A Chinese Funeral in L.A.
by Larkin Vonalt
She sent jellybeans at Christmas. We finish the last of them crossing Nevada two weeks later. We are driving to L.A. for her funeral.
“These are good,” my husband says, “where did they come from?”
“Your mother sent them at Christmas.”
He doesn’t reply and when I look over he is gazing out the window. It is very quiet in the car, just the hum of the road and the small murmurs of our 15-month old son asleep in his car seat. No more jellybeans at Christmas, no boxes of bean thread and dried mushrooms, no red envelopes. I will never again hear my husband on the telephone with his mother, laughing in the charivari of their country dialect Cantonese.
It was not that her death was unexpected, but still we were startled by it, our vibrant Saturday morning suddenly cracked and strange. In all truth, it was a good death. To be ninety-three, to eat a breakfast of rice porridge with your eldest daughter in your own house, to retire to your Naugahyde recliner for a nap, to never wake up. This was an event we had long expected and yet, it was surreal, a pretense. We had promised to take Julian to meet his grandmother, his Yen-Yen, at Chinese New Year. How could that mean nothing now?
No one had told us that Chinese New Year would be too late. My husband is the youngest, and the only child living out of California. Our life in Montana is nearly as removed from L.A. as her life had been, long ago, in Kwong-Jow. He called each week and his mother put on her bravest, strongest voice. She did not tell Elmer that she had not left the house for a long time. She did not say that she would not live to meet her youngest grandson.
We arrive at her house, bedraggled and road-worn. It has taken us five hours to travel the last fifty miles from San Bernardino to Hollywood. Elmer’s brother Norman is standing on the sidewalk, wearing a black suit, smoking a cigarette. The others are inside, waiting. I lift Julian, sleeping, out of the car and carry him up the steps. His shirt is stained with apple juice. The living room is very bright and crowded with many Chinese relatives, all in black. There is a pervasive odor. I remember it from my Aunt Lillie’s, the smell of urine and death.
They have all just returned from the wake. We are startled by this, and embarrassed not to have arrived in time, but we have been on the road for two days and not privy to all the details.
The eldest brother, Tony, comes in the front door. He has been estranged from the family, “married” to a succession of Latin women; the most recent wife trails behind him with their four-year-old daughter in arms. She and the girl are terribly shy. It is awkward, this situation. Tony, so long gone and by his own choice set apart, is by tradition, in charge. He has even given up the family name and chosen another. There are resentments, some voiced, most swallowed. I don’t think Tony wants the honor, but to refuse it would be unforgivably disrespectful.
“Has anyone heard from Elmer. Where is he?” he asks.
“Why don’t you ask him yourself? He’s right behind you.” The oldest son and the youngest embrace. Tony yanks on Elmer’s ponytail and waves him away.
“Oh, I don’t talk to people with long hair.” He is only half-kidding, this family renegade, this Mexican brother.
Our son stares at his Chinese relatives. He has never met them before and they are delighted with him. He is bashful. I feel bashful too, in my jeans and Doc Martens, disheveled. We had planned to stay here, in this, her house, tonight and all the nights we need to be in L.A. Elmer had even asked if it would be all right. Now that we are here, it appears that it is not all right, that all of the sheets and towels and blankets have been given away, thrown away, disposed of in accordance with custom. The possibility of finding a reasonable hotel in L.A. at eight o’clock on a Friday night is bleak. It is so bright and so loud in this room. I worry that my navy blue suit will not be appropriate after all. I worry that we won’t find a place to lay our heads.
May, the eldest, a tiny sparrow of a woman is explaining to us the contents of a K-Mart bag. The black ribbons are arm bands for Elmer and for Julian. The yarn bows on bobby pins are for me. The white one is for the funeral, the blue one for three days after, the red one for the official thirty days of mourning. There are extra yarn bows, green and red for Elmer’s two older and absent children. After the funeral, she explains, I am to take the white one out of my hair and throw it into the grave. I am to replace it with the blue bow. I am to throw in the green bows for Tai and Camille. The arm bands go into the grave too. I am struck by the image of Chinese graves strewn with bits of yarn and bobby pins.
