Grandma's Tales

Andrew Lam

A day after Mama and Papa took off to Las Vegas Grandma died. Nancy and me, we didn't know what to do. Vietnamese traditional funeral with incense sticks and chanting Buddhist monks were not our thing.

"We have a big freezer," Nancy said. "Why don't we freeze Grandma. Really, why bother Mama and Papa—what's another day or two for Grandma, now anyway."

Since Nancy's older than me and since I didn't have any better idea, we iced Grandma.

Grandma was ninety-four years eight months and six days old when she died. She had seen lots of things and lived through three wars and two famines. She lived a full hard life if you ask me. America, besides, was not all that good for her. She had been confined to the second floor of our big Victorian home as her health was failing and she did not speak English and only a little French. French like Oui monsieur, c'est evidemment un petit monstre. And, Non, Madame, vous n'etes pas du tout enseine, je vous assure. She was a head nurse in the maternity ward of the Hanoi hospital during the French colonial time. I used to love her stories about delivering all these strange two-headed babies and Siamese triplets connected at the hip whom she named Happy, Liberation, and Day.

Grandma died a quiet death really. She was eating spring rolls with me and Nancy. Nancy was wearing this real nice black miniskirt and her lips were painted red and Grandma said, "You look like a high-class whore."

And Nancy made a face and said she was preparing to go to one of her famous San Francisco artsy-fartsy cocktail parties where waiters are better dressed than most Vietnamese men of high-class status back home and the foods are served on silver trays and there is baby corn, duck pat(e') , salmon mousse and ice sculptures with wings and live musicians playing Vivaldi music. "So eat, Grandma, and get off my case because I'm no whore."

"It was a compliment," Grandma said, winking at me, "but I guess it's wasted on you, child." Then Grandma laughed, her breath hoarse and thinning, her deep wrinkled face a blur. Still she managed to say this much as Nancy prepared to leave. "Child, do the cha-cha-cha for me. I didn't get to do much when I was young, with my clubbed foot and the wars and everything else."

"Sure Grandma," Nancy said, and rolled her pretty eyes toward the chandelier. Then Grandma just dropped her chopsticks on the hardwood floor—clack, clack, clatter, clack, clack—leaned back, closed her eyes and stopped breathing. Just like that.

So we iced her. She was small enough that she fit right above the TV dinner trays and the frozen yogurt bars we were going to have for dessert. We wrapped all of grandma's five-foot-three, ninety-eight pounds lithe body in saran wrap and kept her there and hoped Mama and Papa would get the Mama-Papa-come-home-quick-grandma's-dead letter that we sent to Circus-Circus where they were staying, celebrating their thirty-third wedding anniversary. In the meanwhile Nancy's got a party to go to and I got to meet Eric for a movie.

It was a bad movie too, if you want to know the truth. But Eric is cool. Eric has always been cool. Eric's got eyes so blue you can swim in them. Eric's got this laugh that makes you warm all over. And Eric is really beautiful and a year older than me, a senior. Dragon, the movie is called, Dragon, starring this Hawaiian guy who played Bruce Lee. He moaned and groaned and fought a lot in the movie but it just wasn't the same. Bruce Lee is dead. Bruce Lee could not be revived even if the guy who played him has all these muscles to crack walnuts and lay bricks with. Now Grandma was dead too.

