The Girl from Purple Mountain Love, Honor, War, and One Family's Journey from China to America
By May-Lee Chai
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2002 May-Lee Chai
All right reserved. ISBN: 0312302703
My mother was buried alone, surrounded by strangers, the way she wished, in a New York mausoleum auspiciously bearing the name of her college dorm. Ferncliff. She had changed her burial plans secretly, with the help of my youngest brother. A decade earlier, my parents had bought side-by-side plots. My father had thought the matter was all settled.
When she inquired into the mausoleum, price was not an issue, nor the "neighborhood"--the race and religion of the occupants of the surrounding tombs. My mother was concerned with only one thing: she wanted a single spot for her coffin, a space where all the surrounding plots had been taken. She wanted a spot where she would be encircled by strangers, where my father could not be buried beside her.
After her sudden and unexpected death, after the discovery of her change of heart and my youngest brother's complicity, my father went to the mausoleum and argued with the overseer. Couldn't something be done? A neighboring space bought from its owner? His wife's body moved? But the forms she had signed, forms that my youngest brother had cosigned; were legal and binding. It had been my mother's wish to be buried in this manner; there was nothing my father could do.
My father eventually bought a plot on the grounds outside the mausoleum. "I will be her guardian. I will stand outside for eternity and guard her body."
He convinced himself that this new setup was just what my mother had anticipated. She had sent him a secret message from the grave. He could prove his devotion and his love in this final way. Just as he had proven his devotion and love while she was alive, now his bones would lie in respect and devotion for eternity.
In classical Chinese, the writer leaves a space before a name to show respect. Every time my father wrote of my mother in a letter, he left a space before her name. He saw this physical separation of their coffins as his last sign of respect for my mother.
In one of his last letters to me, my father wrote of his continuing sadness at the absence of my mother, his inability to go through her things. They lay as she had left them throughout their tiny apartment in Manhattan. Chinese dresses made decades earlier in Taiwan and Shanghai. Jewelry hidden in McDonald's Styrofoam boxes. A box of mildewed Life magazines, dollar bills rotting between the pages, where she had glued them. She'd been saving these magazines for nearly a decade, a memento of her failed attempt to send money to her brothers in China. During the Cultural Revolution, they had been sent down to the countryside by Mao, two German-educated surgeons, to "learn from the peasants." They did not know how to plant rice. The peasants didn't know how they would feed all these useless intellectuals sent from the cities. Scholars now estimate more than 30 million Chinese died of starvation or illness stemming from deprivation and exposure during Mao's experiments with restructuring society.
My mother began receiving letters that looked like chessboards they were so heavily edited by censors, entire lines blackened, every other character blotted out. But she understood that her brothers were now living in the countryside, in poverty. And she remembered from her refugee days how the people in the countryside had liked to hang on their walls as decor the glossy pictures from Shanghai movie star magazines and especially exotic Western-style advertisements. She had this idea, how to help her brothers. She would send them a box of Life magazines. She would enclose a cheerful letter, telling her brothers that they should give out the pictures to their "farmer friends"; she would not let on that she had understood their complaints, that she had understood exactly what kind of hell they had fallen into; it would be the kind of generic family letter a censor could read and pass on, thinking nothing was there. But her brothers would understand. Then the censors would open the box and see an innocent pile of old magazines, they could flip through a few she would put on the top which would have no money, and the rest would then be passed to her brothers. Her brothers would understand that their sister would not be so foolish as to send them magazines when they were starving, and they would carefully search through the Lifes until they realized she had carefully, cleverly glued together x-number of pages per issue and there they would find the dollar bills. The dollars would help them to bribe officials, to bribe the farmers, to get something to eat.
Using such cunning, my mother had survived the Japanese invasion of China, the era of the warlords, and the Chinese civil war.
Unfortunately, my mother had not anticipated that the Communist customs officials did not allow Western bourgeois propaganda to enter their socialist paradise. The first box of Life magazines was returned to her, unopened. They stayed in a corner of her bedroom then near the radiator, first baking, then mildewing after the pipes above the ceiling sprang a leak. By the time she died, my father had forgotten about the dollar bills and threw away the box of magazines.
