My grandparents lived in 1111 River Road, an unassuming apartment complex nestled along the Hudson River across from Manhattan. The old, three-level complex was sandwiched between two larger condominiums that surged higher and higher each time we visited. While the bigger and prettier buildings accommodated the mass exodus of city dwellers seeking out better school systems and lower rent, middle-income Asian immigrants called 1111 River Road home way back since the 50’s. Despite the rapid modernization that enveloped it, 1111 River Road never bothered to remodel, even though it was readily losing value. It stood firm in its dirtied white brick walls, ripping purple rugs, window air conditioners, and underequipped gym. It found confidence in the old ways amidst a changing society, very much like my Dá Dá (grandpa).
Facing the Hudson River, which was the complex’s main and only selling point, we gained sweeping views (and aromas) of the Hudson River. Well-advertised in the realtor’s pamphlet, the riverfront seemed less of a romantic date spot than a historical case study of industrialization. The river smelled of salt, sewage, and the urine of the homeless person sleeping next to it. Ships packed with rainbow-colored cargo containers sounded their penetrating horns as they ducked underneath the George Washington Bridge. If you got close enough, you could hear the symphony of cars beeping on the GW, but Mom never let me get too close. At that time, I had a tendency of putting everything that interested me in my mouth, and you shouldn’t do that, especially with the Hudson River.
But when Mom wasn’t around, Dá Dá almost always broke her rules. We both possessed a fascination with small animals, and while the Hudson River wasn’t the most conducive to our naturalist investigations, we attempted to catch small yú yú (fish) in the brackish water. Often, we only got bottle caps and broken beer bottles in our net. Because of age, he lacked speed, while I lacked precision.
A sprawling playground sat right next to the parking lot, replete with seesaws and twisting slides more elaborate than the ones at my elementary school. Dá Dá would hoist me up to reach the monkey bars, supporting my waist up as I swung from one bar to the next. He made me feel like a contestant on a fitness show competition, even though he was holding most of my weight. We played until sundown, when Háo Póu (grandma) stumbled out onto the playground in her house slippers to call us back for dinner, making sure we knew that we had interrupted her cooking and that because of us the texture of the potatoes would suffer. Maybe to her desire, Hurricane Sandy destroyed much of the playground, so the designers decided to rip it out, fill it with concrete, and expand the parking lot. That image forever stuck with me, awaking me to the ugly truth of growing up.
In order to get to 1111 River Road, we navigated through hilly, narrow streets, past the block spilling over with taquerías and Korean barber shops. Mom made sure to lock our doors when stopped at a red light, but I loved looking out at the suspicious $5 massage advertisements and the dishwashers breakdancing at the bus stop.
Pulling into our designated parking spot, my sister and I peered through the car window, searching for Dá Dá, who would stand behind the screen door with his hands behind his back, waiting. Almost always, he was there. My sister and I would rush out the car, abandoning my mom with the coolers of food and paperwork, to find Háo Póu’s short but elegant figure holding open the door. We allowed her to smother us in her red lipstick before politely shimmying out of her grasp, stumbling up the stairs, and swinging upon the always-unlocked door.
Most of the time, Dá Dá was already at the door ready to greet us, or in the kitchen tending to the braised beef he knew was my favorite. But there were times when he was lying on the couch, snoring. At first, my sister and I thought it was funny to tickle him awake. But when we saw how he woke up, dazed and confused by the surroundings before him, we realized that he wasn’t taking naps because he ate a bit too much for lunch and knocked out with C-SPAN playing on the TV; it was because he felt lethargic throughout the day, but still wanted to present his most energetic self to us.
Dá Dá was a tall, lanky man, who in his youth was referred to as a “Taiwanese Indiana Jones.” As a middle-income-earning designer who came from nothing, he leveraged his looks to court my grandmother, a highly connected daughter of a Taiwanese senator. I struggled to envision him in his youth, which age seemed to obscure, like rain forming rust on the apartment buildings’ white walls. His silver gray hair swept to the right into a side part, but several pieces always stood up at the top of his head. He walked with his head thrust forward and his elbows pinned to his thin waist, his forearms flailing left and right with each step. His frailty led him to suffer several falls during his last several years—once at Costco, the CVS, and in the laundry room—so Mom tried to immobilize him. Due to a lack of movement and appetite suppression, he had lost a lot of weight; when the sun backlit his thin white collared shirt, I could see his boney jagged frame.
I often found him looking out into the distance, back hunched, swaying forwards and backwards in his chair in a seemingly dazed stupor. We attributed this to his chronic fatigue, but when I grew older I realized that he was looking for something in the distance, imagining what could be.
On almost every visit, Dá Dá would hide small gifts behind the pillows of the couch, yelling “surpry!” when we whisked up the pillow from its place. Sometimes, he’d go to the local Party City to buy random little trinkets that he thought were absolutely darling, like keychain cameras or squishy balls that ended up in the small crevices of our cars. He also handmade stationery and trinkets for us, including an origami flower pencil or a clay watering pot with fake flowers and moss, both of which I keep with me at home. I didn’t necessarily need any of these things, but it was the feeling of surprise, of being gifted that filled me with so much gratitude. Surprises ultimately became a language between us.
