CNF: The Old Lady

by Tracy Lum


[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of the “Topical” series, with each piece solely submitted to and chosen by the Final Reader Pietra Dunmore.]


It isn’t just the fear of facing the grim stillness of death that stops me at the threshold of the viewing room in the bilingual funeral parlor. “Grandchildren?” asks a besuited man, the hint of Chinese accent unmistakable. I hesitate. “Sort of?” I want to say. Before I can, my parents nod, and he bobbypins a button-sized yarn flower first to my hair and then my sister’s, then hands one to my brother. Mourning symbols, reserved for family. “This way,” he says, pointing toward the open casket, which gleams under the overhead lights, inescapable.

That we’re grandchildren is a technicality we don’t bother explaining as we make our way to the second row of Lucite chairs, where the air is stale and thick with the scent of incense. Technically, the woman at rest in front of us is my dad’s niece, the daughter of his half-sister, but on paper, since she and her husband officially adopted him over sixty years ago, allowing him to emigrate from Hong Kong to America, he is their son. The generational branches of our family tree have crisscrossed and confused me my entire thirty years, but one thing was always clear: we are family, but only peripherally.

The morning after she passed, my dad received the news by text. “The old lady is gone,” he announced to my mom and me, his face neutral, stating facts. She was always the old lady, never mother. My siblings and I called her Pau Pau, meaning grandma, out of simplicity, but to her, we were ambient, distantly related children who appeared at holiday banquets. She raised my dad as a ward, not a beloved son, and so we accepted the hierarchy of blood relations, took our second-tier position to mean that because the coronavirus pandemic enforced a strict guest limit for the funeral, we wouldn’t make the cut.

The besuited man taps the microphone at the podium, speaks in a rehearsed, melodic Cantonese. There’s a ritual offering fire burning behind a grate in the corner. Smoking incense sticks poking out of ceramic pots. A wreathed portrait printed with her name in both English and the Chinese characters I can’t read. I look everywhere until my eyes fall on her, and then I can’t look away.

All the time I knew the old lady, she had white hair the texture of cotton candy and a distinctive way of speaking Cantonese I couldn’t understand. Our relationship was wordless hugs of greeting and farewell. Mugs of tea I brought as she leaned on her cane to settle into the blue-striped armchair in our living room at Christmas. Thank you’s whenever she pressed a red lai see into my hands. “I kind of forgot we were her grandchildren,” my sister whispers from behind her mask, and I nod my agreement.

The incense sticks are still glowing orange when the man calls up all the grandchildren for the privilege of paying respect. When he motions to us to join, my brother, my sister, and I exchange confused glances: it is a more active role than we expect. We take our places beside our distant cousins. “Both hands,” the man says, as he grabs a handful of incense, whose tips turn to ash as wisps of smoke curl around us. I press my thumbs together and take two. “Now bow three times,” he says, turning toward the casket, chin down, back straight. We follow his lead. There is an enviable precision to his bowing—down-up, down-up, down-up—no arch, no hesitation. He has done this countless times before.

We sit down as soon as we can, unwilling to bear the stolen mantle, but we, now the grandchildren we never were during her life, are not done. In our nuclear family unit, we kneel on tasseled floor pillows and accept small china cups of water. We clumsily bow again in unison, down-up, down-up, down-up, and as we do, I wonder how she’d feel about my siblings and I co-opting familial closeness in her honor. We return the cups and sit again until, together, we approach the casket for our final goodbyes. I had been afraid to look, to witness the unsettling, irreversible absence, but up close, all I see in spite of the technicalities is peace in the grandma to whom we owe our last name and existence in America. I bow my head and stroke the satin lining of the coffin three times, hoping she understands the gratitude I could never truly express.


Tracy Lum is a writer and software engineer based in Brooklyn, NY. Her writing has appeared in Bustle, Hello Giggles, and Little Old Lady Comedy. You can find more of her work at tracylum.com.


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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “The Old Lady”?

While drafting this piece, I was very fixated on the discomfort of attending a funeral during a global pandemic, but in later revisions, I discovered that the family relationships felt more compelling to write about. So, although some of my family members wore not only masks, but also face shields, goggles, and gloves during the funeral, mentioning it in the essay seemed to detract from the focus. 


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