Inside the funeral home, Julia Lum stands in a tiny room and dreads what the next two hours will bring. She glances at her in-laws, Joe and Violet, who are perched uneasily on the dark green love seat. More family members squeeze into the room. Julia unbuttons her raincoat. It’s hot in here and the reek of damp, mothballed clothing suffocates her.
Poppy wouldn’t have wanted all this fuss over her passing. If she had died at her husband’s village in China, mourners would have worn white and walked through the village carrying a large photograph of her on their way to the crematorium. Instead, her Canadian family wears black, rides in limousines and displays Poppy in the fanciest casket money can buy. At least her photo is here. Poppy would like that. She always laughed at pictures of herself.
Julia squeezes her husband’s hand. Carson hasn’t let go of her since they arrived. She notices the weariness in his eyes, the spot of blood where he nicked himself shaving this morning. Carson murmurs something in Cantonese to Joe. His dad nods in reply and solemnly surveys the room. Joe won’t break down over his mother’s death. Poppy was ninety years old when her heart stopped. “It was her time,” Joe had said. “About time,” Violet had responded.
Julia observes Violet’s stoic expression. She doesn’t know what to say to her mother-in-law. Violet despised Poppy. Offering condolences would seem patronizing. On the other hand, respect for one’s elders is demanded in the Lum family.
According to Carson, Poppy had never liked Violet either, particularly her perpetual anger. Although Violet had been raised by strict, traditional parents, she was Canadian-born, bilingual, and had been raised in a more comfortable environment than Poppy had experienced in a poverty-stricken Chinese village.
Carson believes his mother still resents her subservient status while growing up. She’d seen how white girls lived. She’d been puzzled, then awed, and then envious of the freedom and arrogance they’d paraded in school corridors. By the time she reached adulthood, the rituals, customs, and expectations had become so deeply ingrained that she dared not disobey her in-laws, regardless of how much she opposed their wishes.
When the attendants appear, Joe and Violet stand up. Julia’s mother-in-law looks at Carson, but ignores Julia. Violet had expected her grandson to be here. She even called Carson at work yesterday to make sure Benjamin would be coming. But after Julia spent half the night up with a teething baby, Carson agreed they should leave Benjamin with her mom. This decision has ruined Violet’s day. Julia figured it would. Violet still doesn’t understand that meddling phone calls don’t work with her westernized son.
Carrying Poppy’s gold-framed photograph at chest height, Joe leads the family into the chapel. Glancing at the crowded room, Julia’s legs grow weaker with each step. She grips the tissue in her fist. Large wreaths surround Poppy’s casket. Mauve ribbons inscribed with gold Chinese characters dangle from the flowers. An attendant places Poppy’s photo on a stand in front of the wreaths. The picture is thirty years old, taken before Poppy lost her sight and her mobility. Speaking in Cantonese, the Minister begins the service.
No one, except Carson, understood the camaraderie between a Chinese great grandmother who spoke no English and a thirty-year-old white woman who didn’t understand Cantonese; yet Julia liked Poppy from the moment they met. When Carson introduced her as his fiancée, Poppy burst into a broad grin and clasped Julia’s hands. While Carson translated, Poppy welcomed her to the family. “Young people can do what they want these days,” she said.
Joe took the news of their engagement stoically. Violet, however. . . Julia was never told exactly what she said to Carson, but she suspects Violet still hasn’t forgiven her son for marrying outside his race.
Julia never saw Violet smile until newly born Benjamin was placed in her arms. Keeping with Chinese tradition, Violet insisted on holding a ten-course banquet for the baby a month after his birth. Carson tried to tell his mother they were too exhausted to host a banquet, but Violet had already made arrangements. Using her status as the family’s eldest member, Poppy persuaded Violet to arrange a simpler home party instead.
While relatives swarmed through her house and dropped food on her carpets that night, Julia attended to Poppy’s needs. At one point, Poppy’s failing eyesight caused the flame from her lighter to move dangerously close to her fingers instead of her cigarette. Julia started to help Poppy when a sharp poke on the back startled her. Violet wanted to know where Benjamin’s diapers were kept. In her rush to guide Poppy’s lighter to the cigarette tip, Julia didn’t answer right away. When Violet began badgering her, Poppy started yelling at Violet. Carson had to separate the shrieking women.
Minutes later, Julia was changing Benjamin and humming to the musical card Poppy had given them, when the bedroom door flew open. Violet stood in the doorway, her lips as tight as two soldered strips of steel.
