Ghosts

By Angela Tung

Memoir

“Cancer,” my father’s voice whispered in the night.

I rolled over on the mattress on the floor. The light was on in my parents’ bathroom.

“Cancer,” my father said again. “Now it’s in her bones.”

Nai-nai, I thought as I drifted off back to sleep. He was talking about my grandmother.

The year my father’s mother got sick was the same year I couldn’t sleep. I was nine and had seen The Exorcist at a friend’s house by mistake. I didn’t know it was scary till the girl started flipping back and forth on her bed, her eyes rolled up, and her throat swelled as though by a bee sting.

“Maybe you shouldn’t watch this,” said my mother, who was playing mah-jongg with the friend’s parents. But it was too late.

Shortly afterward, I came down with the flu. Weird thoughts of demons and shaking beds mingled with my fever. Too much cough medicine gave me hallucinations – the curtains in my bedroom shrank and grew, shrank and grew – and the jitters. I had ringing in my ears and could only sleep where there was noise – in the living room with the TV on, in the den with the clock radio, anywhere there was someone else so that I could hear their breathing. On bad nights though, nothing worked, and I’d sit snuffling on the stairs, long past midnight.

I was already an anxious kid. I worried myself into stomachaches over book reports, was terrified of situations with lots of people I didn’t know, and broke into tears over any harsh word. But now I felt nervous all the time.

One night when my father came home from work, I threw myself into his arms. I was crying uncontrollably.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, concerned. “Why are you crying?”

“I don’t know,” I sobbed. “I can’t help it.”

My parents worried silently, as they did about everything. Our grades, the mortgage, the kids on our block who called us ching-chong. My father kept his concerns about my grandmother quiet too, whispered only to my mother at night.

He rarely talked about his family. It was my mother who showed us the black photo album hidden in the closet, the tiny black and white photos of Nai-nai, older and younger, but always the same. Her hair in a bun, her face bare of make-up, her large bucked teeth protruding over her lips.

“You don’t want teeth like Nai-nai’s, do you?” my aunts on my mother’s side said when they learned I was still sucking my finger.

No, I didn’t. I wanted to look like someone pretty in my family. Everyone said my brother resembled my mother’s handsome baby brother. I told myself I was the spitting image of my father’s beautiful sister.  I knew I actually wasn’t, that I took after my father, who had Nai-nai’s smallish eyes, her peasant cheekbones, and thick coarse hair.

“Your grandfather didn’t want to marry Nai-nai,” my mother told us. “It was an arranged marriage.”

I gazed at the photos of the handsome young man. He had big eyes, round black glasses, and favored natty suits and ties. When the Communists took over China, Nai-nai and her two children fled to Taiwan while my grandfather stayed behind. I wasn’t sure why. He worked for the government and couldn’t get away. Or he underestimated the situation and thought his family could return. Or he saw it as a chance for escape.

Whatever the reason, he’d eventually marry the widow of one of his colleagues, and would raise the widow’s daughter as his own.

At nine, I didn’t think too much about my grandmother, although I knew she was ill. I wasn’t close to her the way I was with Puo-puo, my mother’s mother. Puo-puo was loud and fat and cooked constantly – dumplings, scallion pancakes, and steamed buns. During the summers, she taught us Chinese, and quizzed us like a real teacher. My grandfather, Gong-gong, would watch game shows all afternoon with the volume turned high.

“Come on down!” he’d shout with Bob Barker.

The several months Nai-nai stayed with us was like living with a specter. She mostly stayed in her room, knitting vests and socks from brown scratchy wool. She’d make sudden appearances, once to present to my brother and me origami animals she had folded from pages torn out from old magazines (we weren’t impressed). Another time to scrub pots and pans with the same torn-out pages, which for some reason, made my father mad.

“We have perfectly good paper towels!” he yelled.

When the weather got warmer, she emerged again to wander in the wood behind our house with a scythe. I wasn’t sure what she was trying to do. Clear weeds, perhaps. Sometimes she returned with flowers; once she came back with poison oak.

