Autumn Sonata

Eulogy given at the celebration of Julia Liu's life, held online on April 11, 2021

By Eric Liu

How do you summarize a life? A life is finite yet it gives rise to an infinite weave of experience, recollection, association. How do you catalog infinity? 

In June 2019, a week after my mother was diagnosed with metastatic cancer, Jená and I sat with her in her kitchen in Maryland. She was, in a certain way, happy. Happy to be home with us. She did not fear death, she said. But she wanted to share stories from her life. So I turned on my phone and began to record. “Just give you fragments,” she said. “You connect it.”

And that’s what I will try to do today: connect some of those fragments from across the years, and arrange them into six patterns. 

The first is her enthusiasm, the “tremendous spirit” that we have all spoken about today. She joined a traveling Chinese choir even though she often struggled to carry a tune. She did a little jig whenever she finished paying bills. She loved laughing with her dear friends who call themselves the Bon Sisters. In all her many travels in retirement she experienced each culture and continent with gusto. She retained the school pride and esprit de corps of First Girls High School in Taipei – Beinu. She had a knack for joining clubs and in pretty short order leading them. That was true for the Beinu alumni association in DC, the Taiwan University alumni association, and the Chinese American Professionals Association.

At the dinner table, if she was feeling feisty, she might suddenly raise a fist and let out a chant of Maoist propaganda, then burst out laughing. She often left me eager voicemails whenever she saw something interesting on 60 Minutes or PBS. 

She loved to dance, whether in the kitchen, at our friend Deb’s Hannukah party, or with Zoey when Jená and I got married. When I brought Mom to events where she met famous people like Yo-Yo Ma, she’d ham it up and tell them what a demanding baby I’d been. She loved babies. Real babies. Pictures of babies, which she would clip out of magazines and put on her fridge. Babies in videos. 

Perhaps these babies reminded her of the carefree feeling from her life as a young mother. She remembered as paradise the sounds of me, my sister Andrea, and our friends playing in the backyard while she sat in the family room with the sliding door open. She loved being around my high school buddies. We were self-styled wild men who really were just moderately rule-breaking nerds. One of the guys, Rob, recalls a time when Mom was driving us home from Charlie’s house at the top of a huge hill. Mom was a free-spirited driver, which is to say a little reckless, and Rob and I will never forget flying over the top of that hill, feeling like all four wheels of her Buick Skylark were in the air. 

Later, when she was at IBM and a decade or two older than the young programmers in her department, she tried to pick up their lingo. But when they said “Hey dudes” to greet each other, she misheard them, and one day, with great cheer and total conviction, she joined them at a cafeteria table and said “Hi dots!” There was a pause, then welcoming laughter. “Hi dot” is how she and I opened countless calls and emails in after years.

No matter the situation, my mother would orient herself, gather herself, then rely on her natural fearless enthusiasm like a compass, always pointing toward joy and laughter.

That brings me to the second great pattern in Mom’s life: a remarkable ability to adapt.

Julia Liu (Tu Manly) was born in Nanjing, China on February 27, 1937. Her father was a professor of European history, part of the idealistic “May 4 generation.” Her mother was his student. Their marriage displeased both their families so much that they were practically disowned. When Mom was born, their tiny family began an itinerant life during war and revolution, going wherever a college could safely be sustained. 

When she was in 1st grade, her family was at Shaanxi University in Chenggu; they lived in one room with no central heating. They got bowls of water for cooking or washing, the wood-framed windows were paned with paper. She often told of how she'd come home from school and her somewhat bohemian parents would be out with friends, so she'd have to climb into her home through those windows.  

“Not adventure," she said. "Just do it.” She didn’t romanticize the situation. She was an only child left alone a lot and had to figure things out. 

As WWII and the Chinese Civil War ended, her family was safely in Taipei, which became home for middle and high school and college. She made close friends and joined activities like debate club. She was a quick study but an indifferent student. Instead of mastering the Chinese classics, she was consumed by romantic Western novels in translation, like Turgenev’s First Love. She majored in law but her best college memories were of going to see movies starring Montgomery Clift or Ava Gardner. Or sneaking out with friends after curfew to climb the fence and get street food. 

After college, she booked passage on a cargo ship and made her way to America. She arrived in Baltimore with a small bag of clothes and almost no money. But she wasn’t helpless. She was a graduate of Taiwan University, where her father had taught, and she had a command of English. She had no money only because at a port call in Tokyo she’d bought an expensive camera on the notion that she might sell it in America for a profit. And she was soon met by former students of her father, who brought her to New York and took her in while she looked for work. At every turn, someone guided her. Her first job as a babysitter led, through her boss’s ex-husband, to her next job as a file clerk for Chock Full o’ Nuts, the Manhattan-based coffee company. At the office, she was shy and kept to herself, but most days she would bump into a kindly, older black executive named Mr. Robinson. He and his secretary made sure she was treated right. They entrusted her with important jobs like passing out each week’s paychecks. Mr. Robinson always had a nice word for her in the elevator. Only many years later did she learn that Mr. Robinson was a famous ex-ballplayer whose first name was Jackie. 

