My father loved me. He loved a lot of stuff – music, cooking, ice cream, poetry, hearing himself talk. He loved my brother and sisters and our mother, and his own brother and sisters and parents, although he did not always express it in ways that made sense. Dad wasn’t an easy person to be loved by. He also hated a lot of stuff – chocolate, cats (“I Hate Cats So Much! I Won’t Even Eat Them!”), smoking, underwear that showed, the Carmina Burana and all authority figures of every type. That made things difficult because as a traditional Chinese father, he saw himself as the ultimate authority figure.
Another thing my father hated was Father’s Day. At least, I assume he did because I figured out early enough that he hated Mother’s Day, so I never even went near Father’s Day. When my brother and I were in early elementary school we started to learn, from people at school, what people did on Mother’s Day 1) you were supposed to be excited and say Happy Mother’s Day! 2) Somehow it meant bringing mother breakfast in bed. So one year, we showed up on Mom’s side of the bed, the second we woke up, probably earlier than we would normally wake up, and said “Happy Mother’s Day!” My mom opened her eyes and mumbled thank you. My dad started lecturing about how awful mother’s day was. We were probably seven and five, so it didn’t exactly stick. The next year, we snuck down stairs early and started making scrambled eggs and toast (by this time one of our sisters was probably old enough to come down with us). Dad came downstairs, asked us what we were doing. When we said “Making Mom breakfast in bed!” he stopped us and made us sit down on the couch with him for a lecture. The sign that my father was not 100% traditional is that we stacked up sitting around and on top of him instead of in a neat row with him facing us. He explained how it was important for us to honor our mother every single day, all the time, and it was such a sacred relationship that having something silly called “Mother’s Day” demeaned it. The lesson we learned was “never let Dad catch you celebrating Mother’s Day.” Fortunately, I don’t think Mom much minded never getting breakfast in bed, or other celebrations, although once we got to be young adults, we’d wish her Happy Mother’s Day, partly to sass Dad.
My father was about fifty when I was born. He had helped raise a niece and nephew, but I think he had stopped thinking he would have children, and he had some doubts about having children in a country where the culture was so different from the time and place where he grew up. Although he didn’t express it in such an ambiguous way of course. What he apparently told my mother was “I Can’t Be a Father, You Will Have to Do It Alone.” But actually, he when we were tiny, he did okay. He took me with him to class when he was in graduate school because my mom was working, he fried up grubs and I snapped them up from his chopsticks like a baby bird. He sang us all songs, he wrote me poetry from the time I was born until I started law school. He played games with us, like chanting the red lights to change, the rubber face game where he made terrible grimaces, switching for each poke on the nose or lip and conjuring marshmallow peeps out of the rising bread dough. That last involved us going and hanging around the stairs while he concealed the candy under a towel, then coming back to watch him do a drum roll on the rim of the metal bread bowl. When I came home from school, he would be working in the kitchen and while he sliced up meat and de-boned chickens with a cleaver he would tell me stories about how the black leopard was stained with ink because the mama leopard ate squid. He made us hats from grapefruit skins and baked me kirsch tortes on my birthdays.
He didn’t do so well with adolescents. For one thing, he was in his 60s and 70s when his kids were teenagers, and he really wasn’t culturally equipped to cope. We fought for weeks over whether I could attend the alternative highschool because he saw the kids out front smoking on the porch, in their punk leather and boots and said “It Looks Like a Red Light District!” Eventually he gave in, and it was the best possible high school experience for me, except when Dad freaked out and wouldn’t let me leave the house with cropped leggings showing under my skirt because it was “showing my underwear”. (In his defense, some times I did actually wear longjohns under my skirts…It was the 80s). On the bright side, he was so clueless about what people – whose longjohns didn’t show – were actually doing that I could pretty much go anywhere, with anyone, not that I did anything except theater and orchestra. The exception was the one time I tried to date a nice Chinese boy. Dad told me to stop. Fortunately I was mostly interested in the boy because he seemed to want to do traditional whitebread boyfriend things like go to movies and study at the library, which was sort of novel. But I actually stopped hanging out with him. Dad didn’t feel any need to explain himself, but Mom gave me the official and unofficial explanations “’A Chinese Boy Is Going to Want to Date All Through High School and Get Married and That’s Too Restrictive’. And your Pa thinks his family is in the Chinese Mafia.”
My father cried with joy when I graduated from college (I did very well in college). He cried when I moved into an apartment. We fought over whether I should apply to Harvard (for undergrad and law school) because he was convinced that Harvard’s imprimatur of American perfection would open doors. It tells you something about both me and my father that in these fights we both assumed that if I applied, I’d get in. He wrote an inspirational poem when I took the LSAT (he thought I would be a Justice). He cried when I graduated from law school (I did not do so well in law school). He had a fit when I bleached my hair. I was 27 and told him I’d bleach it again specifically to spite him.
My father started having mini-strokes some time in his 70s. He was the world’s most non-compliant patient and wouldn’t take his blood thinners. He wept over my brother and demanded grandsons the minute he got engaged. My youngest sister had a shot gun wedding and he and I went toe-to-toe over whether it was acceptable for him to even say he ought to kill her. This was the same sister he’d told me to buy a Boston Terrier for when he found the essay she wrote at 14 about why she deserved a dog. He walked her down the aisle. When his first grand daughter was born, he held her and laughed with her. When his second grand daughter was born, he said “This One is Beautiful. The Other One Looks Like a Foreign Devil.” When his third grand daughter was born, he wept over her and sometimes thought she was a boy.
When I got engaged, he was in the hospital after another severe dementia episode. At one point that summer, when he was refusing to take his medications again my fiance told him that we’d like him to stick around for the wedding and he said “I’m Trying With Every Fiber of My Being!” He and Mom walked me down the aisle, but at the reception, he wasn’t totally sure where he was and decided he was going home.
Another thing my father loved was the color red. It was not only a traditional Chinese color of joy, but he had some peculiar variant of color blindness where it was one of the few colors he could see. (I sometimes wonder if that was cultural, rather than physiological). One time in the late 90s we got him and my mom matching posh bright red terry cloth robes from Victoria’s Secret for Christmas. In his last years, pretty much all my father wore was all-over red sweats. The last time I saw my father, he was wearing them. As I type this, I’m wearing that red terry cloth bathrobe. My father was not always an easy person to love. I loved my father.