A crate has been brought into the center of the room. Julian is banging on the top of it. The lid lifted reveals a canvas skin covering a lacquered trunk. This trunk came from China, in 1937. On one of the fast boats, an eighteen day crossing for a pregnant 34-year-old woman with her 12-year-old daughter, eight-year-old son, two toddlers and the ghosts of the two she lost.
Her marriage had been arranged when she was 14, and she was married to Pon Lieu at 20. It was a good match. He was not old or ugly. He had prospects in America. Under U.S. foreign policy, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 forbade the immigration of Chinese women until 1930, when “Chinese wives of certain American citizens” were permitted entry. In 1937, with China under threat of Japanese invasion, Pon Lieu was allowed to bring his family to California.
Los Angeles must have seemed like another planet. There was of course Chinatown, a colony of the familiar, but they settled instead on Clanton Street and then later on 28th Street, deep in the heart of South Central L.A. She worked at home embroidering silk ties, while he was employed as a succession of Chinese restaurants and then, during the war, as a boiler maker in the shipyards. Her name was Moy Kee, its literal translation “Rose,” her American name, never spoken. Her real name, the one in our hearts, was “Ma.” She gave birth to three more children, all boys. Each time they were delivered at home by a woman physician, a pioneer in obstetrics, who bestowed on the sons not only easier passage into this world, but their uniquely American names: Norris, Norman, Elmer.
May lifts a tiny white dress from the trunk. This was Wayne’s. Here is a wooden stamp with the Chinese character of the family name. Here are traditional dresses, the cheung-sahm, and pajamas and blouses and western dresses. They are all very dainty as if they might have belonged to a delicate child. They were Ma’s.
“Oh look, I remember carrying Elmer around in this when he was a baby.” The younger sister, also named Rose, lifts out an ornately embroidered square of fabric with ties at each corner. “He was so heavy. Of course, I was only ten years old.”
There is a plainer square and the older sister points to it and says to Rose, “Well, I carried you in this one, and Wayne, and Norris too.”
There are 26 people in this room, spilling out onto the steps, to the driveway. I keep looking for Ma to appear in the hallway or from the kitchen. She is everywhere here: in the anniversary embroidery hanging over the lumpy sofa, in the faces of the children whose photographs grace the mantel. She is in the ornate glass window over the buffet, and in the abundance of imported candy spilling over the flats of soda. She is in the 20 dozen rice bowls that fill the cupboards, and in the Birds of Paradise blooming riotously outside her door. She should be sitting at the end of the long dining table, presiding over all, and laughing.
At an end table, Julian is plucking petals from flowers in an elaborate bouquet. Clearly, they are not from a Chinese florist. The flowers are a Western arrangement of roses and lilies, and in the Western tradition of giving flowers to the family. Elmer’s employers had sent them. The siblings are touched by this gesture, this display of sympathy for the living. The Chinese give their flowers to the dead.
After promising solemnly to be back by eleven in the morning, we are permitted to slip away from the bright and stifling house into the January night, Bible black, scented with jasmine. We are back in the car, driving, driving, out through Glendale and Pasadena and San Dimas. One of the relatives, a nephew, has offered us refuge in his pool house.
It seems we have just fallen into fitful sleep when morning is upon us. Still road-weary and stiff, we struggle into funeral attire. Hosiery and heels are foreign and uncomfortable; my husband has to knot his tie three times. The baby is fussy in his little corduroy suit. These are not clothes we wear in Montana.
We get elaborate directions from the relatives to the nearest car wash. Our aged Mercedes is covered in road grime and to arrive in a dirty car would not show proper respect.
This car wash is an enormous enterprise: gas station, detail shop, wash bays, Mexican fast food, ice cream and gifts. There are thirty men in white jumpsuits attending to the line of Jeeps, Volvos and Acuras. We pay ten dollars to an attendant and carry the baby inside to wait. It smells of taco meat inside the building. I can’t tell if it lingers from the night before or if this is something Southern Californians have for breakfast. Elmer has found the coffee stand and brings me a little Styrofoam cup of cappuccino. Julian is fascinated with a display of air fresheners, hundreds of little trees that smell like lemon and strawberry and coconut. There is a viewing area, with plastic palm trees and gumball machines where we go to watch our car. It travels briskly through the wash process and out front to where a Latin man dries it with a multitude of towels. Every last surface is diligently polished and polished and polished. My feet hurt. Elmer looks at his watch, frowning. It is after ten-thirty, and if the freeways are clear, the drive takes twenty minutes. Finally we convince the car’s attendant that he has done a fine job, very satisfactory, muches gracias, we have to leave, really, it’s fine, gracias, and we go.
