Shiv

I wish that I could show you things. I know the technology exists, I just haven’t figured it out yet. I want to show you photos of things. I’m looking at a crude weapon that’s sitting here on my desk at home. It’s a handmade knife. Linette says it looks like it was filed down and welded together in a prison cell. The blade is about three inches long, as in the handle. The handle is just an old bicycle pedal, metal covered in hard, worn rubber. This evil-looking little shiv was fashioned by my father as a child, at or around 1950. I found it when going through some boxes with him after his stepfather passed away a few years ago. I don’t know the whole story behind it and I don’t know if he ever actually fought with it as a kid, but it’s here on my desk. It’s weighing down the stack of bills that I just used it to open, about a million miles away from the small, rural town of Liberty, Kentucky where it was made. I find things like that really interesting. I like when things change context. I read a story once about a gay man who used pieces of his grandfather’s KKK robe in a quilt that he and his partner now display on their living room wall. I’d like to think that a number of things here with me now will have a life after me, independent of me, like this odd, rusty letter opener that I wish I could show you.

To Blog or Not To Blog

It occurred to me earlier this evening, as I laid on my couch watching the TV show “Big Brother,” that it’s much easier to sit and watch television than it is to create fresh content for a weblog. In spite of that fact, I felt it necessary to force myself to share a few things tonight, while they’re still fresh in my mind.

Grace Lao

Linette’s grandmother passed away last night. She was an incredible woman and she will be missed. Her name was Grace Lao and was almost 100 years old. She lived on her own in San Francisco until two days ago. (She had a woman bring food and clean, but other than that she was on her own.) I was fortunate in that I got to spend time with her on a number of occasions over the course of the last five years or so. There’s a lot that I’d like to share with you about her, but I don’t know how to go about doing it. Maybe I’ll just jot down some short notes and memories. Hopefully, they’ll be enough to give you a flavor for the kind of woman that she was.

– She got dressed up every day and put on her make-up after doing her exercises, which consisted of doing the Charleston while sitting on the edge of her bed. She didn’t like to have visitors until after 2:00. When she had visitors, she was ready for them. She always had coffee, food, and desserts at the ready.

– She was, as a child in China, a favorite of her father, a man who had, I believe, eight wives over the course of his lifetime. She was the daughter of the number three wife. Her father made his fortune painting ships in Shanghai. The fortune did not extend far beyond his life, but the family was able to send Grace, in the 1920’s, to university in the United States.

– She was, it sounds, a fashionable modern woman of the flapper era. She met her husband, who was also from China but studying in America, at a New Year’s party in Manhattan. I believe she’s told me that it was a black tie affair and they met when a party favor that required two people to function brought them together.

– As a young woman, she had many suitors, but she chose S.K. Lao, Linette’s grandfather. According to the story, she was serious about two men and both men knew one another. She asked both men what they thought of one another and S.K. was the more gracious of the two, telling her all of the good traits of the friend instead of taking the opportunity to make him look less appealing. She chose S.K. I like that story not only because it shows the character of Linette’s grandfather, but also because such things occurred to her grandmother. She was very, very bright and she was able to pick up on people’s character with the words they chose and the actions they took, things that aren’t obvious to everyone.

– She had said to me on many occasions that she was not smart, but cunning and crafty. She said the same thing about Linette. She also said to Linette on one occasion, “I know what you like. Big shoes and little hair.” If you know Linette, you know how right-on that is.

– The last time we saw her, she didn’t like the beard that I had grown. She rubbed her hands on her face, where her beard would be if she had one, and she frowned and shook her head. She said that I’d been handsome before. Then, in defense, I said that Linette liked my beard. She thought for a moment and then suggested that Linette liked it because it kept other women from finding me attractive. She smiled at Linette and said, “crafty.” She laughed and nodded her acceptance.

– During World War II, while S.K. was managing a factory far away from her and their eight children, she was forced to protect her family. When it was obvious that she could no longer stay where she was, due to the advancing Japanese army, she had to move them all. The story of how she pinned some money inside the clothes of each of her children and handed them up to strangers through the windows of a train is one of the most harrowing stories I’ve ever heard. (Fortunately, things worked out for the best and all were reunited shortly thereafter.) She was not only a cool and beautiful woman, but a strong woman.

– She lived here in the US since the 70’s, but didn’t take the test to become an American citizen until she was in her mid-90’s. She studied for her test and passed it. It meant a lot to her.

– Her mind like a steel trap. She once recounted in detail the number of cans of varnish that were used on the floor of the International Hotel in Hong Kong, where she had worked for a time. She also recalled in frightening detail the knife fight between cooks that took place on that same varnished floor.

– Among other things, she worked with Margaret Sanger to establish a Planned Parenthood program in China.

– At 98 she cooked Linette and I a wonderful five-course meal. She made sure it was all vegetarian since I had mentioned on a previous trip that I didn’t eat meat. She also remembered, from my previous trip, that I liked to drink water and she had a bottle ready for me.

