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It's Time to Explore Family Tragedy

Unraveling an Impressionist Photo Diary

March 5, 2016, 10:11 AM: At Denver International Airport A thoroughly rigid search for my grandmother

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Waiting at Denver International, trying to reason why I'm flying out to Tucson.

I’m sitting in Denver International Airport, fidgeting until my flight to Tucson. Spending spring break in a city that was infamously called the dumbest city in America by Family Guy, where upon arrival Peter is greeted with a swift kick to the nuts. I replay that video instead of drawing an action plan. It’s not the most encouraging portrayal of a city I’ll be stuck in for three days as I try to talk to the most infamous person in my family: my grandmother, Pauline. This would be the first conversation I would have with her, ever. I tried to plan questions, such as “What regrets do you have?” “Do you ever want to begin speaking again to my mother, your daughter Lorna?” but no matter how gently I tried to phrase them, they sounded hostile. Bitter.

What I am scared to admit in my visiting her is that is selfish. I have a cloudy, yet disturbingly loud memory that happened in my turbulent teenage years that my mother compared my personality to Pauline’s. Since that time, I’d like to think I’ve grown up a little, but have been wary of my identity since. Asking now, maybe it was foreboding on her part; maybe it was said out of anger or spite. Or maybe she did see a dark glimmer – a mother would be able to tell. In my interviews with my relatives, one uncle called the comparison “unfair,” while the other uncle shook his head with absolute certainty: no, no, no! Ever since I’ve heard stories about her, I could feel her coursing in my veins. The same self-righteous anger, the occasional self-immolation, the brutal slash-and-burn approach to relationships; I am, I am, I am. Maybe this trip was more about seeing if I’m akin to someone who can be undeniably monstrous. What if I was capable of her livid fury? What did that mean about my own personality and being?

Maybe this trip is less family reunion, and more my own curiosity in finding out if I’m going to be confronting my future self. It’s seeing whether I’ve committed enough damage that I am beyond repair.

I had met my grandmother, Pauline, for the first time in 2010. She had, and has been, estranged from my mom, her youngest child and only daughter, since 1991. She had visited my mother at our home in California, where my brother and I, gleeful toddlers, were playing in our home’s front lawn. She believed we were in danger – though there was an infinitesimal chance of a car swerving directly into us, that chance was too close for comfort in her mind. Pauline claimed she saved us, despite there being no oncoming cars in our quiet suburban street. She began to hurl insults at her daughter while our neighbors watched from their windows. Tension escalated into a screaming match. Past resentments over-boiled, leading Pauline to demand a ride to the airport, immediately fly out of LAX, and never look back.  Since then, she refused to acknowledge her daughter, her husband, or their children as familial. We were erased from her history, and life resumed.

What do ruined people do? Weird shit. This seems to be the consensus of psychoanalysts as far back as Freud and Jung; the traumatized self creates, out of necessity, a system of self-care that is keen to avoid repeat trauma. This makes change difficult; it makes people who’ve had part of their psyches destroyed by unmanageable emotions push people and emotions away, create obstacles, generate unnecessary drama. Emily Rapp,

As far as I know, my brother and I didn’t think we were missing anything. We had other grandparent-like figures in our lives growing up, like our paternal grandparents and our older neighbors, to provide plenty of birthday presents, baby-sitting, and comfort. Pauline never entered our minds unless my Uncle Bill, her eldest child, and my mother recollected their childhood. They tended to punctuate their stories with gallows-type humor, survivors of Pauline: The Experience. The word “abuse” seems to only recently surface, either to my own realization of their self-deprecation or their frankness in speaking to me as an adult. Self-censoring was no longer necessary for an impressionable child who had nothing to do with a grandmother’s grudge.

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Pauline holding my brother, Alex, as a baby. Our neighbor was the one responsible for making him into a goober by slicking his hair down with grease.

Either way, my Uncle Paul, Pauline’s middle child, thought it appalling Grandma had never known her grand-kids. He arranged for my brother, Alex, and I to take a road trip and “ambush her.” His words.

“We’ll have you meet at a restaurant. If we told her beforehand, she might back out. She tends to get cold feet. If she knows you two were coming, she’d run.”

I feel like I have grown into the anger that I have always been accused of / Blossoming wildly beyond the borders imaginable / Climbing through my veins, carrion sweet. Rushelle Frazier, Nobody Body

Her apprehension I now understand to be social anxiety, afraid to confront the unknown. Self-conscious about a multitude of things: her aging, our thoughts about her, and our inevitable betrayal in her paranoid mind.

My brother and I had years of stories about her as a preface to this initial meeting. My uncles, my mom, and my dad had plenty to share. Tall tales or not, she was equally entertaining and horrifying.

Alex and I could only see Grandma as a banshee. A demonic succubus. Stories detached of our experience, she was only the adjectives my parents and other relatives described her as. She was objective to us – enough that we could warp her in any way we wanted, but she had never injured us in the way my uncles and mom had felt. She was so distant to us familiarly that she felt like a zoo specimen. Curiously inspected, like she came from another world.

We knew certain objective facts about her.

1) Pauline was married at 18 to my grandfather, Ah-Ling, who was way too old for her;

2) they had a grocery store in Continental, Arizona;

3)  she had three children named William, Paul, and Lorna;

4) she was and still is a “difficult” woman, which is why my mom doesn’t speak to her.

I don’t remember much of the trip to see her, despite the intense build-up of weeks planning and ambushing through email. In total, I think Alex and I met her for a combined three hours altogether.

