I think back to the first Thanksgiving I spent with my infant daughter three years ago, which was also the last one I spent with my grandmother. The multigenerational gathering at my childhood home in Alhambra, mixing Chinese, Vietnamese, and American traditions, is not only etched in my memory, it’s immortalized in a digital photograph.
In the photo, my mom is holding my nearly 4-month-old daughter in her arms, while my arms rest by my 84-year-old grandma, whom we all called Popo (the Chinese word for grandmother).
The entire family doesn’t get together like this often—but Thanksgiving is a holiday when 20 or more relatives cram into my mom’s modest townhouse to eat, drink, laugh — and annoy each other. For an evening, our lives touch and intertwine, and like an infinity mirror, we can see the past and future stretched out around us. In our lives, we have alternated between the roles of caretaker and taken-care-of, sometimes a bit of both.
A few months before that Thanksgiving, Popo had moved to an assisted living facility in San Gabriel. She had deteriorating kidneys and Alzheimer’s. When she was in better health, she had cooked a full Thanksgiving dinner that included slow-roasted, soy sauce-basted turkey and hearty fish maw with shark fin soup.
Once, I pointed out that perhaps we ought to forgo the shark fin because of cruel commercial harvesting practices, and that the low heat she used to cook the turkey might not comply with modern health codes. But Popo was going to cook her turkey as she saw fit. In Vietnam, she had supported a husband and six kids by running her own stall at the market selling fabrics, and she had escaped communist Vietnam with her family by paying in gold bars for their exit as boat people.
But that Thanksgiving, Popo was no longer feeding us. Instead, my uncle tried his hand at the soy sauce-basted turkey; my mom made turkey curry with lemongrass and bay leaf.
As we sat down at the table, Popo had already eaten. She was on a liquid diet, fed directly into her stomach via a feeding tube. When Popo did manage a few spoonfuls of food, mom gently wiped her lips and cheeks.
This was something Mom did all the time. Mom was retired, but she always woke early, cooked meals for her sister and herself, and was off to Popo’s assisted living facility before 9 a.m. She washed Popo’s face in the morning, combed her hair to cover the bald patch, and rallied aides to help Popo to the bathroom so she could avoid sitting in excrement. Mom knew a mountain of dignity could be granted with a wipe of a napkin, comfort given with socks that she continually put back on Popo’s feet.
At Thanksgiving dinner, my daughter Hazel looked around her at all the new faces. She stared at the food we put it in our mouths. At the moment, she was relying on me for her milk and gaining critical pounds.
As Hazel drank, milk drops flowed down her cheeks and settled into the folds of her double chin. I grabbed a burp cloth and wiped her lips and cheeks.
Someone else was taking care of my baby while I worked during the day, and I fretted. I worried that she was sitting in excrement. That she wasn’t being adequately stimulated. I wondered if her blankets were kicked off, whether her socks had stayed on.
On that Thanksgiving evening, though, there was no assisted living, no daycare. Just time and those growing into life sharing an evening with those growing out of it. By the next day, Popo would have forgotten and so would have Hazel. But Mom and I would remember that moment, as would the camera.
Kim Luu is an environmental sustainability professional and lives in Alhambra, California, with her husband and two kids. She wrote this for Thinking L.A., a project of UCLA and Zocalo Public Square.