The last time I saw my aunt, the wild one, was three summers ago in 2010. She visited New York City over two odd days in the middle of a week in August. It had been eight years since we’d seen each other. Back then, I was still a teenager growing up in the Bay Area and she was in her forties. I called her Shiao Ayi, or “little aunt,” since she was the youngest of my mother’s sisters and the only one among them who didn’t let her austere upbringing affect her. She once tried to convince me to ride the hip new Vertigo rollercoaster with her at California’s Great America. I was too cowardly, so she rode off on her own, leaving her young daughter with me. She arrived an hour or so later at our meet-up spot with flushed cheeks, a twinkle in her dark eyes and her black medium-length hair a bird’s nest over her rounded shoulders.
Since then, she had been traveling the world with her husband, a successful businessman and a wisecrack and adventurer, just like her.
“Oh, they’ve been everywhere,” my mother explained vaguely when I asked. “They were last in Paris, I think, or Tokyo or Sydney.” They traveled at least every two months.
Shiao Ayi and her husband had a number of business ventures and once convinced my mother to help them sell odd-shaped aquariums. My mother sold one or two. The rest lay in our garage for years until it flooded during a bad storm, and they all had to be thrown out.
My aunt and her husband were in New York for a business meeting. They brought their grown daughter, Jolie, whom I used to babysit. “Jolie” was a mistakenly misspelled version of “jolly,” a word Shiao Ayi loved and, I think, carried in her eyes. Now fifty, Shiao Ayi hadn’t changed. She was still that plump cherub—content and humorous as ever—except that her hair was styled in a poodle perm of carnelian red and she wore cat-eye glasses of the same color.
Shortly after her arrival, Shiao Ayi invited my mother, my younger sister, Alice, and me to a lavish Greek feast at a restaurant in the theater district—one apparently frequented by Larry David, whom we did pass on our way out. (“Yeah, yeah,” he said with a tired little wave when my younger sister gasped and pointed.)
My mother often complained about her sister’s excesses—they grew up together quite poor in Tapei, their father, a former Kuomintang colonel and their mother, a dragon of a lady who would crush flying cockroaches with her bare hands. My mother recalls constantly having to sweep dirt out of the house and burn balls of coal to cook their meals. She was the eldest, eight years Shiao Ayi’s senior. She helped run the household, learning to save and get by. She had moved from the U.S. to Taipei years before, and she had forgotten most of her English. She and her husband had never naturalized like my mother.
“Shiao Ayi, remember that afternoon when I was seven or eight and I tried to teach you how to pronounce ‘squirrel’ properly?” I asked my aunt in Mandarin during dinner.
“Mmm, I don’t remember,” she said.
“Can you still say it?” I teased.
“You’re missing the ‘r.’”
“Squaal,” she giggled apologetically, knowing she was making no effort to correct herself and didn’t quite care.
My mother cut in, “Why are you eating that?” Shiao Ayi had consumed an entire lobster and was now working on its head.
“That part has the most cholesterol,” my mother said, disapprovingly.
My aunt continued eating, smiling. I wondered how my mother and my aunt got along growing up, whether they squabbled often or if Shiao Ayi just smiled and giggled her way out of every fight.
That next evening, it was our turn to treat Shiao Ayi and Jolie to dinner. Alice and I were particularly excited to show them the best the city could offer and introduce them to restaurant week. We selected a well-established French restaurant in Tribeca with stellar Zagat ratings. We waited impatiently that day to treat Shiao Ayi and Jolie but were disappointed the moment we arrived.
When we arrived, I noticed that the yellow overhead lighting made the restaurant look like an old barn. Faded plastic flowers drooped miserably from garish vases near the entrance, and there was at least one watercolor painting of a seascape, like the ones you find at a dentist’s office. Alice and I exchanged disappointed glances.
Then the food arrived. My first dish—a simple arugula salad—tasted grassy, as if they had forgotten to wash the lettuce. The oil and vinegar seemed to have been poured separately onto the salad so that I’d only get sour or oily mouthfuls of each. When the entrees arrived, I received an overcooked beef bourguignon that required so much chewing it made my jaws sore. Shiao Ayi’s medium rare steak was lukewarm and also overdone. The restaurant’s famous dessert soufflés looked like crooked chef’s hats and they quickly deflated into a soupy mess. Yet Shiao Ayi insisted on eating every bite, even though we implored her not to and suggested leaving for another restaurant. According to Chinese custom, it is rude not to eat your host’s food.
“Don’t worry, really, it’s not that bad,” she chirped with a wide grin, adding, “I will neverforget this meal.”
The morning before Shiao Ayi and her family left, we brunched with them at their hotel. My mother was busy tucking muffins into her purse as my aunt ate her fill and watched my mother with glee. We tried to apologize again for yesterday’s inedible meal, but Shiao Ayi told us again not to worry and we promised her better “next time.”
On Chinese New Year, in early February this year, Shiao Ayi and her family flew to Japan for a week. On their return to Tapei, she reached out to grab her luggage and felt a painful tug on her chest. In the coming months, the pain gradually worsened until it sent her to the hospital, where she was told she had lung cancer and that it had metastasized to her bones.
“That’s not all,” my mother said, her voice trembling over the phone. “The doctor said she has high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes. Everything.” It would make treatment much more complicated and hinder her chances of beating the cancer, which were already very low.
My mother does not cry easily, but her voice was raw and sometimes angry over the phone. She rattled on about the diagnoses. She rationalized and tried to figure out where it all went wrong. As my mother spoke, I tried to picture Shiao Ayi. I picture telling her that the awful restaurant we took her to got shut down by Sandy, and I envision her cheeks lighting up like bulbs. I picture her like she was that August in New York—her fiery hair, a bit of summer flush in her cheeks, and an appetite for even the worst New York has to offer.
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Another Brooklyn-based cartoonist, Pat Barrett has drawn for classy publications like the New York Times, Slate, and Garbage Pail Kids.