For an explanation of 30 Stories in 30 Days, start at Day 1.

It’s Day 6 and I don’t feel like writing anything today. But when I asked myself how I would like to describe my day to someone who might ask tomorrow, I decided “I spent the day writing” sounded better than “I slept in and watched a bunch of Lifetime movies.”

So, I spent the day writing and I ended up with three almost finished stories that are way too long and rambly and pointless and self indulgent and just generally kind of the worst. Kind of like the Lifetime movies of stories. I threw them all away and decided instead to write down three very short anecdotes about my grandmother.

ONE: The Wrong Word.
Once my grandmother was with my aunt and my teenage cousin when their car would not start. They spent a few minutes trying to get it to start, and then lifted the hood like people do when their cars won’t start, even if they do not know how to fix cars. Finally, my aunt went to find help and returned a few minutes later with a nice man carrying jumper cables.

My grandmother said to my cousin, “Oh, I bet that man’s going to jack us off!”

http://sadtrombone.com/

TWO: Baby It’s Cold Outside
For a few years in the mid 1980s my grandfather, who worked in the oil biz, got stationed in North Dakota. I remember going to visit them and being blown away that they were living in an apartment, instead of a house or mobile home. It seemed very cosmopolitan.

My grandmother told a story about shopping in Bismarck–how she stopped to admire some hand sewn pot holders and embroidered pillow cases in a booth in the middle of the mall. The woman running the booth was ancient–“in her 90s, at least,” according to my grandmother. She approached the old woman holding a pot holder and said, “These are beautifully made. They must have taken a very long time.”

The woman replied, “Well, gets so cold here in the winter, the only thing there is to do is sew… and fuck.”

GRANDMA FACE.


THREE: Ancient Herstory

None of us know anything about my biological grandfather, really. My grandmother’s first husband, my father’s father, was out of the picture when my dad was still a kid. And as far as my grandmother was concerned, he no longer existed. There were no photos, no stories. I only knew that his nickname was “Puss” and that he died before I was born.

That’s the thing about my grandmother–once you messed with her or her kids, you became a ghost. You were out of the picture–and I mean that literally. When I inherited her photo albums I found hundreds of pictures of my aunt cut in half, or with gaping holes in them. They were all photos of her first husband who had been unceremoniously removed after their divorce. My grandmother wasn’t satisfied in just cutting him out of our future–she cut him out of our past as well.

When I think of my Uncle Dick, I can’t quite picture his face, so I just think of a phantom arm around someone’s neck. If my grandmother had been in the CIA she would have been really good at giving burn notices.

My aunt and uncle

Your most recent book, Missing Lucile, is about your grandmother, who died long before you were born and, in your own words, was no one very significant. Surely you must realize that grandmothers, especially insignificant ones, are unusual subjects. Not exactly bestseller material. Did you expect only grandmothers to read your book?

I would be delighted to know that grandmothers were reading my book, but believe it or not, I wrote it for a general audience. Missing Lucile is about my father’s mother, who died when he was a little boy. All his life he missed having a mother—that loss colored his relationships with his wives, his children, his friends, even the choices he made professionally. It was the first thing I think I ever really knew about him: that he didn’t have a mother, had never had a mother as far as he was concerned. And when, at the end of his life, he was talking about obsessively about his childhood, and his missing mother, I decided that I would try to find out about her for him.

 

That’s very generous. But let’s be frank, why would anyone else want to read a book about your father’s mother?

My goal was somewhat more audacious than finding information about my father’s mother. I decided I would try to find her. The woman herself who had been missing for 75 years. Lucile. So you could say this book began as a pair of impossible tasks: 1) that I would “find” a person I had never met, and who had been dead for decades, and who had left little behind in terms of a personal record. And 2) that I would give another person something he’d been missing nearly all his life.

 

What a presumptuous idea!

The presumptuousness of this project was almost as startling as its possibilities for sentimentality, but writers are presumptuous. We presume that what we know, or think we know, or want to know, is something other people will want to hear about. We have to be presumptuous, or we would never write anything. But with that presumptuousness comes the terrible responsibility to be worth listening to, to have something to say that is, actually, worth hearing.

 

It sounds like you had a real battle on your hands in this case.

