A woman of old said, “When Mr Zhang drinks wine, Mr Li gets drunk.”

~ Entangling Vines, Case 55

When I first picked up this koan several weeks ago, I thought it a nice story for explaining Chaos Theory (“When a butterfly in New Mexico flaps its wings a taifun is borne in the South China Sea”). Then I thought it a call to action for social justice: When I use public transportation, I keep the Antarctic’s Larsen C ice shelf from breaking off. But for me, neither of those examples were quite yet Zen. I felt I needed more intimacy, and a story came to me.

My grandparents had “shanty Irish” roots but were able to become “lace-curtain Irish” in Washington D.C., where my grandfather worked in maritime law. They were social climbers, and were disappointed with the choices in husbands both of their daughters made; my mother married a gold-toothed newspaper photographer. Yet they doted on my mother and her six children, and visited every year or two.

My grandfather was the earth’s salt. He married his high school sweetheart when he was 19 and she just 17, and he worked two jobs while going to law school at New York University. By the time she was 20, Ann had had two babies, and wanted out. She ran off with a lover for a year, or so, just before the 1929 crash, but after the downturn, Bob welcomed her home.

A bit stern, he was a man of few words. One afternoon, when I was about nine, my grandfather asked if I wanted to go downtown to get ice cream with him. Ice cream was his favorite sweet, so I said of course, I would. We walked the mile down to the Berkeley Farms creamery, talking little along the way. I ordered a strawberry shake and he a vanilla malt, with a pile of whipped cream and a cherry atop the tall glass. We ate the ice cream in near silence but with great relish, and then walked home together.

Some years later I learned that that very morning my grandfather had gone to the doctor and was told he had adult-onset diabetes, and would have to cut out all sugar from his diet. It was the last milkshake he had in his life. I can still taste the vanilla malt as he spooned it up those many years ago.