memoirs reflections

Lee Jackson

I’ve always known that life was short, but that fact never hit me as hard as it did yesterday. I was riding the train home from visiting my boyfriend when I received a text from my mom – “Grandpa was just found unconscious in his apartment. Pray.”

My grandpa, Lee Jackson, was 86 – about to turn 87, but anyone who saw him would assume he was much younger. Always vibrant, full of entrepreneurial ideas and ambition, he was a man that tackled every obstacle the world threw at him and came out on top. He always knew he could do more and was never satisfied to settle. This constant drive made him one of the most dedicated and hardest workers I knew.

My grandpa started out as a beggar on the streets of Shanghai and ended up a successful real estate mogul in New York City. On the side, he also ran an employment agency that helped immigrants find jobs. At our family gatherings, he always gave generous gifts to each of his grandchildren (there are 17 of us). I remember not knowing how to feel about him as a child – observing the small, thin man who always wore an immaculate suit (he slept in it too) and never spoke much, but closely observed the room around him.

His eyes were what got me. Bright, darting, sharp eyes that missed nothing. He also had a deadpan sense of humor. While grandpa’s grasp of English wasn’t the strongest, he had great comedic timing for his dry, insightful remarks and I remember countless nights laughing in the car with my family. We attempted to have dinner with my grandparents once a month, making the hour-long drive into Manhattan and dining on sushi or pho or at one of the underground Chinese restaurants my grandpa favored. Usually, he remained reserved, clutching his cup of tea and letting my bubbly grandma do the talking. However, when he did speak, he shared his opinions passionately. He talked about his ideas to begin a bus line similar to Greyhound or Academy, realizing the lucrative potential it had. He argued fiercely that the cure for cancer had been discovered. He loved playing poker and mahjong and appreciated the quick mind and entrepreneurial spark in my brother Chris.

I remember each time we finished dinner in Manhattan, grandpa would ask if anyone wanted ice cream. If even one person said yes, he would immediately head to the Chinatown Ice Cream factory and buy a 5 gallon container of whatever flavor they had — usually lychee, red bean, or vanilla. Grandpa would then tote the heavy container back to his apartment and scoop out bowls for each of us. Although we’d barely scrape the surface, he always bought at least 5 gallons, making sure there was more than enough for everyone.

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Lee Jackson (left), Jeanne Jackson (right). I was 12 in this photo.

My grandpa is the reason my family carries the last name Jackson. Growing up, I can’t count the number of times people questioned it. Was I adopted? There must be some mistake. When my grandpa moved from China, immigration officers switched his name by accident. His English name was Jackson Lee. However, they received surnames first, and thought he meant “Jackson, Lee.” That fateful day labelled the Jackson dynasty forever and only made his career more iconic. Which other Chinese American carries the name Lee Jackson?

Grandpa never seemed to age. He was convinced he would live forever, so convinced that I nearly believed him. Although he was 86, his spirit was that of a 20-year old, with a hundred more ideas to change the world, and he refused to rest until those ideas became reality. He never retired, arguing that there was too much left to do. If he retired, I think he would’ve gotten bored. His hyperactive entrepreneurial mind needed a constant outlet and I assumed he would live to 100 at least. When I saw him at Thanksgiving, his hair was still black, his skin smooth from the oil he applied religiously, and his suit looked just as immaculate as ever. There was no warning.

I got off the train as my mom’s silver minivan pulled into the parking lot. After throwing my luggage in the trunk, I hopped into the passenger seat. “How’s grandpa? Have you heard anything?”

She looked at me with quiet eyes and shook her head, not pulling the car into gear although we were blocking traffic. “Grandpa’s gone.”

It didn’t hit me like a train because I refused to believe it at first. Rather, it came like a wave, washing over me again and again and again, each time etching its way deeper into my mind and my reality. My first thought was that grandpa wasn’t a Christian and that broke my heart. My second thought was for my grandma. She was at work when his assistant found his body in their apartment. She didn’t get to say goodbye. My third thought was for my father – he had just lost his dad. I couldn’t imagine that.

For the rest of the day, I couldn’t help but contemplate the brevity of life. It’s these moments that put everything into perspective, reminding us how delicate and uncertain the future is. All we have is the present. I was inspired to live more purposefully, infusing meaning into each daily encounter, and not hesitating to tell the people I love how much they mean to me while I still can.

My grandpa was fiercely resilient, wise, capable, and generous. In terms of success, there is no greater story. I can only hope to be as determined, ambitious, and hard-working as he was. Rest in Peace, Grandpa. Thank for providing for all of us and being such an inspiration and role model of perseverance. We love you.

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Family cruise to the Caribbean in 2007.
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Grandparents with their 17 grandchildren!

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