Even in the dead of winter, when the house was black and the wind angry, my father would nudge me awake and help me dress in my snow pants and thick jacket, pull the gloves over my fingers, and slip my feet into boots still stiff with cold.
We would leave through the door in the back of the garage, letting it squeak slowly open (though there was no one awake to hear) and climb the small hill behind our home, as our breath erupted and retreated into the night air.
The cemetery received complaints when we first started doing it there. People thought we were vandals. And even after we explained, they said it was disrespectful, a fire hazard, stupid. What was burning it going to do?
So we moved the picture to the backyard and put the basin there, at the top of the small hill. My father would take the Kit Kats out of their wrapping, his hands shaking, and break them into little fingers of four and then eight and scatter them. He’d take out his lighter with the picture of Mao in a blaze of red and hold it close, so that the flame left a black spot of soot on his thumb and the candy began to burn.
For a few quiet moments we’d kneel there, the wind whipping against our faces, and I would whisper to my brother about whatever was going on at school, trying to ignore my father shaking beside me. We burned the candy and hoped that it would reach him out there. Just a little sweetness. We never spoke about it to each other. We sustained private illusions.
Years later, when Mom died, my father did the same thing. He put her photo beside my brother’s and set up another metal basin. He ripped big bundles of lilies from our front garden and burned them every morning for her. Kit Kats for my brother, flowers for Mom.
By then he knew better than to ask me to join. I was no longer amused by his superstition. I was blazing with my own kind of resentment, angry at the ways he’d failed to keep our little family together. Angry at him because it needed to be someone’s fault. I escaped the first chance I had.
And years later, when I finally came back, after the arrangements and the stiff farewells, I saw a third basin on that same hill, filled with the charred, unreadable remnants of paper that he’d never emptied. It sat beside a picture of me, the same age as my brother.
I searched through his study and the old living room and kitchen before finding the stack of papers in the drawer by his single bed—a hundred sheets thick, the words FORGIVE ME slashed on each.
Note on Theme:
Mourning in Chinese tradition requires offering something—money, food, a message—that embodies the departed while serving them in the afterlife. Long before I realized that this was a coping mechanism for the living, I wondered whether my ancestors really appreciated all this stuff we were leaving for them. Did it even reach them intact? What if they wanted something different? If only keeping in touch with the deceased weren’t so unilateral. My grandmother died of Covid-19 this summer after a near decade of dementia. By the end, none of her old personality was left. None of that scaffolding that we’d come to associate with who she was. My family still doesn’t know what to offer her.
Vincent Yu is the National Sales Coordinator at W.W. Norton. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Ploughshares (Solos), Able Muse, The Sierra Nevada Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn.