I know, since moving to Denver, you might expect me to come out blazing with photos of nature or mountains or my new ripped physique (obtained purely by osmosis), but honestly, the most beautiful thing I’ve seen since moving here (next to dachshunds hiking in harnesses and a goodwill store with two floors) has been watching my blocked knits dry. My knitting has been somewhat slow recently, what with the move and the summer heat (i know humidity is the worst, but dry heat still dry sucks), so I’ve taken a moment to block a couple projects I’ve had in the wings–a process I loathe and oftentimes just skip–and it turns out it actually looks kind of a stunning.These are hand warmers and my lame attempt at colorwork (i am, at baseline, a very bland person). They are a graduation gift for my friend, Deborah, who is from Trinidad and in dire need of some woolen wear since I hear the winters in Port of Spain can be particularly brutal.This is a beanie, and she’s made from the most ostentatious yarn I’ve ever knit. A gift (but also a challenge) from my friend, Rebecca (of giant cowl, afore-posted fame), this beanie beamed like hazard lights whenever I worked on it, but I love it and am obsessed with the pattern, and I’m currently working on a second one now! Yes, the yarn is a bit bright, but if I’ve learned anything from QE (other than the volume of tears the human eye can produce in forty minutes), it’s that everything looks better with a pop of color. Also a french tuck.Here’s my beanie post-blocked (plus the second, semi-finished, toned down version i’m working on), photographed on the back lawn where my neighbor’s corgi who needs to wear an orthopedic neck pillow frequently urinates.And these are friends, old and new! Obviously, not the same as blocked knits (though, some might argue, equally as stunning and ostentatious), but, besides waiting on wool to dry and watching West Wing over a tub of hummus, I’ve spent the past month exploring and hiking and meeting new people (and hiking). Fun and exhilarating and exhausting, I am slowly getting used to this new city.
This past month has been overwhelming with transitions and many, many, new things, but June in particular gives me pause–the combination of Father’s Day and Pride Month and that one night a year ago when I came out in a falafel restaurant before Hamilton (i was about as closeted as the ‘g’ in ‘gyro’). And since my sisters always say I never come up with gifts for our dad (except that one year we bought him his third set of portable bluetooth speakers), what follows is mostly to prove them wrong, but also something for my dad, and something for me, and something for my goong goong.
I wake up to the sound of parchment paper. My father is in the kitchen, and from my bed I hear him moving around: the linoleum floor moaning beneath his weight, the bones in his knees cracking, oily sheets rubbing against the slick nylon of my old Timbuk2 messenger bag as he pulls out fresh focaccia onto the kitchen counter. I slept in, I realize, because my room is daylit—the sun high enough to shimmy through my alleyway window and spill across the pasty stars covering my ceiling. Their light is spent, though, and exposed in the morning sun they just look dull and ordinary.
I step out into the hallway in my sleep shirt and underwear. My left eye is stubborn and shut. Like the ceiling of my room, my shirt is riddled with glow-in-the-dark constellations, “HEAVENLY BODIES” iron-printed in bold along the hem. It’s an old shirt, worn almost into oblivion, many of the stars lost somewhere in the laundry, the “B” mostly gone, just a ghost of a letter, and an expanding tear in the black fabric of empty space by my left armpit.
“Uungawa,” I say, growling deep in my throat. My father is still wearing his Birkenstock clogs, and they’ve left dusty footsteps on the kitchen floor.
“Uungawa,” he laughs back.
Hardly awake, and still, poking fun at my father comes so easily. The little Tarzan-speak I know comes from him, from his childhood of make-believe, playing soldier and spy in secret languages. Neither of us knows what it means, but as often as I can, I mimic him, zombie walking down our long, shag carpeted hallway, one eye shut and speaking gorilla in a sleepy haze.
I take a seat at the kitchen counter in the one stool that has a backrest, which is Ally’s favorite spot, but she’s still asleep. I untie the string of twine that conceals the bread like a Christmas present and push over the sheets of tomato focaccia to rip off a corner of the rosemary garlic underneath. Sarah and Ally like tomato, but I like rosemary garlic, so my father gets double portions of both. Next to the bread is a plate of pastries that my mother got from B’s in Pacific Heights. If love is a language, at once expressive and communicable and endlessly generative, then my parents, unfamiliar with moderation, speak entirely in hyperbole.
