Peter Ka-Mei Chu was born in Hong Kong in 1939. Eldest of four, he came to the US on a boat when he was just 19, to make a better life for himself.
To make something out of nothing.
He had the typical immigrant story.
He worked hard. Four jobs at once to support his family overseas.
He was a penny pincher, counting the change at the McDonald’s drive through.
He fixed things by himself. But everything was backwards at home. You switched off the light to turn it on, turned on the hot water to get cold.
He had to assimilate to a new culture and language, but I don’t think it was hard for him.A boisterous man, his loud joyful laugh could disarm anyone.
Everyone loved him, including his coworkers. On his business trips to Puerto Rico the staff nicknamed him ‘Pedro Mascar’.
“Mascar” means “to chew” in Spanish.
Like any dad worth his salt, he was an expert at embarrassing me.
“MING!” he’d yell in the middle of crowded stores. His battle cry to let me know it was time to leave.
While I was on stage during school ceremonies i’d hear “that’s my son!” shouted from the audience.
And he’d record it all with a VHS camera the size of a suitcase bolted to his shoulder
He was larger than life. And loved every minute of it.
He loved action movies. The more Schwarzenegger, the better.
He loved animals.
He was proud of his koi fish he raised in the brick pond he built himself.
His canaries would sing from their cages in the warm summer sun, serenading him as he worked in the garden, wearing his straw hat and tattered white t-shirt.
He’d make sure to tell everyone how much dogs loved him. (Because they did.)
He loved music.
Sometimes at night I’d catch him downstairs, sitting alone on the couch in the dark, listening to music, usually classical guitar.
“Come join me” he’d say. “Isn’t it so beautiful?”
He loved nature. Each year my parents would take us to Yosemite, where we’d burn pine cones in the campfire, sail leaf boats in the cold stony rivers, and eat steaks cooked on dad’s green propane stove. At night, he’d tell Monkey King stories to my brother and me on the porch of our cabin, surrounded by pine trees.
He loved to eat, cramming us into the Volvo to drive an hour to his favorite restaurant where the waiters knew him by name and could recite his seven-course order by heart. We’d get the biggest table because there was so much food.
“Eat more!” he’d exclaim in a jolly tone.
Because to him, food was love.
And he loved us so much.
He gave the best hugs. “My baby,” he’d call me. “You’ll always be my baby.”
His eyes lit up holding his grandkids in his arms, soul aflame.
They were his proudest accomplishment, the reward for his life of selfless service to his family.
His treasure at the end of the rainbow.
Over time, he started to forget Ellis’s name.
Fumbling, he’d call him “big boy”, but knew deep down how much he loved him.
Dementia slowly robbed him of his memories, the Parkinson’s his physical capacities.
It was painful to see a man who knew he could no longer take care of his family, the only offering he could give in return was reduced to giving thanks to his care takers.
“Ming, thank you for changing my diaper,” he’d say.
This was the man who’d carry me upstairs to sleep, panting, because I was too old to be carried.
A man who woke up every day at 5 to support his family.
A man who built something from nothing.
One day, as he was laying in his hospital bed, I asked him how he was doing.
“Ming, good company, good food, what more can you ask for?”
As he would tell us,
“I love you dad.
I’ll always love you.”
34.00333° N, 118.01609° W