They are all waiting for us. May has hung a black wreath on the front door. It is a straw wreath, covered in black ribbon, nearly invisible against the black wrought iron of the security gate. On the sidewalk, Elmer’s thrice-tied patterned necktie is examined. There is a little bit of red, a russet red, in the pattern. Red cannot be worn. Red is the color of celebration. Norman has an extra tie.
“I thought this might happen, so I brought two.” Did he think that Elmer might wear the wrong tie, or just that someone would? He doesn’t elaborate. The tie has to be changed before we can enter the house.
The food has just been delivered from Ma’s favorite restaurant, Point Dume. The woman who brought it to the house is weeping, hysterical. She knew she was bringing the traditional funeral breakfast, but she did not know she was bringing it to the house of the dead. She demands “lucky money” so that she will be protected from the wrath of the spirits, and it is given to her. Norris pats her shoulder as she hurries down the steps, clutching the red envelope.
We have all been given a last packet of “lucky money.” Every year on her birthday, Ma gave each of us a red envelope with two crisp dollar bills. They had to be pristine. She always asked the bank for new bills. Today the packets have only a single dollar in them, and some are wrinkled.
Foil containers sit open on the table. There is a fried sea bass and boiled chicken, some steamed pork, an enormous amount of rice. I notice a chicken’s foot, the fish’s head.
“This is the traditional food to be eaten by the family prior to the funeral,” explains May. “Eating the head and tail of the animal is to show the beginning and the end.” The alpha and the omega. The pig’s head is not evident. Perhaps the tail is there, I don’t examine the meat too closely.
Norris’ wife, Irene, eats the head of the bass. “Remember when Dad always used to want the head of the chicken. That was his favorite.”
There is a commotion at the door, women coming in amidst clamorous greetings. They are not Chinese. We don’t know them, but Norris explains that these women will be staying at the house during the funeral. They will be here to open the doors.
The limousines have arrived. Elmer and I argue quietly about Julian’s car seat. He assures me that the limousines will go sedately, and not on the freeways. He is wrong. We careen down the Ventura Highway, the baby held fast against me, my mouth in a tight smile. “Uncle” Stephen, who is really our brother-in-law, notes that he and I are both wearing dark blue suits.
“I didn’t have a black suit.” He grins.
“Me either.” The limo swerves between an IKEA delivery van and a Cadillac. There are five of us crowded into the back of this limousine, it feels as small and vulnerable as a compact car. Fewer limousines mean less cost. I wish I had driven myself and Julian in our dignified old sedan, never mind being supportive. The driver looks to be about 12 years old. When we arrive at the Wah Wing Sang Funeral Corporation, Gutierrez and Weber Funeral Home, on Sunset Boulevard, I resist the urge to kiss the earth. Not that there is any earth to kiss, just another L.A. parking lot.
We are lined up outside the doors in order of importance. In a small break with tradition, husbands and wives are allowed to remain together. The sons line up, oldest first, the youngest last. Then the daughters. Grandsons and granddaughters fill out the ranks. Tony’s oldest daughter, Erica, is not here in time for the procession. The sun beats down mercilessly on us in our funeral weeds.
At last the doors open with a blast of chilled air and the sick-sweet smell of overripe blossoms and disinfectant. We proceed through the foyer into a large room filled with metal banquet chairs. At one end is the casket. It is open.
Silently, we wait in line. Each wall of the room is lined with enormous floral offerings. Each arrangement is six feet square, a polystyrene form covered with blossoms and a long streamer offering beatification in Chinese and English. One of them was ordered on our behalf by the brothers and sisters. It is heart-shaped and covered with red carnations. Two fist-sized purple orchids adorn the left lobe, a dozen yellow roses cascade down the right side. Norris will tell us later that as I had no Chinese name, they chose a Cantonese homonym that meant “beautiful ability” and that’s what is scrolled on the snowy ribbons flowing from the heart.
