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.

Puo-puo

By Angela Tung

Essay

I was nervous about seeing my grandmother.

“Puo-puo’s really different now, huh?” I asked my brother.

Greg shifted gears, speeding down the Los Angeles freeway towards our uncle’s house in Fullerton. “Yeah,” he said. “Before she had some expression. Now nothing.”

My boyfriend Alex patted my arm. “At least you’ll have the chance to see her,” he said.

I nodded and didn’t finish: Before it’s too late.

The last time I saw my grandmother was two years earlier at a family reunion in Las Vegas. Even then she was slower, her speech slurred, her movements heavy. But she was still herself, playing the same quarter on slots for hours, scarfing down crab legs by the plateful at the all-you-can-eat buffet, beaming when she saw any of her grandchildren.

Now my parents greeted us at the door. Normally my uncle Wen Meng looked after Puo-puo, but that Thanksgiving he and my aunt were in Boston visiting her side of the family. To help out, my aunt Ping had flown in from Connecticut and my parents from New Jersey.

My brother and I were trying to convince our parents to move to California. Earlier that fall Alex and I had moved to San Francisco from New York, and Greg had been living in L.A. since the late ‘90s. But I knew they’d have a hard time giving up their mass of friends back east, mah-jongg every Tuesday and karaoke on the weekends. For now they’d make do with visits to my grandmother.

As everyone hugged hellos, I glanced around. No Puo-puo. Hearing voices from the second floor, I went up. In one of the bedrooms, an emaciated old lady lay unmoving. Her hair was flat and gray. As I got closer, I saw that most of her bottom teeth were missing. The nurse sat beside her, holding her hand and talking softly.

I gently lowered myself on the bed. “Puo-puo?” I said.

Slowly she turned towards me. Her eyes were on me, but I didn’t know if she saw.

#

My grandmother was born in Weihai, a small port city on the northern tip of Shandong province. The youngest of four, she was the family favorite: vivacious, charming, and always ready with a story. She was enormously clever, or neng-gan, as the Chinese said. She read books lickety-split and drew characters as well as any calligrapher. She stitched the finest embroidery and wrapped the most delicious jiao-zi. She could kill a chicken with one swoop of an ax.

By eighteen, she had grown into one of the most beautiful girls in town. It made sense that the handsome youngest son of the richest family would want to marry her. She didn’t even care that he was only a teacher, and would never make much money himself.

During the Communist Revolution in the late 1940s, my grandfather was imprisoned and tortured. He was released, but as a wealthy intellectual, he’d always be a target. He had to run. First he fled to his sister’s house in Qingdao, a larger city across the peninsula. A year later, my grandmother and their children joined them. It was a long and difficult wagon ride.

“The sun was so hot,” Puo-puo liked to say when reminded of that time. “I was holding your uncle Wen Meng and had to cover his face with a blanket, or else he’d have been burned.”

They all hid in Qingdao for another year, my grandparents and their three children, my mother included, crowded into my great-aunt’s small house. Still somehow Puo-puo managed to get pregnant again. Aunt Ping was born right before they left China for good.

On the month-long boat ride to Taiwan, everyone was seasick every day. “Many people died,” said my mother, who was seven at the time. “Puo-puo wouldn’t let us out of her sight.” They made it to the small island. Poor as peasants, they scrimped and saved and worked hard, and eventually, one by one, Gong-gong and Puo-puo’s five children left to make their fortune, via grad school, in the States.

#

Puo-puo came to the U.S. in 1972, the year I was born. My father was finishing his PhD at UC Berkeley and my mother was working at a bank in downtown San Francisco. I spent so much time with my grandmother that I picked up her Weihai accent. A shy child, I clung to her when confronted with a roomful of strangers.

When I was two, we moved to New Jersey, where my father got a job as a research scientist. A year and a half later, my brother was born, and Puo-puo joined us once again, as she would off and on for the rest of my childhood.

By the time I knew her, my grandmother was fat, though that didn’t stop her from criticizing me when I gained weight. Her sparse hair was permed into tight curls and dyed jet black. When she went out, she wore powder and lipstick, and draped herself in jade, pearls, and gold. Once I caught her trying on a fancy sequined black dress in the middle of the afternoon, in preparation for an upcoming party. She giggled at her vanity.

