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I first met Auntie Ah-din when I was 18, on my first visit to Taiwan.  It had been a very long flight from New York and I wasn’t expecting anyone to meet me when I checked into my dorm.  But this gentle woman touched me on my arm and said, “芸 思?” 芸 思 is my Chinese name and up until that minute, nobody had ever called me by my Chinese name.  I barely recognized it.  And then I noticed this gentle woman looked a lot like my mother.  She must be related to me.  And she must have recognized me because I look like my mother too.

Back then, Auntie Ah-din didn’t speak a word of English and I didn’t speak a word of Mandarin, but we managed to communicate somehow.  I could understand her Taiwanese and Uncle Sean could speak enough English to get through to me.  My cousin, Sally, 13 years old and a foot taller than me, was starting to learn English in her middle school.   Tina was then only eight years old, loud and opinionated—she could be understood in any language.  Auntie and her family welcomed me into their home, where I felt warm and invited.  They were a family that laughed a lot together, and that made me feel at home.

What I remembered about my aunt when I met her that summer was how gentle she was.  There was a softness and grace to her, even if she was just doing chores around the house.  This remained true through all the years I’ve known her.  Auntie Ah-din was my gentle aunt.

Even if she was correcting you, she was gentle about it.  I have a memory of Auntie Ah-din teaching me how to play mahjongg. (This was after they had come to America.) I was really bad at mahjongg, and Auntie had to correct me a lot.  Don’t play that tile, play this one.  See?  But she did so with a laugh that made me feel okay about making mistakes.

Within a year of my visit to Taiwan, the family was moving to America.  A few years after that, Uncle Sean passed away.  It was such a sad time.  I remember thinking that Auntie Ah-din was very brave.  She had to have a lot of courage to come to America and make a life here for herself and her daughters, without Uncle Sean.  She had to be very strong.

I know it wasn’t easy for Auntie here.  I’m sure there were times she thought about returning to Taiwan.  But she chose to stay to be near her daughters and to be closer to her sisters.  I don’t think she regretted this decision.  I say this because I watched her at family gatherings (my wedding and Tina’s wedding) and it was clear she enjoyed being with her sisters and her family.

Sally and Tina, I know your mom was proud of the women you have become.   I could see it every time she talked about you.  It’s not just about the college education and the good-salaried jobs, but about the people you have become.

I remember once, soon after Sally had become vegan, Auntie had clucked her tongue and said, “Bu guai!” And maybe the veganism was a little inconvenient.  But Auntie had this smile behind her words that told me how proud she was of her daughter, that you had made your own principled decision and become your own person.

And Tina, it was always clear to me how proud your mother—and your father—were of your strength, even when you were an 8 year old girl.  You were always a survivor.

It’s been a very difficult time for our family.  We lost Auntie Yassu just six months ago.  Everybody is crazy with grief.

You know, the interesting thing about being American in this Taiwanese family is that I only understand when people are speaking English.  Call me a stupid American, but I believe this gave me some advantages.  Both Auntie Ah-din and Auntie Yassu had to communicate with me in ways other than language.  I believe they did so with their kindness and gentleness, their genuine smiles, their courage and their strength.  They communicated with their spirit.  And this part of them—their spirit, the best part of us that makes us human—this part lives on in those of us who loved them.

About Aunt Jane

My Aunt Jane passed away last week.  It has been a very sad time for my family.  Aunt Jane was my mother’s sister.  She was only 66 years old.  She had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer only six months ago.  Two weeks after Aunt Jane was diagnosed, my mother lost another sister, Aunt Susan, who was 67.

I am writing an open letter to Milo, who is now 2 1/2 years old.  Below is what I wrote to him about Aunt Jane.

May 21, 2012

Dear Milo,

It’s been a sad time.  Auntie Jane passed away.  It was expected.  She had pancreatic cancer.  She was diagnosed six months ago and given 4-6 months to live.  Auntie Jane was my cousins’, Sally and Tina’s mother.  They lost their father when they were school girls.  Now they lost their mother.

Auntie Jane is Ah-mah’s sister and she helped Ah-mah and Ah-kong at their company for many years.  She lived near Ah-mah and Ah-kong.  She met you when you were born and loved you very much.  You saw her often enough that you recognized her.  She was very gentle and kind.

The last six months of her life, Auntie Jane lived in New York, near her daughters.  This last month of her life, I brought you to visit her three times.  I drove you with Ah-mah to visit Auntie Jane, because we didn’t have much time left with her.  It was a long drive, but you were a trooper.  I brought you because it made Auntie Jane happy to see you.  I even told you this, that you made everybody happy.

When we saw Auntie Jane one month ago, she was very skinny, half the size of her normal self.  But she was still able to walk around and have a conversation.  You gave her a hug.  We went to the park and played.  She was very happy to see you.

