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A Turkey, a Funeral, and a Long Drive in Between


A feast was had.

My brother and his family, whom we had visited back over the summer, came to town last week for Thanksgiving. My nieces spent the night Wednesday evening, something my kids had been looking forward to since they found out the girls were going to be here for the holiday. They flew in rather than drive, which meant they could stick around longer during the week instead of the two days they usually devote to their visits.

The kids played outside all afternoon while my wife and I chatted with my brother and sister-in-law. When they left, my wife went to the Y for an exercise class, while I took the kids to pick up pizzas and a movie. They wound up with Santa Clause 3, a movie I’ve seen too many times to count but one they all thought was funny enough to watch again.

So after dinner, while the kids watched Tim Allen and Martin Short face off over the red suit, my wife and I prepped the turkey and dressing for the following morning—our usual routine. Once that was done, the kids went to the back room to play, and my wife and I sat and watched The Hunger Games.* We ‘d dragged my son’s mattress into my daughter’s room so the kids could sleep in that room, and they were all agreeable to the idea . . . until it came time for bed when they argued over who was going to sleep where—one cousin wanted to sleep in the same bed as my daughter, but the other did not want to stay in the same bed as my son. They’d had no problems with those same arrangements back during the summer, but I guess in the intervening months the girls had decided they were too old to share a bed with a boy.

Ah, well.

My son wound up piling blankets on the floor of his room and sleeping there.

I awoke the next morning to slide the turkey into the oven, get breakfast for the kids, and fix the remainder of the day’s feast: candied sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, reheat the dressing, clean the grapes, dish out the jellied cranberry sauce and the turkey gravy. My mom and dad were bringing over the dinner rolls and the pies.

Things were moving along smoothly. The kids had dressed and gone outside to play. My wife and I had the meal either in the oven or ready to slide in the moment something else was thoroughly heated.

Then came the phone call from my wife’s sister.

She took it in the other room, came out a few minutes later staggering to replace the phone on its base, looking as though she’d been hit with a bag of cement, only to turn and walk to the back of the house again.

I asked her what was wrong and then it clicked: her grandmother had passed away.

We knew it was going to come. She’d been in and out of the hospital several times over the past couple of years, and a few months back, she’d been diagnosed with cancer and given a life expectancy of six months to a year.

My wife had been hoping we would get to see her over the Christmas break.

So the Thanksgiving feast was rather more subdued than usual. But the food was good, the company (my parents, my brother and his family, my wife’s mom and siblings had either gone down to Houston to visit relatives there or were visiting in-laws here in the city) was appreciated and even more necessary this year. Talk centered on what everyone was thankful for, past vacations, what everyone was looking forward to in the next few months. After absorbing enough “grown up talk” the kids raced back outside to play again (we’ve had temperatures in the high 60s to mid-70s off-and-on over the past few weeks, very nice fall weather).

Once the dishes were cleared, the leftovers packed away, and the relatives out the door, I made hotel arrangements and my wife starting tossing things into bags for the trip to Houston. We managed to leave at 9:00 the next morning, earlier than we usually leave the city on a trip out of town. Well, we’d left earlier than that but received a call from one of my wife’s many aunts that the funeral arrangements had been made for Monday morning, so we had to run back by the house to grab a few more clothes, but were leaving the city by shortly after nine anyway.

The drive to Houston is long. And boring. Aside from the thirty minute, white-knuckle slalom of death through Dallas. But the Friday after Thanksgiving, even that portion of the drive was taken at a leisurely pace. I didn’t feel like a chicken walking through a knife factory. About the only real problem we had on the trip down was discovering the front plate on the audio system in the new Venza was hot to the touch. Not just warm. I literally yanked my hand away when I’d reached over to change CDs just north of the Texas border.

After stopping for lunch and getting on the road again, we found the audio system was getting warm with only the GPS plugged in after forty minutes or so. When we operated the CD player or the radio, the unit heated up within thirty minutes and was hot after an hour. Great, something else to get checked out after we return home, I thought. We made it to Houston without the car burning out on us (and through the next several days and the drive back).

The following day started the Buddhist process of last rites involving a whole lot of chanting (in Vietnamese), incense, bells, kneeling, more chanting, and so on. All day Saturday and Sunday, then again Monday morning during the actual funeral ceremony. Though a nominal Buddhist, my wife has taken me a few times to temple, so I knew what to expect. Our kids tired quickly, so I took them outside once I could slip away. The name of the place was The Chapel of Eternal Peace, but after sitting through the chanting for awhile, my son called it The Chapel of Eternal Torture, and my daughter said it was the Chapel of Eternal Bad Singing in reference to the chanting.

Kids come up with the strangest things to keep themselves amused.

My wife didn’t attend all the prayer services (two or three on Saturday, I believe and that many again on Sunday—there were several). Neither did her mother. After the first day, mother-in-law was just too tired to go through it all again on Sunday so took a day off to watch after my sister-in-law’s kids. We all went on Monday morning.

During those three days, I thought about grandmother-in-law, Pham Kim Lieu, and what she meant to us. She raised my wife back in Vietnam. Everyone else in the family worked (slaved away, really under the communist government) to earn enough to live, so my wife’s grandmother was the one who took care of her every day. She was the matriarch of the family. Hardly anything occurred that didn’t receive her blessing first. That was one of the things I’d made sure to address when I asked my then-girlfriend to marry me: I asked her grandmother and mother first. Even though her grandmother didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Vietnamese (still don’t), we managed to communicate. She grudgingly accepted me (despite being told not to by some of my wife’s aunts and uncles) but approved the marriage nevertheless. And when our son was born (the first grandchild and first great-grandchild in the family), she spent a great amount of time bouncing him on her knee and holding him. She did the same with our daughter. She loved the kids. They loved her. She spent a lot of her time walking (around ten miles a day when she was 80) and working in her garden. She also spent a lot of time playing with the great-grandchildren.** She died just three months shy of her ninety-first birthday.

She will be missed.

**********

*I’ve been told by numerous people I should read this novel, that I would really like it, and it is on my list to read; however, though the book might be good, the movie is little more than a confusing mess. My wife fell asleep half way through and I was tempted to turn it off and go back to reading a Warhammer novel I’m in the middle of, but sat through it anyway. Needless to say, I won’t be watching the sequel.

** One of the things I regret is never learning Vietnamese so that I could converse with her. Not for lack of trying. I’ve sat with books on the language, CDs, computer software, yet it just doesn’t stick for some reason, and I have a fairly good grasp of languages and good ear for picking up how languages sound, but Vietnamese has eluded me thus far. My kids, though, have been able to pick up some and hopefully they’ll be able to master the language one day.

Note: I’d planned on posting this earlier in the week, but I’m rather lost on what day it is, have been since last Thursday, really.

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