Saturday, March 9, 2013

In loving memory

(Photo: Kwing Chan, Hong Kong, circa 1950s)

I'm not sure why it has taken me so long to write about my dad. I guess it's only natural to take for granted what is right in front of you until it is gone. I can't tell you how many times I've sat down in front of the computer, thinking about my dad the tailor, the one who made colorful dresses for his preschool-aged daughters and who was a master at his craft--laying out patterns so skillfully that hardly any fabric went to waste, cutting thick layers of cloth so effortlessly, it was as if he were slicing through soft tofu. For me, the sound of cloth being cut--whether with manual shears or a loud machine cutter--seemed to reveal everything there was to know about my dad. Those precise cuts and sharp noises conveyed a sense of unwavering confidence and danger, of steely determination and superhuman infallibility, of terrifying strength and comforting dependability. My dad was a provider, a maker of things, skilled, knowledgeable, and sometimes a bit hard around the edges. This is the dad of my distant past. The dad who, with my mother, continued to make dresses for their six daughters as they grew into teenagers. As gruff and no-nonsense as he sometimes could be, my dad had a nurturing soft side.... He made frilly pink-and-white dresses for the younger girls, a silk bubble skirt with matching bolero for the middle daughter, and burgundy velour maxis with jewel-studded bows for the more sophisticated daughters already in high school. This is my dad the tailor whom I've been meaning to write about.

But now, suddenly, he is no longer here. And I find myself lost. The narrative no longer seems relevant, and I am forced to view the entirety of my dad in the past tense, not just one aspect of him. I suppose, oddly, it's easier for me to reflect on the past and on clothes and material things than it is for me to express in words my appreciation for those loved ones in the present. So I find myself wanting to share with you my dad from the very very recent past: my dad the cook, the gardener, the soft-edged grandfather of ten adoring grandchildren. This is what I wrote in honor of him, after he left us barely two weeks ago, and the words that I wish I could have shared with him sooner....

When we lost our mom 21 years ago, we learned in a painful way that nothing lasts forever. It was a difficult lesson, and one that I am still learning from today.
My father did not often open up to us about his feelings, or ask us about ours. That just wasn't his way. But he always led us by example, and in his daily actions he taught us to take pleasure in the simple things in life: a good meal, a story or proverb shared at the dinner table, a bounty of fruit from the garden. And in showing us how to appreciate the little things, he also taught us, in his own Dad way, how to let go.
I am always amazed by how, throughout his life,  my father was able to accomplish so much with so little. I guess it makes sense. He often spoke of growing up during wartime, and the famine and desperation he witnessed. He told us how a tiny bit of salted pork would go a long way...flavoring a large pot of rice to feed the entire family. How as the days and weeks passed, hungry schoolchildren would one by one fail to show up to class, and nobody needed to ask why. Growing up with so little, my father learned to be quick on his feet, think creatively, and endure the greatest hardships to not just survive but to support his family. He learned to be as skilled with his hands as he was sharp in his thinking. And thanks to his determination and sheer will, he was able to pursue a better life for himself, his wife, and their seven children.
Anyone who knew my dad knew that he was an excellent cook and a constant gardener. He was also a tailor by profession--and a sometime carpenter as necessity dictated. He was always productive and handy, making cabinets and dressers for the house, an aviary for the finches, and a coop for the rabbits, chickens, and turtles we had over the years. He did everything with precision and care and an eye perhaps less toward aesthetics and more toward practicality. For every flower he planted he planted twenty times the number of vegetables. His garden was full of plums and apples and kumquats, loquats and pears and figs, tomatoes and green beans and squash, winter melons and potatoes and gai lan, green onions, chives, and even cherries and goji berries. And of course, there was the trusty, bountiful lemon tree.

And that was the wonderful thing about my dad. He was so practical: always emphasizing function over form. But in doing so, he provided us with a life full of beauty, nourishment, and joy. In his cooking--whether it was dinner on the table at 7pm sharp or wonton noodles for Sunday brunch--he had a clear purpose: to feed seven hungry mouths quickly and efficiently. But he also did above and beyond what any chef might aspire to. He took the time to make sweet sesame soup from scratch--toasting and blending the sesame until the entire house was filled with the richest, sweetest, most comforting aroma. He made his own soy milk--wringing a cheescloth full of hot soybean pulp to separate out the creamy liquid. And I can't even begin to describe the taste of his amazing jungs, dumplings, taro cakes,  and steamed buns; his delicious dinners full of his grandkids' favorite dishes: seared salmon, steamed chicken, fan qui tong, pai guot and endless varieties of hearty soups. Through his cooking, he nourished us and taught us the simple and immense pleasures of enjoying a delicious meal with family.

But perhaps most revealing of my dad's approach to life can be seen in his practice of calligraphy. With brush and ink in the privacy of his room or the garage, he wrote lines of classic texts or poetry...using old sheets of recycled paper, faded newsprint, or the backs of last year's calendar pages. And when the pages were filled from top to bottom and right to left, and the ink had dried, he simply tossed them out. We asked him why, and occasionally pleaded for him to save his work...but he only laughed off our requests, telling us there was no value in holding onto sheets of his writing. For my dad, the end result served him no purpose. It was the process and the continued practice that mattered to him. 
And so in the life he led, he taught us the great lesson that nothing is forever--and that is OK. Maybe even more than OK. It is something that we can embrace. After all, it is because of the change of seasons that we will always have a beautiful garden to come home to.