Thursday, June 18, 2020

On Finding Memories and Meaning in Unexpected Places

Last week thereabouts was my Dad's birthday, and were he not forever 75, he would've been 77.

It's interesting how these days sneak up on you, and just as interesting which ones you're able to ride with grace and self-compassion, and which ones kick you in the face, punt you into the air and drop you unceremoniously back at Square One. Grief literature are manifold and varied, but all agree that the first year is brutal (and the second year pretty much the same, only with fewer casseroles and sympathy cards). In the early months, I immersed myself in the fellowships of loss: online forums, support groups and coffee dates and books (Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking was a particularly good read for validation in crazydom). It was deeply helpful to be with others in similar funks but after a while, I felt like I was suffering from death-fatigue and had to take breaks to be normal. Or act normal; I could never really tell which.

But along came the birthdays and anniversaries and public tribute days - those ironic firsts in the Time After. Milestones, the literature called them. Emotional minefields, it further cautioned. Dad's birthday and Father's Day a week later came and went like non-events, possibly because I was still in a stupor from the jetlag and the administrative matters one often has to sort through after a death. My birthday in the summer was surprisingly hard. I later wondered if it was because it was the one event in my life defined by having parents but which, unlike Father's or Mother's Day, was still uniquely and personally mine. Regardless, it blindsided me. I remember being non-functional that day, but not much else. My parents' wedding anniversary in December was sobering, of course, but it was the holiday season, the snow outside was pretty, we were prepping for a trip to Singapore to spend the holidays with my side of the family for the first time in 15 years, and we were busy, busy, busy.

Then, as Christmas drew closer, I fell apart, just as the grief books had so smugly predicted I would. We were losing Auntie Laura, and this trip to Singapore would be when we said our goodbyes. It would also be the first time the kids were in Singapore since Grandpa died and I anticipated revisiting the loss through their eyes, trying to make sense of Grandma's house - and the entirety of their Singapore experience - without him in it. And there were also family in Minnesota we'd wanted to be with, whose lives had not been upended this past year and who were looking forward to celebrating the season and all its traditions with bright, untainted happiness. The enormity of it all - the traveling, the waiting, the planning, the very obligation to anchor in the present while reckoning with past losses and impending farewells - hit me.

So I did the one thing I knew to do (apart from eating obscene amounts of chocolate and running on the treadmill like hunted prey, I mean). I made stuff that reminded me of Dad.

To be fair, almost all the stuff I make have associations to one person or another in my family of origin. I wrote in this post years ago that making keeps me connected to the place and the people who have a profound influence on who I am but whom I very rarely see. It is true that very few of us (who aren't still children, I mean) are living with our families of origin, but unless you have also moved across countries and continents and had to rebuild your identity and communal purpose in a different culture, you are still, to a large extent, home. Sewing, for instance, ties me to both my parents as well as my entire extended family. Each time I draft and sew a garment, I channel Mum, Auntie Laura, grandma and all the other sewing people who passed those skills down through the generations before me. Each time I make a bag, a case, a pouch, I am my father's daughter, designing a thing to meet a specific need, employing principles of geometry and engineering and physics and translating them between media: fabric, cardboard, wood. Making closed the miles between us, made me feel relieved that I hadn't forgotten what it meant to be me, and were the building blocks of new memories to be shared time and again via photos and FaceTime and phone calls home.

Last Christmas, however, was not a time like any other.

Projects like those - things I'd so giddily invented, photographed and blogged about - were often birthed out of a certain level of joy and engagement with the world around me, two aspects of the creative process that are so typically depleted by the grief experience. It was the strangest thing to be in the midst of the quintissential season of decorating and traditions and handmade everythings and wanting to want to make something, but having no emotional energy whatsoever. Then I remembered our little wooden Christmas trees, which the girls and I painted long ago, and suddenly I couldn't think of anything I'd wanted to do more.

So I did.

Even though Advent was the busiest time of the year and painting wooden blanks was the slowest art form in the known galaxy, what with the meticulous layering of the different colors over each other and speckling all the fiddly little details, let alone the drying between coats.