Well, yes. Because not only was I proposing to write about my grandmother, about whom I knew next to nothing, but I was proposing to write about a woman who, in the eyes of the world, did not “matter.” She was not famous. She was not historic. She had done nothing spectacularly horrible—had not murdered anyone, or been a drug addict, or a child abuser. Nothing spectacularly horrible had been done to her: she was not murdered herself, or maimed by an accident, or the victim of a monstrous crime. Nor had she saved anyone, discovered a cure for anything, painted pictures or been on stage. She had not even married twice. She was a woman from Cincinnati, Ohio, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, a woman of her times, maybe somewhat ahead of her times, because she had gone to college in 1907, had been for a while a businesswoman, and had gone to France after WWI to help with the reconstruction.

She came back to Cincinnati, married, had children. Got cancer. Died.

She was, as Virginia Woolf would have described her, a person to whom things had happened. And this is exactly what I found so monumentally challenging about her. As Woolf puts it in a “Sketch of the Past”: “Here I come to one of the memoir writer’s difficulties—one of the reasons why, though I read so many, so many are failures. They leave out the person to whom things have happened. The reason is that it is so difficult to describe any human being. So they say: ‘This is what happened’; but they do not say what the person was like to whom it happened. And the events mean very little unless we know first to whom they happened.”

And that was exactly what I was proposing to do–to discover this woman, my grandmother, Lucile, to whom things had happened.

 

Did your reasons for writing this book—by the way, what should we call it, since it’s not exactly a biography, or a memoir, or fiction?

Let’s call it an uncertain book.

 

Did your reasons for writing this uncertain book change as you were working on it?

I certainly had my personal reasons for searching for my grandmother—I wanted to try to make my unhappy elderly father happy, to give him what he had been missing for 75 years, and by doing so give myself some of what I had been missing as his daughter. But I had my own pressing artistic reasons as well. And to be honest, these artistic reasons were my real motivation for writing this book.

What I wanted to address is the presumption that lies at the very heart of memoir and biography: That by telling the story of another person’s life you are capturing the person herself.

As Virginia Woolf also said, and this is from Orlando: “A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have many thousands.”

How on earth can you capture the many thousand selves of another person?

I managed to find a lot of facts about the things that had happened to my grandmother Lucile. I had a box of small objects that had belonged to her, which I tried to use as a kind of historical DNA to reconstitute her. I had photographs. I had a letter she had written, a few pages of diaries, statements other people had made about her. I had her college transcript. I had her wedding ring. I had my own genetic relation to her, and the shadow of her that had hung over my childhood. But I did not have her. I never had her. Even for an instant. And I knew it.

 

So is that what this book is about, not knowing someone?

Yes and no. Because once I accepted that the subject of a biography—the person to whom things had happened–is always going to be missing, I had another question: So what? Does that mean you have to give up writing about her? Can you write about someone anyway—even someone who doesn’t “matter”–and do it honestly, even when what you don’t know vastly overshadows what you do, like a magic mountain looming behind a boulder in a meadow?

 

You could have written this book as fiction, that seems a fairly obvious answer to your question. You could have made up what you didn’t know. Why didn’t you just call the book Missing Lucile: a Novel?

That’s true. I could have written this book as fiction—but had I done so, I would not have directly addressed another question, which began to seem more and more pressing to me: What if you really do want to find the person herself, what you can find of her, that person to whom things have happened? And what if you want to claim that this person, this ordinary, unimportant person, did matter, if only because she was once alive, as alive as you yourself are now?

 

So what can you do? Is there an alternative?

That is what I wrote this book to find out. And though it is highly debatable that I succeeded in writing a book that would satisfy a reader looking for a biography, or a reader looking for fiction, I did put right at the center my own uncertainty about who my grandmother was. And right beside that uncertainty I put my desire to try to know her anyway. And in the end, this is what I found out: That it is in the act of wondering about another human being that we may come to know her best. Wondering about someone else, looking for clues based on the things that happened to her, and a few things she said, or did—that she liked the word “ribald,” for instance, and read the poems of Heine, and raised chickens, and didn’t wear jewelry—musing about patterns and inconsistencies, that’s what you can do. If you want to find another person, that’s where she is—present within the act of being wondered about. Because as soon as you start wondering about someone, she’s not altogether missing anymore, whether she’s been gone for 75 years or just since yesterday afternoon.

