The mourning process never really ends. It just morphs from hyperrealistic to manageable. Grief of the anatomical loss becomes a longing for the sounds, touch, smells and other sensory souvenirs left behind by the deceased. Sad broad strokes of remembering and regretting give way to a desperate need for the details. What did she tell me about her village in China again? What kind of spices did she use for her smoked chicken? How long were our hugs? And her voice. God, I miss Po-Po’s voice the most. Her thick Sichuanese intonation layered with heart-warming butteriness. For me, the eyes were not the windows to her soul–her unique, vibrant, and generous voice was.
“Grandma called. We’re having dinner on Saturday,” my mom would say a week before one of Po-Po’s dinners. Even towards the end of her life, Po-Po was an organized Martha Stewarty super-host. By the time she’d call, her menu was meticulously planned. Food would be shopped for 3 days in advance and everything prepped the night before the party. Although I was rarely on the receiving end of her calls, I can imagine exactly what she sounded like. Hurried and excited; as if she couldn’t wait to get off the phone and start chopping. On the day of the party, she’d greet us all with sparse but bright hellos. Dulcet, almost, if not for her volume which was always set on “Loud.”
“PO-PO, I’M HERE!” I’d yell to her from the door. “OH!” she’d exclaim and come scurrying out from the kitchen in her floral apron, face shiny from grease and sweat but beaming. Then when I offered to help, she transformed from a cute old lady into this gruff and matter-of-fact assembly line conductor. She’d sternly instruct me to do things that she knew she could do better and more expeditiously. When I sensed exasperation in her voice, I’d back away from the wok. The kitchen was her kingdom–she ruled it and even I cowered in her presence there.
These are the details that I train my brain to hold onto. The cadence. The timbre. How loud her voice would get. How her voice energized me.
A month or so ago, I hosted another sit-down dinner pop-up in Brooklyn. This one was a much bigger production than the previous one and this time, I wasn’t hosting it with a friend. My insecurities crept up to the surface. The same inner voice of my adolescent body dysmorphia was now spewing dangerously untrue criticisms of my cooking, party-planning, and organizational skills. Three weeks from the event, even after I had sold out of tickets, I wanted to cancel it and spend the night sulking or Netflix-binging, probably both. When I talked to my friend Deanna about the pop-up, I sounded timid and scared. She’d exclaim with booming enthusiasm, “It’s going to be great, D!” And I’d reply meekly, “But there’s so much work to do.” My voice would insecurely trail off into the ether. This was the type of conversation I was used to having, mired in the obvious mismatch of other people’s confidence in me and my own lack of it.
I decided to stick it out despite the fears of my impending doom. A day before the pop-up, my friends Teddy and Chariya swung by to help with the prep. The five-course menu needed some love from kitchen pros and both of them fit the bill. They’re both fast, knowledgeable, and experienced–I felt confident with them by my side. However, neither of them knew Po-Po’s cooking like I did. In order to pull this off, my leadership was crucial. I had to be teeming with self-assurance. I had to be explicit about what I wanted, and to communicate all 500 of those things on my list confidently. I needed to find my voice, literally and figuratively, and use it. And I did. The more I did, the easier it got, and the more I sounded like Po-Po in the kitchen.
When William Faulkner won his Nobel Prize in 1949, he spoke at the banquet held at Stockholm’s City Hall and said, “It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
“First, you soak the rice,” Po-Po starts in the video I recorded of her a week before her passing. I’ve asked her to tell me how to make tian jiou, sweet fermented rice, her specialty. She’s sitting in a foldable wheelchair a family friend gave my uncle. Her lips are dry, a little split open from dehydration. But she still has the coloring of someone very alive, even with the odor of death wafting about. When I watch this video now, I prefer to close my eyes and listen to her describe the complex process. Her voice, a little raspy by this point, was the last to go. The night she passed, she had a sudden surge of alertness. This apparently happens to some people at the end of life. Everyone in the kitchen heard her chatter away loudly from the bedroom and from what my mom could make out, Po-Po talked about dinner, eating, or something food-related. Hearing her voice, family members rushed into the room and gathered by her side. This was Po-Po’s last time rounding everyone up for an event–her farewell party. This was her last chance to look at the beautiful family she created. I think she used her voice pretty brilliantly.