Category Archives: Family

Saving Grace

 
I see the church standing there everyday on my walk to work, at a busy intersection in the heart of Mirvish Village, and I think how miraculous.

I’m hardly in churches. My first time, I was in elementary school because, in their gratitude to some helpful and determined neighbours, my parents took me to a church for Sunday school. A show of goodwill, a polite gesture (nothing actually promised).

I remember it was dark and I remember the happy smiling triumphant faces of the neighbours, a husband and a wife, as they lead us into the church.

And I remember it being dark. Dark inside the church as we walked through the heavy wooden doors. Light filtered through stained glass, deep reds and blues I hadn’t ever seen before. There were seats like benches and a sort of fountain full of still water.

I don’t remember thinking much about the water because (I’m told) I stopped and stood transfixed at the figure thrown in contrast by the windows, nailed to a cross nailed to the wall of the church.

Thin emaciated naked save for rags strewn around his delicate waist. His face a mess of agony, blood streaming freely from the thorns wound round and round his head.

His weird muscles. And nails right through the palms of his hands. More blood. I close my eyes now and imagine dirty fingernails.

Actually, (thinking now), all nothing I hadn’t seen before.

But for that save for that beard.

My god, that beard.

I was only five, maybe six. I lived a very sheltered life, school and home and adults with no beards. None of the men in my family had beards, or attempted them. None of my teachers had been men, or had beards.

My god, that beard. Too much too far, already asking so much to begin with.

I cried and screamed (I’m told). I cried and cried and cried (I remember). Inconsolable willful desperate child! The neighours, appalled dismayed embarrassed, told my parents to take home. I was never asked back. My parents never went back. No babysitter. Oh well too bad.

And I think thank heaven for, you know.

Thank god.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Filed under Family, People, Religion, Ritual

Perfect Eggs

 
“I don’t know anybody who likes hospitals.”

Caitlin from work said this.

Which reminded me…

The white walls. The echoing hallway. The bleach smell and the urine smell hiding just under the bleach smell. That unfiltered light.

Gran wasn’t waiting for us after school like usual. We waited on the porch, not knowing what to do. My sister sat on the stairs with her head in her hands. It seemed like a long time before my dad pulled up by the house, bringing the car to a sudden stop in the driveway, sending Mr. Corn’s husky dog, Panda, into a fit, froth forming at the corners of his black mouth as he choked himself on the short chain that kept him on his side of the driveway, barking his head off.

Then, those walls, that bright, flat light. My dad ushering us through the corridor and my mom standing there, waiting for us. Or maybe she appeared from around the corner. Or from behind the double-push doors.

She pulled the both of us into a hug. She was crying, had been crying, and when she pushed herself away from us she grabbed me by the shoulders with both of her hands.

“Your Gran has a hole in her heart,” she sobbed.

Then, all of us as we waited, sometimes sitting on the floor. My cousin, the oldest of the kids, got up after a long time and went into the closet. He pretended to sob, cried at the top of his squeaking vocal chords, banged and scratched on the door, stomped his overgrown feet and then came out with a smile so full of teeth it was obscene. He stood there and said nothing, bracing himself against the dingy wallpaper, smiling all the time. No one said a thing.

I remember his hanging stomach and him fingering the exposed bellybutton peeking out from just above his sweatpants.

Then, the room, everyone around the bed looking, some crying. And there was Gran with a sheet pulled up to just under her neck. Her eyes were closed.

She was cold.

Then, the eggs.

“Eggs have too much oil,” said my uncle.

“Your Gran ate a lot of eggs. Too much,” said my aunt.

“Eggs are bad for the heart. No more eggs,” said my mom.

Then, for years and years, no eggs. Eggs in other things, for cooking and baking, but not on their own. Never. Eggs were off limits, taboo. Eggs became unmentionable.

Years and years then slowly, with time, they were back again.

Boiled only.

Then, scrambled.

Then fried, sunnyside up.

And finally as another everyday thing, just another option in the fridge, next to the cheese and carrots.

At breakfast the other day, I made soft boiled eggs. It took a few tries, but I finally got the method down perfect.

An inch of water. Boil for one full minute and 15 seconds. Then, perfect eggs.

I carefully peeled back the delicate shell and dug into the softness inside; yolk overfilling my spoon, warm and golden. I was running late but still took the time to make the eggs and eat them without hurry. So good, so good!

So good, I wondered why on earth we hardly ever had eggs growing up.

And then I remembered.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Time, And Time Again

 
“You’re sadder about your dog dying than you are about your grandpa dying. It’s a little messed up.”