Keys jingle outside the front door and then my mother walks in with the day’s newspaper. She tosses off her slippers by the door at the edge of our living room carpet and drops her keys into the brass pot that sits on the bookcase—a hundred year old relic of ancestral worship that we’ve repurposed into a key fob/garage opener/stray bobby pin graveyard—before joining my father and me in the kitchen.
“What are we doing today?” I ask. Still drugged with sleep, I know this Saturday is a something day, but I’m not sure what something it is.
“Well, it’s Father’s Day,” my mother reminds me, shooting eyes at my father (“Happy Father’s Day,” I interject guiltily. It’s hard for me to be nice to family, the people I’m closest to, the ones I love most.), “so we’re going to the cemetery later.”
“The steep one?” I ask. All of my memories of cemeteries are steep, but one in particular is on a nasty hill that tests the brakes of our minivan. I’ve had nightmares of this cemetery—not of death or ghosts or hands reaching up through the dirt, but of the hill itself, where I lose my footing and tumble down headfirst, and I’m falling endlessly over and over and not even touching the ground.
“No, that’s where my dad is buried,” my mother corrects me with a smile. “Your dad’s dad is at the other one. In front of the flower shop. We’ll probably go see my dad next week, when your aunts and uncles can make it, too.”
She didn’t call him “goong goong” because he had died long before my sisters or I had a chance to call him that, to call him anything. But she also didn’t call him “grandfather,” I noticed. My dad might have called him “ba” if his Chinese were better, but he never called him that in life, either. So many names for him, expired and unused, like a forgotten carton of eggs tucked in the back of a crowded refrigerator, and now all that’s left is an approximation, a loose description of his branch in the family tree.
My mother tilts her head and looks past me down the hallway. A door slides shut with force, setting off a rain shower as it knocks aside the beaded curtain of my sister’s room. Ally is awake. She is not a morning person.
Cemetery visits are usually sixes or sevens. Like the brass incense pot on the bookcase, my parents repurposed the Likert scale in order to bypass the ambiguity that so often accompanies familial obligation. A one is for being polite and making nice conversation, like lengthy dinners with visiting cousins from Canada. A ten is immediate and without question, to the point were the number itself becomes theoretical, like my mother’s cancer, or paaw paaw’s stroke. So after we all get ready, pushing past each other in the bathroom, our reflections paneled in the smudged mirror above the sink like a harried triptych, we pile into the minivan without question and make our way to Colma.
We climb Jones Street, feeling our backs fall into the car seats, and then slalom downhill through the Tenderloin and SOMA before taking the southbound 280. We pass Potrero Hill and the Dogpatch and outside my window is empty and industrial: idling semis and oversized, rusted panels of sheet metal, peninsular loading docks and packing plants and the slow construction of medical offices and angular high-rise condos. A vacuous pit at the foot of Bernal Heights, overlooked by rows of rickety houses tiered like seats at a movie theater. They cling goat-like to the upright earth.
We pass Daly City and the fog descends, obliterating the late morning sun and casting Bay Area suburbia in a hazy, smoky grey. A movie theater marquee looms over the freeway and each lightbulb along its edges shines red, haloed and softened by the fog. We have to cross a treacherous four lanes in order to make our exit, a narrow window within which I know I’m not allowed to speak or ask questions unless I’m prepared for a sharp “not now” from the front seats. As we change lanes, my father steals quick glances past my head through the back windshield. I turn around too, looking back at the cars trailing behind us, not exactly sure what it is I’m looking for.
280 plugs into Colma like an emergency power generator. Practical and unambiguous. Sturdy and reliable in a no-nonsense, eyesore kind of way. The fog has mostly dissipated by now, but a fine layer still holds to the ground. We drive past strip malls of pho restaurants and nail salons and I recognize the lazily flapping flags of a car dealership up ahead. There is a breakfast-all-day diner with old men drinking coffee at the counter and a nursery that hasn’t opened yet, with tall, streaming ferns and potted spider plants hanging beneath darkened soffits.
We pull up to a small flower shop with whitewashed walls in front of the cemetery and we all walk in. I know nothing of flowers but immediately am drawn to the most lavish ones, tulips with loud, gaudy colors and petals that feel as soft as velvet. The small bouquet we form is imbalanced, to say the least, my deep violet clashing with Sarah’s delicate yellow and both of ours utterly dwarfed by the sunflower Ally insists on, but the woman behind the counter bundles it up without a word, cutting the stems before wrapping it in clear cellophane and tying it off with a rubber band from around her wrist. We get back in the car, and I am holding the flowers in the backseat.