My father was so angry, he couldn’t even say anything, just shook his head. My father rarely lost his temper. If he did, it’d be for a second, then over, unlike my mother who was a storm that raged on and on. A nurse came to help with Nai-nai, and it was my mother who sat with her and translated.

Nai-nai was always nice to us, in her quiet way. She was always smiling. But I was glad when she returned to L.A.

* * *

My nervousness continued through the rest of the school year.

Scary things followed me everywhere. Commercials for The Elephant Man on TV. I didn’t know what Joseph Merrick looked like, but what I imagined was far worse. The two-faced man on That’s Incredible! UFOs and aliens.

When my language arts teacher didn’t feel like teaching, she read us Alfred Hitchcock and Edgar Allan Poe. We fourth-graders listened with horror at The Black Cat, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Sometimes I was able to tune out, but then somehow I’d catch the scariest parts: a man peering through a keyhole to see a troll-like creature drain a woman of blood. At night I’d lay petrified, wanting but not wanting to peek through the crack of the door, in case I saw the same thing.

My father came and went, came and went, to Los Angeles. He’d always leave in the early morning and return in the dead of night. Finally, that spring, Nai-nai died.

“Bow to Nai-nai,” our mother told us gruffly. We’d just run in from playing. A large picture of Nai-nai, embossed inexplicably in a porcelain plate, sat on the kitchen counter.

Did my father know? I wondered stupidly as I bowed once, twice, three times. He was watching television in the living room. He had no reaction.

I wasn’t sure if I believed in ghosts, but I wondered if Nai-nai’s was with us. The creaking in the room where she stayed were her footsteps, the heater click-clacking were her knitting needles. I stopped sleeping in the den, which was where Nai-nai had slept. I bunked in my brother’s room till he got sick of me. Finally, over a year later, I moved back into my own room.

* * *

I once asked my father about his father’s second wife. I was in the 7th grade and had a family tree assignment. My question was purely pragmatic: Should I include his father’s second wife and daughter in the tree?

My father’s face darkened. “Who told you my father has a second wife?” he asked. “My father doesn’t have a second wife.”

Confused, I felt my cheeks burn. “Mom said – ” I started.

She appeared in the doorway. Without looking at her, my father asked, “Did you tell her my father has a second wife?”

Her mouth dropped open. “No,” she said. “I didn’t say that.”

It would be a long time before I asked my father about his family again.

* * *

My junior year in college, my grandfather died, and only after that could my father display his portrait. Only then would the black album appear on the shelf with our other photo albums, and in it pictures I hadn’t seen before. My grandfather and two young men in 1930s New York. Decked out in suits, fedoras, and long winter coats, they posed on top of the Empire State Building, on Fifth Avenue.

I was amazed. How was he able to go? Did he ever get to go again? Did he think, looking at the snapshots my mother secretly sent him, me on Columbia campus, at Rockefeller Center, in Central Park, Now my granddaughter is there too, where I once was, so long ago?

“My father was very handsome,” my father says now. “Of course I look like my mother.”

I don’t know if my grandfather’s second wife is still alive. His stepdaughter is. Does my father ever think about seeking her out on one his annual trips to China with my mother? His stepsister would be able to tell him all about his father. But would it be too painful, knowing how much he had missed?

My father is now the same age as Nai-nai when she came to live with us. She had already seemed ancient at 70, as though I might break her if I sat on her lap. My father walks three miles a day, and sings karaoke and plays mah-jongg several times a week. He reads two or three books at once, and paints constantly.

But he’s aged suddenly, in the past five years or so, since his retirement. His hair is grayer, he’s a bit more stooped. He can’t hear as well. He’s not a grandfather yet, and I want to make him one, not an easy task now that I’m 38. Some nights I lay awake worrying about this. What if I never get pregnant? My boyfriend and I could adopt but would that be the same? I don’t want my father’s lineage to die out.

I’m not ready yet for my parents to be old. I look for obituaries of people ten, fifteen, twenty years older, and somehow that makes me feel better. I don’t want them to be breakable, then gone, then mere ghosts. I can hardly bear to imagine walking through their empty house, only traces of them left in hollow clothes, untouched books, the places in the bed where they once slept.