My friend said this to me as we walked across campus, on our way home from Political Thought and Theory.

It was winter. A wet grey day. His words echoed in my head, but all I said was “well…”

Well what?

When my parents got my dog for me, I was 9 and she died when I was 22.

Seizures, loss of motor function, dead before my final midterm that semester.

My grandpa also died when I was 22, a few months after my dog died.

Cancer, very advanced, dead before the end of that weekend.

It was a hard year.

It is a crime of nature that dogs do not live as long as we do, and when they die the loss is so immediate, so exquisite.

The loss of a person, though…in a way, it’s harder to conceive, and accept.

A whole other person, and a person no longer. A whole other universe of possibilities gone, snuffed out.

When my grandpa died, it was hard enough to try to come up from under the loss and stay ahead of it somehow.

We talked, but not often. I would have liked to get the chance to know him better.

But even that…no more!

Wrap your brain around that.

It was when my friend’s girlfriend’s parents’ dog died,[1] a few years after my dog died, a few years after my grandpa died, that I got to watch the unexpected tears well up in his eyes, the sudden bursts of sorrow, the excuses he made to leave the group and grieve in private as he tried in the weeks and months that followed her death to cope.

He loved that dog.

I loved my dog…and I loved my grandpa.

And there were so many moments during his mourning period that I almost said something to my friend, who today probably doesn’t even remember what he said to me on that grey and useless day.

Maybe now, I almost said, you know.

How easy it is to grieve for dogs.

 
 


[1] Yes.


 
 
 
 
 
 

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Filed under Dogs, Family, Philosophy

The Kyd

 
Can you make memories, or do they just happen?

CNE

It would be nice to choose, but I wasn’t thinking that just yet, watching The Kyd.

He was being held way up high, against his father’s chest. They were waiting in line behind us. With them were The Kyd’s mother and grandmother. They were trying their best to placate The Kyd, who was screaming his head off.

It was a long line. A crowded line on a busy day, and both were just shy of being uncivil. It was the opening weekend of the Canadian National Exhibition – THE EX, with its rides and shows and games and fried coke and glow sticks and cronuts and sand sculptures and fireworks and giant-stuffed-unicorns and .99 cent spaghetti – and the subways and shuttle buses were running at full capacity, causing people to spew up from deep underground and spill out into meandering tendrils along the sidewalks, against the office towers and assorted businesses of the downtown.

"But it was 99 cents!"

“But it was 99 cents!”

“GOgoGOgoGOhafftagogogogo!!!”

On and on it went.

The screaming, the howling.

The fingers pulling at the inside of the cheek of his wide-open, half-toothless mouth.

The Kyd screwing up his face something foul and sour – an awful, pulpy mass of tears and snot and dripping, inconsolable wetness. The Kyd beating his father’s shoulder with his balled-up little hands. His mother on one side offering him a cookie, a toy, a candy. His grandmother on the other side sing-songing “soon, soon, we’ll be there/we’ll be there soon/just hold on, just hold on!” to the back of The Kyd’s mussed-up head.

The father telling him to just hold on.

“Just hold on.”

“NO! NO WANT DAT. WANNNA GO!!!GOGOgoGOgoGO!! HAFTTA GO NOW! NOWnowNOWnowNOOOOOOOW!!!”

“Soon, OK? We’ll be there soon, I promise!”

“PleaseIhafftago!PleaseIhafftago! PleaseIhafftago!PleaseIhafftago! PleaseIhafftago!PleaseIhafftago!IHAFFTAGO.PLEASE!!PLEASE!!PLLLLEASE!!!”

STOP IT NOW. JUST HOLD ON TILL WE GET THERE.”

I remember thinking, irritability, Why do people take children places? Why do they think they can go just anywhere?  

Oh my god.

“Oh my god. Stephen, I think he’s got to go the bathroom.”

“No…”

I’d like to say I remember noticing this too late, before the inevitable. That there was nothing I could have done even if I hadn’t noticed anything.

With time, when perhaps it matters less, perhaps I will.

Really cannot speak for The Kyd.

Who started kicking, really kicking hard, so his father held him tighter, big hands grabbing each other at the shoulders.

“Please.”

When The Kyd stopped wailing and crying, I knew it was over.

He started wetting his pants.

Soaking his father in his urine.

Causing the mother to cry and wail, dropping candies onto the sidewalk.

Making the grandmother hysterical, jumping up and down, stepping on the candies.

Gooey Swedish berries sticking to the ground all around them.

The family stepped out of line and ducked into a nearby office building.

The rest is conjecture.