So Eric and I got home and necked on the couch. Eric liked Grandma. Grandma liked Eric. Though they hardly ever spoke to one another because neither one knew the other's language, there was this thing between them, you know, mutual respect like, like one cool old chick to one cool young dude thing. (Sometimes I would translate but not always ‘cause my English is not all that good and my Vietnamese sucks). What's so cool about Grandma is that she's the only one who knows I'm bisexual. I mean, I hate the term but I'm bisexual, I suppose, by default ‘cause I don't have a preference and I respond to all stimuli and Eric stimulated me at the moment and Grandma who for some reason, though Confucian bound and trained, and a Buddhist and all, was really cool about it. One night, I remember, we were sitting in the living room watching a John Wayne movie together and Eric was there with me and Grandma while Mama and Papa had just gone to bed. (Nancy is again at some weird black-and-white ball or something like that). And Eric leaned over and kissed me on the lips and Grandma said, "That's real nice," and I translated and we all laughed and John Wayne shot dead five mean old guys. Just like that. But Grandma didn't mind, really. She'd seen Americans like John Wayne shooting her people before and always thought John Wayne as a bad guy in the movies and she'd seen us more passionate than a kiss on the lips and didn't mind. She used to tell us to be careful and not make babies—obviously a joke—‘cause she's done delivering them. She also thought John Wayne was uglier than a water buffalo's ass, but never-you-mind. So, you see, we liked Grandma a lot.

Now Grandma's packed in -12 degree Fahrenheit. And the movie sucked. On the couch in the living room, after while I said, "Eric, I have to tell you something."

"What," asked Eric?

"Grandma's dead," I said.

"You're kidding me, Eric whispered, showing his beautiful white teeth.

"I kid you not," I said.

"She's dead, and Nancy and me, we iced her."

"Shit!" said Eric. "Why?"

"Cause she would start to smell otherwise, duh, and we have to wait for my parents to perform a traditional Vietnamese funeral." We fell silent for a while then, holding each other.

Then Eric said, "Can I take a peek at Grandma?"

"Sure," I said, "Sure you can, she was just as much yours as she was mine," and we went to the freezer and looked in.

The weird thing was the freezer was on defrost and Grandma was nowhere in sight. There was a trail of water and saran wrap leading from the freezer to her bedroom though, so we followed it. On the bed, all wet and everything, there sat Grandma counting her Buddhist rosary and chanting her diamond sutra. What's weirder still is that she looked real young. I mean around fifty-four now, not ninety-four. The high cheekbones came back, the rosy lips. When she saw us she smiled and said: "What do you say we all go to one of those famous cocktail parties that Nancy's gone to, the three of us?" Now, I wasn't scared, she being my Grandma and all, but what really got me feeling all these goose bumps on my neck and arms was that she said it in English, I mean accentless, California English. I mean the way Mrs. Collier, our neighbor, the English teacher speaks English. Me, I have a slight accent still but Grandma's was really fine.

"Wow, Grandma," said Eric, "your English is excellent."

"I know," Grandma said, "that's just a side benefit of being reborn. But enough with compliments, we got to party."

"Cool," said Eric.

"Cool," I said, though I was a little jealous ‘cause I had to go through junior high and high school and all those damn ESL classes and every thing to learn the same language while Grandma just got it down cold—no pun intended—‘cause, so it would seem, she was reborn. And Grandma put on this nice brocaded red blouse and black silk pants and sequined velvet shoes and fixed her hair real nice and we drove off downtown.

Boy, you should've seen Nancy's face when we came in. I mean she nearly tripped over herself and had to put her face on the wing of this ice sculpture that looked like a big melting duck to calm herself. Then she walked straight up to us, all haughty like and said, "It's invitation only, how'd y'all get in?"

"Calm yourself, child," said Grandma, "I told them that I was a board member of the Cancer Society and flashed my here jade bracelet and diamond ring and gave the man a forty-dollar tip." And Nancy had the same reaction Eric and I had: Grandma, your English is flawless! But Grandma was oblivious to compliments. She went straight to the punch bowl to scoop up some spirits and that's when I noticed that her clubbed foot was cured and she had this elegant grace about her. She drifted, you might say, across the room, her hair floating like gray-black clouds behind her and everyone stared, mesmerized.

Needless to say Grandma was the big hit of that artsy-fartsy party. She had so many interesting stories to tell. The feminists, it seemed, loved her the most. They crowded around her like hens around a barn yard rooster and made it hard for the rest of us to hear. But Grandma told her stories all right. She told them how she'd been married early and had eight children while being the matriarch of a middle-class family during the Viet Minh Uprising. She told them about my grandfather, a brilliant man who was well versed in Moliere and Shakespeare and who was an accomplished violinist but who drank himself to death because he was helpless against the colonial powers of the French. She told everyone how single-handedly she had raised her children after his death and they all became doctors and lawyers and pilots and famous composers. Then she started telling them how the twenty-four-year-old civil war divided her family up and brothers fought brothers over some stupid ideological notions that proved terribly bloody but pointless afterwards. Then she told them about our journey across the Pacific Ocean in this crowded fishing boat where thirst and starvation nearly did us all in until it was her idea to eat some dead and drink their blood so that the rest could survive to catch glimpses of this beautiful America and become Americans.

She started telling them, too, about the fate of Vietnamese women who must marry and see their husbands and sons go to war and never come back. Then she recited poems and told fairy tales with sad endings, fairy tales she herself had learned as a child, the kind she used to tell me and my cousins when we were real young. There was this princess, you see, who fell in love with a fisherman and he didn't know about her ‘cause she only heard his beautiful voice singing from a distance and so when he drifted down river one day she died, her heart turning into this ruby with the image of his boat imprinted on it. There was also this faithful wife who held her baby waiting for her war-faring husband every night on a cliff and one stormy night, out of pity, the gods turned her and her child into stone. In Grandma's stories, the husbands and fishermen always come home, but they come home always too late and there was nothing the women could do but mourn and grieve.

Grandma's voice was sad and seductive and words came pouring out of her like rain and the whole place turned quiet and Nancy sobbed because she understood. Eric, he stood close to me and put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed slightly and I, leaning against him, cried a little too.

"I lost four of my children," Grandma said, "twelve of my grandchildren and countless relatives and friends to wars and famines and I lost everything I owned when I left my beautiful county behind. Mine is a story of suffering and sorrow, sorrow and suffering being the way of Vietnamese life. But now I have a second chance and I am not who I was, and yet I have al the memories so wherever I go, I figure, I will keep telling my stories and songs."

There was this big applause then and afterwards a rich looking man with gray hair and a pin-stripe suit came up to Grandma and they talked quietly for a while. When they were done Grandma came to me and Nancy and Eric and said good-bye. She said she was not going to wait for my parents to come home for a traditional funeral. She has got a lot of living still to do since Buddha had given her the gift to live twice in one life and this man, some famous novelist from Columbia, was going to take her to places. He may even help her write a book. So she was going to be the mediteranee to get a tan and to Venice to see the festivals and ride the gondolas and maybe afterward she'd go by Hanoi and see what they'd done to her childhood home and visit some long forgotten ancestral graves and relatives and then who knows where she'll go after that. She'll send post cards though and don't you wait up. Then before we knew it Grandma was already out of the door with the famous novelist and the elevator music started to come alive and fly away or something, I swear, nobody would have been surprised. Eric and I ran out after Grandma after we got through the hugging frenzy but she was already gone and outside there was only this beautiful city under a velvety night sky, its high rises shining like glass cages with little diamonds and gold coins kept locked inside of them.

Mama and Papa came home two days later. They brought incense sticks and ox hide drums and wooden fish and copper gongs and jasmine wreaths and Oolong tea and paper offerings, all the things that we were supposed to have for a traditional funeral. A monk had even sent a fax of his chanting rate and schedule so we could choose the appropriate time because he was real busy and the relatives started pouring in.

It was hard to explain then what had happened, what we had always expected as the tragic ending of things, human frailty the point of mourning and grief. And wasn't epic loss what made us tell our stories? It was difficult for me to mourn now, though. Difficult ‘cause while the incense smoke drifted all over the mansion and the crying and wailing resounded like cicadas humming on the tamarind tree in the summer back in Vietnam, Grandma wasn't around. Grandma had done away with the easy plot for tragedy and life after her was not going to be so simple anymore.

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