My grandmother was also fun. While my mother was grouchy and often yelled at me and my brother, Puo-puo liked to laugh. Once I told her, “Close your eyes,” and put on her hand a fake mouse on a string. As I moved it, her face puckered with curiosity and she looked down. Seeing the mouse, she screamed and jumped away, then broke down laughing when she realized it wasn’t real.

She never learned to speak English, except thank you and hello. She was a great mah-jongg player and a terrible karaoke singer. “Puo-puo’s singing sounds like a cat being microwaved,” a cousin once said. After more than fifty years of marriage, Gong-gong still trailed her like a love sick school boy, first from Taiwan to the U.S., then back and forth between the coasts.

“Puo-puo visits us,” my mother once said. “And Gong-gong follows.” A decade later my grandmother would stand crying at his grave, while her children left offerings of flowers and his favorite foods.

Her hands were strong. She often stood at the counter rolling out dough for dumplings, steamed bread, and scallion pancakes. Sometimes she took the extra dough and molded doves for me. (I was always disappointed when they’d start to crack and harden.)

When I was losing my baby teeth, I had one that was particularly stubborn. My parents kept saying I should let them wrest it out, but I refused.

“Little Gem, let me see it,” Puo-puo said, calling me by my nickname.

“Don’t pull it out,” I begged.

“I won’t,” she promised. “I just want to look at it.”

As I went up to her with open mouth, she promptly grabbed the loose incisor and twisted it. Hard.

Crying out, I yanked myself away. I didn’t know what I found more offensive, the pain or Puo-puo’s bald-faced lie. I locked myself in the bathroom and blotted my gum with a tissue. I inhaled, and the tooth came out. I emerged triumphant, excited about receiving another dollar from the tooth fairy, having already forgotten what my grandmother had done.

That same year Puo-puo slipped and fell in our dining room, breaking her wrist. It was night time, after dinner, and she had been carrying a load of laundry. Now she lay groaning amidst the previously folded T-shirts and underwear. My mother hovered tearfully while my father called 911. From the living room, I brought over a large pillow, as though that would help.

The ambulance came. I was surprised at how bright the lights were, how they blinded me as I stood in the cold doorway. The next day the kids at the bus stop, who never talked to me, asked what happened. I was surprised that they had seen the ambulance too, that it wasn’t contained in my own small world.

#

Many years later, when I became engaged to a Korean man, I knew Puo-puo didn’t approve. I was never sure why. Was it really only because she didn’t find him handsome enough? That at five eight, she thought he was too short? Maybe too she sensed his distance: he thought his family was better than ours. Unlike my mother, his was soft-spoken. Mom’s cooking was too salty, our background wasn’t prestigious enough. His parents were doing me a favor by accepting me.

When we divorced four years later, my mother couldn’t bring herself to tell my grandmother. Instead she told Aunt Ping, who unlike Puo-puo, kept her judgments to herself. Mom allowed Ping to tell their mother.

Puo-puo was horrified. Not only had my ex cheated on me, but the woman had gotten pregnant.

“Who is she?” she kept asking Aunt Ping. “Some Korean woman?”

Aunt Ping wouldn’t relay the details about the random neighbor my ex had forged a seemingly innocent friendship with over the years. Puo-puo’s imagination churned.

“Little Gem deserves someone so much better,” she said. “She deserves someone who’s her match.”

Three years after my divorce, I fell in love again. Tall with a shaved head and goatee, Alex resembled an ex-convict, but his blue eyes warmed when he smiled. He was a computer programmer who played jazz guitar. He cooked good southern food and was nice to my mother. After just a few months, we moved in together and started talking about kids.

My mother loved his jokes and friendliness; my father admired his handiness around both software and a socket wrench. Quickly he became like another son to them.

I couldn’t wait to introduce him to Puo-puo. I knew she’d love him, that she’d think he was my match.

#

Now I leaned down to her ear. “It’s Little Gem!” I shouted. Half deaf for years, Puo-puo didn’t even bother wearing her hearing aid anymore. “It’s Little Gem!” I pointed at my nose, Chinese style.

Her eyes locked with mine, but she didn’t speak or smile. My brother said just a few months ago, she had smiled at him. Did she recognize me? Later I’d try to introduce her to Alex, but couldn’t tell if she had heard, if she understood what this strange Caucasian man was doing there. I didn’t know if she saw how we nestled together on the couch, how he kissed me freely in front of everyone, how happy I was now. I didn’t know if she saw now that I was okay.

Slowly she reached her hand towards mine. I grabbed hold of it, and found that it was still strong.