That was months ago, August sometime. Mid August going into September. And now it’s almost Christmas.

Merry Christmas.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Social Mediations

 
My aunt recently joined social media and it is slowly becoming the defining feature of what remains our somewhat shaky, tenuous-but-working-on-it relationship. Really.

It’s complicated.

My aunt has always been more of a senior sister to me: still young enough to be relatable, but just older enough as to throw scandalous suspicion on our outings together. You know.

A “cool mom” type.

Lorelei Gilmore.

Ideal.

But.

We drifted apart as I grew older, and she grew still older. The reasons were mostly philosophical in nature but damn real nevertheless.  I fought for them, back in the day.  I really did.

Given the chance, I suppose I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Though way less swears probably would have helped.

It’s a shame.

Anyway…

slowly, slowly, we began to reconnect, memory and emotion dulled and blunted by the passing of time, time, time.

And now she wants to be my “Friend”.

It's free but don't worry: you'll pay anyway.

When “always” also means “why not?”

When we see each other, that’s almost all she ever asks me now: “Why don’t you ‘Friend’ me? Why don’t you ‘Friend’ me?” A simple request that’s simple enough.

And yet I hesitate, my natural inclination being to question motive. To cross-examine expectations. To scrutinize hearts evidently on sleeves.  You’d be surprised.

Still…

Social media is exciting to the newly initiated for as long as it stays that way. When you start, you want the instant gratification that comes with having/pursuing/generating LOTS of it, and the more the merrier etc., etc., etc. That could be about all she’s after. I, then, would be incidental and that kind of works for me.

On the other hand…

Perhaps her request is really just a ploy to gain access to information she can pick and choose from, information that admittedly, yes, OK. I put out there in the first place but I can’t possibly be expected to remember absolutely everything that I say that I do and think when I post can I? Point is. She’ll know some Things, which means I’ll have to assume she knows All the Things, and it won’t really matter that I won’t  or can’t ever really know what she really knows. You know?

Then again…

It may be that she really wants to get to know me and is using what’s available because that’s just where we’re at right now, and given our history, well, that’s progress?  Even though the me she will get to know will be the me that I want to be known or at least hope to be known or at the very least want to be seen as because there’s not much else involved than that right there when it comes right down to it.

So, is that good enough?  And is it a starting point or a finishing line?  A means or an end?

It could be better than nothing.
 

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…and cross your T’s.

 
When I asked about it, Grandpa used to tell me crazy Things (all true!) about how he lost his left eye.

  • Shark Took It @ Sea
  • Moths Ate It
  • Bird Attack
  • Wayward Fireball

My favourite: “Grandpa cried too much.  Grandpa lost it because I cried and cried and didn’t stop.  Ehhh?”

He never had a glass eye, or anything, Grandpa.  No rakish or stoic eye-patch.  Just the flap and a slight depression where the eye used to be, the combined effect not totally unlike the skin that forms on the surface of cooled soup.

Urges for all else be damned.

STOIC.

But there was no soup in there.

He wore black-rimmed glasses, Grandpa did, even though OK what other situation would be as good for a monocle?  Then again, maybe he just didn’t want to worry the point.

Could be.

Actually, you know, it never occurred to me to ask him how he felt about it – like, about having just the one eye.

But I liked that it gave us something to talk about.

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Jiggety-Jig

I am always a little apprehensive about “coming home” to my parents’ house – a place where I am a little more than a guest, a little less than a resident.

But even now, as I try to figure out Life in The Big City, I come home and it only takes a beat before we get back into the rhythm of Things.

Many times.

Every time.

 

One time…

“Hi, Mom.”

“Ah, you are home.  Who drove you?”

“Kris did.”

“Ah.  Where is Lou-wee?”

“I left him with Stephen.”

“Stephen’s not coming?”

“Nope.”

“Who’s watching Lou-wee?”

“Stephen!”

Really??  He know how?”

“Yes.”

“You sure?”

“YES.”

[beat]

“Ah.  OK!  You like owls.”

“I guess.  Yeah.”

“I went shopping with your Aunts.  In Toronto.  I got you keychain.”

As long as I don't stare directly at it in the sun, I even get to keep them eyes.

It, um, matches my eyes.

“It’s…nice.”

“It’s an owl.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Put keys on it.”

“I will, Mom.”

“Do it now.”

“I’ll do it in a bit.”

“I want to see your keys on it.  I don’t like wasting money.  Do it now.”

“FINE.”

Truth is, I can really only handle the responsibility of the one key.

Do I really only have the one key?

“Why you like owls so much, anyway?”

 

Another time…

“Hi, Dad!”

“Ah, you home!  Hm.  No Lou-wee?”

“Not this time.”

“Hm.”

“Hey! What are you making?”

[beat]

“Noodles and soup.  Ha, ha!  NOODLE SOUP.”

“That’s a big pot you have.  It’s a vat!”

“Lots of family, lots of soup.”

“Cool.”

“Before you leave again, I make springrolls!  Unless your mom says no.  Then I make MANY MANY SPRINGROLLS.  Ha, ha!  OH!  You remember Mom’s cousin?  Your aunt?  The one that used to live with us?”

“Yeah.”

“Remember?  At the old house?”

“Yes…”

“She died!  We go to funeral this weekend.”

“She…wha…”

“SOUP’S DONE!”

 

And then there was the time…

“Ngọc!  When did you get home?”

“Last night.  It was late, so I just went to bed.”

“Ah. Who drove you?”

“I took the bus.”

“You didn’t take Lou-wee?”

“I left him with Stephen.  Dogs aren’t allowed on the bus, Mom.”

“Not even you pay extra?”

“Nope.”

Really??

“Yes.”

“You sure?”

“YES.”

[beat]

“Ah.  OK!  Here.  Bash this coconut for me.

“Um.  Sure.  How?”

“You know,  just like you’d bash a fish.”

“Oh-kaaaaaay…”

bash

                      … bash….                              …bash…

                                               …bash…                 …bash…

             .…bash…

“What is ant-polly-gee?  You done study that yet?  You have job?  When you get married?  You getting too old not to have babies. You pay too much for apartment, why not use money for mortgage instead?  I need you write letter for me and phone these people and pick up these things.  Next time, try pay extra. How you spell R-E-C-I-E-P-T?  Your dad made too much soup last time!  Can you vacuum downstairs before you leave and go to business school?”

“I DID NOT MAKE TOO MUCH SOUP!”

“SPRINGROLLS EVERYWHERE!”

[audible sighs heard over coconut bashing][1]

 

You can, indeed, go home again.  It is a small comfort surrounded by very big inconveniences.

And swimming in noodle soup.

Hey. I didn't say it was bad soup.

When consolation is delicious!

 


 

[1] “Sigh..BASH…sigh…BASH-BASH-BASH!!!”

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The Greatest Story I Will Ever Have to Tell

It was 1989 and I was 7 years old.  My grandmother had died and at that moment, I was standing in a graveyard on a cold December afternoon.

I was with my family.  There were a lot of us: my parents, siblings, aunts and uncles and a smattering of cousins.  We took over the place.  We were everywhere.  Someone bought sandwiches and pop.

At 7, my only experience with death had been the loss of a pet turtle, the untimely demise of pet bullfrog (eaten by another pet turtle), and the mass death of an entire tank of bloated fish.   It was an unimpressive resume.  And since my parents simply replaced the turtle with a new turtle (admittedly with Murder Turtle), re-filled the tank with prettier fish, and gave me a Pound Puppy toy in lieu of a new frog, I really didn’t learn anything about death except, perhaps, that things die because it was time to replace them with similar or better things.

It is, indeed, an evil Thing.

Its mouth is open because it's feeding on souls.

The graveyard was on the edge of a small town that was populated by Mennonites and horses.  My grandma had died a month earlier, but it was only now that we could all gather to see her gravestone.

To enter the graveyard, you had to open these huge, black wrought iron gates and close them upon exit.   Since the entire place was on a very high and craggily hill, only three sides were fenced in by brick and iron while the forth, which was the edge of a sheer drop, simply dropped.

It was there that I stood in the waning light, away from everyone else, ensconced in a green-and-orange snowsuit.

The adults were huddled over Grandma’s gravestone, remarking on its craftsmanship and doing a thorough spell-check.  My cousins were running wild with my siblings in a rousing game of “Grave Tag”.  A couple of the younger kids were beating each other with sticks.  There were sandwiches everywhere.

I was staring down the hill at the river down below.  It was beginning to freeze over and I was wondering what happened to all the fish in the winter.  It seemed like such a chore, living in the water as they did.

I turned away from the edge of the hill, intent on rejoining the clan.

And that’s when I saw them.

Taillights.

Three sets.  One for each of the mini vans and one for my uncle’s cheesy cherry-red Firebird.[1]

I.

          Did.

Not.

          Have.

A.

          Chance.

The snowsuit constrained my movement such that I could go forward only by lifting one leg up high in order to bring it down, hard, into the snow before lifting up the other leg and repeating the process.  In my desperate haste, I fell and kept falling into the snow, leaving the bodies of desperate, puffy snow angles all over the graveyard.