 

But it seems there must be catch here somewhere.

The catch—and it’s a big catch—is to stay honest about what you don’t know, about what you wish you knew, and about what you imagine you know about another person. The danger of any biography is losing sight of how much fiction is going on when you try to write about someone else. It’s fiction we can’t help—we are always going to project ourselves onto other people when we try to understand them. But it’s fiction we should stay clear about.

If we can stay clear about our own uncertainties, then we have a chance at a three-dimensional image of that person we’re trying to understand. Or at least a more nuanced image.

 

Are you saying that focusing on what you don’t know about someone else may be the best way of trying to understand her? That’s a rather radical claim, don’t you think?

A book isn’t worth writing unless it’s radical in some way, though it can be quietly radical. And who’s to say that writing about your grandmother can’t be as radical as writing from the point of view of a cockroach or writing a novel in pieces that a reader can arrange in whatever order she likes? There’s nothing more boring, in a book as well as in life, than something that proves to be just what you think it is. If I have devoted my writing life to anything, it’s to writing books that appear to be one thing and are not really that thing at all.

 

But back to being radical—and perhaps we should point out here that you are a suburban middle-aged woman with a husband, two children and a dog, who votes in every election and believes, more or less, in a two-party democratic system—how are you defining radical, at least in terms of your book?

I am talking about changing the way we think about biography. I am advocating uncertainty as a way to write about someone else. When I see a book described as “the definitive biography of so-and-so” I feel faint. Given the multiplicity of informational sources we have nowadays, most of them contradictory–from blogs and Facebook and Twitter to CNN and Google and Wikipedia to self-interviews–one might be forgiven for thinking that the conventional, unilateral idea of biography would be falling out of favor. But most of us still expect a single product when we read a biography; we are expecting “the life” of the subject. And we want a story “worth reading,” which often means survivor stories, celebrity tell-alls, exposes, confessions. Stories, frankly, that we already know. Those stories have their place, of course, but there is room for a more questioning attitude when it comes to biography.

 

Questioning how?

In the act of wondering about someone else, we take a step out of ourselves for a moment, we step forward to encounter another person. What a radical thing to do! Especially when we acknowledge that it is not the person herself standing there, but a kind of shadow based on who we want to know. A ghost. A silhouette. Our idea of that person.

That idea, that shadow person, has its own dimension, its own vitality, its own ability to shift and change based on how well we’re able to question our perceptions. That idea is animated by our desire to know the person it’s based upon, and that idea is equally animated by our frustration and despair when we’re forced to admit that we cannot, ultimately, succeed.

 

Why despair?

Despair because if we can’t fully know another person, it stands to reason that we cannot fully be known ourselves. We are all mysteries. And perhaps that, finally, is the real job of biography–to acknowledge the mystery of being human, again and again and again.

 

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.


1. There is this photograph of my maternal grandmother holding baby-me.  I’m maybe 8 or 9 months old, decked out in a pink jumper and a stunned expression, as someone off-camera were dangling a particularly baffling toy, or warning me about junior high.  I’m sitting on my grandmother’s lap and she has one hand around my waist and the other delicately supporting my right hand.  We look poised for a dance.  Her eyes are closed, the look on her face one of pure, dreamy contentment.  Someone told me recently that there is no less-complicated love than that between a grandparent and grandchild.  My grandmother’s face certainly suggests this.  She looks like an angel.

2. When my brother and I were small, my grandmother would make us picture books.  She wrote the stories (I remember placing orders over the phone, Illinois to Texas – “The main character should be named Samantha, and I’d like it to involve an elephant” – and then the moment of unbearable excitement after it had arrived in the mail but before I’d read it), drew the illustrations, and stitched together the pages made from wallpaper samples.  I suspect this is what inspired me to want to write in the first place, what made me think of books as things that people I knew made, that anyone could make.

3. In the photograph, she wears on her left hand, which circles my fat baby waist, a green jade ring I always admired.  When she was dying they cut her rings off her swollen hands.  Her hands had always been so delicate.  My strongest sensory memory of her, next to her powdery scent of Chanel No. 5, is the feel of the silken skin on her soft hands, her tidy nails always filed into little tips.  After my grandmother died, my mother had the stone from the jade ring reset and gave it to me.  I’m wearing it now.