I do remember sitting impatiently in that Chinese restaurant, tugging the sleeves of my cardigan to hide my tattoos. I had stupid hair at the time; a slew of Manic Panic had made it a muddy blue-brown-blonde mess. I was overtanned from my summer job as a lifeguard, had thick thighs and an awkward goofiness. Bastardized Chinese, I thought. What would she think of me?

Uncle Paul escorted her in. She was a tiny woman, the spitting image of my mom with wispy, white hair. Freckled with liver spots, hunched over with slight osteoporosis, and walking with hobbled gait, she was no monster.

“Ma, these are your grand-kids! Alex and Colee.”

We stood up, smiled broadly as Uncle Paul pointed at us.

“Hi, Grandma!”

My memory is fuzzy ensuing. How I remember it feels like it was painted from a Hayao Miyazaki movie. I swear she said, after a dramatic pause:

Is it really you? I’ve been expecting you all these years.

The Nǚ Guǐ of Tucson Me, Pauline, and Every Demon We Know

I have a penchant for the dramatic, I admit. My suspicions, my fears – same spectrum – run my imagination wild as much as they run my blood cold. I felt that Pauline and I experienced certain traumas that caused irrevocable emotional disarray. Hers doesn’t have a name, but knows a fierce and volatile anger; mine falls under PTSD, depression, and anxiety nomenclatures. Consequences of tragedies where a part of your life can’t be reclaimed. Mine falls to sexual assaults that happened in high school and college, poisoning the past decade of my life. Years help distance trauma, as well as access to mental health and emotional support networks. I consider myself lucky nowadays. However, those memories are never far away. Eventually, they circuit back to the front of my mind, leaving me mourning.

I can’t imagine the isolation of Pauline’s memories. Her tragedies are of a whole other world, creating someone openly hostile and distrustful of anything that dared try to connect. Without any kind of mental health support available then, those memories turn into self-sabotage. She doused herself in gasoline and is ready to burn in the case of perceived betrayal.

In her old age, she is spectral. In Chinese mythology, she is like a living 女鬼, nǚ guǐ. A woman scorned so treacherously that apologies are no longer sought, but revenge is in the afterlife. They wander the world, lamenting their past abuses. Their existence is seen as an embodiment of a moral, a lesson an audience will hopefully learn. In some variants, the nǚ guǐ is a predatory succubus, leeching out the yang of the men who harmed her. In some ways, my uncles have parsed the thought with a joke – “Pauline was the worst thing that happened to my grandfather!” The eldest son, my Uncle Bill, has shown more sympathy towards Pauline as time passes; he gleams that actually, Ah-Ling was definitely the worst thing to happen to Pauline.

I wanted to, and was prepared, to meet the nǚ guǐ. I’ve never seen that side of Pauline. I wanted to desperately know what my uncles, aunts, mother, and father knew. Was it selfish of me to see the depths of her anger? To witness her unfold and wreak her misery on others? My wanting to be a pseudo-Attenborough dehumanized her, those hand-me-down stories of her glorifying the cold, unyielding Pauline as practically demonic.

I didn’t meet the nǚ guǐ. Touching down in Tucson, my aunt had mentioned that it was the best time for me to see her. Ever since her head injury last year, Aunt Rocky said, she’s almost like a different person. She’s calmer. She even smiles!

I had completely forgotten this detail that was recounted to me a couple of weeks prior. She had suffered a fall that left her bedroom floor like a murder scene. The fracture required two brain surgeries and required physical and neuropathic therapy. She had to slowly relearn to walk, remember names and faces and routines again. My mother had taken time off to visit her in the hospital, where tension still remained icy.

Well shit, I thought. Will I get the story I want, or need? I had to quickly revise my own intents, as now this Pauline was considerably different from the one known in 2010. I had completely neglected to consider that with burgeoning symptoms of dementia, I was meeting someone more unknown than I had thought.

Too soon, we turned into her driveway. The quaint brick house with small flowers freckled out front, as I remembered six years ago. My aunt and cousin knocked and hollered for her as I tried to heave my backpack over my shoulder – the one with all my lenses and audio equipment, which turned out to be downright naïve to think I could use them quickly or effortlessly.

A tiny, frail woman shuffled to the door. She was wearing jeans too big for her, as well as a faded, striped pink shirt that overwhelmed her already small frame. Her glasses were thick, her eyes dull. Liver and kidney spots blotched her papery skin. Her formerly full, stark-white permed curls were gone; growing in was wiry wisps. There was still a green, brutally grotesque scab from her fall, which she would touch gently and wince in pain. I felt like I could fold her in my hands, she looked so delicate.

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Pauline rubs her eyes in front of a bureau filled with knick-knacks, small photos, and other mementos.

“Grandma, it’s Colee!” Aunt Rocky exclaimed.

“Colee? You didn’t tell me she was coming,” Grandma said. Her voice was as soft as cobwebs. I couldn’t even pick it up with the audio recorder.

“Yes, I did…Colee’s come to see you!” Aunt Rocky chided.

“From Suzie and Ernie?”

Note: Formerly Lorna, presently Suzie. Pauline switches between my mom’s names depending on which one she remembers first. 

“Yes, yes.” I tried to jog her memory by bringing up my brother. “Remember  when Alex and I visited you?”

I tried to bring up a Facebook picture of him. Last time we visited, she spoke mainly to him – an old-fashioned Chinese preference to defer to the, if not any, eldest son.

“I don’t know who that is…do Suzie and Ernie have any more babies?” she asked.

