Of Love and Family

Wednesday, August 31, 2011 / 8:30 PM

On the flight from Sacramento to Long Beach, I sat next to a young mother--only two or three years older than me--who was headed back home to Newport Beach. In the seat next to her was her daughter, Gigi, who was no more than two years old. When I sat down, the mother and I chatted briefly about her job in Irvine and about my job in DC. Looking at her, you'd never guess she had a little girl. Her skin was evenly tanned and her long brown hair was bright with blonde highlights. She looked more ready for the beach than for the hospital where she worked. In small white shorts and a red, striped crop top, she was struggling to keep Gigi in her seat. But she was patient and kind and kept her cool when Gigi would scream. She was strict when she needed to be and did not hesitate to reprimand her daughter for bad public behavior. But Gigi still screamed despite her mother's best efforts. As I watched them on the hour-long flight, I kept asking myself (as I often do when I see misbehaving children), "What would I do if this were that mother?" And everything in my mind was what she was doing, but it wasn't always working. I could feel the frustration coming from her as she tried to read her iPad, only to be disrupted by Gigi every minute. But she was patient and did her best, and I respect her.

I don't think about the idea of having my own family often, if at all. I almost can't imagine that far into the future--hell, I don't even plan what I'm eating for the day until I happen across food that appeals to me in the moment. But this past weekend, being reunited with my (paternal) cousins, aunts and uncles to surprise my grandpa for his 90th birthday and to celebrate two of my cousins' pregnancies with a surprise double baby shower made me think a lot about family and how lucky I am to have this one.

Family (and friends) gather to celebrate Grandpa Lee. (Photo from Mel)

Baby shower brunch--silly picture! (Photo from Mel)

Girl cousin picture! (1995)
"Family" has always been a difficult concept for me to describe to people who ask me about mine. My cousins have always felt more like siblings to me when we spend time together and my grandparents were another set of hands that helped raise us all. I always looked forward to birthdays and holidays because it meant seeing everyone, which became more and more important as we got older and drifted apart geographically. Unfortunately, being the youngest of nine, I didn't grow up with them the way they got to experience growing up, which makes me sad because I don't have those same memories and photos they all do with each other. By the time I was in high school and old enough to wish I had them to talk to, they were all gone and off to college or living their adult lives. I was always the baby of the family. But I do remember the annual visits for a few years out to San Jose and sleeping on the trundle bed in Kimberly's room; the times spent marveling at Mel's super cool room with the decorations that now, looking back, seem soooo '90s (was it you who had the glow in the dark stars on the ceiling? Let's be honest, I totally mimicked your style.); the afternoons spent fighting with Chris over the remote at the grandparents' house because he wanted to watch science programs on PBS but Na and I wanted to watch Power Rangers. All nine of us spent good chunks of time in and out of my grandparents' house, and that house--which had been home to my grandparents and their children after a tumultuous immigration to America that had them living in cramped quarters downtown before finally owning their own home--was practically a second home for my cousins and me.

Na and me with Grandpa (I think 1992?)
When I look back on old family photos, whether they were before my time or included me in them, I start to think about what family would be like for me in the future. Would my potential offspring have the same sense of community I had while growing up? I truly believe the close family upbringing I had helped create the me that exists today. Would I be able to replicate that experience at all?

I'm excited to think about the additions to our family/FamiLee (lols) through marriages and children because the love that already exists is so overwhelming and how could you not want others to be a part of this? Sure, like any family, there are conflicts and disagreements, and I hear too often about so-and-so bickering with so-and-so, but in my opinion, none of that is relevant when it comes to the core of family love. The idea of having children will occasionally find me cringing, but I think I would want to have kids so that they could meet these wonderful individuals.

Grandparents--so elegant...

Grandpa at the house we all call home.
We put together a photo book for Grandpa that had photos from his and my grandma's early days in China to their family in Hong Kong to immigrating to America and adding all of us grandchildren to the mix. Looking at all of those photos makes me yearn for stories of the past. Even though Mom isn't their biological daughter, I'm fortunate that Grandma talked so much to her throughout the years about all of this so that she could pass down these stories to Na and me.

The more I hear, the more I want to hear, but that communication barrier between my grandparents and me exists all too prominently. It makes me wish I'd taken more care to practice my Cantonese so I could talk to my grandpa about his days serving the Nationalist army or I could ask my grandma about nursing school and about how she and my grandpa met during the war. I would ask my grandpa about how things were when they left China after the communists won and I'd want to know about the process and journey by sea to America, and what it was like from his eyes when they first stepped onto shore.

But all I have for now are photos and smatterings of stories passed down. There are so many more photos stored in multiple albums that we've been trying to scan for digital preservation. I love looking at these photos because they tell the story so well. It's probably why I was so obsessed with taking photos all throughout high school and college--because I've always had this secret fear that I'd forget it all and need the reminder. What would I tell my children when I couldn't remember a significant moment or two? But if they could see it...then it'd be like they were living it too.

Far left: Grandma, two friends from the boat, Grandpa and one of my uncles.
A short stop in Hawaii on the way to America (1964).
It's heartbreaking to think about the reality of mortality, and I don't want to even picture that inevitable day. I know I'm lucky to have those shared memories with my cousins of life at my grandparents' house though. It may not have been the most traditional upbringing, but it's all I know and I'm glad for it. 

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  1. It's funny you post a blog like this just now, because being in Ireland has really gotten me thinking about the depth and history of family connections here. The family I'm living with has been in this house for 4 generations. Before that their families were in Ireland for hundreds of years. The very neighborhood I'm living in has been McInerney land since the 1300s, and when I talk to the people I've met, they can't conceive of not seeing their families regularly. My family is quite distant; we're all scattered across the US and not terribly attached to each other. But here, being close to one's family and tied to your history isn't even something you question.

  2. I've been thinking about what to put on my blog about that weekend, and a lot of my sentiments echo yours. Maybe I'll just post a link to your blog and call it done. You're way more eloquent than I am anyway. :) It was really emotional for me to put together that photobook, and I had to stop doing it at night because I'd end up laying in bed just thinking about our grandparents' and parents' early days and, like you said, the reality of mortality. Coming back from the weekend in Sac, I was sad that as we get older, our family gatherings might get smaller until it's just me and Na and our families. I would love for our kids to still be involved in each others' lives as third cousins twice removed (or whatever the relation would be). I couldn't imagine not spending any more holidays with you guys...man, now I'm going to be thinking about that as I'm trying to fall asleep tonight...

    And, yes, I had glow stars on my blinds, but we had the glow stars on the ceiling in the family room. ;)