Normally I am the first to wake up on Saturdays, but today I was the last. I sensed my husband getting out of bed and the cat stretching and repositioning herself in the warm spot he left behind. I felt heavy and immobile. Was it because of the glass of wine I drank last night? I rolled over on my side to face the window, eyes still shut. The last wisps of a dream came back to me and I realized I wasn’t ready to leave.
I dreamed that I saw my parents. We were sitting around a round table inside a windowless dining room. My dad sat across from me, my mom at his right side. Someone whose face I couldn’t see sat in between me and her, and there was another person on my right in between me and my dad, that might have been his younger brother, my Uncle Ito. There were round white plates on the table, but no silverware or napkins. In front of my dad was something flat and yellow on a plate — a dried radish omelet, a Taiwanese specialty. On top of it was a single, small round pastry which I recognized as a mooncake.
We are quiet around the table. My dad is cutting the omelet and mooncake into four pieces even though there are five of us. The only words I hear are my dad muttering, “I haven’t even served this yet and already more food is arriving.” He is looking over my shoulder, at someone I cannot see approaching the table with more food.
That’s all I remember of the dream. What does it mean?
I compare it to other dreams. Whenever I dream about my parents, they are middle-aged, in their 50s or 60s, before disease and old age have taken their toll. The setting is usually flat and austere like a stage set, devoid of extraneous details or bright colors. I think of the paintings of Zhang Xiaogang which depict parents and children in shades of gray, always facing forward, never smiling. The only sensory things I can recall are the white of the plates, the yellow omelet, the golden brown mooncake.
I’ve never been fond of mooncakes. Although they are beautiful to look at, the traditional fillings of sweet red bean, lotus seed paste, and egg yolks don’t appeal to me. I didn’t enjoy these types of sweet, starchy desserts partly because my dad was diabetic, and partly because living in America had prejudiced my palate; my idea of sweets was limited to chocolate, vanilla and fruit flavors. But now I feel a strange nostalgia for mooncakes because of what they symbolize: family reunions, sharing, the togetherness of many generations. This seasonal delicacy that I rejected in my youth has come to symbolize what I’ve lost.
It’s been 30 years since I lived under the same roof, and in the same country, as my parents. My mom passed away first, six years ago, then my dad two years ago. There is no one left who will think of me during Mid-Autumn Festival.
I suddenly remember all the prohibitions against sharing food with the dead. In the movie Spirited Away, Chihiro’s parents are lured by the smell of cooked meat into a lively night market that is populated with feasting hungry ghosts. They eat their fill and are turned into animal spirits. When Persephone is kidnapped by Hades, he tricks her into eating pomegranate seeds in the Underworld and thereafter she is doomed to return there annually, causing the earth above to become cold and barren and devoid of crops each winter. In the Sumerian myth of Inanna, her faithful servant Ninshubur leads a rescue party to bring her back from the Underworld, where she has gone to visit her sister Queen Ereshkigal. The rescuers are given strict instructions by Enki not to eat or drink anything during their mission.
It’s common in many religions and belief systems to leave offerings of food and drink for the dead. When the living offer food to the dead, there’s no issue. But do the opposite and you risk severe punishment; the living must not consume the food of the dead.
In the dream, I am not the one serving food. My dad is serving us. The more I think about it, the more questions I have. Is this the past, present or future? Are my parents living or dead? Who are the other guests? Why is my dad cutting the omelet and mooncake into four portions, not five? Is there someone among us who is a ghost? Or are all of them ghosts except me?
Who is it that is not counted? What will happen if I take a bite?
Grace Loh Prasad was born in Taiwan and raised in New Jersey and Hong Kong before settling in the SF Bay Area. Grace received her MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College, and she is an alumna of the VONA workshop for writers of color along with residencies at Hedgebrook and the Ragdale Foundation. Her essays have appeared in Catapult, Ninth Letter, The Manifest-Station, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and Hedgebrook Journal, and she is a contributor to the anthology Six Words Fresh Off the Boat: Stories of Immigration, Identity and Coming to America. Grace is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto and Seventeen Syllables, an Asian American writers collective. She is currently finishing her memoir entitled The Translator’s Daughter.
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