I chuckled a no. I wonder if she pictured them as forever twentysomethings.

I continued looking around, taking it all in. Her living room is filled with stacks of papers, magazines, Chinese opera CDs, but also with framed pictures. Mostly Uncle Paul’s family, with photo shrines dedicated to his son, Michael. Three or four have Uncle Bill and his daughter, Jennifer; the rest are filled with pictures of her in her youth. She was gorgeous, with pale, porcelain skin and a demure elegance. In photos where she’s smiling, she is the spitting image of my mother.

Old family photos of my uncles, mother, and grandfather also adorn her home. Though, some have Ah-Ling obviously snipped out, which must’ve been after processing another bitter memory. On the wall, a high shelf has a ceremonial altar to Ah-Ling, with a formal portrait, statues of Guanyin and Buddha, and incense. It’s a strange centerpiece, as she still has complaints and accusations about him to this day. But, it’s an obligation demanded out of her culture and time.

Background noise came in form of a Forensic Files-like program, detailing an old case. The television is always on, Aunt Rocky said. It stays tuned to the criminal justice channel, where Grandma apparently digs a good, suspenseful murder. It pretty much only stays on this channel. I felt an odd connection there, where my brother and I also have a morbid fascination with crime shows and serial killers. Nice. We are related! 

Next to the television was the most surprising. On a sturdy, long bureau, rows of framed photos stood upright, like misaligned soldiers. A motley of moments, again, mostly dedicated to Uncle Paul’s family. In the back, a dusty portrait of my mother and me from 1993 was propped up – one from a series of family photos that also had my father and brother. I picked it up, slack-jawed like a moron.

It’s one of only photos featuring my mother as well, a mother. In all other photos, she is a toddler or a late teen – perhaps the way Pauline best remembers her. As I was looking at it, Pauline said I was pretty. That I looked just like Suzie. She then felt my skin, remarking at how white it was. “There must be no sun where you are,” she said as a compliment.

“Chicago, yep. No sun yet. Only cold.”

“Don’t like Chicago. Too cold. But such pretty skin. Not like me. My skin black compared to yours.”

She pinched her arm forcibly, skin textured like an overripe peach. It was slightly tan, which in some (shitty) Chinese perceptions, is the skin of a lower-class peasant. White skin is cherished as aristocratic and beautiful, as it didn’t absorb the sun from working outdoors. Though I had to begrudgingly excuse the old-fashioned colorism, I was surprised she said nothing of my tattoos, especially as she caressed the forearm that has a giant octopus on it.

Aunt Rocky and my cousin, Sena, were able to convince Grandma to go out to eat. She went to draw on her eyebrows, penciling them in gently with a light brown crayon. I wanted to take a picture of her.

“No, no. Put down. Be a good girl, no picture.”

I complied. Another hurdle: I came specifically to shoot portraits of her. Still self-conscious of her appearance, it wasn’t likely I would gain her trust in so little time. I wanted to. Selena whispered a lifehack: “She loves Michael. He can convince her.”  A cheap loophole.

Before departing, she dug through her purse. She pulled out a hongbao, a Chinese red envelope of money given from elders to youngsters for special occasions. She pressed it into my hands and I about cried; I still keep the hongbao she gave me in 2010 in my wallet, with my name she learned to etch in English. I hugged her frame and felt her shoulder blades, while she lightly tapped my back. The offering was sweet from someone who has only known me for the teeniest fraction of their life. I had nothing to offer back other than the want to know her.

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Grandma dug out a hongbao from her purse to give to me. Traditionally given from elders to youngsters, I had received one from her in 2010. Did I deserve one either time? Not sure.

“She doesn’t let anyone get near her. You must be special to her if she let you hug her,” Aunt Rocky beamed in amazement.

Did she remember me from 2010 so well? Or was I her daughter, Suzie, back to haunt her? Perhaps I was a proxy, her daughter’s facsimile, for her to extend the peace offering she knows she can’t do.

Speak, Memory

Memory is a fascinating thing. Briefly reading up on it (from what I’ve found and can understand), a single memory is less like an archived book in hundreds of thousands of shelves, but more so discrete elements that form together upon recall. Richard C. Mohs, author of a well-written, easy-to-understand article on HowStuffWorks, says it’s a brain-wide process. When a memory is encoded, different pieces form together from different systems. Mohs writes:

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Consider, for example, the memory of the first person you ever fell in love with. When you met that person, your visual system likely registered physical features, such as the color of their eyes and hair. Your auditory system may have picked up the sound of their laugh. You probably noticed the scent of their perfume or cologne. You may even have felt the touch of their hand. Each of these separate sensations traveled to the part of your brain called the hippocampus, which integrated these perceptions as they were occurring into one single experience — your experience of that specific person.

Your brain’s request to access a memory reignites those original neurons involved with lightning-fast coordination every time you try to remember. More interestingly, a copy of that memory is made each time of recall, every time those pieces need to form together to create what you thought was the right experience. It creates another degree of separation from the original memory, perhaps depending on what aspect you need, or want, emphasized. The umpteenth recall – a copy of a copy of … – might barely resemble its original form, years later.

Your memory is a monster; you forget - it doesn't. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you - and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you! John Irving

As we know, memory isn’t infallible. It gets rewritten all the time as the plasticity of the brain learns new things and encounters new experiences. Then, we get older, and memories might change or fade into blurred copies. Old age especially renders memory vulnerable; as synapses deteriorate and the brain shrinks, the mind is substantially less efficient by the time you’re 80. However, some studies have focused on something called the fading affect bias – happier memories are emphasized, negative emotions are reduced over time – which, needing more research, tends to affirm why older people are happier.

