Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2005 - 4:44 p.m.
After the cremation, they returned to the house feeling drained yet somehow complete. They sat in the living room, sorting out the fifty-some years of photographs that grandfather had kept. Now that the funeral was over, they were clearing out his belongings, dividing his photographs between the one son, two daughters and the two grandchildren. He led a simple, almost austere life after he retired, sipping tea, and working on his Chinese ink painitings. The swallows that he painted would forever be stilled, without the fine tip of the brush and his kind eyes to alter the stance of their perches, the angles of their feathers.
Stacks of small photo albums stood on the teak wood coffee table, like blocks of flats that also contain innumerable stories. They sat there flipping through the photo albums, occasionally bending over to show one another a photo, and narrating over the silence of the photographs.
A black and white photograph of grandfather as a young man, half-sitting insouciantly on the arm-rest of a large wooden chair. In the chair was grandmother, deceased ten years earlier, making an effort to have a blank expression on her face; the exhibition of emotion, coyness, the hint of a smile was, back then, equated with salaciousness. "This was when he was a teacher, and had just married wai po (grandmother)." The grandson remembers wai po, who died when he was only eight. He remembers that his mother told him that in her last days, wai po had in delirious fits of depression, called out the name of the village dental assistant she wanted to marry, not the name of the village teacher who stood at her bedside.
The grandson was surprised when he had heard that story - he did not know that adults could marry and live together for half a century with someone they did not love. He did not imagine that an old woman at the shore of death would still call out the name of someone she did love, fifty years earlier. Wai po died with the sum of those fifty years of regret.
The grandson comes across a small book with a black cover. He flips it open, and it contains names, telephone numbers, addresses, and appointments, all written in Chinese. There are no notes, piquant observations, Chinese sayings - just a strict collection of numbers, times, dates and tasks. There is a second book, a light brown exercise book that school children often use. Again, this book is devoid of any personal notes. Grandfather had used this second book as he weakened from the cancer, to record the medications he had taken daily as his memory failed with his body; in a sense, it was the diary of a dying person, parsed in the language of medicines.
The two books are his autobiography, his repository of memory - what he did every day, who he met, who he might have spoken to on the telephone, which distant relative in China he remitted money to, what letters he might have sent, all written in his hand. But grandfather is now a bowl of ashes and the books will never be opened again.