July 13, 2014

How to live to be 100

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Tonight mom's side of the clan celebrated the 100th birthday of my maternal grandmother.  Much like the gathering of dad's side of the clan last year, everyone flew back to Taipei - including my Brazilian Uncle, cousin and family from Brazil.  As we had done for the two previous celebrations, Last-Minute Uncle booked a banquet room at the Grand Hotel (圓山大飯店) for this occasion.

This was obviously a big occasion, and old friends and relatives were invited to join us in wishing grandma happy birthday.  I got to see a lot of people I haven't seen in decades... mostly people who watched me grow up - whether as elders or people I used to play with as a kid - and certainly people who last saw me before I hit puberty.  We've grown distant over the last few decades, and may not even recognize each other on the street, but the connections remain unbroken, thin as the strands may be.

We sat grandma at the head table with some of her friends and other guests of honor.  The table of 13 included at least 5 members who were above 90, and I estimated that the combined age of the table at somewhere between 1,000 and 1,100.  Not something you're likely to see everyday.

Before tonight's celebrations, a few people had asked me how grandma had been able to achieve her longevity.  I didn't think much of it at first, but eventually gave it some thought...

First of all, grandma isn't one of those people who had a very restrictive diet.  After all, mom picked up a good part of her repertoire from grandma, so they never had a low fat/vegetarian/healthy diet at home.  I grew up with braised pig trotters, pork belly, braised ham hock and other good stuff as home cooking, so grandma never avoided any of that stuff.  But we always did have a balanced diet at home, with lots of veggies and fruits.

And as far as I remembered, grandma's always had a sweet tooth.  This only got worse in the last few years, as her diet shifted to include more sweets and desserts than savory items, even during regular meals.  In the last couple of years she showed a clear dislike for savory dishes, and would happily lap up anything sweet that we put in front of her.  Outside of regular meals, she has a constant supply of sweet snacks and now survives on a certain brand of coffee candy.  It's probably this dietary imbalance that has resulted in her dramatic weight loss in the last 2 years.  She was always pretty chunky before that, but is literally skin and bones nowadays...

Regardless of her diet, grandma always exercised... and in fact she can't sit still!  She proudly recalls time and again about the fact that she was a basketball player in nursing school (what was the number on her jersey again?).  For decades, she would get up early (as old folks often do), walk over to Da'an Forest Park (大安森林公園) nearby and stroll for an hour or more.  When the weather gets bad, she would stay at home but work out by swinging her arms and legs on the balcony - also for an hour or so.  For years she also practiced waidangong (外丹功) and even got little Foodie Wannabe into the act.  The exercise regime probably only let up in the last couple of years.

And she was always strong as a cow (substituting for an ox here...).  She loves traveling (and in fact anything to do with fun) and took trips overseas well into her 80s.  Even as an eighty-something, she would be at the front of the tour group once they got off the tour bus, leaving all the twenty- and thirty-somethings in the dust behind her.  That was always hilarious to watch.

So we celebrate grandma's first hundred years tonight, and I asked one of grandma's friends to make sure that she invites me to her 100th birthday party.  Grandma's still free of any major health problems despite her advanced age, but she has gotten a little frail in the last couple of years.  My wish today is to spend as much time with her as I can, as she's my sole remaining grandparent, and unfortunately, they don't stick around forever...

P.S.  the banquet menu at the Grand Hotel was OK.  The only thing I didn't like was the sea cucumber that came with the abalone, as it was just foul and fishy.  The kitchen should have canned the dish once they realized their supply of sea cucumbers was off.  I'm still kicking myself for having swallowed it, but I couldn't very well have spat it out in front of our guests!

The other problem?  The banquet room we were in stank.  Yes, it really STANK.  Mom noticed the smell the minute she walked into the lobby of the hotel, but it took me halfway through dinner to realize it.  I initially thought it was the sea cucumber in front of me, but confirmed that it was the stinky, moldy carpet (or air vents) as I walked halfway across the room and the smell stayed with me.  Yuck.

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