If enthusiasm and adaptability were two things Mom carried with her in her journeys, so was a lifelong ability to appreciate beauty. This is the third great pattern of her life. She had elegant tastes and a sense of style. But what I really mean is she found beauty in whatever life dealt her.

My mom’s earliest memory, from when she was about three, was of Emei Mountain in Sichuan province. She recalled climbing unsupervised onto a rooftop to gaze at the eyebrow-shaped mountain. She remembered the afternoon sun filtering through the cattails below. She told of drawing pictures on the whitewashed mud walls of their simple country dwelling and making up stories to occupy herself. 

Half a century later she was living in a townhouse development in Bethesda, MD. This chapter began in 1992 with the unwanted independence of being a new widow, and ended in 2019 with the unwelcome dependence forced by her cancer diagnosis. In between, she “experienced life,” as she put it; in the words of Confucius, her “ear became attuned”: she made dear friends, she made a name for herself as a Chinese community leader, she earned awards in her white male-dominated corporate workplace, she learned every roadway in Montgomery County, she traveled the world with friends and family. She also spent a lot of time alone, facing herself. She lived in that Bethesda house longer than anywhere else. Always, her eye was drawn to the windows framing the trees outside, in snow or midsummer bloom. From inside her living room, she took photos like a true poet writes poems. For herself. 

On the sunny morning when I took her from her townhouse to the hospital for the first of two surgeries to fortify her cancer-corroded spine, we drove silently down Route 66. The highway was canyoned by great swaying trees lush with green leaves. It was mid-June. But Mom looked out the window and said, “Feels like an autumn sonata.” 

A few months later, it was indeed autumn and she was at Aegis assisted living here in Seattle, after a cross-country move to be near me and Jená. She’d been through her diagnosis, her surgeries, a wound infection, two stays at a rehab center. She’d come to Aegis for five weeks of “respite care.” Her iPad photo album from that time contains many images of the treetops as their color changed, filtered through the blinds. 

There are even more photos from the next and the last place she called home, a condo near my house where she moved after Aegis to try to live independently once more. The condo was on the ground floor and its patio looked out at Lake Washington and Mount Rainier. As she became less mobile, spending more time in her comfy green chair in the corner, she had a never-ending drama of cloud and water and mountain and light to contemplate. Through five more changes of season, as I sat with her, she would look at that vista and back at me and say, “I’m pretty content here.”

The fourth pattern of Julia Liu’s life was her deeply intuitive way of being.

My mom met my dad, Chao-hua Liu, at a picnic with other students from Taiwan. She told me of their courtship. She had two suitors at the time, Dad and another guy. The other guy was taller, more conventionally handsome. But Dad would talk with her about existentialism. She was torn. So she told both that she had to cut things off. And when she did, two things became clear: first, she didn’t mind ending things with the other guy; second, when she imagined not being with Dad, she said she felt “the sky was falling.” 

They were engaged and built a life of sweet couplehood and parenthood in the 1960s and ‘70s, moving to a new suburban development outside Poughkeepsie called Merrywood, joining a growing Chinese community in the Hudson Valley where many were IBMers. When Dad got kidney disease and had to do home dialysis with Mom’s help, everything changed. Yet they still found little happinesses in walks to the village, raking the leaves, listening to Willie Nelson. They took each day as it came.

She made big decisions by gut, whether it was marrying Dad or deciding to move to DC after he died in 1991 or choosing to try to live by herself one more time in her Seattle condo. But she was intuitive also in the sense of letting things play out, trusting what would happen and never forcing the issue. When I was a toddler, just over a year old, my mother had to return to Taiwan. Her father had fallen ill. When she returned a month later with a short haircut, I no longer knew her. I treated her as if she were a stranger. Mom didn’t get upset. She went about her business, talking to Dad, unpacking her bags. A few hours later it dawned on me who this lady was. I waddled over her way and threw a ball of crumpled paper at her. She scooped me up and held me close. 

She retold that story often at the end of her life. Even in her last weeks she loved looking at a photo of me that had been taken just after I threw that ball of paper at her. 

Four decades later, when she and I took my daughter Olivia to China for the first time, I was trying hard to make everything perfect and super-meaningful. Mom told me to relax. We were scheduled to go to the Great Wall the morning of Olivia’s eighth birthday. I knew showers were forecast and there’d be no visibility once we got to the Wall. I was full of anticipatory disappointment. “Don’t worry about it,” Mom said to me. And indeed, when Olivia awakened that morning and threw open the curtain, she said excitedly, “Daddy, we get to go the Great Wall in the rain!” A Seattle kid. I should have known. Her Nai Nai did know – about her, about me, about patience. 

The fact that Mom was so intuitive meant she raised me in an extremely not-Tiger Mom fashion. She was the opposite of rigid – not permissive, but flexible. She sensed what I was interested in and then supported it. When I started to draw, she took me on the train to the city so we could see Rembrandt’s drawings at the Met. When I started to like classical music, she took me to Lincoln Center, let me check out Vivaldi records from the library. But never did she force me. She let my own intrinsic love for things emerge.

