We were supposed to move into our new house that summer. Our old house was already sold, but then we found out construction had fallen behind. September, they told us.
I was six and didn’t really understand what was happening. All I knew was my mother was suddenly packing all the time, and we were getting on a plane to stay with relatives in California, my father left behind.
This upset me more than anything. “Why can’t Baba come with us?” I’d ask.
“He has to work,” my mother would tell me in her gruff way: Stop fussing.
To save money, we stayed with my uncle in his two-bedroom apartment in Berkeley. It was a tight squeeze. My grandparents were already living there, which meant my aunt and uncle in one room, my younger brother and I in the other with my grandmother, and my grandfather and mother in the living room.
There wasn’t much to do there. My uncle would take us to the playground, and we’d always come home with our shoes full of sand, which we once dumped in the middle of the living room till finally the adults got smart and told us to de-shod at the door.
In the evenings we’d watch Chinese soap operas with my grandmother. That summer’s was set during imperial times – everyone decked out in colorful silk robes, the men’s hair as long as the women’s – and focused on a brother and sister with a fierce rivalry for their father’s kingdom.
In the final episode, the sister kills herself on her father’s grave. One moment she’s muttering something in Mandarin, the next she’s plunging a knife in her gut, blood trickling artfully from the corner of her mouth. Her two faithful followers promptly follow suit.
This scene both repulsed and fascinated me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and felt the compulsion to act it out, over and over. I’d kneel at my grandmother’s bed, comb in hand, mutter some gibberish, then stab myself with the comb. I’d let a bit of drool run out of the mouth before keeling over.
Our relatives knew my brother and I were bored. One brought us a plastic bowling set, which we happily played with till the downstairs neighbor complained. The downstairs neighbor was always complaining about how noisy we were. Once he appeared at the top of the back steps, rumpled-looking in pajamas very much like my father’s. I thought it was strange that he was still in his PJs during the day. Maybe he worked nights.
* * *
My aunt’s house in San Jose was bigger and nicer, but also more dangerous in a way. My mother scolded me more often at my aunt’s. I’m not sure why. She and my aunt, who was older, didn’t have a rivalry, but my mother cared very much about Big Auntie’s opinions, and Big Auntie had a lot of them, like surely I touched the cake box because I was greedy and wanted cake before it was served, when really I just wanted the red string that tied the box together.
I always cried when my mother scolded me, which prompted another scolding, which made me cry more. So when, upon spotting my teary eyes and red nose, an aunt or uncle asked, “Aw, do you miss your baba?” I seized the opportunity: Yes, I was crying because I missed my father, not because I was a crybaby.
I really did miss him. At our old house in New Jersey, I’d wait outside for him to come home from work. Sometimes it seemed to take forever. Once I was staring at some ants on a tree, thinking, Wouldn’t it be nice if Baba called my name right now? And at that moment I heard it: “Little Gem! Little Gem!” That’s just my imagination, I told myself, but then suddenly it was real. There was my dad, walking his long loping walk from the bus stop.
I talked on the phone with him sometimes, which wasn’t like talking in person. I’d get shy and clam up. Much later I’d find a card I had made him: “I miss you, Baba!” half English, half Chinese. It disturbs me that I have absolutely no memory of making that card.
I also cried when Big Auntie made fun of my feet, which were apparently so wide and strange-looking, she had to do so daily. Finally, she promised not to tease me anymore. But one day she couldn’t resist.
The waterworks promptly started. My aunt laughed.
“Big Auntie’s sorry!” she said in a mocking tone. “Big Auntie’s bad!” She slapped her own arm.
Her husband had had it up to HERE. Silently seething, he picked me up and brought me into the bathroom. He sat me on the counter, and with a warm damp towel, cleaned the tears off my face. He never said a word, but I knew from then on he was on my side.
While Big Auntie teased me mercilessly, my uncle in Berkeley was too indulgent, or so my mother thought. He and my aunt always let me into their room, even the time my aunt got drunk accidentally on some kind of soup and lay in bed with a splitting headache.
I was very interested in the idea of my aunt being drunk. The only drunks I had seen were on TV.
“Did you walk funny?” I asked her when she was feeling better. “Did someone have to carry you?”
No, she had walked fine on her own. I was disappointed.
Once on a trip to an amusement park, my uncle said I could have one toy from the store.
“Any toy?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “But just one.”
He thought he was being strict. Little did he know, my parents never bought me toys for no reason. My head swam. Of everything in the store, what did I want? Not a yo-yo, not another stuffed animal. No: I made a beeline towards the dolls. A beautiful bride doll in an enormous white dress.
“Can I have this?” I asked. I held my breath. It would be okay if he said no. I was used to hearing no.
“Sure,” he said.
My mother was furious. How could I rope my uncle into spending so much on something I didn’t need?
“Don’t worry about it,” he told her.
I did. Somehow, some way, I knew I’d have to pay for that doll.
* * *
When we finally went home that September, my father met us at the airport. I was so happy to see him. “Baba, baba!” I cried, running across baggage claim. My brother followed me, as he followed me everywhere back then, though it turned out he didn’t recognize who we were running to.
Our house still wasn’t done.
We divided our time between two families. I already knew Glenn and Yvonne, one and two years younger than I was. I loved playing with them. They were both good-natured, though Yvonne cried more than I did, and liked to tell the story of how their hamster made a great escape and chased Yvonne to the top of the leather arm chair in the living room.
At the other house, the girl’s name was Blossom, which to me even then was strange. She was older than I was and played the violin terribly.
We waited and waited for our house to be done. My mother spent most of her time yelling at Reggie, the guy in charge of construction. He had red hair, wore the sleeves of his dress shirt rolled up, and always looked put upon, at least by mother.
“Reggie!” she yelled at him on the phone. “Reggie!” when we went visited the site. “Reggie!” when September came and went, and the house still wasn’t done. “Reggie!” when the leaves changed. “Reggie!” when the weather got colder and condensation collected on the long windows in the living room at Glenn’s house, when it was dark by the time my mother drove me home from school.
That November we finally moved in.
* * *
My mother spent a long time decorating. She was a genius, really, in furnishing our house on a budget. She found some clear plexiglass display cases for dirt cheap, which she used for her plants and flowers in the sun-drenched living room. She found on sale figurines and knickknacks that looked weird on their own, but worked placed together on the mantlepiece.
For months my room had just a bed, rug, and desk. I didn’t care. At least I had my own room. Then one day that spring, I came home to find it completely decorated.
I had new white dressers, a tall one and short one, plus two bookcases my father had made, one large and one small, rather rough-looking, but they worked and were painted white too. My stuffed animals sat on the lower dresser while on the taller one were a few ceramic figurines and, behold, the bride doll.
I had almost forgotten about her, but there she was, resplendent in her faux satin white ballroom gown, her sleeves as puffy as ever, her train halfway down her back. There was her long brown curling hair, her huge eyes with specks of pink and gold, her cloth hands folded demurely around a pink and white bouquet.
For several minutes, I stood in the middle of my room, agog.
“Little Gem!” my mother called from downstairs. “Start your homework!”
I sighed. At the time I didn’t realize the effort my mother had made, that, despite her protests, she had kept the doll, lovingly packed it for our trip from California, then displayed it for me.
The doll is still around now, more than thirty years later, in the room of yet another house. While everything around her changes, she stays the same – still beautiful, still braced on what will surely be the best day of her life.