4. My grandmother always wanted to be a writer, or perhaps I should say was always a writer.  When she died, my uncle (a writer) sorted through her things and excavated some of her work – breezy gossip columns she wrote for a Kansas paper under the name Betty LaBette, a humorous radio play, a dramatic short story about young families living in New Deal housing in 1940s St Louis, type-written letters and journals.  She corresponded with the journalist (and ex-wife of Ernest Hemingway) Martha Gellhorn, who encouraged her to continue with her writing.  Her stuff is good, too – lucid, smart, funny in a self-deprecating, vaguely Erma Bombeckian way.  (From a letter: “I always feel the less you know about the man you marry, the more interesting it will be to get acquainted with him afterwards, which has amply proven so.” Ha!)

5. Shortly after my grandparents eloped in 1936, my grandfather (who had been a journalism student when they met) found God and decided to join the clergy.  His first gig was as rector at an Episcopal church in Alma, Michigan.  My grandmother, who had loved the bustle of St Louis, where she was involved in local politics and the Women League of Voters, was now, as my Uncle Jim writes, “sort of the local mad woman of Chaillot, locked away in a tower in the tottering castle next to the church banging away at an ancient portable typewriter and emitting blood-curdling whoops and hollers whenever she thought she had written something especially funny or blood-curdling.  She was very bright, truly eccentric and certainly had never bargained for the life of a middle western small town preacher’s wife loaded up with brats, scoured by the shrewdly appraising eyes of parishioners whenever she left the house.”  He adds, “when we were small, the penalty for interrupting her at her writing was often a wildly unsettling outburst, even if one were bleeding, especially if one were bleeding.”  I love this.

6. I think of the photograph when I see my mother hold my daughter, her first grandchild.  I am awash with nostalgia for something I didn’t quite experience, for a moment impossible to remember.  It’s part hormones, part exhaustion, part overwhelming, crushing love.  My grandmother has been gone for a while.  She never got to see me publish my first book, never got to meet this baby, who, I think, has her forehead and nose.

7.  I am writing this in a coffee shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, surrounded by other people tapping into their laptops, their faces moonily lit by half-written screenplays and novels.  I picture my grandmother riding her bike around some small town, books stuffed in the basket; toiling away at a story after the kids are in bed.  There are all these connections between us — the writing thing, but also weird things like proclivities towards reading in the bathtub, or swimming, or eating avocados plain.  I often think, If only she were alive today!  We have so much in common!  But do we, really?  I think she may have been braver, better at ignoring what people thought of her.  She was an eccentric in times and places where eccentricism was not nearly so accepted or expected as in current-day New York City, where I have landed.  She read a lot and wrote a lot for her own pleasure, just for the sheer joy of it, because she couldn’t not.  She raised four children and when she finally had a moment to breathe, instead of devoting herself to writing she took up teaching poor kids how to read. In the end, her greatest work was her family, her long love affair with my grandfather, her life. When the days with the baby seem long, or I am feeling sorry for myself because I haven’t had a moment to write, or haven’t achieved some level of success, or something, I think it serves me well to think of her – to look at this picture and try to access that contentment, that happy, dreamy moment of almost dancing.

I was in a full panic before my mother said anything at all. I didn’t want to ask what was going on, because her face and her shaking hands were confusing me. Usually, when I was in trouble, my father looked at me a certain way, and then it was clear, I’d been caught. But Dad wasn’t there, and all I had to go by were my mother’s ambiguous signals.

Finally, she spoke. “Your grandmother tried to kill herself today. She put a bag over her head and tried to suffocate herself.”

God, I was so relieved.

Almost excited, even. I got out of school early for this. Poor Mom, though. This was her mother, and I can see getting upset over this sort of thing.

My mother had a tendency to swallow this kind of thing whole. She was literally shaking with grief. Some people get upset like this. My mother was one of these people. I guess it’s safe to say I didn’t inherit this particular behavior.

Because Nana tried to off herself, my brothers and I had to visit her all summer long. We’d stand outside the automatic doors of the mental institution for a while, taking in the flowery, summer air, and then enter. The whoosh of sterile, crazy people scent replaced the outside smell, and into Nana’s room we were ushered.