Of course, this is definitely not the case with Pauline.

My relatives often said that Pauline loves embodying the martyr. She has certain stories she presents about herself, first and foremost, that laid stake to her claim that her life has only known suffering. Memories on repeat, like the one about breaking her mother’s expensive porcelain dish, which earned her the punishment of cutting off her education at the third grade and becoming her baby sister’s nanny. (That baby sister later received all the education, all the opportunities she never had, married rich, and became a Hong Kong socialite.) Meeting Ah-Ling for the first time and knowing he wasn’t the man she deserved. Anger and resentment playback, forever on a loop. Audrey Hepburn was quoted as saying, “Happiness is health and short memory!” With neither, what in the utter fuck do you have left as any kind of motivation to live?

I imagine Pauline experiences her memory like a play. Re-casting and assembling the stage with all the elements she thought was there, re-arranging and re-decorating, reading the lines my mother, uncles, and grandfather over and over in different tones. Spite is Soma.

Act infinity, scene never-ending. The setting: South Pasadena, California. Two toddlers are playing on the lawn. They begin to run towards the street. Pauline saves them and chides, no wait, -yells at- her daughter, Lorna, for bad parenting. Well, not exactly. They were already playing in the street. Or were they sitting there, and a car was coming? It doesn’t matter – Lorna heads inside her home with the in-tact, safely sound babies. Pauline exeunt, storming off stage.

The stage is now on the inside of an airplane.

“This is your captain speaking, we are on time to depart for Tucson, Arizona.”

Pauline is righteous. Pauline is upset. Pauline is vindicated. 

The last part never changes.

Immigrating to America Sounds like the fucking worst

Ah-Ling’s immigration story is muddled. It is complicated enough that I can barely explain it here: according to one uncle, Ah-Ling was able to buy a birth certificate from a mother who had recently lost her son but had family located in the United States. Formerly Ah-Ling Yeung, he memorized his new family tree, Tang, and came to the US around 1938-1939 under what’s nicknamed “the Nephew Law,” where Chinese men could only be brought into the America through already existing relatives. The other uncle mentioned a white, very Lutheran family, the Ohans, who somehow were able to sponsor Ah-Ling. The Ohan patriarch, a pastor, provided a fatherly role during Ah-Ling’s teenage years. 

A few questions, which my family has no answers for:

How did a pastor from Lemont, Illinois, come to mentor a Chinese teenager? What did that pastor see in him to want to sponsor him? 

How did Ah-Ling get to the United States from China? 

How did he end up in Chicago from Lemont?

We know one answer to a different question: the reason why he left Chicago. According to one uncle, his “paper brother” – a Tang – was suspected of murder in Chicago. Paranoid that his alter ego would be found, he needed to escape the city. At one point, he was in Fort Wayne, Indiana, working in a laundromat. A co-worker mentioned the availability of farming jobs in the southwest region. Before he would move to Arizona, he needed a wife.

His marriage to Pauline was arranged through a matchmaker, Pauline’s parents, and himself back in Guangdong. He posed himself as much richer and much younger than he actually was – he was 41 and had $5,000 to his name. With a promise to eventually buy Pauline’s siblings passage to the United States, Pauline, 18, was his new bride.

In a quick honeymoon, Ah-Ling ushered his new bride into a run-down motel suite. She saw there was a sheet to half the room – they shared it with another couple. “Imagine seeing that this is the very moment you know that your life is over,” my uncle Bill said, who recounted this story. “Pauline was upset, understandably. She took it out on the other couple. You couldn’t really blame her; she was still, really, just a teen.” Here she was, swindled. Bound to a middle-aged, poor stranger. Before he left to the US, he also got her pregnant.

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Teenage dreams, young Pauline: a portrait.

My father remembered: “I don’t know how the topic of conversation came up, but one time, your mother – when she was young and she and Pauline were still on speaking terms – asked Pauline how…sex was with Ah-Ling. Pauline didn’t have much to say about it. It was something that happened, then it was quickly over with.”

An obligation, surely, much like remaining in this marriage. Two years after Bill was born, Paul was born. And two years after that, Lorna was born. Consummation was like clockwork, with just about the same rigor and excitement.

In 1950, the New Marriage Law tried to outlaw arranged marriages, brideprices, and concubinage in China. It wouldn’t be until 1980 that divorce would be liberalized; however, divorce remains somewhat taboo. Compared to the US’s divorce rate of 53%, China hovers around 3.93%. Even if Pauline could pursue divorce financially, socially it would disgrace her family. In every respect, Pauline had absolutely no choice over any of these aspects regarding marriage and family, which is one of the most damning realizations looking back on her life as to who she was then and remains today.

It would take six months to get Pauline over to the US. While her belly swelled, Ah-Ling had to figure out a way to get his wife over. He wanted his child born on American soil – getting Pauline’s visa was already a hassle, no less two. Somehow, former Arizona senator Barry Goldwater was involved.

“Your grand-dad was advised by Pastor Ohan to write a letter to his senator. So he did. And Pauline came on over, pregnant with your uncle Bill, around six months later,” Uncle Paul told me. 

“Seriously? That sounds way too easy.”

“Well, at that time, senators wanted to please their constituents, right?” Sure, I guess. 