– She liked Hagan Daaz ice cream. She ate half-pint a day and said she got her nutrients from that and the cream she took in her coffee. She also liked the biscuits from Kentucky Fried Chicken. She never drank just plain water as far as I could tell, just tea and coffee.

– Linette and I went to San Francisco to see her in person and to tell her that we planned to be married. It was the first time she’d met me. We were kind of asking for her approval, not really considering that she might say no. Fortunately, she didn’t. After we left, she apparently called her oldest daughter, Pauline, and told her that I had good blue eyes and that she was impressed by the fact that I’d gone over to the cleaning woman before leaving to tell her goodbye. Like I said before, she was always noticing little things about people and their behaviors.

– I don’t think her kids or grandkids that lived near her in San Francisco had heard her speak English in years. (They always spoke Chinese when they were together.) When Linette and I mentioned to someone else in the family that we’d chatted with her for almost three hours, they were shocked. I remember the person saying, “Grandma speaks English?” As little as she may have used it though, she was still fluent. As with other things, her memory for the language was almost perfect.

– At one point, during our last visit with her, she told us the story about having to flee with her children. In the process of telling the story, in vivid detail, she began to cry and she said, “my memory is a curse.” She said that every time she thought of things, she would essentially be reliving them.

– She was a very proud, very bright woman and she would not want to live in any kind of assisted-living facility. I couldn’t picture it happening. Her children had made plans for it to happen this week though. She’d fallen twice in the past six months and it was becoming obvious that she was getting to the point where she needed something more than the Medic-Alert buzzer she carried around her neck. It seems to me as though she may have made a choice to pass away when she did, with the same dignity that she had lived the rest of her life with.

– When asked how she managed to live so long and so well, she would always mention God and simplicity. “Simple. I live everything very simple.” (The word “simple” sounded like “simpo” the way she said it, and I loved it. I’d look forward to her saying it in conversations. For lack of a better descriptive, it was damned cute the way that she said it.)

– She stopped me at the door after we first met and looked me in the eye and said, “she’s my grand daughter,” motioning toward Linette. She wasn’t telling me that they were related either. I knew that. We’d just spent the last three hours talking about it. She was saying, that Linette was part of her. It was kind of a warning, like she was telling me not to ever hurt Linette, at least that’s how I took it. I loved her for it too. I responded, “I know, and I love her more because of it.” I see her in Linette a lot and it makes me happy to know that when/if we have kids, she’ll be in them too.

– I will miss her very much and I am saddened by the fact that our children won’t get to know her as Linette and I did, but I am very happy that I will have these memories and others to pass along. I am also extremely happy that Linette and I traveled with a video camera on our last trip to California for the express purpose of taping our conversation. I like knowing that we don’t just have to rely on our memories of her, but that we can hear her and see her if we want to.

When Linette called me on my cell phone this morning to tell me about her grandmother’s having passed away, I was standing in a building in Ann Arbor, just feet away from where I was six months ago when I got the call about my uncle. The two calls, while very similar, couldn’t have been more different. In the case of my uncle’s death, it was unexpected. He was relatively young, he was, in a lot of ways, a lot like me, and he chose to take his own life. I had, and I still have, a great deal of anger, confusion and sadness over his death. It was unnecessary, violent, and shortsighted. I cannot begin to imagine the kind of pain he must have been in to have done what he did. I feel so, so sorry for him and I would do anything to bring him back. He was a very good man and the world is a darker place without him. He went before his time.

In the case of Linette’s grandmother, it’s very different. She was ready to go. On our last trip to visit her, she explained how life was like a tree and how she had grown so big, spreading her limbs and leaves out to catch more sun. She said that now it was her time to shrink back in size and allow other trees to see the sun and grow bigger. She was happy with what life had given her and she truly believed that there was a better place waiting for her. Her attitude toward life, and toward death was profound, as was her thankfulness for all she had been given in this life.

My uncle, struggling with depression, was looking for the kind of peace that she had, but it eluded him. When he passed away, I was given his copy of the Dahli Lama’s “The Art of Happiness.” It was one of the three books he had been in the process of reading when he finally decided to end his life. That for me makes it all the sadder, the fact that he was trying desperately to find a way out. And it makes me that much more fortunate that I have met someone like Linette’s grandmother, who will, for the rest of my life, serve as a symbol for what I hope to be. She was truly content with who she was and what she had done in her life, and I can’t imagine a better place to be. I just wish that my uncle Thom had been able to meet her.

So as not to leave on a sad note, I’d like to mention that within just hours of Linette’s grandmother passing away last night, our very good friends, Dawn and David gave birth to
Nikolas Evan Kulpinowski.

Nikolas is 8 lbs 6 oz and 22 inches long.

I guess that’s the way it’s meant to happen.
Old people die and new people are born.
Things just keep going around.

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One Comment

  1. Posted February 9, 2016 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    It’s really weird to me that all of these posts from over a dozen years ago still exit. I wonder if, some day, my kids read through all of them… Maybe I should go back through and edit.

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