Sunday, June 6, 2010
I never really had a father figure in my younger years. My real father took off and my step-dad was too busy tiptoeing around me to make sure he didn't piss off my mom. The first alpha-male-role-model-figure that I had growing up was my grandfather. My grandfather was a self made businessman who left a fortune in Saigon for the safety and freedom of his family. He came to the United States with only the clothes on his back and the respect from members of the Vietnamese Community. Instead of building up a huge construction empire again, he decided to focus on the empire that was his family. I guess I should mention that he didn't just come with clothes and respect, he also brought one of his eleven wives and the five children that she bore.
What would his first job be after being a cut-throat Vietnamese businessman? He was ready to do anything for his family. He was ready to take a job as a janitor. He could work on his English skills and, more importantly, bring home a paycheck. He eventually landed a job and became a successful banker but I can't imagine what it was like to go from a mansion with cooks and maids to potentially scrubbing other peoples toilets. From my understanding, he never complained about it. I only ever heard about his past from my aunt and uncles because he never talked about anything from the past. By the time we were hanging out, he was already retired and always happy.
We hung out almost every day when I was a kid. My mother was really busy getting her own life together and my step-dad wasn't in the picture yet. So my grandfather would be the one to pick me up from school every day. He would teach me little random things and answer my stupid questions. He taught me simple lifehacks that seem so trivial now that I am older. I suppose we all learned that stuff somewhere though. He was the guy that did that for me and I thanked him all the time. I still remember the day he told me about putting on socks before pants! At the time it was such a game changer!
When he took me along to run errands I would notice the droves of people who approached him to shake his hand. I never cared why and never listened to the conversations because I was always preparing myself for the inevitable cheek-pinch or head-pat. I put up with it though because he would buy me some sweet rice or macadamia nuts afterward.
Then came dinner time. Every single weeknight my aunt and uncles would slowly trickle into his house where the whole family gathered for a dinner that my grandmother made. I never knew any better, but I would later find out that this whole occurrence was rare and amazing. Every night a man and his wife had dinner with all 5 of his kids who were in their 30's and 40's. It boggles my mind how he was able to retain such strong sense of family when it seemed to be completely lost in my generation. It probably had to do with how much he helped everyone. Not only did he send every single one his kids to college, but he also helped them all buy their first homes.
I then witnessed the family bond drift apart. My grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer and started to go through chemotherapy. This prevented her from cooking, so my mother and aunt tried to keep the family dinners going themselves. It was too much work for them and the food was never as good anyways. So then the dinners became a once a week thing. Then, one day, they just ended. I made it a point to visit my grandfather at least once in a while and he always showed up to my awards ceremonies. There was no way we could see each other as much as we used to; I was too wrapped up with my own life now.
I was in my last year of middle school when my grandfather died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Everyone in the family was already prepared for my grandmothers death. No one was prepared for his death. I mean, the man was incredibly fit; I used to walk in to the patio and catch him in the middle of his daily 50 sit-ups. His death had brought us all a shock but it also brought us all together for the first time in a long time. We would discover that he left behind a small fortune, but we all remembered that it was never about money with grandpa. It was always about family. That night and the days leading up to his funeral, our family agreed that we would try to see each other more often. Sometimes it feels like his family values transcend the grave. Like it keeps my cousin together with her mom. Like it keeps me together with my mom. It's like we all stay together to honor his memory.
It has been just over 10 years since my grandfather passed away but I still think about him all the time. I think about his lessons of respect and sacrifice. I think about his little lifehacks and his peculiar country music taste. I think about him when I try to imagine the type of family values that I will have when I am older. I think about the legacy that he left behind and I can only hope to one day be half the man that my grandfather was.