The Ohans had several children, among them a Lorna and William. Ah-Ling gets dibs on the eldest son’s name, which becomes an honorific; Pauline gets the middle son and names him after her; Ah-Ling treasured the youngest child and only daughter enough to honor her with a namesake. By all sexist and traditional Chinese customs considered, this is very atypical.

In reading up on the Chinese immigrant migration, Pauline and Ah-Ling’s journey was also very atypical. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was repealed in 1943, but Ah-Ling was here prior. We’re not sure if Ah-Ling came through Ellis Island or Angel Island, but he most likely had to submit to these same interrogation techniques during his processing. Huping Ling, author of Surviving on the Gold Mountain:

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Angel Island was set up as a detention center for Asian, mainly Chinese immigrants. The immigration detention center on Angel Island was a two-story wooden structure where men and women were held separately. The duration of imprisonment was often months. Immigrants were first taken to a hospital for medical examinations. Those afflicted with parasitic diseases such as traechoma, hookworm, and liver fluke were excluded and deported. The rest were sent back to their dormitories to await the hearing on their application.

After that initial step, the Chinese were then forced to undergo rigorous interrogation. Based on a person’s relatives, their testimony would be cross-examined with their answers. Questions ranged from facts (e.g., name, date of birth) to questions that were “tedious, trivial, [or] had little relevance to the qualifications of the applicant.”  Ling has an example interrogation, a woman interviewed October 22, 1920 by immigrant inspector J.P. Butler.

Stranded, isolated, and subjected to intense scrutiny, some Chinese women ended up committing suicide during the immigration process. One anecdote stood out as particularly chilling:

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On October 24, 1941, Wong Shee, the wife of a New York businessman, arrived in San Francisco with her nine year old son, Hom Lee Min, to join her husband, Hom Hin Shew. Upon arrival, she and her son were held separately at the immigration station detention center on 801 Silver Avenue in San Francisco. As days passed, Wong Shee’s worry grew deeper. On November 18, 1941, Wong Shee became extremely upset when she heard the rumor about the denial of her application. In the early morning of November 19, she was found dead in the women’s bathroom in the detention center. A chopstick had been thrust into her right auditory canal.

Pauline was able to take a direct flight from Hong Kong to San Francisco, where she was processed, in 1955. Then, she flew to Tucson to meet back up with Ah-Ling. One month later, her first son, William, was due to arrive. Ah-Ling left her in the hospital, alone, to give birth. Apparent 1950’s custom was to abandon a spouse while in labor, but regardless, this is considered a dick move. This was one of many committed by Ah-Ling, and this was only the beginning of their marriage.

Continental, Arizona The Desolate Desert

Uncle Paul decided to drive me to the old childhood home. Continental is a small farming community 25 miles south of Tucson, with long stretches of highway, sparse trees, and blinding-white desert rock between locales. Otherwise, it’s still home to people who were Pauline’s neighbors back in the 1960’s.

Ah-Ling established a general store and a small gas station right next to their home. Among their store’s inventory: meat, malted milk balls, Playboy magazine, Levi jeans. Before that, they operated a diner. Among dishes cooked: cheap steak cuts, Chinese-American cuisine like chop suey and egg foo young, and pies. It was a quiet, meager living. They also had a small farm of chickens, pigeons, and pigs. Somehow, their family acquired numerous dogs. Uncle Bill and Suzie tried to tally up all the mutts in their childhoods and were able to name at least 19. Names like Duke, Debbie, and Mobo.

Several flights of memory, ranging in light-heartedness:

Suzie: I remember being bored in the grocery store, rolling down Whoppers to my fat Chihuahua, Debbie. I remember my dad making the best spit-roast pig, taking three days to prepare the thing. I miss that most, if I had to name something from childhood.

Paul: Ah-Ling and Pauline would sell meat to the locals. Occasionally, they would get a customer that would say something like, ‘you clever Chinaman,’ to Ah-Ling. Instead of confrontation, they would simply smile at them, and place their thumb on the scale.

Bill: There was one day where Pauline was hit on by a customer. Happened quite a bit. This time, she talked back. She chased him out of the store. Instead of her husband defending her, he berated her in front of the other customers. Blamed her for losing business. It was that day he lost her trust and she felt she had no one but herself to look out for.

About Ah-Ling: The grocery store had been robbed. Ah-Ling was fed up. He set up a stake-out. He packed a shotgun with slugs and salt pellets. He wanted those wounds to burn. He waited until that thief came back, a night later, and fired a warning. (Pauline added to this story: “I was scared then! It would be bad if Ah-Ling killed him. Blood bad for business.”

Suzie: Pauline, when angry at us, would retreat to the bathroom. She would lock herself in, light a cigarette, and burn our baby pictures – whomever she was mad at at the time – in the ashes. It was effing heartless! She wasn’t a regular smoker. It was only for this very occasion. (Bill: “This is why there aren’t many baby pictures of me today.”)

Back to present day: it is now a gym.

Little trace of what it used to be. After wandering around the closed shop, checking out the train tracks just across the road, and seeing the old schoolhouse, there wasn’t anything left to be nostalgic for. There was no determinable evidence that this ever was home to my relatives (save for a window that used to be for deliveries and receiving packages, which is now covered with snowflake-patterned curtain), no real reason to revisit. Continental is only a rear-view mirror in our family’s history.

Feedback Loop Drowning in Memory

I expressed my anxieties to Uncle Paul about not being able to snap any, no less one, portrait of Pauline. Van Gogh said it better in why I was obsessed with obtaining just one portrait: “Sad, but gentle, yet clear and intelligent, that is how many portraits ought to be done.” Despite her circular short-term memory forgetting why I was here and where I came from, there were moments of piercing clarity that recalled the old Pauline – one who was suspicious, scrutinizing, and always on guard. Together with this quote-unquote new Pauline, in an infirmed body, she seemed like someone trapped between two worlds. Ghostly, but sunken and grounded.

“Where you come from?” she asked, again.

“Los Angeles,” I said. I switched it up from Chicago.

“Where Bill and Suzie are?”

“Yeah. I’ll see them soon.”

“Maybe I visit someday,” she said forlornly, a directive to no one in particular.

This exchange would happen in around twenty-minute circuits. Her short-term memory was still lapsed from the fall.

“You’re Suzie’s daughter?”

“I am.”

“You’re pretty. Prettier than Suzie. But don’t tell.”

A day before, I was “as” pretty as Suzie. Perhaps my mother’s face began to show in mine; I joked to Uncle Paul that if I had a longer stay, I would eventually turn hideous. Her memories of Suzie were leaking. Was it old anger coming back?

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As I furrowed my brow, Uncle Paul was on a mission of his own. He began to point at pictures, asking simply, “Who’s this, Ma?” Relatives, as she counted on her fingers – one brother, two. Also one sister. One brother was a “bad one, a policeman. Telling my mother lies about me.” She didn’t elaborate, but this was new to Uncle Paul as he started scratching all the names on the back of an envelope. As Uncle Paul was distracting Pauline by reiterating their names, ages, and birthdates, I slunk the camera low into my lap, snapping into live view, and getting my only chances. Uncle Paul was my co-conspirator with a wink. I felt sleazy, but continued snapping.

Over in her kitchen, Uncle Paul pointed to a black and white print. A group photo where a teenaged Pauline can be spotted with curls and baby fat. “Who’s this guy here, Ma?”

“That was my boyfriend. I loved him. Next to him is his brother, who was in love with me. I would have hated to be married, it would be too odd to live in same house together.”

“Grandma, you tart!” Uncle Paul laughed with a bellow.

“He was the love of my life until your father took me away from him.”

She said this matter-of-factly.

“You’ve never mentioned him before!”

She replied with a shrug.

The boyfriend had no name. The photo sits centered to her small dining table, now cluttered with prescription pill bottles. Uncle Paul, a dutiful son, measured out her pills in a weekly pill organizer. She sometimes forgets to take them, he says. He reminded her the importance of not forgetting. Yeah, yeah, she said, distantly.

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My uncle dutifully measured out Pauline's medications to take daily in a 7-day pill organizer.

As I walked past her to look at more photographs, she quietly murmured how tired she was. Said to no one in particular, but like a wish aloud. This was our cue to leave, I told Uncle Paul. She was exhausted by reliving too many pains, naming too many faces who’ve disappeared in decades past.

Nǚ guǐ contented, retiring to the dark, surrounded by the memories she cherishes.

Back in the car, I asked Uncle Paul:

“Do you think that boyfriend is still alive?”

“What does that matter? I wish I could tell her, ‘that was like, a century ago, Ma! You need to move on!’ I can’t believe she’d still hang on to that.” Uncle Paul was laughing incredulously. I became upset as the image of her teenage dream, vivid as ever, was still one of a handful of particular memories in spite of her increasing dementia.

I could completely understand. Imagine living decades in a life you wished was never your own, in circumstances that were decided for you. I’ve known small fantasies and wishful thinking, dreams that let me sleep better at night. Temporary flights of fancy that let me be someone else, a better me, if only for a few hours. A timeline where if those assaults didn’t happen, I would be exponentially more successful. It’s a past modal that depends on fantasy and alternative dimensions: I could have had a better life, been a better me.

When I think of Pauline having that picture in her small dining room, I can only imagine an outro with Connie Francis singing “Where the Boys Are.” Somewhere, someone is waiting for a happy, teenage Pauline. A girl with youthful vibrancy, with a boy she loved, back in Hong Kong in 1953, was another play to memorialize on repeat. This time, it’s a fantasy: Fade to white, stealing playful kisses from her boyfriend, drunk in love.

Last Impression

The last day. It was brief. I resigned that I wouldn’t get the portrait I wanted, nor her own story in her own words – three days, no less the sliver of hours among them, was too ambitious. I swung my camera around my shoulder regardless.

Uncle Paul and Pauline were looking through Ah-Ling’s old things. Uncle Paul thought it was important for me to know and inspect bills, deeds, and receipts. Old Pauline resurfaced.

“Why does she want to know?”

“Because it’s important to know, Ma!”

“Nobody has to know!”

Paranoid, secretive. Honestly, I didn’t have to know about Ah-Ling’s rental contracts. However, Pauline was suspicious. Who knows what she was briefly thinking of me, trying to infiltrate her carefully guarded world. I wasn’t present for this exchange, so this was secondhand distrust.

Aunt Rocky has dealt with this version of Pauline for the past 25 years. She told me a story when I asked how Pauline had changed since her fall.

“We bring over food for Pauline every now and again. Restaurant foods, whatever Uncle Paul cooks, that kind of stuff. We had made tamales and I drove them over to her house. She didn’t remember that we had given them to her, so the next day she was angrily accusing me of breaking into her house, making a spare key when she was out one day, and trying to mess up her things. Of course, none of this is true, but I couldn’t convince her otherwise. She didn’t speak to me for six months.”

“And after the fall? Do you think she still remembers, or did she forgive you?”

“She hasn’t brought it up since. I think she’s forgiven me. That might be her way, just by not acknowledging it.”

As Uncle Paul is showing me Ah-Ling’s receipts, I see something stand out on top of a pile of papers near her couch. It seemed like a heavy-handed, M. Night Shyamalanesque motif – highlighted by a lamp, a bright red envelope was placed perfectly atop. Almost too obviously. Pauline had opened it, glanced at it, then replaced it on top of the pile, as if routine. On top was a bubbly handwriting exclaiming it was for Grandpa and Grandma. It was uncannily my mom’s writing; I could recognize it anywhere.

Exact pristine condition. It looked untouched since it was first received: a Christmas card from 1990. This meant Alex was 2, I was 11 months. Mom and Pauline still on speaking terms. It felt surreal holding a card where just a couple of months later, this wouldn’t be the case. I was holding something directly indirectly: a scenario where my grandfather was still an active player in the scene, Mom still mailed sentimental holiday cards, and Alex and “Baby Nicole” were waiting to be played with.

I put it back in its envelope, realizing I was projecting quite a lot on a fucking Hallmark card.

My relatives were shuffling us out. He mimed to me that this was my last opportunity to get pictures. I asked for a family photo; Pauline, of course, tried to defer.

“No, no. Maybe tomorrow.”

“Grandma, I won’t have tomorrow. Today?”

Michael was able to smooth-talk Grandma into a generic family photo. It was the opposite of my portrait: staged. I’m snapping in rapid succession, meaning I have a series of her talking and looking away. However, she’s calling over to Rocky to swap places with me. In this five-minute sequence, Aunt and Uncle are switching me out to get every combination together, leaving me with a few blurry and/or headless copies. There’s one Uncle Paul snapped of me and Pauline, accidentally decapitating Michael and my aunt.

I can’t read her face. I’m on the verge of tears, for too many reasons. I enveloped her in a hug as she patted my shoulder.

“Come back soon.”

“I hope I can.”

I meant it sincerely. I left her home unfinished, feeling like those photos were little but ghostly pixels. A story was in mismatched pieces, my series of portraits were incomplete. I hadn’t felt so discouraged, angry, bleak and helpless all at once. I had collapsed into a dying star, as all the plans I had meticulously crafted and propelled myself to even get to this desert stupidly, finally, self-destructed in a pathetic, melodramatic whimper.

Escape to L.A. Where Bill and Suzie Are

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Was it Ernest Hemingway that said to write drunk, edit drunk?

I needed to escape Tucson, much like Bill and Suzie did post-college. I was only there for three days compared to their twenty-something years, and I wanted out. I took an Uber to the airport four hours early, where I could ruminate in an overpriced cocktail and try to salvage something meaningful out. I sat myself down at the Arizona Grill bar-top. As an older man gave his order of bacon, eggs, beans, white toast, and coffee, extra milk, I ordered a scotch on the rocks. I might as well play the charade; a jaded, salty sea dog that’s on the brink of a nervous breakdown at 9:30 in the morning.

My bartender wasn't the best goddamn bartender from Timbuktu to Portland, Maine, or Portland, Oregon, for that matter, as I got to sip my scotch in a dirty glass, but I felt like I deserved it.

My bartender wasn’t the best goddamn bartender from Timbuktu to Portland, Maine, or Portland, Oregon, for that matter, as I got to sip my scotch in a dirty glass, but I felt like I deserved it regardless.

I tried to decode my notes. Despite my impersonating a journalist, a lot of passages became indecipherable. Some made sense, but trailed off with no hint as to where they should lead. Great. On top of that, my notebook got water-logged and dried to the smell of gross cheese, which made looking through it even more nauseating. At least I would be heading home, away from Tucson, where true to Family Guy, this trip had been an exhaustive mental kick to the balls.

My dad picked me up. I had all the excitement of a reunited dog released from a pet shelter. I had not been so happy to be with my own family and remember our own sense of normalcy. The stories were getting to me. Pauline’s past were casting shadows that were creeping into my present. I couldn’t differentiate the parallels, even upon my aunt and uncle’s insistence that we were very different people.

Returning to my childhood home gave framed photos a new distinction. I now knew the ugliness behind them. Despite my mom’s estrangement, photos of Pauline still stood tall on our living room bookshelves, dusty from being unmoved. From Uncle Paul’s wedding back in the early 90’s, Suzie and Pauline embrace with wide smiles while wearing pastel formalwear.

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In a corner mahogany bureau, a tiny photoset of Pauline and my mother sit. It's one of the few that exist in her home, one that's filled with thousands of photos.

My mom would remark that when she last visited Pauline during her hospital visit, she and my uncle cleaned her home while she recovered. She said she was angry that there were no pictures of her then. Shrines dedicated to Uncle Paul, clearly the favorite son, and his family. Shrines to herself in her youth. Not a single remembrance to Suzie. Erased from her life, it was a denial Suzie ever existed to Pauline.

Wait, wait, wait! I quickly thumbed way past hundreds of photos to show this evidence. Evidence of what, I’m still not sure. I excitedly showed this one framed picture of baby me and her, pointing out the dust collecting on it.

“Maybe she knew you were coming.”

“I don’t know. She said I looked like you, though. Pretty as you.”

My mom frowned in doubt. Who knows. I didn’t get the chance to ask Pauline about why that photo suddenly appeared. I’m not trying to force a happy ending reconciliation between my mom and Pauline, like something treacly out of The Parent Trap. I suppose my overwhelming sense of wonder came from the fact that for her decades as the winning side in this mother-daughter Cold War, here was perhaps an opportunity for detente.