The halls were white. Not sterile white, but eggshell white. It was so crisp and clean. I had imagined shit on the walls and muffled screams. It was more like an elementary school without the children.

The rooms where they kept the patients didn’t have open doors. I don’t see why they didn’t keep Nana’s door open, though. It would have been hard for her to escape, seeing has how she was in her eighties and she only had one leg.

And there was Nana, crumpled on her bed. She looked like she was sinking into the mattress. There was no fat on her body, none at all. The blankets covered her torso, but you couldn’t tell there was anything under there. If there wasn’t a head sticking out the top and a foot sticking out the bottom, she’d easily go undetected.

Nana didn’t ever turn to see us. She knew we were in there, but she didn’t care. Her face would just stay, all squeezed around her mouth, in a perpetually angry expression. She smelled terrible, like week-old urine, but so did everyone else in a mental hospital.

“Lenore, next time you come, bring your Nana Drain-O to drink,” she’d say.

“I’m not allowed to, Nana. Sorry.”

Then she’d try with my brother.

“Benjamin, you’re the smartest one, right? Find Dr. Kevorkian’s number for Nana.”

Ben was only eleven. He just quietly declined and apologized for not being more helpful.

We’d spend a long, unbearable hour in that awful, sharp room, struggling to make conversation. What do you say to a crazy, old lady whom you never really knew to begin with? She blamed my mother for her attempted suicide. After all, my mother was the one who brought the fresh fruit to her in a plastic bag. She was tempting her, obviously.

We watched Nana deteriorate in the next few months. She shrank smaller and smaller, week by week. Eventually, my grandmother starved herself to death.

It was different than I expected it to be. I was very unaffected by her passing. I didn’t even go to her funeral.

I was surprised when my siblings told me that her death was disturbing to them. I didn’t understand. I’ve realized since then, Death made his footprint on me long before Nana went. I was desensitized when he zapped my identical twin sister, Margot, in the womb.

The umbilical chord attached to my twin was pinched, so she couldn’t get any nutrients from my mother. It also wrapped around her neck and strangled her, which was the eventual cause of death. My chord was pinched also, but not as long as hers was. I was born dead, in that ridiculous way where I wasn’t actually dead, but the doctors say I was for dramatic effect. But there was no hope for my twin, who was dead three days before we were born. Dead bodies decompose very quickly, even in the womb. This means I was floating next to my decomposing sister for the last three days of my womb life. I must have smelled terrible when I came out.

The time I spent with my dead sister in the womb, I believe, forced a bizarre relationship between myself and Death. I go to sleep thinking about my mother getting into some sort of horrific accident, resulting in her decapitation, or the portioning up of my little brother on some grimy hotel room floor by the local pervert. I can’t control it. I’ve tried to think about happy things like babies and puppies, but then those babies and puppies die. My brain forces the thoughts into visualizations, and soon, I’ve knocked off my entire family and all my friends.

The worst part about this problem of mine is the irrational mess I become when these nighttime reveries are especially jarring. I’ll start believing that these things are actually going to happen, that I’m psychic. I’ll call my father and beg him not to go to any public places for a while, because there will surely be an armed madman in Home Depot or that little Argentinean restaurant. And he’ll kill Mom, too, but only after he rapes her. It drives Dad crazy. “Stop calling, Lenore. We’re not even going to Home Depot today.”

When I think about my twin, I wonder why I ended up alive and she ended up dead. I always end up feeling some level of guilt for being alive. When I think about this topic in depth, I often feel so blameworthy that I punish myself in small degrees. I’ll stay home from a party I was looking forward to or make myself watch a movie without my contacts so I get a headache. Sometimes this frame of mind moves in a circular motion. In the beginning I will think about Margot, which results in the culpable feeling; a need to reprimand myself is created, compelling me to think about the death of a loved one.