For now, I remind myself, they’re real. For now, it’s not too late.

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A long-time New Yorker, ANGELA TUNG is a writer in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in CNN Living, The Frisky, Dark Sky Magazine, Matador Life, The New York Press and elsewhere. Her Young Adult novel, Song of the Stranger, was published by Roxbury Park Books.

Her latest book, Black Fish: Memoir of a Bad Luck Girl, chronicles the failed marriage between a Chinese woman and Korean man, both American-born but still bound by old world traditions. Black Fish was short-listed for Graywolf Press' 2010 Nonfiction Prize.

In addition, she's a writer/editor at Wordnik.com, an online word source, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. Visit her at angelatung.com.

49 responses to “Ghosts”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    You know, Angela?

    My Mom and Dad are dead and gone for a long time now, but I still find myself wanting to tell them things, show them things. I’m pretty sure my dad watches; I’m equally sure my mom doesn’t care to.

    I miss my dad something awful and I am grateful that my mom is gone, horrible as that may sound. I dream sometimes that dying changed her, made her whole again, but I find it hard to swallow.

    How fascinating that you have an aunt in China! It is possible also for you to visit with her and learn about your grandfather and his second wife. Your dad doesn’t have to know. You might need to, though, eh?

    This is an engaging story of your family and I would love to hear more. You write so well, so invitingly.

    • angela says:

      that is such a compelling image, the idea of dying making your mom whole again. i can understand being glad that a parent is gone. i know a few people who’d be better off without them.

      going to china to seek out this step-aunt, or whatever she is called, has crossed my mind. the last time i was in china was more than 10 years ago, and i may want to go back. at this point, i think my dad would actually be okay with it – well, hmm, i don’t know. he’d be okay to talk about it, i *think.* i may need to test that out with my mom first.

      • Irene Zion says:

        She’s your dad’s half-sister, so she’d be your aunt.
        You gotta go see your aunt, Angela!
        It’s not like it’s so easy for her to come see you.
        Bring a camera.
        Bring pictures of the family.
        She may not even know all of you exist!

        Yeah, I think maybe when she died, God let her be who she would’ve been without the crazy.
        That would be the nice thing to do, and God’s nice, right?

  2. As someone who once spent an entire summer being haunted by visions of the Elephant Man after having watched the movie on tv by accident (I did see what he looked like!), I related to this right away. But your story offers so much, particularly the way you paired the childhood ghost fears with the creeping tragedy of your grandmother. I enjoyed the minor details too, like your grandfather saying “Come on down” with Bob Barker and grandmother scrubbing pots with torn-out magazine pages. It’s all surprisingly vivid.

    • angela says:

      thanks nate!

      the Elephant Man really disturbed me. i finally saw the movie in college and was less disturbed by his deformity than by the idea that he couldn’t lie down to sleep, and also that scene when he sees himself in the mirror, and is just as horrified as anyone else.

  3. Matt says:

    This post is like a finely-wrought crystal goblet: so beautiful and so delicate all at once.

    The bit about your childhood phobias reminds me of something: when I was a little kid I was pathologically terrified of violence in movies and television. Even Star Wars was sometimes more than I could handle. What I was really doing, of course, was transferring the upset and confusion I felt about the fights my mother and father were having to an external source.

    I agree with Irene; if you could handle it, I think you should make your own research trip to find your grandfather’s second family. You never know what answers you might find.

    • angela says:

      matt, you’re too kind!

      your transferring your fear to movies is so compelling. my parents were peaceful, but i wonder now too if my anxiety and insecurity were just manifesting themselves in fear of movies and the unknown in general. imagining the Elephant Man was far scarier than the real Elephant Man.

      a research trip about my grandfather’s second wife and family would be amazing.

  4. Wonderful as always Angela! I love the names, too: Nai-nai, Puo-puo, and Gong-gong. Everything always doubled. Have you been to China? Would you look up your father’s step-sister? Might be a whole new novel for you to write.

