In a rare occurrence, my mom ordered steak for dinner. She may have been feeling subconsciously festive – tonight is my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. I say subconsciously because if you know our family well, you know that we are not sentimental about markers and milestones. Last night, over dinner, I learned my parents’ wedding date for the very first time:
Mom: “Maybe we should have a nicer dinner tomorrow, it’s your dad and my 40th anniversary.”
Mom: “Yes, same as your birthday.”
Me: “You got married on dad’s birthday?”
Mom: “I didn’t know it was his birthday.”
And then we moved on to another subject.
The steak was unremarkable. The only response it elicited from my mom was a muttered “The best steak was still Colorado.” I would have let this cryptic comment pass, if my dad hadn’t nodded silently in knowing acknowledgment. See, I have no memory of ever going to Colorado with my parents, let alone having any noteworthy beef there. I am an only child, and not accustomed to being reminded of family events outside my own experience.
“Colorado?”, I asked. “Before you were born,” my dad informed me, “Mom and I were driving cross country for my new job. We stopped at a Holiday Inn in Colorado.” “We thought we were in ‘the West’ now, we should try steak,” added my mom, before reiterating, “That was the best steak.” I needed to know, “What year was this?!” “1970,” they immediately responded in unison. That must have been some remarkable steak to be so readily invoked 39 years later.
In 1946, the child who will become my father waits on a street in Guangzhou while his uncle bribes a police officer, so that the family’s possessions can be loaded onto a truck as they flee the country before the advancing communists. Twenty-four years later, in Colorado, he and the woman who will become my mother pull into the parking lot of a Holiday Inn in their Pontiac LeMans, where they will soon have the best steak of their lives. In 2009, that same couple sits at dinner on a New Zealand vacation with their son, remembering that steak, and the family reflects on what could have been.
Earlier today, my dad learned by email that his last remaining uncle, the younger brother of the man who bribed the policeman, passed away in China. As the Yang family fled China, this uncle chose to remain behind to support the communists. For his patriotism and idealism, he was rewarded with years of forced labor during the Cultural Revolution, and died virtually penniless, evicted by his post-revolutionary firstborn son from the only house he had ever owned – a house my father bought for him in the 1990s out of a sense of familial duty. The sweep of history and the intervention of personal choice make comparisons false but inevitable. Many things could have been.
Unbeknownst to my parents, masked by casual dinner chatter and quickly wiped away, a tear rolled down my cheek as I contemplated the course of their lives. These are the tears of guilt and gratitude shed by a generation of immigrant children whose American lives were born from upheaval and sacrifice. Guilt because what has been given is too enormous to ever be repaid, and gratitude because a gift given of love does not ask to be repaid. It can only be honored.