I remember the morning of her death. It was still early. My children had not yet left for school. My wife was making breakfast, the kitchen sizzled with eggs and bacon. I had a headache. I wasn't hungry. I may have fussed at my wife, saying: "Why go to all this bother? Cereal's good enough. I'm not even hungry."
The phone rang. I remember thinking that it was odd to have a call early in the morning. It was my father.
"Winberg, Mother is gone!" he shouted into the receiver. "She's gone! She's gone!"
"What do you mean?" For a few seconds, I thought my mother had left him, gone off in a pique of anger, the way she had when I was a child.
"The paramedics came. I thought she was sleeping late. I got up. I always get up at the same time. I went to the kitchen to make breakfast for Mother and she wasn't up yet. She always gets up early, before me, she was never lazy. She wasn't in the living room watching television. She always likes to watch the television in the morning. So I went to see what she wanted for breakfast. I opened the door to her bedroom and called to her, 'You're not up yet! It's morning! What do you want for breakfast?' And she didn't respond. I couldn't wake her." My father said he went to get my younger brother, who lived in an apartment in the same building, and my brother came up and couldn't wake her either. They called the paramedics who then came and told them she was dead. My brother, hysterical, had refused to let the paramedics take her body. She was still there.
"I'll come as soon as I can." My father was still crying when I hung up.
It didn't seem real yet. I told my wife and she looked shocked, then sad, but I couldn't share her emotions. I couldn't feel anything. Not until my mother's funeral, when I had to reach out and touch her pale, cold corpse with one finger, because I still couldn't imagine her dead even though she lay before me in an open casket, her face done up in ghost-white powder and rouge from the Chinatown mortuary, her steel-gray hair braided and piled like a pagoda on the top of her head. It was a traditional hairstyle for a woman of her generation, but she had never worn her hair like that, never worn makeup like that. I looked at her corpse and could not imagine that this had been my mother. But when I touched her, I knew.
"She had a premonition," my father said. "She knew. But I wouldn't listen."
He was sitting in the near-dark of his room in my youngest brother's house, where he had moved after my mother's death a week earlier. He could not bear the Manhattan apartment they had shared for twenty-six years. In his bedroom in the suburbs of New Jersey, my father had constructed a makeshift shrine for my mother, in the Buddhist tradition, although he had converted to Christianity long ago in order to marry her. He had framed a picture of her. It was black-and-white. In it, she wears a shiny black satin dress with embroidery of flowers and leaves in a diagonal across her shoulder, a white silk shawl and tiny dangling earrings. She is looking directly into the camera, smiling with her lips pursed as if she had just finished speaking when someone took the picture. She is still in her fifties in the photograph, and I know that my father had chosen this picture because she is still young enough to look healthy and vigorous, as though she will never die. My father had plugged in two large red and yellow plastic Christmas candles, the kind people in the suburbs like to put on their front porches for the holiday, one on either side of the photograph, which was set on a small nightstand. My father must have found them somewhere, in my youngest brother's garage perhaps, because it was April. There was also a bowl of strawberries that he had placed as an offering in front of the picture, but in the semidarkness of his room I didn't see the bowl at first. I didn't notice them for days, until the strawberries had already begun to rot, and I turned on the light to see what that smell was and found the bowl of moldy fruit.
He was kneeling before his shrine and he was still crying.
"She came to me in the middle of the night. The light woke me up. She tried to tell me but I wouldn't listen."
This is how I imagine my parents' final exchange:
Light like old yellowed newspapers fell across the room from the slightly open door of the bathroom, over the mountain range of rumpled blankets, brushing against the high cheekbones and flat nose of my father before falling onto the cluttered bureau top. The bulb of the night-light in the bathroom flickered once then glowed tremulously. It was an old bulb and needed to be changed. Surely it would go out soon.
My father stirred in his sleep.
My mother stood in the doorway of the bathroom. She may or may not have been looking at him. It had been years since they slept in the same room, much less the same bed. It was more comfortable alone. All the aches and pains that had settled in her body. And besides, my father snored.