Grief, though, follows its own timeline. And right when my world felt most frenetic, the universe decided that I needed to claim that time - hours I thought I didn't have - and simply paint. I thought of Dad during, and remembered that he was a wonder with wood and a talented painter who made incredible things with just his hands and a few unfancy tools. I thought of Christmas and its symbolic hope for families who were intact and families who weren't. It made me slow down. It made me focus. It made me thankful for the years between those first Christmas trees and these new ones. It made me ascribe meaningfulness to an activity beyond simply feeling indulgent amidst frenzy and overscheduling. 

Interestingly, meaning is a big thing in grief literature. It's been called many names and assigned different roles but the consensus is that it's a goal well worth any effort, whenever and however it's ultimately attained.  Initially, I'd misunderstood that it was imperative to find meaning for the loss itself - why it happened, for instance, or how it might be turned around to benefit others decades down the road. More recently, I'm learning that it has much more to do with the person one has lost, and specifically the relationship one has had with them. 

Among the many things that are challenging in bereavement is the idea that we will never again make new memories after saying goodbye. There is some truth in that. We will never have new experiences together, or even conversations, and thus no new records of those interactions to become new memories. All our shared adventures will, from that point onward, be in the past - old, static and unevolving. Which of course is a odiously depressing situation mitigated only by the rare discovery of a hitherto unseen photograph or videoclip, an unread letter, an unheard story. These become treasures like no other because they are as close as we could ever get to seeing anew the face of our loved one, hearing their voice, or - even for just a moment, being once again with them.  

Here's a story about that - part rabbit trail, part treasure hunt, and - although I didn't know it at the time - a quest for meaning. When I was in Singapore in January for Auntie Laura's funeral, I remembered a book that used to be in my parents' home. It was a book on Chinese paper-cutting which Dad had checked out of the library when I was a child and because he never returned it, sat in our bookcase for years thereafter. The weeks after Dad's death had been full of urgent administrative responsibilities and soaking in Auntie Laura's company with fervent intention but in the quiet after her passing, I found that I was ready to begin collecting memories. Dad had been an artist - how perfect to have one of his paintings hanging in my home, I reasoned. Unfortunately, we'd never owned any  - because Dad was never particularly sentimental about his own work, all his art had long ago been either given away or thrown out with no hope of recovery. Except, perhaps, for one - a mural he'd painted on a school wall when I was a child. That book of papercuts was significant because I thought I remembered a piece in it that Dad had referenced for that project.

Mum and I tore the house upside down looking for that book. Surely we still had it, I reasoned; if the man had defied multiple renewal notices from the library in order to hoard it for decades, he could not possibly have decided to finally return it. Where would have been the fun in that? 

We did not find it. Mum eventually decided he must have given it away, as he had so many other things he'd owned. It was disappointing, but not the end of the world - we were able to reminisce a little, which was comforting, given the circumstances. I flew back to Minnesota after and told the husband about the mural and the sad, lost book.

"Try e-bay," he suggested. 

I was dubious. It's true that E-bay is a source of endless wonder (in more ways than one) but this was an obscure book whose author and title I didn't even remember. We googled it anyway.

And found it - by some insane, ludicrous miracle, some blessedly wonderful person in the United States owned a copy.  

We bought it (of course).

Even though I wasn't sure the artwork was even from this book. I'd been a child, then, and the memory was decades-old, vague and possibly embellished by blind hope in the throes of grief. It could've been my imagination, in other words. It could've been anything. It could've been nothing. 

When the book arrived in the mail, I didn't immediately rip the packaging open; had the memory been in error, this book - and all it didn't contain - would be yet another loss to mourn.

(Or I could live out the rest of my life with an untaken risk and never know.)

No brainer. 

I ripped open the packaging.

And there it was. 

What strange relief to know I hadn't misremembered the story after all: Dad had just received a posting to start a brand new elementary school with a group of his teacher-colleagues. He was the new art coordinator and one of his assignments was to make the school beautiful and give it a personality within the community. This piece of monochrome art became a vivid mural on one of the school walls. On weekends and over the school vacations, he painted it, mostly alone but sometimes another teacher friend would stop by to help. Occasionally, he'd take my brother and me with him and we would to paint it, too. 

A picture of the finished mural would've been a nice keepsake, something to frame and hang on a wall to remember Dad by, but we didn't even own a camera till years later. And taking a photo now with the fancypants cameras I do own is impossible because the mural itself no longer exists. That school building had long been demolished to make way for another bigger and more modern one. The brand new elementary school of which my Dad was part of the pioneer staff merged its population with another some years back, which then become part of an even bigger elementary school in a different part of the country. I wrote to the principal of that new school but I didn't hear back. Not surprising - it's extremely unlikely that she'd retain photographic records of a school wall whose history was two generations removed from her own. All trails, it seemed, were stone cold. 

But perhaps not on the internet. After all, one could hope, nothing ever disappears from the internet, right? 

Initial searches of "mural" and "picture" and the name of the school yielded zilch in Google's extensive database of images. But a photo of a group of students in the school uniform led to a link in someone's writeup of schools long extinct, which referenced a library archive, which unearthed this:

photo credit: National Library Board, Singapore
It was the electronic version of a print magazine which doubled as the program of the opening ceremony of that brand new elementary school.

The cover of which - and the school crest - my Dad had designed. My brother and I laughed about it after as we swopped stories. He remembered Dad confessing later that he hadn't actually been crazy about the school motto, despite having it printed on report books and T-shirts and water bottles. I remembered the paint and pens and transfer sheets he'd used to ink and set the lettering and artwork, so laborious and fiddly a process to imagine now that we have computers and fonts and page editors. I'd forgotten all that - and seeing my Dad's work on that cover was like being transported home - the home of the past when we were little, with all our lives ahead of us. 

Fascinating - and gratifying to see - though the cover was, I plowed through the rest of the magazine, looking for something more. There was a bio of Dad on one of the pages, accompanied by an unrecognizable photograph. There was a group shot of the entire staff - I managed to find Dad in the front row, in very dated clothes and in desperate need of a makeover. And then, toward the end, when there weren't nearly enough pages left to contain anything of value, my heart stilled.

There was the mural. It wasn't finished. 

photo credit: National Library Board, Singapore
But - oh, wonder of wonders - there was my Dad, painting it

photo credit: National Library Board, Singapore

I cannot adequately describe that moment of seeing it. There were immediate questions: was this taken after my brother and I had joined in, and if so, which parts of the mural could we take artistic credit for? When in the day had we painted it? Did we stop for lunch? Did we take breaks to run around the courtyard and explore the building? How many times were we there? Was it Dad's idea to include us or did we wear him down with begging? Did he hold his breath each time we touched our paint brushes to the wall, bracing himself for a blot wrongly placed, a stroke imperfectly executed?

There was an avalanche of emotion, too. A deep, profound sadness for those questions which would forever be without answers, because only Dad would've known them. But also thrill and delight: I'd found the mural and behold - if it was real, all the other early memories I had of Dad were likely accurate, too, and would be mine for keeps. 

Days later, I shared this story on Facebook. An old friend responded  - I hadn't known it before, but he'd been a student of that elementary school, and he had a funny story to tell about my Dad. On a whim, I asked if he remembered that mural.

Of course, he said, everyone who was a student at the school probably did. And everyone posed for the camera in front of it. It was the backdrop for class photos, sports team photos, music club photos and the like.

Perchace, I asked, did he still have any of those photos?

Why yes, he did. And he sent them to me.

Here is my Dad's mural, finished. 

photo credit: Pete Choi

photo credit: Pete Choi

I noticed two things.

One, it wasn't the same picture from the book. Almost, but not quite. As he'd been asked to do, Dad had reimagined it for the school and its multicultural neighborhood. Where the original art depicted Chinese fisherwomen, 

in Dad's mural, they are of different races. 

Two, the photo doesn't show the full mural. According to my friend, Dad added a fisherman walking ahead of the group of women - the end of the stick he's carrying on his shoulder is visible on the right of the photo below. What did he look like? Why was he added? What was his race? Was that, like the decision to represent the community among the women, similarly significant?  