It was a massacre of one.

I tried to yell ahead to prevent my relatives from abandoning me IN A GRAVEYARD, but stopped after only a few short cries when I realized that my screams would simply not be heard.  Everybody was already in their cars, and I knew my parents were blasting that special brand of Vietnamese pop music that was the soundtrack to my childhood.

The engine starts and the music flows.

Infallible.

By the time I made it to the tree in the middle of the cemetery, it was too late. I stared up after my family only to see the taillights twinkle in the distance and then disappear into the thickening darkness.

I was alone.

In a graveyard.

A.L.O.N.E.[2]

Unsure of what to do, I stood there for a moment by a cluster of eroding gravestones and looked them over to find among them the bright shining stone of my dead Grandma.

When my teacher, Mrs. Glue (was that really her name?) came to the funeral home to pay her respects, she had taken me aside to tell me how sorry she was that my grandma had “passed away”; had whispered it like she was letting me in on an open secret.  But English euphemisms were not yet embedded in my repertoire of Things to Say and I could only exchange “chết” for “dead”.

Dead for dead.

“My grandma is over there.  She’s dead.”

Poor Mrs. Glue.

If you’re still out there and not chết yourself, after all these years, please know, after all these years, that it was not my intention to offend.

Now I know better (or more, in any case).  But then it was about clarity.

Expedience.

I realized that my only recourse was to go to one of the nearby houses for help.

By now it was getting really cold – night cold – just as my body heat began melting the snow that had invaded my suit during my many, many falls.  The melt mixed in with my sweat and, in addition to the fiery chill that burned me down my face and neck, all the intermingling wetness alerted me to the fact that I very much had to pee.

I trudged toward the gate as quickly as I could and fell twice in the process, leaving two more sloppy snow angels in my wake.  It was locked from the outside, and I was too short to reach through the bars to lift the handle. There was a wedge of empty space between the bottom of the gate and the top of the ground, but there was also wadded, packed snow in between.  To get through, I had to get down on my belly and use my hands as little shovels.

Scoops, really.

I started to dig, dig, dig and p—u—s—h at the same time, squeezing my body through the gate at I went.  It was like trying to give birth to myself, but the pain and humiliation this time were mine alone.

Bit by bit I thrust past the black iron.  I was doing it!  I was going to make it!  The bottoms of the bars pushed hard against my back at the halfway point, but I pressed on, digging and pushing and digging and pushing until, finally, FINALLY

I was totally, fully and perfectly stuck.

Pinned down in the middle, I kicked my legs and swung my arms up and down in an attempt to “swim” out of my predicament.  When that didn’t work, I tried for the “alligator death roll” to freedom, but I could only manage to sway heavily from side to side.  “The Superman”, in which I thrust first one arm and then the other in front of me in the desperate attempt to propel myself forward, only succeeded in reminding me twenty years later that I was an incredibility stupid, sad little girl.

Each time you get a little more wrong until you run out of times.

Excelling at total failure has always been a gift of mine.

Exhausted and still very much stuck, I succumbed to my fate.  I wondered idly what my parents were going to replace me with to fill the void for my siblings.

Fuck it.  They were probably just going to take them to MacDonald’s.

We got a lot of MacDonald’s when Grandma died.


FIFTEEN TO TWENTY SOMETHING AGONIZING MINUTES LATER


I heard it.  Gravel and snow being crushed under the tires of our rattling mini van.  And the next thing I heard after the crunching of the snow from my mother’s footsteps was her sharp gasp upon finding me splayed out AND pinned on the ground.  I lifted myself as far up on my arms as I could go and let out a furious “WHHHHHHY???” just she screamed “OHMYGOD!!!

“WHERE WERE YOU??”/“WHAT DID YOU DO?”

“YOU LEFT ME IN THE GRAVEYARD!”/“WE THOUGHT YOU WERE IN THE BACK!”

“I HAVE TO PEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!/”HOW DID THIS HAPPEN???”

“AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”/“STOP SCREAMING! SHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”

She dug me out, with my father’s help.  We walked towards the car in silence.

As we drove away from the graveyard, my siblings bug-eyed and speechless in the back, my mom started laughing for release, but stopped when my dad turned up the pop music to drown it, all of it, out.  They still cringe whenever I bring up “the happening” at the graveyard.

How difficult the whole experience had been, after all.

You know.  For them.


[1] He was a bachelor for a Very Long Time, as I recall.

[2] Asian Left Out Near Eternity.

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