The apartment itself was “cozy” at best, large enough for two people but too small for family gatherings––which made them all the more tight-knit, albeit heated. The floors had a crisscross wood pattern that masked the layers of dust above it, the single bathroom with an old white tile and one of those crystal knobs that sometimes didn’t spin. Magnets from all over the world adorned the old off-white refrigerator, which we dug through for Breyers Neapolitan and cans of Coco Cola. It was so odd how this building favored the color white, as if it wanted to showcase a gradual decay.
The living room hybridized different cultures and eras. My grandparents purchased the scratched leather couches at a second-hand store nearby, but the numerous pillows that adorned it displayed beautiful floral embroidery they brought back from Taiwan. Next to the dust-covered radio sat an aqua blue ceramic vase containing fake flowers from the discount craft store. Behind the cheap leather couch stood a tall, glass bookshelf containing small trinkets my grandfather collected as an artist from Taiwan, as well as family heirlooms like magnanimous horse statues alongside ugly birthday cards we designed for them. At the throne of the living room stood the flat-screen television, which my parents gifted them from a Black Friday sale.
We’d watch hours of tennis, basketball, baseball, and football together until our Cokes turned flat. My grandparents were big American sports fans––immersed in the lives of Xiǎo wēil ián mǔsī (Selena Williams) and the Boston Celtics or “sewteek,” as Dá Dá would cheer. It was the only time they understood America more than I did. Watching your favorite tennis player or basketball team score induced a collective glee that transcended any cultural or linguistic barriers.
When the adult figures had to prepare dinner or fill out paperwork, my sister and I basked lazily on the couch, indulging in hours of Disney Channel and Nickelodeon banned at home. I understand now how this deeply contradicted the Confucian approach to elders, who should be exalted and taken care of. Dá Dá Háo Póu let it go, using teenage breakup scenes as background music while they wrote their wills and signed financial statements to pay for my private school tuition.
Bored of TV, my sister and I ventured into our grandparents’ bedroom, a history textbook on our familial lineage we never spoke about. One side of the room contained heavy-duty wire racks stacked with suitcases and paper boxes, as if my grandparents were still unpacking. The mystery of the boxes irked me, until the day I left the door open while taking out the trash. My mom scolded me, conceding that these boxes contained paintings, jewelry, and silk dresses enough to pay for my sister and I’s undergraduate and graduate school. What I originally thought reflected a neglect for interior design turned out to be a high-stakes preservation project to keep valuable heirlooms in the US.
Next to the queen-sized bed sat a nightstand full of picture books. My sister and I fondly flipped through them, gripping our mouths with our hands on the sight of early pictures of our Mom. Dá Dá designated each photo book to an era of their collective lives: the decade they spent in the Dominican Republic waiting for US citizenship, the year my mom arrived in the States for college, their move and the opening and eventual closure of their gift card store. Making fun of my mother’s awkward fashion, my sister and I were so blind to the fastness of life. One minute you are designing corporate logos around the globe, the next you are looking out onto an unentertaining parking lot of a poorly-urbanized New Jersey, unable to move, seeking for what could be.
There comes a point in almost every grandchild’s life where grandparents suddenly become uncool. For me, that happened as soon as I entered middle school. The activities that could once entertain me for afternoons no longer interested me, and as I exposed myself to the operations of a “normal” American families, I started growing impatient with the language barrier, with the constant explaining of American norms, with holding my grandfather’s hand as we crossed the street because he needed support. There was no longer anything for me in that small, old apartment. It was embarrassing, actually; having my grandparents around me reinforced my foreignness.
That’s why I don’t quite remember the last time I kissed Dá Dá Háo Póu goodbye, walked down that purple rug, into the car, past the taquerias and barbers, and down those winding, twisty roads. I surmise that I felt eager to leave after having sat in my grandfather’s office for several hours trying to finish up homework, declining Dá Dá’s offer to dine at the local Wendy’s.
At my grandfather’s funeral several months later, located several blocks away from 1111 River Road next to a strip of diners, I refrained from looking at my grandfather’s cremated face. It was my first week at a new school, and other obligations like homework, friendships, social status had flooded my life. My sister and I had convinced my dad to leave early so that we didn’t have to be there to watch my mom and Háo Póu kiss him goodbye. After the funeral, my sister and I refused to help move my grandmother out of the apartment, preoccupied with schoolwork, or maybe just a reluctance to face our unrecognizable selfishness. These scenes would play on and on in my mind later on. I never saw 1111 River Road again.
I want to tap that girl on the shoulder and tell her to turn around, open the door, and embrace her grandfather one more time. To tell him in her best Mandarin that she loved him and so deeply appreciated all the adventures, sports games, and surprises. To go into that bedroom and take one deep inhale of her grandfather’s blanket, that soft detergent smell that put her to sleep when he held her at the park. To take one, last long gaze at this life, this disorganized, hybridized, but brimming life that they’ve created just for her and the ones that come after her. And when she gets back into the car, to turn around and watch them wave goodbye on their porch, an image setting forever in her mind. At some point, the car has to turn around the bend. People go, and places fall apart.