Three weeks later, we came back to visit.  It was Auntie Jane’s 66th birthday.  She could no longer talk very well and needed help to walk around.  You sang her happy birthday six times.  All the aunties  were there and everybody clapped.  I watched Auntie Jane watching you.  Even though she could not speak, I could see some light dancing in her eyes.  Your singing brought her some joy.  For the rest of our short visit, she watched you play and sing.

The next week, we came back to say goodbye.  Auntie Jane was bedridden and could not open her eyes or speak.  She was most likely unconscious, but they say she could possibly hear us, so we spoke to her.  Ah-mah was very, very sad.  I was sad too.  You and I sang Frere Jacques to Auntie Jane.  I could tell it was very confusing to you and part of me debated about bringing you.  It was a very stressful visit.  But I thought it was important that we say goodbye.  I think she heard us.

The next day, Auntie Jane passed away.

A few days later, we drove back to New York for Auntie Jane’s funeral.  We drove together with Ah-mah and Ah-kong in another car.  We shared a hotel suite with two bedrooms and a living room.  The hotel had a pool.  You had a wonderful time playing in the pool.  I was asked to give the eulogy for Auntie’s funeral, so I woke up early to finish it.  The morning of the funeral, you declared, “I make everybody happy!”

Your father and I laughed.  While I hope you don’t grow up with a god complex, I was glad for your light in a very sad situation.  I was very glad you could bring a little joy to Auntie Jane during her last days.

I know you probably won’t remember Auntie Jane in your conscious memory, but I hope this note in your letter reminds you of someone who loved you.

Love,

Mommy

Long Hiatus

I have let this blog lie fallow for much too long.  There are any number of reasons why I don’t write.  And it’s a funny thing writing a blog.  I try to be positive and uplifting, but sometimes life isn’t always positive and uplifting.  Sometimes, it’s downright painful.

So I can’t always promise positive and uplifting.  Hopefully, I can promise some honesty.  That’s the best I can do.

Snowtober

Freak snow storm the weekend before Halloween.  It was an actual Nor’easter in October.  We’ve had our fair share of Nor’easters since we moved to New Hampshire, but not in October, and not with the leaves still on the trees.  (It’s been a beautiful autumn, actually.  Until the snow started.)  The snow came down in big, wet, fluffy flakes that delighted Milo for the first few hours.  It was the kind of snow that makes great snowballs and snowmen.  It was also the kind of snow that sticks to tree limbs and weighs them down to the point of breaking.  Add to that, the fact that leaves were still on those limbs and you have a lot of broken limbs and falling trees.  Trees that fall over power lines.

We knew the storm was coming, of course, and we ran out to get some supplies.  (Most of our stash we had left over from preparing for Hurricane Irene in August.)  We expected to lose power.  Past storms we lost power for less than 24 hours. (Our house is right off a major road, so when the area loses power, we’re typically one of the first to have power restored.)  We don’t own a generator.  Call us optimistic or cocky, but we lived in a cabin in the woods without electricity or running water for a year.  We figured we could stand a few days without electricity.

Typically, when the lights flicker, we fill the bathtub with water.  The reason we fill the bathtub is that when the power is out, our water pump for our well doesn’t work.  There is about 5 or 6 gallons of water left in a reserve tank, but that’s all.  This means we can’t flush the toilet, so we try to fill up the bathtub to have excess water on hand to flush the toilet.  Typically, after the lights flicker, it is likely the power will go out in a few minutes.  But typically, we have enough time to fill the bathtub.  This time, we did not.  Around 6 pm Saturday night, the lights flickered and everything went black.  Power was out.

This is what we typically do when the power goes out: Blake hooks up our car battery to his inverter and gets us power to run enough lights, computers, and internet.  We just need to charge the car battery every 3 or 4 hours to make sure it doesn’t go dead.  We dump bags of ice in the refrigerator. We put on extra layers of clothes and pull out extra blankets.  This time, we did all this, but we did not have a full bathtub, so we could not flush the toilets.  Yellow, yellow, let it mellow!

When we checked the utility website, it said power was expected to be restored at 2:00am.  So we went to bed and expected to have power in the morning.  It was a cold night and we huddled together in our family bed with extra blankets and listened to the hum of our neighbors’ generators.  In the middle of the night, we were awakened by a loud crash.  It freaked me out.  Blake said it was a tree branch breaking and I should go back to sleep.  In the morning, there was still no power and the house was cold.

The damage the storm caused during the night was remarkable.  Trees bent all the way over, as if bowing down in child’s pose.  The loud crash was the top of a tree that had snapped off and scraped the side our house.  Broken trees and limbs everywhere.  There was a tree down at the end of our driveway that blocked the road.  Blake plowed the driveway and, along with our neighbors, moved the tree blocking the road.  I decided to remedy the fact that we had no water to flush our toilets.  I filled up our bathtub with snow.  I put a pot of snow on the propane stove to heat up and wash dishes.  Nothing like being resourceful.

