“Vita enim mortuorum in memoria est posita vivorum” – Marcus Tullius Cicero
[The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living]
His vibrant chestnut hued eyes narrowed and targeted my five-year-old face. Sometimes when the lighting is right, his eyes looked more hazel than chestnut. His lips pursed and pasted together like those of a zipper and his face slowly descended towards mine as his salt pepper eyebrows slightly arched like the letter “L” lying on its side. His face was etched with wrinkles that looked like rivers drawn on a map.
Eight, nine, ten… his eyes are still on me.
Erect at nearly 188 centimeters, he clasped his hands behind his back like the valiant military officer he once was nearly four, maybe five decades ago. His scrutiny instantaneously pushed my poised stance into a meager crouch.
Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen… what is he thinking?
I tilt my head nearly 90 degrees to meet his gaze; he smells like freshly roasted peanuts. With no visible wrinkles or creases, his flawlessly ironed checkered pastel blue and off-white shirt hug his torso, while his fitted beige pants, held up by a simple black leather belt, remind me of the comfort only a velvety sofa could provide.
Forty-one, forty-two, forty-three… should I say something?
We stand face-to-face; our eyes lock on each other for what seems like eternity, my facial expression stoic and nonchalant as my mind races about in infinite circles and directions.
What’s on your mind? What will we do today? Will you ignore me like my father? You’re staring straight through me. Who do you think you are examining me like this? Should I make a funny fac–
His roar of a laughter belch from his stomach halting my thoughts.
“This one is fearless, I like her.”
I would not call my childhood a childhood per se. To be honest, I do not know what childhood even means. In contrast, since my mum and I immigrated to California in 1989 until the day I left home at seventeen, it has always been a challenge to find pleasant or worthwhile memories when it comes to my father or his side of the family, unless it involved Yé-Yé — my grandfather. One of my favorite memories of him is rooted in the early 1990’s when my age was still in the single digits category. Any day spent with him was a guaranteed adventure. From the moment we stepped outside of that mahogany door of that crooked one-story house, we were on an adventure. We spent countless hours meandering in and out of the neighborhood, observing the blend of florescent emerald and jade lawns. The lawns were the battlegrounds where ravens came and dueled for the best earthworms they could find. It was the sanctuary of ladybugs, praying mantises, crickets, and the occasional black widows. It was the gossip corner where the pigeons, sparrows and nightjars would come and discuss their daily life. Yé-Yé would often point to the hummingbirds flirting with the yellow and red roses and ask, “What do you suppose they are thinking of? If we spoke the same language, what do you think they would say to us?”
Gerrgg, geerrrgg… The rumble of my stomach. Meandering would always work our bellies into a ravaging hunger. No one knew how to appease the beast better than Yé-Yé. We would always end our adventures at a fast food joint like Jack-in-the-Box, McDonald’s, KFC, or my favorite, In-N-Out. Yé-Yé would always hold my hand as we crossed the concrete jungle towards the aroma of greasy fried chicken legs, breasts, and wings, or the fresh chargrilled animal-style burger with chopped lettuce, red onions, and sharp cheddar cheese. Yé-Yé and I would chomp and devour our catch for the day. We left no traces of evidence for my mum. On some days, Yé-Yé would surprise me with an assortment of cherry, orange, lemon, kiwi, and blueberry flavored gummy worms or gummy bears. Occasionally, a few pieces of Hershey’s dark and white chocolate squares would sneak in.
When Yé-Yé and I were not contemplating the wilderness or food, we spent our time behind the mahogany door with our favorite pastimes: math, puzzles, riddles and chess. Our favorite place in that crooked old house was the main living room where a repugnant two-seater and three-seater sofa sat perpendicular to each other. The elephant gray sofas had incoherent red, dark blue, white and black threads weaved into it. The only satisfying quality was the cushions’ plush bounce and elasticity. Parallel to the three-seater was the centerpiece, a fireplace constructed out of cherry red bricks with sporadic remnants of black, white and gray stones protruding from it. To the right of the fireplace, an old box television gallantly stood on a black wooden stand. It was in this room that Yé-Yé and I would lose ourselves in a series of wits and smarts combat.
“You have a tiger, chicken, and a bag of rice. You need to cross the river on a boat that allows you to carry only one item at a time. The tiger will eat the chicken, and the chicken will eat the rice. How will you cross with all three?”
“What does a one-handed clap sound like?”
“If a tree fell down in the middle of a forest with no one around, does it still make a sound?”
Yé-Yé and I often glared at the checkered board where the noble black and white pieces stood. One, two, three, four moves ahead… I would command my knight from “F3” to “D4”. Yé-Yé would look at me with his chestnut hued eyes and the tips of his lips would curl upward…
“Keeping me on my toes?”
Yé-Yé understood my fears, my dreams, my true nature, my true heart. Every word he uttered was conscientiously crafted to ignite the analytical and idealistic rebel waiting to burst from within. Yé-Yé knew and he accepted me. Yé-Yé nurtured and awakened my Being.
Yé-Yé sat in his wheelchair. His once vibrant chestnut eyes faded into a dull shadow of what it used to be. His salt pepper hair and eyebrows were now as white as a polar bear’s fur, but scarce in quantity. His lips drooped to the sides. His once melodic voice lost somewhere within his vocal cords. December 2012 was the last time I saw him alive. It has been nearly six years since his passing. Yet, everywhere I look, in everything I eat, and in all the fragrances I smell…
Yé-Yé is present.
He is living.
He is breathing.
He is alive.