Thursday, January 31, 2008


It is frigid here in the Midwest. The beginning of the week was unseasonably warm--melting snow and rain. And then Tuesday night it dropped 40 degrees. Yes, gaping West Coasters, that's true. Here's the quote from our local paper: "Temperatures fell from 47 degrees to 7 degrees in nine hours." The roads were encased in ice, then dusted with snow. I drove white-knuckled to pick the Bean-girl up from daycare yesterday. Drove white-knuckled back. Traffic was crawling along main roads at 15-20 miles per hour.

(You may ask why was Bean-girl's daycare/school open on a day like that, and why did we send her there? They were open because the place is frigging awesome, and I needed a break from my toddler the way my coffee-addicted sister needs her caffeine hit. Or insert comparison of choice. ).

Paradoxically, my mood seems lightened, just as the earth plunged into coldness. Yesterday I made chicken stock from scratch (a first for me. And it's totally worth it!) And we just now got back from a lovely playdate with Bean-girls' new Best Friend Forever from preschool. The girls had an terrific time. And I like the mom, too, and am hoping she will also be my BFF =)

The past weekend was exhausting, and we're only just now recovering. Last Friday the Bean clan boarded a plane in the Midwest and flew seven hours (icluding a layover) to relatively balmy L.A. We zipped in and out of that city in less than 48 hours. The occasion? A birthday party turned memorial service.

For months, my husband's family had been planning a large get-together in Los Angeles. His paternal grandmother was to turn 100 years old last weekend. For the grand event, relatives were flying in from all over--the East Coast, the Midwest, Denver, northern California, Hong Kong. This woman had six children, twelve grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren--all of whom would be in attendance.

But only two days before the big birthday bash, she passed away. It was not unexpected. For the past year she'd been drifting, since a stroke that left her unable to talk. And in the last month of her life she was in and out of the hospital, caught up in an accelerating cascade of medical complications. Even if she had made it, her presence was not actually expected at her own birthday banquet.

We got the news of her death last Wednesday. Everyone had their plane tickets; everyone had arranged their schedules for this trip. So everyone flew off and met in L.A. as planned. Amah's (Chinese word for grandmother) 100th birthday party would instead be her memorial dinner.

It was an oddly convivial gathering. It was only the second funeral I have ever attended, and I found myself struck by the resemblance of funerals to weddings. Far-flung relatives (some of them distant in relations as well as in geography) are all gathered together. Some of the relatives don't know each other well; some don't know the central person of honor very well. But they are all family, and so they are all there. There is much gossipping and catching-up. People dress up. Food plays a central role.

One of the women who married into this clan remarked to me: "From what I understand, things with this family just involve one set of Chinese meals after another, don't they?"

My husband snorted when I mentioned that remark to him. "She hasn't figured that out yet?"

Yes, with my husband's family (and with Chinese families in general, I think?) a family get-together/visit means one Chinese restaurant meal after another. Wth photographs of the attendees taken at each restaurant.

There was the convivial, jovial air of a large family reunion. Which, after all, it was.

After the obligatory Chinese restaurant lunch, we went to the viewing and memorial service at the funeral home. Amah's children had chosen a beautiful home; as of this writing she is buried next to her husband on a high hilltop with great feng sui. None of the younger generation understood the Buddhist chanting by the monk and nuns, but it was mesmerizing.

At the Chinese banquet that night, toddler great-grandchildren took a few bites of rice and soup, then begged off to run about and play with one another. The older cousins kept track of and entertained the younger ones, while the parents traded war stories of family travel and child-rearing.

The juxtaposition of life and death was practically cinematic. That afternoon the small children had been excluded from the memorial service--"bad luck!" the Chinese elders said. So the children were all deposited in the funeral home lobby, left to play under the somewhat haphazard care of the older cousins. I and the other parents would duck out of the service periodically to make sure that all was well.

I remember that one of Bean-girl's 9-year old cousins was pushing her around the lobby in a stroller. Monica was running the Bean-girl and stroller full-speed at a large bank of windows, then jerking to a halt just before disaster. The Bean-girl was laughing and laughing in delight. (I put an end to this game, of course). But I remember the sunlight streaming in through that bank of windows, shining in Bean-girl's hair. And the heedless laughter of the young children, just steps away from death.

I saw few tears that weekend, few overt signs of grief. My husband did not know his grandmother well, but even her own children seemed serene. Was it because Amah was so old, because she had lingered in confusion and pain for so long that her passing was an expected relief?

We're back in the Midwest now, preparing for another onset of winter storms, and dealing with the aftermath of a burst water pipe in our home. As I write this, though, I am thinking of the brilliant sunshine on that memorial day.


TheMusingMommy said...

It all comes full circle, doesn't it? The cycle of life, the cycle of seasons...

CAE said...

It sounds strange, but my Grandma's funeral (at the age of 85) was an incredibly happy family occasion. We're a small group, spread around the world, and the rare times we all get together are fantastic, regardless of the reason.

ScienceGirl said...

The funeral I attended a few weeks ago was pretty sad for the grown ups, but the children certainly did their job at lightening things up. It was almost like they were saying, "life goes on," with that urgency to do things and to move and to live the kids have.

EcoGeoFemme said...

A funeral for a very old person somehow seems very different than a funeral for a young person. For the old one, death seems like everything is as it should be. It's sad of course, but doesn't challenge our expectations like when someone has an "untimely" death.

I'm sorry for your loss, but glad you had the opportunity for a funeral with everyone present.

The bean-mom said...


That's it exactly--that it was actually a pretty fun, happy family reunion, despite the occasion.

ecogeofemme, you're exactly right.

ScienceMama said...

I got chills reading this post. Literally. Thank you for sharing.

Ophelia Rising said...

I'm sorry to hear about your family's loss. It sounds like everyone was emotionally healthy and accepting of it, though.

I can just see the sunlight you describe, and your daughter's smiling face. This reads like a chapter in a book.

(And, on a side note, homemade chicken stock is indeed like no other!)