Twenty-four hours came and went and still no power.  We spent a second chilly night huddled together under the bed.  The next day, the utility website suggested we may not get power for another three days!  Not looking good.  We got some wood from our neighbor and started up a fire in the fireplace.  Plenty of melted snow in the bathtub, so we could now flush the toilets.  We could hunker down for a few more days, right?

Thankfully, our power came back on that night, before midnight.  We lost power for a total of 52 hours.  Not pleasant, but not bad in the relative scheme of things.  We later heard from friends who lost power for a full six days.  Six days!  Maybe it’s time to invest in a generator?

The view from our backyard, Oct. 30, 2011.

That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo
Knopf, 2009

I recently purchased a Kindle for my birthday in September.  This action was both an act of my youth and my aging.  I had long resisted the e-book format as I love books, the heft of the volume, turning the physical pages, the feel of the paper in my fingers.  However, after I spent an entire afternoon reading (a rare luxury with toddlerdom), I discovered that my eyes are not what they used to be.  My husband suggested I get a Kindle so I could read everything in 14 pt font.  So I did.  And now I’m gobbling up the e-books.  Maybe I look hip and trendy reading my Kindle, but no one needs to know that I’m reading it in large print format.

Amazon recently created an e-book lending program with libraries and I wanted to see how it worked, so I checked an e-book out of the library and had it downloaded directly to my Kindle.  Pretty nifty.  The book I chose was Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic.  (I have Russo’s Pulitzer-prize winning Empire Falls sitting unread on my bookshelf, where I have a lot of unread books, thanks to my ailing eyes.)  Now that I am endeavoring to embrace middle-age, That Old Cape Magic turned out to be an appropriate read for me.

Jack Griffin, a 50-something college professor, is about to see his life and marriage unravel.  After a long, successful career writing in the film industry, Griffin snagged his position in academia as a professor of screenwriting.  After all, screenwriting is a young person’s game, Griffin notes, as he made his move out of Hollywood to the tony suburbs of a Connecticut university.  As the only child of neurotic English professors—with whom he has contentious relationships—Griffin seems to have come full circle with academia and he settles into a comfortable existence with his beloved wife in their Connecticut dream home.  This dream home life lasts more than a decade, but the death of Griffin’s father, long divorced from his mother, forces Griffin to face some uncomfortable, unanswered questions.

Much of the novel takes place on Cape Cod, where Griffin’s family spent many summer vacations during his childhood.  Cape Cod signifies his parents’ idyllic dreams, the lazy summers by the sea, the escape from the politics and positioning of academia.  There is the status of having a summer home on the Cape, but the Griffins never owned their summer home.  They always rented a house and bickered over not being able to afford to buy their ideal summer home.  (The ones they could afford they “wouldn’t have as a gift.”)  The Cape was where Griffin and his wife, Joy, honeymooned and dreamed up their life plans together.  Nine months after the death of Griffin’s father, they return to the Cape for the wedding of a family friend, and Griffin has his father’s ashes in the trunk of his sports car (a not-so-subtle cliché of his middle-age crisis).

Russo’s writing is generous to his flawed characters, the kind of people you would like to have over for dinner, but may not know about their inner thoughts.  There are many comedic moments that were both delightful and pushed close to the edge of disbelief.  Griffin’s mother is a piece of work, an arrogant academic who sees herself well above the world and lets the world know it.  She’s a little over the top, calling at the worst times and intruding herself into Griffin’s life.  She is exactly what Griffin does not want to become, but he cannot stop her voice recording in his head.  Mommy issues.  Ah, yes, I know about those.

That Old Cape Magic is not a very “dramatic” novel in the sense that large, dramatic events do not happen, but it is a very human novel.  The crisis that happens in Griffin’s life has been building very slowly over the years, the way a person is formed by the small events that gather throughout one’s life.  This is particularly true of the conflict between Griffin and his wife, Joy, who share over 30 years of marriage that most people would call happy.  While they love each other, they also hurt each other in small, painful, irrevocable ways.  I found this to be an accurate portrayal of “happy” marriage.  That’s as good as it gets—teetering between love and contempt, hope and despair.  Perhaps a good reflection of the tenuous choices we make in life, marriage, and  middle-age.

Middle-aged Mommy and Milo on Cape Cod.

Evolution of a Bed

We decided it was time to get Milo out of his crib and into a toddler bed.  For some families, this change can be traumatic because the child has a hard time transitioning into the larger bed.  For our family, the drama came with the actual bed itself.

