Count Your Life By Smiles, Not Tears
My dad passed away just as he wanted - at home, surrounded by his family. His only regret might have been that he didn’t make it until Thanksgiving dinner, after days of entreating us to serve a prime rib this year - a treat he himself could not eat thanks to gout, but which he knew his grandchildren would delight in over the traditional turkey. The roast had to be from Costco, of course. This was his last wish.
Now with both of my parents gone, it feels like the end of an era. And, in fact, it is. At 95, my dad was the last of the Lee boys, the five sons of Ling Lee who founded Eastern Bakery in 1924, the oldest Chinese American bakery in San Francisco, a tourist touchstone, a Chinatown “Cheers” for the local community and a time capsule for two generations of Chinese American families whose fondest memories are magically unlocked with just one bite of our famous coffee crunch cake or coveted moon cakes.
My dad manned the counter for as long as I can remember. He had hordes of adoring fans, mostly female, mostly under the age of six, who would make regular visits to see “Uncle Moe” and get a free butter cupcake or noodle puff - the Chinese American version of a Rice Krispy treat. And of course, that smile. Always that smile that made you feel like you were the best part of his day.
So much of local history took place just beyond his counter on Grant Avenue. The Chinese New Year parades, Bobby Kennedy’s convertible motorcade just before he flew to Los Angeles for that fated rally at the Ambassador Hotel, the Chinatown gang wars, the unsuccessful attempt by the Teamsters to unionize Chinatown.
Our bakery was a prime target of the picketers. It was typical of my dad to end up making friends with them. He ran into one of them downtown one day. “Hey! How come you’re not picketing me?” he asked the guy. Needless to say, the guy never came back.
Later the Black Panthers came in to defend Chinatown from the Union bosses. When the police stepped in, the Panthers ran. But not before asking my dad and his brother, Arthur, to hide their weapons for them. But that is a story for another time.
My dad survived thyroid cancer as an Army Air Corps lieutenant in his 20s, suffered racism while stationed in Nebraska with my mom when nobody would rent an apartment to them, lost their first-born child a week after birth and survived a brain aneurysm in his 60s.
But here’s the thing about my dad: He became lifelong friends with the Army surgeon who saved his life, he and my mom found a room in the home of a scrappy young lawyer who eventually became the Governor of Nebraska, my parents went on to have two more children, and my dad recovered from the brain aneurysm thanks to the same surgeon and family friend who saved his life the first time.
The family sold the bakery in 1985, and in many respects I think my dad was free to live his life for himself for the first time at the age of 62.
My parents travelled the world, spent time with their grandchildren and treated themselves to the least expensive condo in the finest neighborhood in San Francisco. And every Wednesday for the next 30 odd years, my dad took the bus to Chinatown to have lunch with ten of his basketball buddies from 8th grade. They called it the Wednesday Lunch Club, only now it’s on Thursday and there is just one original member left.
It is shocking to me to realize I am now the same age as my father was when he retired. I don’t feel anywhere near his age. Maybe it’s because I haven’t lived as many lives as he has.
So, yes, it’s the end of an era. But it’s also the beginning of a new one. I’m not sure what life without him will be like now but I know for a fact that no matter how many tears I shed, I’ll be able to smile.