Our turn comes to face the dead. The figure in the casket might be made of wax. Her skin is brown and smooth as a pecan, the laugh lines and crows’ feet fallen away with the forces of gravity and the embalmer’s art. Her hair, once black and shiny as a raven’s wing, is brushed off her forehead like dry gray grass. She is not wearing her glasses. A worn leather Bible has been propped in her hands. She would be all the wintry hues, but for her cheung-sahm. She is clothed in the vibrant blue of the peacock’s tail, of the Caribbean sea, of summer sky from her tiny chin to her delicate ankles.
The Buddhist Chinese have a tradition in which each grandchild brings a square of silk to lay upon the body of his Yen-Yen, to keep her warm on the journey to heaven. It seems such a tender and gracious ritual, I feel desperately sad that Ma’s conversion to Christianity has deprived her of this gift.
We are being watched, by those behind us in the line who are anxious for something to look at, by the brothers before us, seated and waiting. I bow my head and murmur, wondering should I cross myself? Should I bob before the casket, that funny half-kneel, half-curtsy? No one in line before me had done so, but this browsing seems inadequate, like passing a museum case that holds little interest.
The seating order is precise and rigid. The immediate family sits in an alcove, shadowed by more flowers, an abundance of orchids, a profusion of roses. The grownup grandchildren are lined up in banquet chairs in front of the casket, like pews before the altar. At the back of the room, the funeral home seats the others: aunts, cousins, brothers-in-law, friends, fellow emigres from her village.
Tony sits in the front row, orchestrating the seating of his grandchildren. He is signaling to the blond wife of his oldest son that she should sit further back so that there will be place of honor left for his as-yet-absent daughter, Erica. There is much fervent gesticulating and it is met only with the gentle shake of heads, from children long accustomed to the whims of their capricious father. This silent argument ends with the flurry of Erica’s arrival. She is the last to enter this airless room, clearly not giving a damn for old and tattered customs, coming only to say goodbye to a grandmother she loved. She sits down with the cousins.
An assistant from the Funeral Corporation comes over and speaks to Tony and to Wayne. Wayne is the middle son, the youngest to come on the boat from China. He is a lifelong bachelor. This last decade he has looked after his mother and her real estate interests, driving over a few times a week from his apartment on Long Beach. Often the decisions in her life have fallen to him, and he is used to being in charge. Deferring to Tony, so long absent, is very difficult.
“Would it be all right for this lady to sit with the family?” the assistant asks, gesturing toward a frail, white-haired lady sitting in the back row. The woman is Ma’s oldest friend, Hahn-gahn mo, and is related in some complicated way by marriage.
“Yes,” says Tony, “it would be fine.”
“This area is for Family only.” Hissed remarks pass between the brothers. The auntie stays where she is seated. I wish Wayne had put compassion before pride. Had Tony refused the lady, Wayne would have argued otherwise.
The minister has come from True Light Chinese Presbyterian Church. He describes Ma’s faith, but his description falls short. Each Sunday, she spent four hours navigating the public transit system, two to attend services and two hours getting home. She looked all her life to God to give her strength, and she was strong. The minister reads the 90th psalm, Mose’s dark vision of God’s wrath. It is long and grim and sad and when he reaches the end, he begins it again, this time in Cantonese.
The banquet chairs are cold and hard. Behind the lectern on an easel is a poster-sized photograph of Rose Louie Lieu, taken more than a dozen years ago on her 80th birthday. You can’t see her smiling eyes for the glare of her cat’s eye glasses. The picture is lavishly framed with carnations, in pale blue and white. I count the flamboyant floral arrangements that line the walls on easels, shifting slightly in my chair to see the ones behind us. There are 22, a blanket of carnations over the casket and a lonely basket of mums and roses (from a Western florist) at the foot of the podium. Julian is fidgeting in his father’s lap, kicking the back of an uncle’s chair.
The minister speaks in English now telling us all again the familiar tales of Ma’s life. The good fortune of seven healthy children, the years of labor, her struggle in the new world, the family’s corner grocery, citizenship. There are also stories that are new to us. We didn’t know that she had been an accomplished athlete in the 1920s, and that she loved volleyball. We hadn’t heard how she accosted a shoplifter in their little grocery by greeting her enthusiastically and in her embrace, heartily hitting the coat pocket where the woman had hidden some eggs. The minister tells of her fondness of trips and names the places she visited with her senior group. Her favorite, Las Vegas, is conspicuously not mentioned.