“You are a selfish girl!” Violet shouted. “You don’t work! You have no money! Carson pays for everything. You only spend!”
In the early days Julia would have cowered under her attack, but when Benjamin started wailing she ordered Violet out of the room. Violet promptly left the party.
Thing was, Violet had hit a nerve. Even her own mother thought it a shame to let her “library career go to waste”. After only a month of disrupted sleep, endless breast-feeding and diaper changing, Julia had wondered if staying home full time was a mistake.
Seeing the unhappy faces of older relatives after Violet’s departure that night, she’d started to cry. She told Carson he would have had more peace if he’d married a Chinese woman. Carson assured her that his mother wouldn’t have approved of any daughter-in-law. Poppy agreed. She encouraged Julia to keep making her own choices. “Young, modern people have this right,” she said.
When the Minister switches from Cantonese to English, a knot forms in Julia’s stomach. She hates funerals. Words supposedly chosen to comfort only seem to manipulate sadness into despair and loneliness. Carson gently squeezes her hand.
Poppy raised Carson and his siblings while Violet waited on tables six days a week to help Joe pay off their mortgage and put five kids through university. She never made time for family vacations, never took her kids to a movie, or a birthday party. It was the Chinese way, Carson had explained; the result of centuries of thinking that a woman had no value unless she bore sons and worked hard. In traditional families, grandparents were primary caregivers; voices of authority over younger generations.
Violet expected Julia to return to work so she could take care of Benjamin. Everyone knew she couldn’t wait to impose her values on her grandson. When she learned Julia wouldn’t be going back, Violet was furious. It was bad enough that her daughter-in-law hadn’t learned to speak Cantonese or cook authentic Chinese food, but not to work was unforgivable. She told Carson they’d have serious money problems, that the isolation from staying home at her age would turn his wife into a stupid bitter woman. As Julia saw it, the bitterness only flowed one way.
Joe is now the family’s most senior member. He’ll make the important family decisions, settle arguments and dispense advice. The only power Violet can gain is through her grandchild. And Violet craves power over her family; payback for the long years without it.
Julia glances at her mother-in-law who stares at the Minister. Sometimes she senses fear in Violet. Maybe she’s afraid her half-white grandchild will become nothing more than a distant relative, ignorant and even contemptuous of Asian customs, Asian people. She and Carson won’t let this happen, but will Violet believe them?
When the service ends, the family is ushered back to the tiny room to wait for guests to file by the now open casket. Once the chapel is vacated, the family takes its turn. Julia looks at Poppy’s tiny body. Make-up hides the brown spots on her small round face. Poppy never wore make-up.
Following Asian custom, Julia bows to Poppy three times, then heads for the exit. In the limousine, Carson’s father sits next to the driver. This morning’s rainfall has stopped. The clouds have parted, allowing the sun to warm the October air. Violet sits on one side of Carson, Julia on the other. Opposite them, Carson’s younger brother and sister stare out the window. They rarely speak when Violet is nearby. His older siblings are in another limo, away from their mother.
Julia gazes at the sheer pink kerchief pinned to her sister-in-law’s hair. Two short strands of blue wool are attached to the kerchief. Until now, she’d forgotten about the pink veil trailing down her own back. While Carson helped her fasten the scarf she asked him what this ritual meant, but he didn’t know. Poppy was the expert on such matters.
Julia wasn’t required to wear a scarf at the funeral for Poppy’s husband, Sam-sui, five years ago; however she and Carson hadn’t yet become engaged. That day, Poppy was the only family member who acknowledged her. She remembers how carefully Carson had helped Poppy put on a black blouse and ankle-length skirt over the layers of clothing she usually wore. In the limousine, her brown trousers had drooped below the black skirt, which seemed to appall Violet.
After the funeral banquet, she and Carson escorted Poppy back to her small, cluttered apartment. The moment Poppy stepped inside she reached for a hand-rolled cigarette hidden under odds and ends in a twenty-year-old Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket. Sam-sui hadn’t allowed her to smoke. And so, at age eighty-five, Poppy’s freedom began.
Carson said he’d never sensed resentment in his grandmother, but Julia didn’t understand how this was possible. When Poppy’s father arranged her marriage to Sam-sui, she wasn’t consulted. When Sam-sui announced they were leaving for Canada, again she wasn’t consulted.
Carson said that Sam-sui and Poppy’s father, who’d later immigrated here, treated her like a servant. Poppy worked two jobs while she raised four children. She had no mother or mother-in-law to help her. When the grandchildren were born, she was expected to look after them and her ailing father.