    • angela says:

      thanks jessica!

      i lived in china for 6 months about 10 years ago. it didn’t even occur to me back then to look up my father’s family. it would definitely be a lot of great material for a family memoir.

  5. I love the images you’ve created here. All the characters really come alive.

  6. Having been traumatized by both The Elephant Man and The Exorcist as a child, I clearly identified–and you were able to relate family connections and death with the general anxiety and sensitivity of yourself as a kid. I really enjoyed this piece. I loved your grandfather saying “Come on down!” with Bob Barker. Your father and mother–all your relatives–were wonderfully rendered.

    Love this:
    “I can hardly bear to imagine walking through their empty house, only traces of them left in hollow clothes, untouched books, the places in the bed where they once slept.”

    • angela says:

      thanks victoria!

      those movies were indeed traumatizing, weren’t they? i’m over The Elephant Man at this point, but The Exorcist still freaks me out. and yet i can’t help but watch it whenever it’s on.

      someday i’ll write something about Gong-gong too. in addition to solitaire and game shows, he enjoyed bananas and cereal for dinner. (that would have been his internet dating profile.)

      • Very sweet and funny. For my grandfather, it was Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune–every night, TV super loud.

        Would love to read more about Gong-gong.

        This piece really evoked the silence and rifts that grow and develop in families–taking on a life, creating these unsaid spaces of new meaning. Really complicated. I look forward to reading more.

  7. Marni Grossman says:

    I particularly liked this line:

    “the tiny black and white photos of Nai-nai, older and younger, but always the same”

    As always, lovely and evocative.

    • angela says:

      thanks, marni.

      i’m always wary about including photographs in my writing because of what a writing professor said years ago – “no mirrors, no pictures” – but how can we not if we’re writing about family?

  8. Angela — you are brilliant at evoking those quiet moments of familial life that – in retrospect — are weighted with so much emotion. Just beautiful. ~ r

  9. Dana says:

    Angela, I’m not sure if I’ve ever commented on your work before but I’ve read a lot of your writing here and I always love it. (I rarely comment when I read from my iTouch because I’m a wordy bitch and I have chubby little fingers.) You’re really good at fleshing out your characters with special details, re: the origami and the scythe and the poison ivy (Ha!).

    “I wasn’t sure if I believed in ghosts, but I wondered if Nai-nai’s was with us. The creaking in the room where she stayed were her footsteps, the heater click-clacking were her knitting needles.”
    Childhood Neurosis 101. I wonder — do we all have those thoughts as children when we first lose someone we know?

    And.. I so share your sentiments with your last paragraph and final sentence…

    Thanks for posting.

    • angela says:

      thanks, dana, for commenting!

      i wonder why kids have such crazy thoughts. maybe they just try to fill in the blanks and end up coming up with crazy conclusions? i remember my best friend in kindergarten often mentioned she was Catholic. i had no idea what this meant. kristen seemed like a regular girl, except that she had very hair arms. my conclusion? Catholics were people with hairy arms.

      • Dana says:

        LOL! re Kristen the Catholic. I only knew a few Catholics myself when I was young. My understanding was that they were allowed to smoke and drink and have lots of children and use the word God when angry. Baptists and Lutherans however were not allowed to do smoke or drink or use God’s name in vain. Their way looked more fun.

  10. Gloria says:

    This is my favorite line: once to present to my brother and me origami animals she had folded from pages torn out from old magazines (we weren’t impressed) ha ha ha ha – It’s funny ’cause it’s true. Kids are thankless assholes. And I mean that with all the love I have.

    Angela, you write about your family with singular ability. Your stories are all so engaging and they always make me smile, even when they’re sad. I love reading you.

    But wait…you’re 38??? What the… I mean, 38 is not old, but it’s much older than you look in your photo. You’re gorgeous.

    • angela says:

      “kids are thankless assholes.”

      you put it so well. of course now i feel like *such* a jerk for not being nicer to my grandmother!

