he threw the last blade of grass into the black plastic bag and took a breather near the headstone. his already-soaked handkerchief wasn’t about to help much with the drops of sweat making their steady way down his forehead. he watched as his daughter laid the newspaper in front of the stone that bore his wife’s name. she carefully put the plates of food in an arrangement pre-determined by tradition. a glass bottle that has faithfully held blossoms for the dead had its contents renewed.
the joss sticks emanated their sandalwood scent and once the necessary prayers were offered, he reached into his pocket for his pack of cigarettes, lit one up and took a long drag. after a couple of puffs, he laid the cigarette down beside the headstone that bore his first wife’s name and said, “it’s your turn now.”
then he and his daughter packed up their belongings, hopped back onto their bicycles and cycled home.
my grandpa used to clean up my grandmother’s grave, with some help from my mother, a couple of days before cheng beng; my aunt never went with them because she never learned to ride a bicycle. my mother explained that he went before the actual day itself because he knew that his wife’s family will pass by the grave on cheng beng, on their way to visit their other departed loved ones.
“he knew they’d want to see if he remembers his first wife,” she said. “it was his way of showing them that he still cares about their daughter, sister, aunt.”
i asked my mother about the strange ritual my grandpa did – why did he offer my grandmother a cigarette if she wasn’t a smoker? what she told me revealed more about who my grandmother was than any other story my mother’s told me before.
as it turns out, it was a private joke between my mother’s parents. by the time they were courting, my grandpa was already a heavy smoker. whenever lit up a cigarette, my grandmother would playfully take it from his lips and said that she’ll keep him company by smoking with him. she’d take just one puff before handing the cigarette back to him.
my grandmother also told my grandpa exactly what she found attractive about him: first, that he was handsome. second, that he was intelligent. third, that he loved her.
it cracks me up every time that she ranked his feelings for her third on the list! how honest! how real!
my mother was only 10 months old when my grandmother died of typhoid fever. she never really knew her mother. all she has are stories from my grandpa, tales from her aunts, uncles, cousins. sometimes when my mother retells those stories to me, i get the feeling that it remains one of her deepest regrets to not know her mother.
to not know the smart, beautiful, cheeky, down-to-earth woman who gave her life. to not know the one who kept her father smitten for so long. i regret it too.