Qing Ming Jie, a dedicated day in early spring for traditional Chinese peoples to visit loved ones who have passed on at their graves and pay respects, was on a Wednesday this year, the day of Mercury. By custom, with the tombs freshly swept by the living, and the debris removed, the spaces consecrated as doorways to connect with the living dead were renewed at a minimum of each year. Even portals need cleaning. The air scented with incense, with the plant smoke would waft the food offerings and prayers of the living extended to their intended recipients on the Otherside.
Knowing that I would be visiting my Gong Gong’s grave later that day, along with the new grave of my Puo Puo, who had passed on my birthday this year, less than three months ago. The gravesite was about an hour away from where I lived, and my parents had offered to pick me up on the way. My Yeh Yeh’s gravesite was in a Buddhist cemetery on a mountain, as tradition designates, outside of Taipei. I would offer Yeh Yeh a special meal since I couldn’t physically be there.
While the kids were still sleeping, I prepared 炒米粉 (tsǎo mǐfěn), Taiwanese rice vermicelli stirfry. Garnished simply with sliced shallots, shiitake, and dried shrimp, the comfort dish is modest, yet satisfying. The fragrance of it filled the kitchen. I generously fill a bowl, along with a pair of chopsticks on a tray, included with it a mini bowl of the same thing, and a mound of mandarin oranges piled high. Next was the tea. What would Yeh Yeh, along with Puo Puo and Gong Gong, enjoy? Bright and green? Bodied and earthy? I found my arms reaching for a high mountain 0olong, a floral, syrupy tea that felt more classic to suit my ancestors’ tastes compared to the more modern, lightly oxidized ones. From the ceramic gongbei, I poured into four mismatched earthen cups.
By then, the boys were up, and we approached the ancestral altar that I had cleaned and anointed earlier that morning. We lit the candles, incense rippled upwards, and bowed deeply, in unison. My eyes locked with theirs from their photos. I mentioned aloud that I would be seeing Gong Gong and Puo Puo soon enough later that morning, and that the tsǎo mǐfěn is a special treat for Yeh Yeh since we wouldn’t be physically visit his tomb. The offerings were then served, and the boys and I shared a few bites and sips with their three great grandparents. K, recited his latest favourite knock-knock joke. L updated them on school and his sports. I heard them saying how much the boys have grown. Puo Puo, in matriarchal love, cautioned L to wear his helmet while skateboarding, and L made a face at such a suggestion; adolescent vanity remains incorrigible even while speaking with the beloved dead. She wasn’t offended, and took his resistance as a sign of his comfort with her.
We bowed again, and as we were doing this, doubt crept in me. Did they enjoy the oolong? Did Yeh Yeh feel the tsǎo mǐfěn was ‘authentic’ enough, given that I don’t make the dish often. Did they even receive the offering? How long do physical offerings take to reach the spirit realms? Was the ritual even efficacious?
Returning to the kitchen, the boys and I ate our breakfasts. Lunches were packed, and then they were off to school. Back at home, my parents would be by shortly. I applied lipstick in front of the bathroom mirror, and heard their car pull up. With Dad in the driver’s seat and Mom sat in the front passenger seat, I opened the rear passenger door, and stepped in. Next to me were full, cheerful blooms and food in containers for Gong Gong and Puo Puo. I noticed a slip of paper littered by my foot, but didn’t care too much to pick it up, oblivious that it was for me.
Turning around, Dad said, you dropped something.
I thought it was yours, I replied, and we both reached for the slip of paper to pass to the other, respectively.
Out of the corner of my eye I see my maiden name, Lin, written in Chinese, 林. Our eyes then widened. It was my Yeh Yeh’s business card from over 30 years ago, in my dad’s new car, where Yeh Yeh never stepped foot.
Stunned, I exclaimed, to no one and everyone, It made it to him! He liked my tsǎo mǐfěn!
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