Maybe that’s because she herself was an insatiable learner. And that’s the fifth pattern of her life.  

Julia Liu was the most inquisitive non-toddler I ever knew. Her curiosity was completely uninhibited. Whether at a meeting or a reception or a party, she would always ask one more Why than seemed appropriate – and then one more after that. What does that mean? How does it work? She never pretended to understand; she only did or did not.

She had studied library science after her early Manhattan years and when I was a kid she worked part-time at the Adriance Public Library in Poughkeepsie. Her second career began in the 1980s with computer science classes at SUNY New Paltz. She got a programming job at IBM and worked for the next 25 years. For someone so intuitive she took great pride in the clarity of her thought and her ability to design mainframe operating systems that made complex processes simple, logical, and, well, intuitive. 

After she retired in 2006, she did so much more learning. From her travels she filled notebooks with observations. She took classes at Montgomery Community College in drawing and painting, screenwriting, American novels. She took short courses at the Smithsonian on jazz and hip-hop. She liked to tell how she once saw a hip-hop poetry reading advertised in the Post, put on her sneakers and took the Metro to the venue in Southeast DC, where she was definitely the only Chinese 70something in the room. She joined Chinese book clubs to read the classic texts like Confucius and Dream of the Red Chamber and The Monkey King. She came to like Haruki Murakami’s novels, especially Norwegian Wood, which she read in Chinese then in English. When she stayed at Aegis assisted living, she enjoyed the guest speakers on history and art. When she moved out, she offered to come back and lead a class on Chinese culture. I helped make the PowerPoints, and over three Thursdays in December 2019 she returned to Aegis to teach and have lunch with friends. At one of her frailest points, she got to be her fullest self, alive and alight as she taught. 

That, then, is the sixth and the last pattern of Mom’s life I’ll share: her gifts as a guide. 

My mother was my first and best teacher. One way she taught me was by precept. Like a politician, she developed a few core messages that she repeated tirelessly in our calls: Don’t get cocky. Remember basic decency. Think from animal’s point of view. 

Don’t get cocky and Remember basic decency grew out of my years in politics. For years, she scrutinized all my public speeches and TV appearances to see if I exuded integrity – basic decency – rather than cynical cleverness. Think from animal’s point of view came at the end of an argument we’d had. You need to see things from my point of view, she said. Or a friend’s point of view, an opponent’s, a tree’s, an animal’s.

But maybe the most important way my mother taught me is by letting me teach her. When my dad died suddenly in 1991, I became her workplace coach. She had moved to the DC suburbs to be closer to me. Her unit of IBM got acquired twice over and she ended up as an employee of Lockheed Martin. She liked her work because she got to do global business development. But in many ways, with her artist’s spirit and childlike joy, she was the last person you’d expect to find working at a giant defense contractor. 

Yet there she was. She had to figure Lockheed out. She had to work with military men to organize multiteam projects, or communicate in her second language about things in a third language about C4ISR and the like. So in calls and emails I advised her on negotiation or presentation or strategy. This had been the work my father did. They used to sit at the table after supper and talk for hours about her work and his.

I did my best but sometimes got impatient and frustrated. What I couldn’t see at the time is that by asking for help at all, by putting me in the role of coach, she was showing me how to become the kind, perceptive teacher Dad was. Of course, she didn’t put me in this position. Circumstance did. But to make the best of circumstance, she had to yield. She had to set aside pride, depend on my help, and show me how to help her. 

This pattern held to the last weeks of her life, when she taught me how to let her go. How to trust her sense of things. How to stop pressuring her to eat more, get up more, move more, which was all about what I wished might still happen and not what she, to whom I was supposed to be giving care, truly needed. “Stop arguing,” she said to me in early March. I finally heard her. From then on, most of what we said to each other was Thank you and I love you and You’ve brought me so much happiness.

During the 16 months at her condo, Mom collected colorful paper and pretty images from magazines. She had plans for a collage. Another unfinished work was the story she wanted to write about the cancer chapter of her life. She was going to record impressions that Olivia could transcribe, and call it Autumn Sonata. So that’s what I’ve titled this collage that I’ve made today, this set of six patterns to remember and celebrate what was wondrous about my mom Julia Liu: her enthusiasm and adaptability, her sense of beauty and intuition, her insatiable curiosity and her wisdom as a teacher. 

When the pandemic came, she, Jená, and I became a two-home pod of three. I could no longer take her to physical therapy or to the Y to ride the exercise bike. So we made a home routine that we called PT. Every day after breakfast we stood facing each other, her walker between us, and we did 10 arm lifts outward, 10 forward, 10 arm curls, 10 wrist curls. Throughout, she struggled to hold her head up but her eyes stayed on mine. When we finished, she would catch her breath, and say “pretty good.” Today, mama, I would say more than pretty good. I would say tremendous. 

Julia Liu
  • born

    Feb 27, 1937

  • died

    Mar 24, 2021
    Seattle, Washington

Julia Liu
  • born

    Feb 27, 1937

  • died

    Mar 24, 2021
    Seattle, Washington