      “But wait…you’re 38??? What the… I mean, 38 is not old, but it’s much older than you look in your photo. You’re gorgeous.”

      i love you, gloria. will you marry me?

      • Gloria says:

        Wow. This is so sudden… But what the hell – yes! I will! I WILL marry you! As long as A) I don’t have to go down on you, B) I don’t have to move, and C) I can still have sex with men (later – after the winter solstice.) (You can still have sex with your boyfriend, too, by the way.)

  11. Richard Cox says:

    You sketch such vivid and lovely portraits. Like peeking into windows of your family and its rich history.

    I’m sorry about all the scariness after watching The Exorcist. I didn’t see that ’till my 20s and by then I thought it was silly. But I remember watching The Amityville Horror when I was a kid, which is also silly, but scared the bejeezus out of me then.

    Is that how you spell bejeezus?

    • Richard Cox says:

      I hate not closing HTML tags.

    • angela says:

      thanks richard!

      when i watch The Exorcist now, it still scares the crap out of me. it seems really scary! but like you said, i don’t know if that’s just because it scared me so much as a kid. as for Amityville Horror, i saw that when i was older and was disappointed it wasn’t creepier.

  12. Simone says:

    Angela, I love reading your stories. They’re well constructed and beautiful.

    My maternal Grandmother, ‘Ma’ we used to call her, passed 8 years ago. I have fond memories of her. One such memory is of her sitting in her chair in her lounge (living room), cigarette in one hand and a fly swatter in the other. When any of her grand-kids would do something she didn’t like she’d threaten to give us a “bunch of fives” while shaking the fly swatter at us. We were genuinely scared then, but today we laugh about how comical it actually was.

    “I don’t want them to be breakable, then gone, then mere ghosts.

    You can’t stop death from happening. Death, yours or someone else’s, is inevitable. Stop worrying about what will happen if they’re gone, why not enjoy the time you have with them now.

    Again, beautiful piece.

    ***

    Bunch of fives: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/79500.html

    • angela says:

      simone, i love that image of her grandmother! the cigarette, the fly swatter, and the “bunch of fives” (awesome expression).

      i definitely agree about trying to enjoy the now with my parents, and in general.

  13. JM Blaine says:

    Me too
    I am so trying
    to be in denial
    about my parents
    aging.
    Thank God
    they are still so
    young-acting & active
    but still..you know?

    I watched the Elephant Man
    on cable when I was a kid
    & I’m still messed up from it.
    It made me
    angry at God
    & longing for God
    at the same time
    which in truth
    I think is what
    real religion is.

    • angela says:

      It made me
      angry at God
      & longing for God
      at the same time
      which in truth
      I think is what
      real religion is.

      you put that really well, and i think that’s what makes David Lynch’s movie so brilliant. sure, as kids we’re freaked out by the guy’s scary-looking face, but you get at the heart of the movie and Merrick’s story.

  14. Joe Daly says:

    Phew. This was a tough read. In a good way.

    My dad is approaching age 94, so the dilemma of aging is forefront on my mind. So I call him everyday and we chat about anything from the best way to make a salad to the stock market. He still golfs once a week and carries his own bag, which is remarkable.

    The stories from his past are so far removed from my era that I constantly ask him to tell me stories about growing up. I’m thankful that he’s around so we can have these conversations. And when he tells me about growing up during the Depression and WWII, my attention is rapt.

    A typically excellent, thoughtful piece, Angela.

    • angela says:

      your dad sounds amazing!

      my grandmother, Puo-puo, is about the same age. the fact that she has lived through nearly the entire 20th century just blows my mind.

  15. An affecting ghost story in many different ways, Angela. I like all the linking themes and the repetition of the different iterations of that idea.

    And I really love bringing up That’s Incredible! Who could forget Skip Stevenson? I don’t remember the two-faced man, but I vividly remember Yogi Kudu folding his entire body up into that tiny clear plastic box. I think they even then threw him the box in a pool for an hour. Or maybe I just wished that happened.

