In The Care of Others

Many times, when we think of those who raised us, the ones who come to mind are our parents and guardians, working tirelessly day after day to keep us clothed, fed, and happy. However, it doesn’t take long to recall equally fond memories of those whom we saw much less often but who loved us just as much. This post celebrates a few of those moments with my paternal grandparents, whose care was, and still is, invaluable.

The Streets of San Francisco, daytime

One of my earliest memories that I can recall is of my grandmother. For a few early years after my sister and I were born, while my parents went to work to earn money to support us, our grandmother was our attentive caretaker, tending to two babies at once with a brisk yet warm efficiency. That day, I think I must have been in a high chair, because I was fussing and my grandmother had to take some time to lift me up and put me down on the floor. The cause of my distress was my foot, tingly and prickly and by no means comfortable. I would later come to realize that such a sensation came from my foot ‘falling asleep’, going numb as my awkward posture or position blocked adequate blood flow to my limb, then ‘waking up’ again when I moved and blood rushed back in. At that point, of course, all I knew was that I wanted the pain to go away. I remember seeing her slippered feet walking down the carpeted hallway of my parents’ house, first away from me, then returning back. At some point, her warm hands massaged away the unfamiliar feelings in my leg, leaving behind only the emotions of love and trust and the faintest whiff of pungent rubbing ointment.

Throughout my childhood years, my sister and I would spend at least one week of summer break in the cool, foggy Outer Sunset neighborhood in San Francisco, where my grandparents lived. Like all of the other houses in the neighborhood, theirs was attached to their neighbors’, and a flight of stairs from the left side of the driveway led above the garage to the second floor entrance to their home. Their street was a quiet one, lined only by houses, and occasionally visited by a local resident on errand by foot or car, or walking the rare dog. Unlike many neighborhoods, the Sunset’s blocks are devoid of front yards, and the trees are as diminutive as the sidewalks are wide. Instead, flowers that withstand the cool, shady fog grow in planters, and the area in front of the houses are often clad with concrete. I remember thinking it odd that some people painted the large square of concrete beside their driveway in a dark green, presumably to mimic a lawn in front of their house, because I didn’t think that it looked like grass at all. Perhaps it you were to squint from outer space?

My grandparents are both early risers. They would start their mornings with a cup of hot water from an electric water dispenser, and while my grandfather (or gonggong, as we call him) made countless phone calls to arrange lunches and meetings with the web of members of his Chinatown association, my grandmother (or popo) would make something warm for breakfast. Often, breakfast wasn’t eaten together, if only because my sister and I woke up too late and my grandfather was eating by the phone. Neither of them drank milk, but there would always be two special cups for my sister and me, microwaved until they gently steamed and a thin layer of curdled milk floated on top, which would cling to my upper lip after the first few sips.

Our gonggong derived great pride from chauffeuring us all around the city in his dark blue sedan. This being San Francisco, there were plenty of kid-friendly attractions. Morning visits to the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, before it filled up with too many visitors, were opportunities to clamber up and down the steep, painted arches of the wooden Japanese bridges, and to get lost amongst the winding paths that meandered in and out of rock gardens, miniature bamboo groves, and leafy maple branches. On visits to the zoo, I would cling to my popo and stare apprehensively at the reclining tigers in the shade of their man-made boulders, or at the snakes basking in the warmth of heat lamps behind their glass windows. One of my gonggong’s favorite places to pass the time, then as well as now, is a shopping mall nearby that lacks the high-brow ostentation (and price tags) of some of the more popular shopping destinations in the city. We rarely entered the stores themselves, opting to gaze at the store fronts and to peer into the windows. My gonggong’s long and rapid strides would carry him away after a quick glance inside, prompting my sister and me to dash after him to catch up.

Lunch was always a special affair, a chance for our gonggong to indulge us with all kinds of familiar treats. We would go out for pizza, not at a Pizza Hut or a Domino’s (numerous though they were), but at a local pizza parlor with an indescribable ambiance and a large window facing the street and its rows of parking meters. My grandfather would ask on some mornings whether we wanted to go out for cheeseburgers at Burger King, the fast food chain. When we shook our heads, our popo would sniff and say to him, “Why would they? They can eat that whenever they want!” Instead, we would go to Chinatown for Dim Sum, where there always seemed to be someone seated at a nearby table who would walk over to greet our gonggong and fawn over his twin granddaughters. Such visits were almost always accompanied by requests to join them for lunch or dinner the next day, so that in my mind, my grandfather was probably out eating with friends all the time. Other times, we would bring home hot Styrofoam soup containers of wontons, egg noodles, and soup. Once, I asked for seconds and thirds until, finally, my little stomach could hold no more and I wastefully threw up all of the food I had just eaten. I remember my popo laughing and scolding me at the same time, even as she wiped her hardwood floors clean of my mess.

Dinner, on the other hand, was always home-cooked. There was lou-fo tang, or ‘old fire soup,’ named such because it simmers on the stove for hours and hours until a fragrant and nutritious concoction emerges from the abundant pot of bones, Chinese herbs, and carrots or apples, to yield that special sweetness. After, there were dishes of chicken, or steamed fish, or even abalone, and always heaps of vegetables, all accompanied by steaming bowls of white rice. Some of these dishes were of a different era and a different place, the kind that my parents were familiar with but either didn’t have the time or know-how to make, despite being accomplished cooks themselves. The four of us would eat at the dining room table, which was covered with a clear plastic tablecloth and foamy place mats that were decorated with colorful patterns. Whenever we lifted our bowls or plates, transient imprints would remain in the mats, warmed from the piping hot food that had sat upon them. It was at this dining table that I learned not sing at the table, and where I learned that it was improper to slowly consume my rice, grain by grain, until the person who had to do the dishes was absolutely fed up with impatience.

When I visit my grandparents’ home, now only once or twice a year, so much is still familiar. The porcelain fisherman figurine still perches on the dining room buffet, which is still filled with nuts and Chinese snacks and toothpicks and napkins. A full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica stands in a bookshelf by the entryway, despite the fact that my grandparents have never been fully comfortable with English, serving mainly to display a glass case containing an intricately carved scene made of cork, depicting a landscape of miniature Chinese villas and trees. The second bedroom, once where my great-grandmother slept, still has the cabinet with its tiny drawers full of knick-knacks and curios, from unopened rolls of quarters to keys that probably no longer have a matching lock. I spent many years entertained and nourished in their home, and these are feelings that I will always carry with me.

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