My mother is right. The cemetery, while full of rolling hills topped with manicured lawns, is not steep at all, and where we park is actually quite flat and looks out across broad streets with smooth pavements and lonely traffic lights. My aunts and uncles and cousins are already here, and they turn as we pull up. They are waiting for us to start.
“Jo sun, goong goong.” It’s one of the only scripts I know in Chinese, one of two exchanges between my ngeen ngeen and me when I’d see her climb down the stairs each morning, the other for when she went back upstairs for bed. It’s been so long since I’ve spoken these words to anyone or heard toisan wah—that phlegmy, village dialect that sounds like tongue twisters with an extra set of teeth and through a mouthful of marbles. I miss it, and my heart aches.
My goong goong is standing next to me in a grey suit, the same one he’s wearing in the egg-shaped portrait set into his headstone. He’s taller than I imagined, with dark, dry skin. I can catch the family resemblance in quickly passing moments, my father glancing through his stoic features like shifting light.
With a veiny hand on my shoulder he squeezes me tight, speaking too quickly so I can only pick out a few words. I think he says “likh,” which I know means “strong.” Or maybe he says “lekh,” which means “smart.” I piece together the rest of what he’s saying, having been in this situation before, distant relatives with pilly sweaters and gold teeth pinching my arm and face, showering me with compliments that are haak hay—standard praises when speaking to other peoples’ children—instead of anything based on actual observation. I nod and smile uneasily, though not actually uncomfortable, because this is a role I’m familiar with, blushing from pride and accomplishment, pristine and unspeaking of shame.
Auntie Betty and her family are first since she’s the oldest. They step forward to the foot of his headstone, and I can see Auntie Betty’s lips move but can’t hear what she’s saying. They bow three times in unison, pausing just a moment afterwards before stepping back.
“How are moi moi and jeh jeh?” he asks in broken English. I look at Ally and Sarah, who I’ve never called moi or jeh in my life, but he says it in a way that makes me think I could call them that now and they would turn on instinct. Ally is in a better mood, having fully woken up during the car ride here, and Sarah has bangs, which I am not allowed to talk about because they didn’t turn out the way she wanted them to.
“Are you treating them well? Are you being a good goh goh?”
“Good. That’s good.”
He takes deep breaths through his nose, smelling the freshly mowed grass and the faint bite of incense as it burns in the air. I wonder how often he gets to do this. If this is the only time or if he’s here every other day of the year, alone and invisible in a gentle breeze, watching families drive in and drop off flowers and bow and drive home.
“And how are you?” he asks. I’m not looking at him but I know he’s looking at me. “Hmm? Jow Yrun Leurng?”
It’s the first time I’ve ever been called by my Chinese name. I’ve heard it before, and I know it, and know how to say it, but like my horoscope or zodiac sign it’s never had any practical use before. It’s always just been something to remember, to keep in the back of my mind and pull out when somebody asks out of curiosity. But when he says it I recognize it immediately. It’s mine, and it fits. Like moi and jeh. Like goong goong.
Uncle Newton is now standing at the grave. He’s with Auntie Maria, who isn’t Chinese, but has been here enough times to know what to do. They don’t have children, so they huddle close to each other, their arms slack by their sides. They pause, and then give three, deep bows.
I hate myself for being so easy, for sliding into the inarguable and placating, but deep inside there’s also that ripple of pleasure that comes from doing something I know I’m good at. He is quiet. He is waiting, I think, because he knows there is more.
“I’ve found someone,” I blurt out. There is a hole in my lungs, and air leaks out with every breath so no matter how deeply I inhale I feel like gasping. I don’t know what compelled me, why I chose here of all places. And him. Maybe because this is like wishing my father a happy Father’s Day, and if I was able to do that, then maybe I’ll be able to do this, my words loving in their impossible difficulty.
My goong goong breaks out into laughter and claps me on the back. He switches back to toisan wah and speaks into the air, ending with a question, which I think is either “who is she?” or “where is she?” He looks at me with eyebrows raised, the smile still lingering on his lips. I wish my Chinese were better.
