We quietly stood around my father as he poured the liquor onto the wooden floor of our dining room. We lived on the third floor of an apartment building in a suburb of Toronto, and I found it peculiar how the alcohol could drop into the mouths of my relatives who were in heaven. On the dining room table were faces of those people who I was supposed to know, those of whom I was supposed to remember. I saw within each face, parts of my parents’ faces. I could see where my own ear lobes came from, those which my aunt tugged at occasionally followed by a pronouncement of how lucky it was that I had ear lobes such as those; fat and meaty, I thought. There was a younger man too, who looked like my mother; it was my uncle who I don’t believe I had ever met. My mother told me that he had jumped into the ocean and drowned. I never quite figured out the truth, though. Over the years I would get bits of information from my parents about my family’s history, but my accumulation from their knowledge never quite added up to anything coherent. Years later, it sounded more like a parent trying to describe the definition of suicide to a child.
“He jumped into the water and then never came back.”
Laid out on the table in front of the photographs of my deceased relatives were steamed buns filled with bbq pork and curry, brightly coloured egg tarts with a flaky buttery crust, a boiled chicken that had been chopped up and placed onto a bed of boiled carrots and potatoes, and a condiment blend of soy and oyster sauce mixed with sesame oil, and green onions poured into a tiny ceramic dish. I was never told by either one of my parents why we did this – cooked food for people who weren’t here anymore, but I only kept quiet and followed my father’s lead. Candles burned on either side of the table, flanking the pictures of my uncle and grandparents which were propped up by a stack of books that supported them from behind. My father turned to us and said the words, “bai-sun,” and then grew quiet. He stepped in front of all of us, near the end of the table opposite to the photographs and lowered his head. I don’t know what he said, or what he was thinking, but when he was done I could see that his face looked worn and pulled downward as if each time he did this over the years, he gave some of his breath away to my relatives who lived underneath the floor of the apartment, in heaven. I never asked him what those words meant, bai-sun, but over the years understood it to mean worshipping (gods). It was our act of ancenstral veneration, a filial respect which we would continue to pay after life to those family members who gave birth to us, and cared for us until we could take care of ourselves. One by one, each family member did the same as my father, until it was my turn. I have to confess that my father did prep me for this moment; he told me to say “doh-jeh” to those candle lit faces, and so I did “thank-them” and then asked them to remove some of the chubbiness from my ear lobes.