Although Margot’s death certainly did have an effect on me, it didn’t offer an explanation of Death. I didn’t understand it as a child, even knowing about her, and I don’t understand it today. This is tremendously exasperating because I believe that, given my insider’s info, I should have come up with a theory by now. In reality, I just don’t know what happens- I don’t even know what I think happens. I have examined all of the most popular beliefs, and none of them seem logical to me. If there is a Heaven, by now it must be packed. Under the same presumption, Hell would be overflowing with tortured souls. I could go on for hours about why these ideas have an endless string of flaws attached to them but then I feel pressured to come up with a viable hypothesis of my own. Eventually, the thought of it will drive me crazy if I don’t just assume that reincarnation would be a reasonable explanation. I only go with this premise because I believe that recycling is a relatively efficient way of keeping our environment clean. The parallel may be difficult to draw but it is there if you work at it, which I do.

Today, my grandmother and my twin’s deaths are still the only family deaths I have experienced, and I suppose they have both been important.

Even if it affected me in no other way, Nana’s passing made me realize that I was different from others because of the loss of my twin sister. And in the end, no matter how many hours I spend upsetting myself with images of death, or how many sets of twins I see walking around to remind me of Margot, I’m not always bothered by it. I think I benefit in some way by this thing that haunts me. I sometimes think I know more, or that I’m tougher than the rest of the people my age.

I spent one summer taking courses in biology when I was in high school. In the program, we got to dissect human bodies. Real, bloated, dead bodies, and they didn’t cover the faces with surgical napkins, or make any attempt to dehumanize the specimens. While half of the class ran out of the room covering their mouths, and the ones who stayed spent the rest of the day whining about how “all they could think about was the poor departed and their families,” I was holding organs in my hand and laughing at the squishing noise that they really do make when you squeeze.

I have Margot to thank for that.

My old man in a nut shell: he’s too proud to wear a hearing-aid, yet he has no qualms whatsoever about donning a Donald Duck visor with two squares of cardboard fastened behind his ears, and strolling down Viking Way on his afternoon errands.

My_old_man

 

His errands consist of things like buying a piece of sheet-metal that he can bend into a box for the prototype of the sonic ant-deterrent he recently invented.

He calls the cardboard squares behind his ears his parabolic reflectors. They actually work. Try it sometime.

My old man’s a tucker. He tucks everything in– his fucking jacket. He’s also got what I consider to be an unhealthy relationship with Velcro. He wears it everywhere. He fastens his shoes with it, his jeans. He fastens the curtains in the old Nash station wagon he drives with it—and that’s so he can use the porto-potty he installed in the back, which he practically has to fold himself in half in order to utilize, because there’s only about three feet of vertical space back there.

And believe me, he utilizes it.

Sometimes while he’s driving, he has to pull over to the shoulder and fasten the curtains and drop a trout, even as traffic whizzes by. You see, he’s got a self-diagnosed diverticulum. It’s like his esophagus runs straight through to his rectum, I swear. He’s got his crap chute timed like a station master. He’s already eyeing the bathroom halfway through the salad course.

He refers to the whole process, invariably in a matter-of-fact tone, as passing his bowels. He refers to it often. After all, it’s just a metabolic function, right?

My old man pretty much ran out on me when I was eight or nine years old. I still don’t consider him a deadbeat, though. He always paid his child support and the rest of it. My sister’s death really took a toll on my parent’s marriage, so I’m willing to cut my old man some slack for flying the coupe.

Like most kids, I looked up to my dad. But I knew from square one he was certifiable. Other fathers didn’t teach their children Morse code, or get them squirrel monkeys for pets. Other fathers didn’t invent humane pest control devices, or make ice cream out of soy beans.

Over the years, my old man has worked as an aerospace engineer, a Methodist minister, a professional bodybuilder, a videographer, and finally, a naturopath. And like Frank Norris, he never “truckled.”

That’s enough for me.

And I’m not even certain what truckled means, but I’m pretty damn sure my old man never did it, or he probably wouldn’t be wearing parabolic reflectors right now.

I’ve always had a pretty good relationship with my father, in spite of the fact that we’ve spent so little time together. Until recently, he’d been living (quite happily) in the back of a cube truck in the high dessert of south-central Oregon, where he spent his days inventing shit in the sweltering heat– eating carrots, reading the scripture. Fastening shit with Velcro.

But two months ago—upon the behest of my older sister, who was beginning to worry about him alone out in that godforsaken desert in a Donald Duck visor— my father relocated to the island my sister and I live on.

He now lives 4.8 miles away.