Blake is a very spatial person and things need to fit well in his living space.  We’d seen the IKEA Kura bed at a friend’s house and we liked how it could be elevated to allow more play space underneath.  We also liked that it was a full twin-sized bed and that Milo could grow up with it, rather than outgrow a toddler-sized bed in a few years.  I was a little iffy about the elevated bed at Milo’s age, but Blake felt confident Milo could adjust fairly quickly.

When we saw the bed in the store, it was configured as pictured in the link, with the ladder on the left and the play space opening up to the left.  We needed the bed to be configured in the opposite way, with the ladder and the play space opening up to the right side.  In Milo’s room, there’s really only one spot for his bed, because of the mural and the optimum feng shui for the room.  If the bed wasn’t configured correctly, it wasn’t going to work.  But Blake was sure IKEA would be smart enough to design the bed to be assembled with flexible configurations, so we went ahead and bought the bed.

When we got the bed home, we started running into some problems.  It turns out the bed could not be configured in the way we needed.  We mulled over rearranging the room, but decided we really liked the current arrangement.  So Blake decided to pull out his drill and hack the bed into the correct configuration.

Then we found that the bed covered up more of the mural than I liked.  I spent a lot of time painting the mural while I was pregnant and I didn’t like that it was getting covered it.  (See post Baby Registry for photo of me preggers in front of mural, based on a silkscreen by my friend, the artist Nancy Hom.)

before hacking, covering mural

So Blake decided, since he was already modifying the bed, he would hack off a foot from the length of the bed.  This, of course, required pulling out the table saw and cutting the pressboard as well as the beams.  The mattress was foam and could easily be cut down to size.  We just had to tuck the sheets underneath and it would look just dandy.

after hacking, mural intact

It’s not a full twin, but the size seems more appropriate for Milo.  Plus, he’ll still be able to fit in it for several years to come, though maybe not through high school.  That’s okay.  He’ll probably want a bigger bed by the time he hits puberty.

Here is the completed bed:

completed bed, version 2.0

Milo loved his new bed.  He could barely go to sleep, he was shrieking, “New bed!  New bed!”  He loved trying to climb the ladder (which he could do with assistance) and he loved playing underneath the bed (dubbed “The Tunnel!”) and he loved being elevated on his new bed.

Most of you must be thinking, is it safe to have such a little guy elevated that high?  Yes, well, the first few nights, Daddy placed a piece of plywood over the ladder opening to keep the kid from falling out.  And in full disclosure, Mommy ended up sleeping with Milo those first nights.  It was a little awkward climbing up into that thing, but I managed.  After a few days of new bed, version 2.0, Daddy had to catch Milo from tumbling off the side.  Then Daddy starts thinking about hacking the bed even further to build and attach a pipe railing on the sides to keep Milo from falling out.   He’d have to get PVC pipe and make handles and figure out how to attach them to the wooden beams…

So I say, “Why don’t we just flip the bed over?”  IKEA designed the bed to be reversible, so that it could be elevated or not.

Daddy doesn’t think Milo will go for that because he loves being elevated and he loves the play area underneath, aka. The Tunnel.  But Daddy agrees to try it.  “We’ll see what Milo thinks.”

This is what Milo thinks:

New bed, version 2.1

Great climbing structure AND safe.  Milo is happy, which makes Daddy happy, and Mommy is happy too.  Sometimes the best solution is the simplest one.

As for Milo’s adjustment to the big bed, he’s done surprisingly well.  He’s fallen off the bed only once.   It’s also nice that Mommy can snuggle up with him sometimes in the new bed (and not have to climb up the ladder).  Hopefully he doesn’t outgrow the snuggling too soon.

One Day of Fame

I suppose I should blog about this before it becomes ancient history!  On Aug. 22, my blog was featured on WordPress’s Freshly Pressed.  It was a total surprise.  I confess that I didn’t even know what Freshly Pressed was.

I woke up to all these random comments filling my inbox.  At first, I thought my blog was being spammed.  Then I saw the note from the WordPress administrator that my blog post The Name Game had been selected for Freshly Pressed.  Within a 24 hour period, my blog got over 5000 views.  Wow.  On a day I post a new entry, I typically get maybe 60 or 70 views.

It’s a strange feeling to have so many complete strangers read my writing.  The 80+ comments I received were overwhelmingly positive and encouraging.  And even for those few comments that were lukewarm or even critical, I was still honored people cared enough to comment.  Part of me wishes I could have a conversation with everyone who commented.  I especially appreciated people sharing their stories.  Stories are always a gift.

I wish I could pinpoint exactly why my post was chosen for FP, but I really have no idea.  Blake thinks Milo’s photo helped.  It probably did.  Writing is such a lonely endeavor and I often feel like I’m sending my words out into a black hole.  For one day, it felt a little less lonely.

 

 

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