My Cherished Chopsticks: A Father’s Legacy by Helen Luu

Saturday, June 20th, 2020

Helen Luu is a member of the Creative Writing Class I attend, now virtually. Her story about her father seemed too beautiful not to post it for Father’s Day. Thank you, Helen.

 

Background Information

Chopsticks are the major eating utensils in Chinese culture. Chinese people use them instead of forks and knives. They are made from wood, plastic, stainless steel, silver or ivory.  Some Chinese people use ivory chopsticks as their personal eating utensils at home or in a restaurant, but I keep mine as my treasure. Indeed, they are my late father’s legacy, given to me in 1971 when our family was living in Vietnam.

Traditionally, Chinese people do not celebrate birthdays until they reach age 60. They will have an extraordinary celebration to mark this major milestone. Then, after age 60, some Chinese people celebrate their birthday every year, every five years, or every10 years.

Since your age is counted only by the year, no matter what day or month you were born, you are considered to be one year old on the day you were born. The day and the month are not counted; thus, our birth certificates show only the year you were born. Since a person’s day of birth is not celebrated yearly, no one really knows the exact day of his or her birth.

Strictly speaking, birthdays are very important to Chinese people, because they are used for matrimonial purposes. If their birthdays do not conjugate with each other, then the marriage is called off. Also, birthdays are used for burials. If a person is buried on a bad day or at the wrong time, his or her spirit will jeopardize his or her family’s harmony. Moreover, parents do not tell their young children’s exact birthdays to protect from being cast an evil spell by a shaman. Of course, most Chinese people seldom practice in this manner in the current century.

Last Supper with my Father

The Chinese status in Vietnam, where I had lived, had not been stable or safe for more than 15 years during the Vietnam War. My father was able to foresee the current dangerous situation from his earlier experiences, when China became Communist in 1949. Thus, he gradually sent his eight children abroad after the major outbreak of the Tet War. I was the last one to leave the country when I was 21 years old.

I vividly remembered my last supper with my father in the fall of 1971. After dinner, he and I were sitting on the long, leather sofa in our living room. Our servant brought us light tea. My father went over the necessary items with me, providing me with all the information I needed, including who I should contact and stay with in Taiwan.

Afterward, he showed me a long, brightly flowered fabric bag. There was a fabric knot at one end. I carefully loosened the knot. I slid the bag all the way to the bottom and saw a pair of milky colored, ivory chopsticks. I pulled them out. I was so impressed to see my Chinese given name and exact birthday with the day, the month, and the time beautifully engraved on them in a bright red color. This was the first time I learned the exact day of my birth.

What a brilliant thought my father had! I was told each of my siblings had his or her own pair. I will never, ever forget my Chinese cultural or my true birthday. My lips were trembling. My throat was clogged with a thousand words. I just looked at him as my eyes filled with tears. My father was also wordless, but he gave me a gracious smile. Unfortunately, my beloved father was assassinated by a Viet Cong soldier only one week after I left. He had just turned 49. I was traumatized by the news. I never, ever thought it would be my last supper with my father.

My Father’s Legacy & Unexpected Gifts

As 51 years have gone by, the brightly flowered fabric bag has gradually faded. There is a hole at the bottom of the bag. But, the color of the ivory chopsticks stays milky. The luster of the red ink remains the same. Whenever I look at them, I imagine my late father’s countenance deeply imprinted on them.

Moreover, my mother passed away at 92 in 2015. When I cleaned up her apartment, I found my late father’s ivory chopsticks and hers with their names and birthdays inscribed exactly the same way as mine, in the same kind of fabric bag, in her jewelry drawer. My siblings let me keep them since I was the one who took care of our mother’s health. Now I have three pairs of ivory chopsticks as my family treasure all these years. (See photo above of the three pairs of chopsticks.)

 

 

 

 

 

My Favorite Father: A Tribute to My Brother Paul

Friday, June 15th, 2018

NOTE: My four siblings and I always called our father “Daddy.” Thus, this essay focuses on a father, my brother Paul. My father will always just be “Daddy” to me.

