My father, Pop, died on May 2, twelve years ago today. It is the sweetest time of the year, the trees’ leaves have unfurled, the grass is at its most green, and in the gardens, it is the time for my favourite flowers — tulips, peonies, and magnolias. Pop was on his motorcycle riding to his office, observing the speed limit (unusual for him), and a large branch detached itself from a tree and fell on his skull. It was not far from our Connecticut house, which was located in a neighborhood of quaint, Louisa May Alcott, apple-cheeked beauty – 19th century cottages flanked by rock beds, shrubs, and weeping willows. I know the corner where my father died well, because it was only half a mile from our house and I walked past it often as a teenager. Even though I wasn’t there when it happened, I knew that the intersection was full of blossoms.
Pop died on my brother’s 25th birthday.
I was raised fervently atheist. “There is no God,” my Pop was fond of saying when I was young. “When you’re dead, that’s it. Finito. The end.” Despite this, I grew up observing Chinese rituals for dead. My grandfather was the first person to die in my family. When he passed away, he was cremated and his ashes were put in a beautiful mahogany box. Grandpa traveled to each of his children’s homes. That first year after he died, every night we would set out a portion of our dinner with utensils and a glass of Scotch whiskey next to his photograph. His children and wife often stopped by for a chat. This behavior went hand in hand with my upbringing that there was no afterlife.
Every day, on May 2, my brother Yar walks to a Chinese restaurant by himself and orders a meal and drinks a beer. Yar misses my father in the walk over to the restaurant, the meal consumed, and the walk back. I am less regular in my rituals because my relationship with my father was more complicated. My brother loved him and mourned him. My acknowledgement of Pop on these days is sporadic, perhaps a reflection of our relationship when he still lived.
Pop was the parent I listened to when I was a child. He was clever, silver tongued, dropped out of high school and ended up with a PhD from Columbia. He loved practical jokes and pranking. He taught me math shortcuts, ping-pong, how to skid down steep hills while on a hike, and how to balance while walking on high castle walls. I loved him until he divorced my mother.
I am three and a half years older than Yar, and when you are an adolescent, that age-gap feels like a century. When our parents separated, I was in my sophomore year when Yar was still in the sixth grade. When they divorced, I had graduated from high school and Yar was on the cusp of entering it. Yar says to me, “When Mom and Pop divorced you had four bad years of him. I had those too, but then that was followed by eight very good years, which are the years that I remember.”
I can never forget when Pop died, for it was on my brother’s birthday, for goodness sake. Nor can I forget Pop’s birthday, because it was on the fourth of July, Independence Day. I might cook for him. I might even go to his grave with my godparents and pour a can of Miller Lite where he lies. Yet sometimes I still let those days pass without setting out a dish in his memory.
One of the May 2nds, my Irish boyfriend observed me quietly as I slaughtered and stirfried lobster in ginger and then made crabmeat spring rolls. (It was my brother who had told me that our Pop preferred seafood to meat – I had never known that.) My boyfriend said several days later, “I thought, initially, it was a strange thing, but I realized that it was beautiful.” This year, on May 1st, my boyfriend said, “So, you’ll be cooking, yeah?” And because he said that, I supposed I had to.
Like I said before, it was my brother who pointed out that Pop loved seafood. So this morning, I walk to my neighborhood Oriental Pantry, next to the Dublin LUAS Jarvis stop, where there is a dazzling display of fish in the back. It is a beautiful day, crystal blue. If I was in Connecticut or in New York, I would not take this to heart, but in Dublin, such days are not to be taken lightly. At the fish counter, I select ten rock oysters with their deep cups, and Lee behind the counter half-shucks them for me (half-shucked so I could pry them easily when I was home), and cleans a beautiful lemon sole. He plops in an extra oyster for good measure. At the checkout counter, the girl gives me a radiant smile.
At home, the oysters pop readily open, and I roast them with wine, butter, soy sauce, ginger and garlic. I do much the same with the sole, and then make a garlic crab noodle. I make pak choi ,which I blanch first in garlic and sauté, and it comes out melting tender whereas all my Chinese greens in the past have been tough and stringy. The oysters are extraordinary – they taste of seawater, butter, and soy, and their edges have crisped slightly in the heat. I undo a Morretti beer and it is frosty.
On death days, the world conspires to be wonderful to you.
Oysters with soy, wine, ginger and butter
dash of soy, dash of wine
two cloves of garlic
One two-inch piece of ginger, peeled.
two tbsp. of butter pinched off into eleven pieces
two scallions, minced
Preheat oven to 250 C. Shuck oysters and place the oysters, in their deep shell with their juices, on a roasting pan on a bed of raw rice. Season with the slightest dash of soy and wine. Thinly julienne the ginger and scatter over oysters. Microplane the garlic and scatter over the oysters. Distribute one nub of butter per oyster, sprinkle with white pepper, and pop into the oven. Roast for ten minutes until you can smell the seafood cooking and then take out and enjoy.