When the Reverend recounts Ma’s frequent use of the phrase “Heckla,” a wave of laughter ripples across the room. Each one of us remembers. “Heckla” means have you eaten enough, let me care for you, take these gifts from me. Eat more. It means I love you. It should have been Ma’s epitaph.
He numbers her children and the grandchildren, each a blessing and an accomplishment. He is, unknowingly, two short in counting the children. There was a baby still-born in the spring of 1935, never named, never known. And a four-year-old boy, Gong, who died that same cold, wet spring. Named, known, loved and never, ever mentioned. Ma’s sorrows were her own, never shared. But in this, the accounting of her life, surely she should be honored for having borne the shattering, white-hot grief of a mother who has buried her children.
Julian is squirming and fussing, so I scoop him out of his father’s arms and hurriedly step out in to the lobby. When the doors open, the attendants jump to their feet, expecting the procession to the hearse. I shake my head. They look at their watches.
“Is this funeral running longer?” I ask them.
“Oh yes, mostly they are only twenty minutes.” This has been an hour.
“Well, she had a long and full life,” I offer by way of explanation and sit down with them on the little vinyl sofa. The woman assistant hands Julian a piece of candy. She is wearing a gold and white blouse with a little red flourish running throughout. She is not Chinese.
Up on the wall, a black program board spells out the day’s business in white plastic letters. Ma is the second Mrs. Lieu eulogized here this morning. Mrs. Chung Lung Liu’s services were at 8:30. I wonder if she got more than twenty minutes.
The doors fly open and the casket comes rolling out on its bier under the white-gloved hands of the pall-bearers. The grandsons expected this duty, but the funeral director said it was not a task for family members, engendering a panicked search for able-bodied friends. There is the husband of one of the brother’s former girlfriends, and an old high school beau of one of the sisters. Another is a man from Ma’s village, perilously near her in age. The laconic staff has sprung into action, opening doors, starting the limos, ushering, herding, handing out small packets to each mourner.
Each packet contains a Brach’s butterscotch disc to sweeten our sorrow, and two coins wrapped separately in paper. There is a quarter wrapped in red paper and a dime wrapped in white. We are to spend them on something sweet. We are not to take them into Ma’s house. Elmer and Julian and I will pool ours to make a bet on “Alpride” in the San Gorgonio Handicap at Santa Anita the next day. He will lose.
In the parking lot, we gather in small groups. Introductions and handshakes exchanged, the baby admired.
“Nehouma?” we are asked and answer “Fine, we are fine, thank you for coming .” Aunties and cousins embrace us, lightly touching our faces. Ma’s nurse, a young and beautiful woman from Central America tells me how treasured were the snapshots of Julian, how delighted Ma was by them. Later, Elmer and I stand with his nephews watching Tony flirt with the nurse. If only he had realized, Tony grins, he would have visited more. She smiles politely and turns away.
The funeral procession is led by a white Chevrolet El Camino, its bed loaded with the floral arrangements, easels and all. The carnation-ringed photograph is propped up so that passers-by can see who is being so honored. It seems she is looking back at us.
The limos sweep out onto Sunset Boulevard and head west towards Hollywood. This end of Sunset Boulevard, renamed to honor Caesar Chavez, is lined with Bodegas, little shops full of ruffled dresses and car parts. There is a well-stocked hubcab salesman up the block, his wares sparkling in the early afternoon sun. People are outdoors, walking their dogs, shopping, washing their cars, eating at the Mexican cafe. A man plays a clarinet on the next corner. The limousine pauses and a girl on roller blades sweeps by, an old man with a shopping cart full of oranges stops to salute us.
This is The Tour. The hearse drives past places that were notable in the life of the deceased. It seems a curious custom to drive the body around when the soul has gone, a detail rather pointedly overlooked. We will not be going down into South Central L.A. despite Ma’s years there. We have stopped outside Pioneer Chicken. My husband remembers going there with his mother, but apparently we have paused only for a bus. We can just make out the little strip mall that is home to Point Dume as we speed through the intersection, our passage eased by off-duty L.A.P.D. motorcycle cops.