The light did not fall upon the glass holding my father's false teeth. They floated in the dark corner of the bureau behind his heavy digital watch--a Christmas gift from one of my brothers--and a once-white handkerchief. There were plastic photo cubes on the dresser. The face with the three of us, his sons, lined up in a row in front of my parents' house in Taiwan was partially illuminated. We are smiling. The neighboring face also caught the light--a picture of my parents at their forty-fifth wedding anniversary party. A big cake with the blue and silver candle shaped like a "45" is clearly visible on the table. My father is wearing his dark gray pin-striped suit and my mother wears a royal blue embroidered silk dress. Her white arms are at her sides. Her jade bracelet has slipped down to her wrist and cannot be seen in the photograph because of the table edge. She is wearing her black curly wig and is not smiling because she did not like her false teeth. My father is smiling, even though she had said his false teeth looked like the teeth of a laughing horse. He is holding her hand, but the picture does not show that either--the cake blocks their hands.
My mother stood in the bathroom, a glass of water in one hand. She surveyed my father now. She called out to him. Loudly.
He stirred in his sleep. His puffy eyelids fluttered.
He was awake now. He squinted without his glasses. His wife was standing in the doorway of the bathroom, splashing light all over his face. "Go back to bed, Mother," he mumbled. He was hard to understand without his teeth. "It's night."
She stood there annoyed for another minute, then took her medicine and shuffled back to her bed.
When my father woke up the next morning, my mother was already dead. He would spend the rest of his life wondering what she had wanted to tell him.
"She was trying to tell me. She knew!" he moans, kneeling before her shrine. The red glow of the Christmas candles makes his face appear to flicker. His mouth gapes open, a toothless black hole. He is howling.
My youngest brother thinks she took too much medicine and killed herself. Forgot how much she took and died.
We don't talk about the change in the burial arrangements. She'd asked him to do it and so he did. He'd done it many, many years before she died. Maybe he thought she'd change her mind in time. None of us expected her to die when she did.
My parents believed in eternity, in heaven and hell, God and Jesus. It is quite possible this affair with the mausoleum, the secret pact with my youngest brother to change her grave site, all this was an elaborate plan to give my father one more chance to show his love. A message for him to decode. And if he succeeded, she would be more than happy to spend eternity with him, husband and wife, in heaven forever and ever. This is what my father believed.
But it's also possible that my mother was not leaving a message for him at all. After a lifetime of betrayals and tragedies and heartbreak, perhaps she could not imagine anything but more betrayal and tragedy and heartache, and this plot was her way of heading off more disappointment.
My father never remarried after my mother died and instead devoted the last years of his life trying to understand what her death and burial meant, how he could continue to prove his love to her now that she had departed from their earthly existence, and how he could continue to understand the messages she sent to him when he dreamed.
For many years, I acted as though none of this mattered. Because I did not understand how my parents' lives could end this way, I simply ignored what I did not like and cared only to remember their life together. In my mind's eye, my parents were neither young nor old, they were neither sickly nor in pain, they had their worries but nothing seemed insurmountable. They were forever the way they had been when we first immigrated to New York in the 1950s. They were my parents, immortal. And I was their son, beloved.
Now that nearly twenty years have passed since my mother's death, fifteen since my father's, I have had time to reflect upon their actions and my own. I see now that I was wrong. It is my duty to try to understand my mother, to seek answers. To ignore the past is too much like forgetting. And to forget the past would be to dishonor my parents.
I owe my entire life as a man to my parents. I owe my life as an American, with a good education, a good career, a free life, to my mother. Without her foresight, her sacrifices, I would not have had anything. I know this now, even though when I was a young man--a bold, even arrogant man--I would never have admitted as much.
I must now try to remember what I can, what I have tried to forget about my family, about our lives in China during the wars and our life in America afterward. I will recall the fights and the storms as well as the moments of peace and calm when we could laugh together as a family and dream about the future.
I hope my memories are enough to fulfill a son's obligations.
Excerpted from The Girl from Purple Mountain by May-Lee Chai Copyright © 2002 by May-Lee Chai. Excerpted by permission.
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