burning money. I looked around, but there were only mourners milling about, slowly migrating outside to the parking lot. It appeared that I would be getting off easy this time.

The six of us stood around the casket and I took my position in the back right, my grip mere inches from my grandmother’s right ear. She must be sweating, I thought, with all those blankets layered on top of her, that polyester chenille throw baking her like an oven. Through the polished mahogany, I saw a bead of sweat forming behind her ear, but she didn’t move a muscle. She wouldn’t want to mess up her hair, I thought, which is classic her. Vain to the very end.

Eyes closed, I could feel her waiting patiently for us to escort her to the Hearst idling outside. She’s an expert at this because she’s spent her whole life waiting, I realized, waiting while I take tiny sips of hot Hawaiian Punch or turn out my pockets hoping to produce her orphaned wig. She’s happy to wait because this cushy box beats the hard floor of a wooden boat with an antsy baby on your chest any day. And this time she’s not waiting for an airplane. She’s not waiting for death, because death would be too mundane for her. No, she’s waiting for the absurd, the fantastical, for the curses to end and prosperity to begin. She’s exhausted from a half a dozen lifetimes, and now she’s just waiting for the afterlife. The afterlives. She smells candy on everyone’s breath and she’s waiting for someone to offer her some, because something around here reeks and she could sure use something sweet.

She’s waiting, waiting, waiting, and there’s nothing that I’d rather do than wait with her forever.

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One thought on “Marled baby blankets and grandmothers

  1. Daniel: Thank you for writing such a riveting account of Mom’s funeral and those precious moments of your childhood with her. That sharing of her wig among those of us who are so challenged was one of my favorite fun memories with her.

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