 

Knopf Family Photo (Left to right): My older brother Paul, me, my younger brother Harry, my younger sister Rosie, and my older sister Phyllis. Time: mid-to-late 1940s.

Growing up, we didn’t see much of our dad. As the owner of a gas station and repair shop, he worked from very early in the morning until well after dinnertime. He was what we now call a workaholic, laboring seven days each week, 52 weeks of the year, to support our mom and their five growing children, so we did not see much of him. Thus, I did not witness much in the way of “fathering,” other than my mom saying, “Wait ’til your Daddy comes home,” when we misbehaved. We knew he was there as a loving, stable presence in all our lives, but nevertheless, his work ethic left him very little time for hands-on parenting. That was more our mom’s role.

Not so my brother Paul, my older sibling by 20 months. We grew up together, dating each other’s friends. Fortunately for me, he married one of my girlfriends from a different high school. We lived in a separate school district from many of our friends and I met Carol at the local Jewish Y, where we both joined a girls’ club.

Full Family Photo from Paul’s Bar Mitzvah (1949) – Left to right (back row): Paul, our dad David, Phyllis, our mother Bea.  (L. to R. Fr0nt row): me, my sister Rosie and my brother Harry.
(I hated our taffeta dresses!)

 

Even though my first husband and I lived too far away from Paul and Carol to see them often, every time we did visit, I was subconsciously aware of how well-behaved and quiet spoken his three children were. Growing up, my siblings and I were a noisy bunch and there was also lots of yelling from my mom. Not so at Paul’s and Carol’s home. Maybe this is because Carol herself is soft-spoken, or because Paul seemed to have the patience of Job. Either way, it was a peaceful place to visit.

Whatever the reason, I admired how he and Carol were raising their kids. At his funeral last year, his daughter Rachel remarked how her father never raised his voice to his three children. Unfortunately, my kids cannot say the same about my parenting techniques!

And, unlike my dad, he was always home for dinner. Carol insisted on that. As a professor and later awarded a chair at Brown University in Providence, RI, he had his own lab where he did experiments with his graduate students studying for their PhDs.  Sometimes after dinner he would go back to his lab at Brown to check on his experiments, but family dinners came first. He loved his students and they loved him back. He was often voted the most popular “prof “of the year by his students. Paul made science enjoyable and understandable, spending several hours of preparation before each lecture, much like a minister does before a sermon. I went to one of his lectures six weeks into the semester and understood everything he taught. I was amazed at and impressed with his teaching skills.

His three children are all grown now, two with children of their own. Their love for their Dad was evident at his funeral, and my love for him grows each time I think about him. He was kind, considerate, patient and non-judgmental, all good traits for anyone, and especially for a father and grandfather.

Paul with his three grandsons

Paul earned his undergraduate degree and PhD. from M.I.T.; worked with Dr. Francis Crick, co-Nobel prizewinner for discovering DNA; and spent five years at the Salk Institute in California before becoming a professor at Brown. In addition, he had a keen sense of humor, loved puzzles (which was part of his passion for science, that is, putting together pieces of the puzzles of diseases, such as schistosomiasis,* his main research project); was an active advisor for The Progeria Research Foundation; enjoyed his family, especially his grandchildren; and was a stand-up guy, or as we say in Yiddish, a real “mensch.” (Note: My younger brother is also a great father, but he has lived too far away for me to witness his fathering traits up close.)

So for Father’s Day, my vote goes to my brother Paul, gone from the planet, but not from our minds and hearts. I miss him every day, but fortunately, he has passed on his knowledge, his patience, and his loving kindness for others onto his children and three male grandchildren, all of whom adored him. What more can one ask of any man or woman in this crazy world?

*https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/schistosomiasis/index.html

Apr 30, 2018 – Schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia, is a disease caused by parasitic worms. Although the worms that cause schistosomiasis are not found in the United States, more than 200 million people are infected worldwide.

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