Unlike Violet, Poppy never demanded this role as her right, she simply accepted it as her duty. She didn’t seek power over her family. By the time her grandchildren were old enough to look after themselves, Sam-sui became ill and needed her care. Through it all, she never complained.
Julia applauded Poppy’s refusal to move in with any of her children after her husband’s death. Joe and his siblings didn’t approve of her solitude, or her collection of musical cards. They warned her about the dangers of living alone. When Poppy fell and broke her hip they increased the pressure on her, but Poppy remained firm. As family matriarch, no one could tell her what to do. Moving in with a child would have made her too dependent on their goodwill. She’d seen this happen to friends.
Reluctantly, her children took turns helping her cook and shop. When they grew irritated with the arrangement, her grandchildren stepped in to help. In gratitude, Julia and Carson were never allowed to leave Poppy’s apartment without gifts of oranges, biscuits, and salted plum candies. Even with her failing eyesight and wheelchair confinement, she was happier than anyone Julia knew. Poppy might not have craved power, but she cherished her privacy.
The limousine turns into the familiar cemetery. Twice a year, she and Carson bring flowers and incense for Sam-sui’s grave. On ceremonial occasions, some of the Chinese graves are surrounded by offerings of oranges and other food, and musical cards wrapped in cellophane.
Poppy wasn’t the only one who liked the cards. Julia’s often heard choruses of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, “Old MacDonald”, or “Hush Little Baby”. Most of the cards belong to the graves of children. At first, the music sounded eerie, as if the tunes were floating up through the ground. Over time, though, she began to think of this place as a spiritual playground, a refuge graced with loving tributes to lives remembered.
Today the grounds are silent. The two cards she sees have been knocked over, probably from this morning’s rainfall. While the sun warms the ground, a mist rises from the sunnier parts of the cemetery.
Standing before Poppy’s grave, Julia realizes Violet is staring at her. Now that Poppy is gone, the battle line is being re-drawn. Violet will again try to become Benjamin’s caregiver. Joe won’t oppose his wife’s desire. Carson will hold her off as long as possible, but it will be difficult.
Julia isn’t sure how they’ll survive now that her maternity benefits have ended. Carson works overtime, when he can get it. Lately, he’s hardly seen Benjamin. How will they cope if another child comes along? To take even a part-time job, however, could result in the invasion of Violet; Violet’s ways, Violet’s dogmatism.
Julia sighs. Time to think about starting a home-based business, among other things. “You have choices,” Poppy said just a few weeks ago. Standing here, close to Poppy, Julia returns Violet’s stare. Blank, unblinking eyes attempt to pierce each other. Finally, Violet looks away.
After the casket is lowered into the ground, the Minister beckons them to take a handful of sand. Afterward, the attendants discreetly ask the men to remove their black armbands then throw them on the casket. Elderly guests seem uncomfortable with this request. Traditionally, they are worn for one month. Julia’s surprised when the men comply. Violet instructs Carson’s sisters to remove the blue wool pinned to their kerchiefs. The look she gives Julia suggests she had better do the same. Following the others, she tosses the strands of wool into the grave.
In the receiving line, Julia shakes hands with strangers. A small red packet is given to her. Julia peaks inside the envelope to find two candies and two quarters which, according to custom, must be spent.
When the Minister completes his duties, everyone stays to witness the rest of the burial. Julia has no idea if other Asian families watch this morbid activity, but Joe insisted on it at Sam-sui’s funeral. He’d worried that employees might steal his father’s jewelry, or worse, keep the casket and simply dump his body into the hole.
A backhoe rumbles towards them, then lifts a bucket of dirt and drops it onto the shiny mahogany. The machine’s operator wears ear protectors. His co-worker uses a shovel to keep the dirt from scattering too far. Their expressions are intense as they pretend not to notice the guests.
Once Poppy’s plot is filled, the dirt is packed down with the machine’s iron basket in a thundering crash. Squares of grass are quickly placed on top of the rectangle, then also pressed into place. Soon it looks as if there’d never been a burial here just minutes ago. Once the wreaths are propped around the grave, guests retreat to their vehicles.
Staying behind, Julia retrieves a musical card from her purse and slowly props it on Poppy’s grave. The tune had been one of Poppy’s favorites. As Julia takes Carson’s hand, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” begins to play. Carson smiles. He once translated the words for Poppy and, although she couldn’t say them, she often hummed the song to Benjamin.
On her way to the limousine, Julia hears “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream”, float in the warm October air.