“I don’t know,” I say, which is the truth. My toes curl over the cliff’s edge. And then, with my last bit of air before it has a chance to slip through the hole in my lungs: “I haven’t met him yet.”
I’m unsure if he’ll understand, if his English is good enough to recognize the subtle bombshell I’ve dropped. I imagine being buried here for so long would grant him some fluency, but then again, I don’t know the rules of being dead.
“Aiiii…” he says with a sharp exhale, as if he just got splashed with hot oil from the stove. I know I’ve surprised him; I’m afraid I’ve shamed him. It suddenly occurs to me that, though we are family, he is a complete stranger to me, and I don’t know who strangers are, or what they want from me. Regret builds the longer he stays silent, and I imagine all the things he’s thinking about, his memories of China as a boy, the village and family he grew up with and left behind. I imagine he is thinking of ngeen ngeen–before she was a ngeen ngeen and back when she was just a bride–I imagine he is thinking of the nature of sacrifice.
It’s our turn, so the five of us step forward and stand in a small arc. My mother kneels to fits our three flowers into the metal tin lodged in the soil and then lightly touches his picture and the speckled granite that’s grown pock-marked and dirty with time. Not even her own father, but the touch is longing.
After a quiet moment, we bow.
As I rise I see that he’s now standing front of me, his hands deep in his suit pockets. His lips are pressed together and brow furrowed in thought. He’s looking down, his eyes focused at my knees, which is what I do when I’m trying to concentrate.
“Fong sum,” he says at last, leaning into each tone so he sings it rather than speaks it. Not a curse, but a command. I know it means “don’t worry” but I think back to what my mother taught me: “fong” means “release”; “sum” means “heart.” So I do what he says, and I let go of the tight grip I have on my heart. It drops a little, but then it rises, and it feels weightless beneath my ribs because it wasn’t nearly as heavy as I was expecting it to be. The hole in my lungs closes and I take a deep breath so my chest expands, unbound and free, like pulling off the stretch of twine around a stack of fresh focaccia bread.
I look up at my goong goong, and he is smiling at me.
“Ho ma?” he asks. Okay?
“Ho,” I say, which means “good,” but can also mean “okay.”
He shakes his head, frowning, like he doesn’t agree with my answer. Maybe I’ve messed up the tone, or said it like the English word “hoe,” not reaching deep enough in my throat to summon the proper vowel. I can see him talking to himself, trying to find the right words that fit on the small strip of landing where our two understandings overlap. After a moment, he approaches me so our shoes are only separated by a few blades of grass. He reaches out and takes my hand in his, and turns it so my palm is facing up. And with his other hand he traces out what he does not have the words for, his pointer finger as gentle and deliberate as a calligraphy brush.
“好,” he writes, which means “good,” but can also mean “okay.”
I look into my hand and feel the mandate burn in my palm. The swooping, bowing figure of “woman” next to the tall, upright figure of “man.” They are huddled next to each other, as close as Uncle Newton and Auntie Maria. Man and woman, together, is good, my mother told me once.
“Ho ma?” my goong goong asks again, more urgently now, his face inches from mine. He knows we are almost out of time, and he’s still holding my hand, squeezing it. In panic, my heart begins to seize up again, the tiny hole in my lungs expanding to swallow my breath, but I look into his face and his pained expression softens me. It’s something I recognize, another kind of resemblance that moves in and out of focus. It is a sadness of separation, in realizing that he is dead and I am not, and even though I’ve left my bed beneath my plastic stars and come all this way to Colma to see him, my hand in his will be as close as we’re ever going to get.
“Ho ma?” His voice cracks. He is insistent, leaning even closer, and I can see my reflection in each lens of his horn-rimmed glasses.
“Okay,” I say.
He smiles in relief and the corners of his eyes turn down. He’s still holding my hand, my palm up and empty.
“Good,” he says. My hand, like my heart, feels like nothing. Just the trace of his finger lingers on my palm.
Finally, he lets go of my hand and takes a step back, letting his arms fall by his sides. He’s standing directly in front of me, his posture mirroring mine. This won’t last, I know. Just this one time, maybe again next year, but I don’t know if he’ll be here. So I stare at him, wishing hello and goodbye in the same thought, my heart buoyant in my chest, the imprints of my hand slowly fading away. And then, without words, without broken English or scraps of Cantonese and toisan wah, with just our steady gaze holding each other through the years and oceans and sacrifices that have held us apart us until now, we bow.