So, for the first time since I was eight or nine years old, I’m seeing my father daily. We walk in the woods every afternoon with our dogs– me in my sweat pants, with my hangover, and he in his Velcro-fastened shoes and parabolic reflectors. I have to talk REALLY FUCKING LOUD, because I’m usually in front of him, and parabolic reflectors—in spite of their many attributes – are decidedly uni-directional in their function.

During our walks, my dad frequently says things like:

“Old Laddie is getting ready to pass his bowels.”

Or:

“Good Laddie. Good dog. Boy, you really had to pass your bowels, didn’t you, old boss? He hasn’t passed his bowels since yesterday morning. He really needed to pass them.”

But you know, the old dude is pretty interesting—my dad, I mean. He speaks a little Latin, a little Greek. He knows his theology and engineering and nutrition inside and out. And he knows volumes about the human excretory system. We have some good talks.

Last night, was my old man’s 75th birthday.

My sister and her family are up at Whistler for the week, and my brothers live out of state, and my wife was working– so it was just me and my old man for his birthday dinner.

He’s a pretty finicky eater– not because he’s got a sophisticated palette or anything, just because he’s a health nut.

So I made a salad with organic spring greens, goat cheese, walnuts, and blueberries, with a light drizzle of vinaigrette. I grilled some Japanese eggplant. I made some farfalle with wild mushrooms, kalamata olives, and sun dried tomatoes. I bought a carrot cake.

And I bought two bottles of the only alcoholic beverage I’ve ever known my father to imbibe– Manischewitz Blackberry Wine.

Manischewitzblackberry750

My old man is a cheap date, I guess. I generally can’t drink Manischewitz, or I start feeling like I’m slipping into a diabetic coma—and I’m not even diabetic (though I’ve been told my piss tastes sweet – ah, but that’s another post, perhaps).

Well, last night, in spite of my aversion, I drank Manischewitz Blackberry Wine, and it agreed with me for the
first time.

My old man loved the dinner.

He passed his bowels between the farfalle and the carrot cake.

Old Laddie passed his bowels, too– in case anyone’s wondering.

After his second glass of Manischewitz, my old man got a little woozy and sentimental, and began talking about his mother, whom the rest of us knew simply as Sweetie. She was a gem.

I lived with Sweetie in a senior citizen mobile home park in Sunnyvale, California the last two years of her life.

I was going to college.

She was agoraphobic—hadn’t left the house in over fifteen years. She smoked two packs of Pall Mall Golds and drank a half case of Hamm’s a day.

She liked Ironside better than Perry Mason. I’d say that’s a pretty rare quality.

She spent the better part of her days lounging in a bile-colored lazy boy, popping Tums antacids like tic-tacs. She ate nothing but Swanson’s frozen turkey dinners. Two per day– noon and six.

In fact, when I found her dead– with Tums antacids bubbling out of her mouth– there was a Swanson’s frozen dinner on her bedside table. And I swear to God, the thing was untouched except for the cherry cobbler.

She ate the fucking cherry cobbler and checked out! How cool is that?

We buried her with a Hamm’s and pack of Pall Mall Golds. You may think that’s disrespectful– but then, you don’t know shit.

My father started getting teary as he talked about Sweetie, last night.

Sweetie was the only parent he ever really had.

His father died when he was four.

He grew up in a one bedroom flat in Oakland during the depression, with Sweetie and Grandma Rae.

He said they had a single naked light bulb in the middle of the room, and Grandma Rae tied a button on the end of the chain. And my old man said that pulling that chain and watching that light bulb go on and off as a kid was the thing that made him become an engineer.

He said that things were so lean growing up in Oakland, there was only enough money to feed two people most of the time.

And so my father breast-fed until he was four-and-a-half years old.

He said he can remember stomping around the flat banging pots and pans and complaining he was hungry, until his mother took him in her lap.

He had a mouthful of teeth.

Last night, my father started weeping as he talked about his mother.

He just couldn’t seem to get past all the nutrition he’d deprived her of by all that nursing. She lost all her teeth by the age of forty, he explained, due to calcium deprivation.

His doing, of course. She finally weaned him by drawing spooky faces on her breasts.

Poor guy. Poor everybody. There was my father– on his 75th birthday– gooned on Manischewitz, weeping
like a baby about his mother’s milk.