I cannot eat this apple, I thought as the old lady handed it to me, her beef jerky like fingers trembling, the smile under her hat lighting up the dingy room.
“Xie Xie,” I nodded, admiring her face.
Every wrinkle lead to a different story, from China’s Cultural Revolution to her recipe for jiaozi.
Why was I at this human time capsule full of China’s best treasures?
Instead of spending Thanksgiving stuffing ourselves with turkey followed by a roll of Tums and the Lions game, our school celebrated this American holiday by visiting a retirement center to visit with the folks and remove a few cobwebs. It was on a dusty corner of Kunming, one that you’d never find on Map Quest.
The seniors slowly came out of their cocoons to see the kids, rubbing their Buddhist prayer beads as the students played with their cell phones, their traditional clothing clashing with blue jeans. Snail-gaters pushed their walkers, a few rolled their wheelchairs, others hobbled on crutches.
Even though the mercury hit seventy-five that day, the residents were bundled in enough quilted jackets to survive the Arctic.
A crumpled man with only one good eye pointed at me and smiled, “Měi guó rén?”
“Duì,” I nodded, answering in old folk slow-mo. “Wǒ lái zì Zhī Jiā Gē.” I’m from Chicago.
He gave me a toothy grin and then hobbled on. I wasn’t sure if it was because he couldn’t understand me or couldn’t hear me.
I joined the students as they sang, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around the Old Oak Tree“.
Don’t ask me why that song was chosen to represent the sediment of Thanksgiving, but it was. It wasn’t any crazier than how world, KFC is packed on Christmas as many believe Colonel Sanders is Santa Claus.
The residents enjoyed the ruckus until 11:00 when they started tapping their watches, anxious to get to lunch. Their fuzzy slippers shuffled to their dining hall, a cold room with mismatched chairs squeezed around a king sized table.
Instead of plates loaded with soft foods such as apple sauce and meatloaf, they dined on small bowls of rice, boiled bok choi and chicken soup. But no chopsticks. Instead, their rusty fingers clenched fat plastic spoons.
It was painfully quiet, the only sound being the slurping of broth. No conversation since no one could hear or maybe, there was nothing left to be said.
I saw the old lady teetering as she tried to push off her chair, the cushions swallowing her body like a sink hole. She had shrunken in time, a real life version of one of those apple dolls you made in 4H as a kid, and way too short to get on any of the good rides at the fair. As I held out my hand to help her, she pushed me away.
“She doesn’t want your help,” one of my students explained. I cringed as she got up, fearing her knees would Snap! Crackle! Pop! like my mom’s.
But this lady was as strong as an ox, navigating crutches that were bigger than she was. She wiggled her sausage like finger towards the hall.
“What does she want?”
“She wants you to visit her room.”
“Let’s go!” I nodded.
As we walked down the hall to her room, I couldn’t help but notice pictures on the doors of residence in their better days. Teachers. Accountants. Mechanics. The old woman pointed her crutch to the last door on the left and ordered me inside, passed her private john, where I had to take a quick peek. It had a Western toilet but without guard rails. I couldn’t imagine how old folks could do their business with just a squatty.
Her room was a flashback to the fifties, right One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, minus Jack Nicolson and the big Indian. Being the size of a glorified closet, it had two metal framed beds, one covered with a stack of pink quilts, the other with shoe boxes and shopping bags arranged in such a way that her room had good feng shui.
A vase full of red incense sticks was on a small table, the fragrance as annoying as a rubbery Renuzit.
The old lady fluffed her quilts to make a spot for me to sit.
“Xie Xie,” I smiled.
She then slowly reached into one of her bags, pulling out a huge red apple.
“Bù xie xie nǐ, bù xie xie nǐ,” I declined twice before accepting the fruit, as that’s the proper Chinese way to accept a gift.
She smiled as I took the apple from her hands but I felt guilty, thinking I was taking all that she had. My mind flashed backed to Trick or Treating as a kid, pounding on the door of a lonely man never frequented by masked candy bandits.
“Graham crackers, kids?”
I looked at the apple and wished I had something to give her other than a crinkled business card bearing my Chinese name,
“PURE AND PEACEFUL HAMBURGER BUN.”
I handed it to her with two hands, wishing it was a box of Russell Stover Turtles.
I sat and smiled until it was time to leave, knowing I’d never return down that dusty road.
And she did, too.
That night, I put the apple on my table and just stared at it, fearing if I ate it, the memory of that day would be gone forever.
Then I thought about the lyrics my students sang: Three long years, do you still wove me?
I sighed, thinking I never got a yellow ribbon, just red tape with accountants and a divorce hearing on February fourteenth.
I looked at the wedding ring on my left hand and with fingers trembling just like the old woman’s, I removed it.
I snooped around my small apartment for a safe place to store my past. I smiled when my eyes spotted the perfect resting place: a small bottle of my mom’s favorite brand of caffeine pills, which I converted into a shrine, containing a handful of her precious ashes.
I opened the bottle and dropped the ring inside, taking out her timeless strength.