The cortege turns down Russell, inching along the narrow street. People have stopped on the street to stare. A little boy is waving to us from his mother’s arms. The Sikhs who live across the street have come out to stand in their driveway. I would like to think that they do this to honor their fiercely independent neighbor, but probably they are just curious. Ma is grinning out at them from her picture in the back of the El Camino.
The Wah Wing Sang Funeral Director has gotten out of the hearse and is opening the rear door. The neighbors find this riveting. The women in Ma’s house have opened the front and back doors. The porch light still burns as it has since her death and will for three more days. The funeral director lifts the black wreath from the front door and takes it down the steps to the hearse. He closes the hearse door, the women close the door of the house, and we move on, back down to Sunset Boulevard, past the Brown Derby, out to Forest Lawn. Ma has said her last goodbyes.
Forest Lawn is a burial ground peculiar to Hollywood. Checkerboards of green grass and bronze tablets roll acre after acre, relieved occasionally by neoclassical statuary. The cathedral on the summit features reproductions of famous paintings, and a rose window borrowed from some actual cathedral/ Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio here. Scale models of famous churches spring from the landscape like movie sets, not quite real. The very wealthy are permitted a copy of some 19th century marble sculpture to accent the final resting place. Otherwise the grave is marked by a square bronze plaque, one of many thousands, and the family is given a map to find it.
Ma’s spot is just to the right of the Court of David, an enclave usually inhabited by a reproduction of Michelangelo’s most famous boy, but the statue is missing. A placard says it’s in for repairs after the 1993 earthquake.
The Wah Wing Sang staff are pulling flowers from the exaggerated arrangements and handing a single blossom to each mourner. Julian begins to eat the petals from a rose. Green canvas chairs ring the grave site. Amidst the multitude of flowers, the scene looks strangely like a garden party. The chairs are spread out over the bronze tablets of somebody else’s loved ones.
We are lined up, again in precise order, to be seated. Behind us the others are left to stand. I unpin the black band from the art of Julian’s jacket. The floral arrangements, now somewhat bedraggled, have been propped up against a stone wall. One of the orchids is missing from ours and most of the roses.
The Minister arrives in his Cadillac, and hurries over to the grave. We obediently bow our heads for prayer and I whisper little poems to Julian to keep him still. The funeral director steps forward to guide us through these rituals. A plump Chinese man in a pale grey silk suit, he reminds me of the pigeons that roost in our barn.
The older brothers and their wives trail past the grave, dropping in arm bands and yarn bows. There seems to be some confusion as to whether these are to be tossed into the grave underneath or placed in the carpet of flowers that covers the casket. Irene trips. Our turn comes to let the black ribbons flutter to the earth, followed by our single blossoms and my white-bowed bobby pin. We let fall the green bows of Elmer’s absent daughters and return to our places in the line.
The family is directed to turn our backs to the coffin as it is lowered into the ground. This will be a topic of discussion at the Ocean Seafood Restaurant afterward; no one remembers this as tradition. Perhaps it is a tradition of the funeral home. I watch the eyes of the other mourners looking back at us, at the casket beyond. The wintry sun filters through tree leaves, casting dappled light over friends and family. We hear pulleys squeaking and a muffled thud. The director invites us to turn back. Each child of Rose Louie Lieu and each child’s beloved and each child’s child takes a handful of earth and casts it into the grave.
So she is laid in the earth. Forever to her left is the husband with whom she shared a cantankerous marriage marked by year-long silences and punctuated with slamming doors. To her right, a Japanese child who lived for just a week.
Back at the house on Russell Avenue we drink purified water and eat brown sugar candy. May stayed up late boiling the water being ladled out of a stainless bowl. It tastes terrible, dead and flat. We drink the water to replace the tears we have shed, we eat the candy to mask the bitterness of our loss.
The funeral banquet is in Chinatown, in a Hong Kong emporium called The Ocean Seafood. Hong Kong style restaurants are notable for their plush ambience, an abundance of chandeliers and rosewood. The food is only a secondary consideration. Many of the mourners have arrived before us. They have seated themselves at the big round tables and are drinking Coca-Cola and 7-Up. Every table has a two-liter bottle of each. All Chinese banquets begin with Coca-Cola and 7-Up. Never Pepsi.
I am sitting at a table near the back, holding Julian on my lap, waiting for my husband to bring a high chair. Tony arrives with his entourage, which now includes eight more of the Guatemalan in-laws who crowd their three-room house in Eagle Rock.
“We are sitting here,” he says. “Find somewhere else.”
I get up from the table, saying nothing, thinking black thoughts about his piggish behavior. By the time Elmer shakes himself free from aunties and cousins and appears without the high chair, I am teary-eyed and angry, ready to leave. We find seats at a table with Norris and Irene. Hahn-gahn mo is sitting there also with another old and honorable lady. They are beaming at the baby. She has forgotten or forgiven the snub at the funeral parlor. The old ladies don’t speak English, but they converse beautifully with Julian in laughter and gesture and exclamation.
I learned later Hahn-gahn mo is the second wife of Hahn-gahn, who grew up with Pon Lieu and was treated as a brother. Hahn-gahn had two sons from his first marriage. The elder son died prematurely, his widow is Hahn-gahn mo’s friend and loyal companion. The younger son, Selt-Moy, refused to acknowledge his father’s second wife, treating her cruelly, as if she were no more than a concubine. The argument is buried now with the men, and Hahn-gahn mo has her own children for comfort.
There are two men at the table, each a son of the ladies.
“These are my cousins, Wing and Tommy,” Elmer introduces us. All Lieus are cousins. The Western spelling of the name has no bearing on the relationship. Lu, Liu, Lieu, Loo, they are all of one Chinese character, a complicated arrangement of pitched brush strokes.
After dinner, over tea and oranges, we talk about funeral traditions. Wing, who has been back to China, says that many of the customs are no longer observed there. Imported some sixty years ago by immigrants, the old ways have been preserved like treasures.
We will stay in her house tonight, with Ma at rest, it will be permitted. We eat leftover rice and talk into the night with May and Wayne. There is discussion about more arrangements– which Chinese newspapers should carry the announcement, whether Tony will be there on Monday to bring more flowers to the grave. May talks about the old ways, the years in China. As she talks, she suddenly seems very far away, remembering a time and place unknown to all of us. She speaks of living alone with her mother, of her father’s many arrivals and departures, of going away to school, and the much awaited trip to America.
She tells us about the missing brother, how word had come to her late on a spring night, a message that he had died.
“He was a nice boy,” she said, lingering on nice, drawing it out. “He was always laughing. His name was Gong. It means light.” She sips her tea. Mother had a photograph of him that she kept in the bottom of her drawer. I used to sneak in to look at it. She must have known because one day it wasn’t there anymore. I don’t know what became of it.”
The next morning, sifting through the papers of Pon Lieu, the union cards and old insurance policies, we find the photograph. It is sepia tone of a family: a solemn young man, his fiercely beautiful wife, a little girl, perhaps seven, in wrinkled stockings, a little boy about five dressed all in white. In the center of the picture, propped on a pedestal by his father, is the child Gong. In the photograph he wears a pale silk suit and little leather shoes. Theres tiny ivory bracelet on his wrist, his attention is caught by something to the right, something unseen by everyone else.
The photograph was taken in 1932. Gong lived three more years, and his death left wounds that would never heal. His mother was expecting another baby as they struggled to keep Gong alive. The baby was born dead a few weeks after Gong died, and Ma was broken in a way that never could be mended.
On Monday, the third day of mourning, we meet at Forest Lawn. The sisters have two pots of pink azaleas. One is for Ma’s grave, the other for the grave of Pon Lieu, so he will not be annoyed. The elaborate floral arrangements have been piled on the grave, easels akimbo. The ribbons flutter in the wind. It’s forty degrees in Los Angeles this morning and we are chilled in the pale sunshine. Rose and May nestle the azaleas into place and Rose’s husband, Steve, a retired clergyman, says a prayer over the graves.
After all the eulogies, no one has acknowledged the formidable strength and simple, lovely grace of a woman who breathed life into the souls of nine children, who flourished in two worlds, who lit up a room with laughter. Slipping the blue bow out of my hair, I toss it down among the scattered flowers.
“Now is the time for red ribbons,” May says. The Chinese red of good luck and celebration. The ribbon is tucked in a lock of hair above my left ear. The red of poppies. The red of blood. I take my son’s hand and we walk to the car.