Every two to three days, Po-Po will hop on a tour bus headed to a casino that’s an hour from her home in Chino Hills, California. At 8am, one of my three uncles will drive her to a designated pick-up/drop-off point, usually a nearby Chinese supermarket. And by 5pm she is homeward bound, pockets either empty or full of winnings.
It might sound like Po-Po is struggling with a gambling addiction. Which is surprising because she couldn’t be more frugal, actually. Under her watch, my younger self was rationed one toilet paper-square per bathroom visit. During our meals, not a bowl, pot, or plate would go unscraped. “Even the burnt, brown bits?” I’d whine. Yes, even the brownest of the brown bits.
Po-Po is definitely not an addict. These frequent casino visits give her a sense of independence at her old age. Inside the casino’s desolate and kind of depressing landscape, where dealers come in and out from their cigarette breaks and the jobless go to waste time, she is free. Wandering around unsupervised, earning money if she’s lucky at the slots, buying lunch for drifters she’s adopted as pseudo bodyguards - she loves all of it. (This last one scares me a bit, I’ll admit.) Once, Po-Po snuck me a huge stack of napkins swiped from the casino buffet. "These are very thick and high-quality,” she proclaimed, proud to share the hard-earned napkins with me. “I’ll get you more next time.” My mom told me that another time, Po-Po used her winnings to purchase fried chicken from the casino’s cafeteria for each member of our family. though I'm not sure if anyone actually ate the chicken.
I've never been to the casino with Po-Po. She asks but I'm sure I'll hate the place. Will it resemble a seedy convalescent home, without the bingo or foxtrotting and with even uglier carpeting? Maybe I'm afraid to see how dreadful the whole experience actually is, and unwilling to accept that this is how she’ll be passing time for the rest of her life.
In a poignant essay written by 90-something-year-old writer Roger Angel for the New Yorker, he describes aging as a slow descent into invisibility. He writes, “Yes, we’re invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You’ve had your turn, Pops; now it’s ours.”
I wonder if this is how Po-Po feels, you know, excluded or forgotten. At family dinners, she’s become an outsider, observing the rest of us jovially chat (in English) and laugh (at inside jokes). I try to include her but due to hearing loss, she can’t always hear me. And I don't always know what to say.
Last week, while I was in California, Po-Po and I hung out. During lunch, she told me about the meal she treated our family to recently. “I paid for it myself with the $300 I won at the slot machine,” she explained. Ever the matriarch of our family, this has now become the only way she knows how to contribute. It’s as if the cars she bought her grandkids, the homes she’s bought her children, the millions of hours she’s spent potty training everyone in the family, and all the hot sauce she's laboriously fermented for the last 50 summers, hasn't been enough. Homegirl is cray-cray. But homegirl is my hero.
“How about I come with you to the casino next time I’m in town,” I suggested. “And you can show me where to get more of those amazing napkins?” Upon hearing that, Po-Po beamed with pride.