And what does it mean that I have more questions than ever before?

photo credit: Pete Choi

I believe that this is meaningfulness. Not in the composition of a piece of art but in the enduring impact it has even after its maker is gone. Not in the finding of the perfect sentimental artifact but in the exhilaration of the search. Not in the quality of the closure but in the value of the process - because even a memory has a beginning, a middle and an end and is therefore itself a story worth telling.

And ultimately not even in the memory itself but the person about whom the memory is, whose life has been a map of those playful twists and unexpected turns, and whose company, for as long as it was on loan to me, was one of fullness and joy.


  1. Wow, what an incredible story about the mural! And how blessed you are to have found the book and been sent the photos. It must have been such a thrill. I hope the treasures of these memories have helped you in your healing journey. God knew just what you needed.

    1. Thank you, Candy! And yes, God did know exactly what I needed, at the exact time I needed it.

  2. That was beautiful. I lost my mother as a child, and she and I we’re far from home at the time - most of our belongings stayed behind. I’m very happy you were able to find these artifacts to keep your father's memory closer.

    1. Thank you, Veronik. I am sorry you lost your mother, especially at such a young age. I hope you will continue to find new ways to love and remember her. Hugs.

  3. LiEr, Thank you for pouring out your heart. I gathered it up and hugged tight. I know this place where you are.
    I have been there numerous times. My mother was a gem. God gave her only one hand, a left one. Her right arm ends right below the wrist so she does have some carpal bones. Anyway, she is like you, drafting patterns, making inventing etc. I learned all of that from her but she went beyond and dedicated much of her time making various altar cloths for her churches (my parents traveled as daddy was State Department) Long story, both of them are from Holland, 1923.
    I still have my daddy. My mother was so brilliant and confident even though she was "handicapped" or "deformed" some would say

    On to your daddy, and this story you have shared. I am touched. This is a path you could take only by the events. We can look back and wish we had looked earlier. I am so happy you dug deep and found this book.
    I have had you in my prayers since March 4th when you shared your loss of your daddy, and then later you shared about your beautiful Auntie.
    You are a sweet friend and I love you for sharing this.

    1. Thank you, Rosemary, for sharing your own story. It is always, always a treat to hear more about where people come from and how they are the people they are today. And thank you for thinking of me and holding my family in your heart. It means so much to me.

  4. This is beautiful, and amazing. I feel like I have some sense of your father from your stories. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Shannon! It makes me happy to hear that!

  5. Thank you for sharing your story. I have goosebumps from reading it. So wonderful to find information on the 'net.

    1. Kathy - yes, the internet can be rife with horrors, but it is also a source of so many good things. Whoda thought? Thank you!

  6. What a legacy your parents left you! Thank you for sharing your heart.

    1. Thank you, Carla - being able to write about my Dad has been healing, and even more so to know you and others have enjoyed reading about him.

  7. Enjoy your new memory, is a gift.

  8. What a wonderful surprise to discover photos and even one of your dad painting the mural. His making the mural multicultural feels all the more important with everything going on here right now.

    1. MaryAnne: yes, I thought about that, too, as I was writing the post. Perhaps a month ago that thought might've not surfaced because Singapore has always been so multicultural. But in recent days, I find myself looking at many things, even grief, through that filter. Thank you for mentioning it!

  9. That was such an immersive read.. All too rarely is the saying "the Internet is forever" anything positive, but there it is. So heart-warming to have that connection laid forth, for yourself and for your kids to remember their grandfather's life-s work.
    I don't have anything similar to memorialize my dad -- just him being proud that I started teaching college (baking, not medicine, but still) because he wanted to but never did.

    1. Thank you, Reeni. And I think you are in a sense a fulfillment of at least some of the things your own dad valued and aspired to, which makes you a living, evolving (and personally unique) memorial of him and what he would've been proud of. That was a longwinded way to say, "you, too."


Thank you for talking to me! If you have a question, I might reply to it here in the comments or in an email.