Note: I wrote this on December 22nd, 2015 after a visit while I was home for the holidays. Being the holidays, I was busy and got distracted before I could put it up. I forgot about it until now, but here it is at last. It’s just a short piece. Hope you like it.
My grandfather should have died ten years ago. Instead, he sits before me in his kitchen. He’s in his pyjamas, but the shirt is tucked in neatly. He can’t walk without a walker, but when a family friend stops by to drop off a Christmas gift, he stands to greet him and shakes his hand like the true businessman he used to be. His memory is going, his body is deteriorating, and six months ago the doctor told us he only had six months left. But ten years ago a different doctor had said the same thing.
My grandmother sits across from him and the two of them have a conversation that goes in circles.
“How old are you now?” my grandfather asks me in Vietnamese.
“Twenty-one,” I answer.
“My, you’ve grown so much!”
“Look, she’s taller than her mother, now,” my grandmother adds.
They used to take care of me a long time ago. There’s a picture in their house on top of the thermostat from back then, when both my parents worked full time and I wasn’t old enough to go to school. It was taken by my uncle, my grandparents’ youngest child, and in it I am only three years old. My grandparents stand in their front yard in by an apple tree that was still small back then but has since grown like I have. My grandfather carries me. My cousin, ten months older than me, stands with my grandmother. I remember the day we took that picture. I remember it being taken. We were picking apples off the tree. No one really picks those apples anymore. They’re too sour to eat raw, but my grandmother used to pickle them.
These days, my grandparents don’t leave their house much, not even as far as the apple tree. Every once in a while there will be a family gathering at a house other than theirs. When that happens, they are chauffeured to the party and sat down on the living room two-seater couch. It doesn’t matter whose house or whose living room. That’s the way it is, and that’s how it always has been.
“You’re old enough to get married now,” my grandfather says.
My mom sitting next to me laughs. “No, she’s not.”
“Why not?” he asks. “I was twenty years old when I got married.”
“Times have changed, Ba,” my mom tells him.
There are two enormous frames in my grandparents’ house. One is gold, one is silver. Each has thirteen pictures in it. A picture of my grandparents and a picture of each of their children along with whatever family they’ve started. The gold frame says Happy 50th Anniversary and the silver says Happy 60th Anniversary.
“I’m eighty-eight years old, now,” my grandfather tells me, all matter-of-fact. “Your grandmother is ninety.”
My grandmother laughs. “I’m turning into an old lady!” she says, much in the same way I joke to my friends when we look at the freshmen on our university campus.
I smile. It’s easy to see myself in her. She is where I got my nose, lips, ears, eyebrows, and maybe a few other things although it’s hard to be sure. My mom looks more like my grandfather. His eyes, his nose, his lips, his cheekbones, and his darker Vietnamese skin. Compared to them, my grandmother and I are quite pale.
“Have you got a boyfriend?” my grandfather asks me.
“No, she doesn’t,” my grandmother says.
At the same time, I say, “Yes, I do.”
And suddenly they both go quiet, having to face the reality of the toddler they once looked after being grown up enough to have a boyfriend. They don’t seem to like this realization. After a little while, my grandfather changes the topic.
“You’re going to university in Germany?” he asks.
“England,” my mom says for me, because no matter how many times I’m told, I can’t seem to remember the word for England in Vietnamese.
“Oh yes, England,” my grandfather nods. “That’s good. She’ll be very good at English.”
“She’s already good at English,” Mom says. “It’s her first language. She knows French, too. That’s how she speaks with Di Ba.”
Di Ba is my aunt who resides in Quebec and the second oldest of my mom’s siblings. I had been on the phone with her a few hours before, communicating with French and some Vietnamese to fill in the gaps.
“Good, good,” my grandfather says. “Languages are valuable.”
He used to speak French, too. Back in Vietnam, before the war and communists, he was a wealthy man. He spoke Vietnamese and French so that he could do business internationally. My mom grew up in a five story house with multiple chauffeurs and nannies. I’ve heard all the stories. I’ve seen many pictures. My grandfather was knowledgable, intelligent, and wise. My grandmother, too, and they did well for themselves and their twelve children. Even when the war came, even when the communists won, even when they came to Canada with nothing and had to start from scratch.
“Languages are valuable,” my grandfather repeats to himself. “You’ll see when you get older. How old are you now?”
“My, you’ve grown so much!”
“She’s taller than her mother now…”