    • angela says:

      thanks Sean!

      i think Skip Stevenson was on that other 70s/80s gem, Real People. i always get the two mixed up. i think That’s Incredible! was more gross/scary, and Real People was funnier.

      the only other thing i remember from That’s Incredible! was the bit on microscopic organisms living on our skin and eyelashes, which of course freaked me the fuck out.

      • Oh, man, you’re right. So was it John Davidson on T.I.? I know I could Google it, but that would be less fun.

        My daughter (5yrs old) informed me of the eyelash/organisms, I kid you not, just last week. She seemed fine with it.

        • angela says:

          yup, John Davidson, Cathy Lee Crosby (Bing Crosby’s daughter, I believe), Fran Tarkenton, who i remembered very clearly as a woman till i Googled him.

          haha re: your daughter!

  16. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Wonderful piece. The “secrets” about your family’s past are so much like ghosts, too. You share such vibrancy about them.

    For years, I couldn’t stand to watch the part in THE EXORCIST when Regan has that machine flinging around her head to do a scan. Scared me sh******. WAY worse than the head turning around and spooky voices. Oh, and the music in THE ELEPHANT MAN music…. *shudder*

    • angela says:

      ronlyn, that’s funny because i almost called the piece “secrets.”

      i also can’t stand the part when they stick a needle in Regan’s throat. i can’t remember the music from The Elephant Man. now i want to rewatch the movie.

      • Ronlyn Domingue says:

        Who can pass up a piece entitled “Ghosts?” 🙂

        Oh, yeah, that needle bit is in the scan scene! HORRID!!! ACK!!!

  17. I think this is my favorite piece of yours. Ripe with culture, family and emotions. Has all the right ingredients…

    Hope you’re able to resolve your feelings of pleasing your family.

  18. Judy Prince says:

    I love the piece, Angela—-you once again, and maybe even more this time, made me smile, giggle, and get memory tears in my eyes at unexpected moments.

    You make a delicious dumpling out of what at first seem scraps of quotes (“Come on down!”) as well as images recalled and commented-upon (“A large picture of Nai-nai, embossed inexplicably in a porcelain plate, sat on the kitchen counter”). Your writings are deceptively simple, having been carefully gathered and composed.

    Can you translate for us the Chinese names?

    And how’s the job coming?

    • Angela Tung says:

      thank you so much judy!

      all the names are the Chinese words for maternal and paternal grandparents.

      Nai-nai = father’s mother
      Yeh-yeh = your father’s father
      Puo-puo = mom’s mom
      Gong-gong = mom’s dad

      but there are variations as well. these titles are from Mandarin Chinese based in Taiwan. someone from mainland China and obviously a different dialect would have different names.

      aunts and uncles depending on which side they’re from, have different names too, as well as if the aunt or uncle is related by blood or marriage. and depending on how old the aunt/uncle is to the parent, the aunt/uncle would be “big,” “small,” or numbered.

      the job’s going well! part-time is perfect for me, and working for a small start-up is really cool and different than the corporate world. a nice change.

      • Judy Prince says:

        angela, great news about your job! How marvelous that it has worked out for you.

        Thanks for the schema of names for your mom’s and dad’s parents.

        In Taiwan, I only remember Tai Tai, which I think means wife. I love the sound and feel of saying Mandarin Chinese. Its combos of the 4 tones remind me at times of Chinese musical instruments.

  19. Simon Smithson says:

    Oh! Look at the circle you made, from lying awake as a kid to lying awake now…

    MeiMei is little sister? Maybe? Is that right?

    I’m increasingly fascinated by other people’s families. I want to know how they work, to see how all of the pieces fit together. I have no idea why – maybe it’s because my own parents are getting older, and frailer, and I’m much more aware of their mortality (and humanity) than I ever have been before.

    Ah well.

    It happens.

  20. […] She loves her maternal grandmother, Puo-puo…and was haunted by the death of her paternal grandmother (and the genealogical issues it brought up). […]

  21. […] The Exoricst and then getting the flu right after and being doused with too much cough medicine. I originally wrote it in combo with my paternal grandmother’s death, but reading it again, realized it was a forced […]

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