Uncle Paul said that she designated me as the messenger to Suzie. Appropriate that I play the proxy. Maybe after a quarter-century, Pauline is ready to attempt a reconciliation.

What about Suzie?

Mother on Mother An Interview with Pauline's Former Daughter

I interviewed my mom through email. Talking through FaceTime would inspire blubbery tears. It was just too difficult for me to work through throat chokes and clogged sinuses, even though this was no longer about me and Pauline, but Pauline and Suzie. The armchair psychology explanation behind it is that I’m always seeing myself in them, even when I shouldn’t. It was unmerciful narcissism as I outline my features and traits in their faces in a torturous rotoscope.

I might’ve delved too deep into myself and exposed my worst demons, ones I thought would no longer haunt me. This project had become a months-long therapy session. I had actually visited a therapist last year in November, the first time in years to confront and exorcise a few demons. It ended with me so drained I didn’t leave my bed for two days. Now here, they’re raw again as I parallel my life with Pauline’s. I was analyzing as if itching open a scab over and over again, digging nails deeper into layers that shouldn’t be exposed to the surface. To mix more metaphors, perhaps certain skeletons should be kept in the closet.

Back to my mom – resilient, optimistic, grounded. I only met Pauline for an infinitesimally small sliver of her life. Suzie had years of Pauline’s contempt, grief, and complicated expressions of maybe-love, as close to motherly love that Pauline could give. I’m evangelizing Pauline in her most fragile moments. For as much then as Christ has suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin…  

My mom was able to recite stories that gave Pauline flesh and blood, rather than the ethereal myths retold through other relatives.  Rather than my perceptions of these events as momentous, earth-shattering singularities, my mother’s own memory binds Pauline firmly the ground: achingly, sometimes embarrassingly human.

Q: How did you feel after you and her argued about me and Alex? Did you feel it was best to cut her out of our lives, or think this was a temporary silence?

Suzie: “The manner that Pauline left our house that fateful day was so outrageous.  She had been finding fault about coming to Los Angeles, not feeling comfortable here, the pollution, and then she started in about you guys running amok on the sidewalks of South Pasadena.  “It’s so dangerous here.”   That led to her yelling at me about old childhood torts, then to how she felt I was carelessly raising you two (e.g., that a car could jump the sidewalk and kill you.)  She didn’t remember the times we kids played on the railroad tracks or lit fires, or ran amok in the streets of Continental.

I remember watching her pack her stuff up and leave all the gifts that we had exchanged when she arrived, that included a dozen eggs that she brought to me and was now taking back home! (Eggs were on sale in Tucson.)  Not only was she cutting short her stay from three weeks to less than a few days, she had the audacity to drag her suitcases up the street to first [our neighbors up the street], then the [neighbors across the street], for a ride to LAX.  Bless them.  I have a memory that when she marched up Summit, I locked the door!   Then I locked up my heart.

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Eggs? Eggs. This raises so, so many questions.

So I needed to cool off. In the following weeks, my dad tried to smooth things over.  I decided to write a letter knowing that it would be a letter that my mom would not be able to read.  I said my goal was that we should speak as adults the next time we spoke, and that we should do so with respect.  Someone read it to her and she did not accept it kindly.   She didn’t speak to me after that.

It went full ape shit mode when she did not acknowledge me, your dad, or you two [at a family reunion in 2001].  She didn’t speak to us, wouldn’t eat or be at the same dinner table as us, nor be photographed with us.  She rejected us entirely.   Not just me, or me and your dad.  You two, my children.  That was pretty much the turning point.

I chose to live with her silence.  Perhaps it would be temporary, but as the silence continued, I relished the peace.  I did not miss the yelling or the in-fighting.  Your uncles tried to help but I heard she put up the hand.  With me, your uncles tried this tactic: she’s the only mother you have.  At what cost?  I felt that if we made amends, it would only last until the next fight.

Years later, with Uncle Paul sick in the hospital, we’re gathered in the ER and concerned about whether Paul will pull through the night.  Paul is ready to die, he is incredibly weak and suffering in pain,  and the doctors are perplexed with his condition.  It had been a very long day and mom and I barely met eyes all evening; I at least said hello.  Now close to 10:30 PM, she said aloud that she is tired and wanted to go home.  Moments pass and nobody volunteered to give her a ride home. Not Rocky, Not Bill…no one else to chirp up but me.  I said that I could drive her home.  She says:  Not by you.  Okay, you crazy fuck!  I didn’t say that…but sure wanted to.

When I saw her last summer, it was out of obligation.  Uncle Paul demanded my help and thought that this could be the way to turn the page.  I performed what needed to be done for her at the hospital and I was polite. But I still felt estranged.  I had no feeling for her.  I think I remember saying in my head that I felt more compassion towards a homeless person than this hospitalized woman.  Those thoughts were further compounded once I went through her home to clean out her fridge and noticed all the pics…that did not include us.  Logically, I know that I shouldn’t feel hurt but I felt a pang. Or perhaps a thud?!”

Q: Would you ever want to talk to her again?

Suzie:  “Pauline’s mind is getting quite gauzy.  She doesn’t have a memory of falling last summer, or the reason why she has those huge scars on her head.  And she doesn’t remember my being there at the hospital.  That is a blessing of senility.  Today was Uncle Paul’s birthday and the family went over to see her after brunch.  She had not remembered that it was Paul’s birthday according to Rocky.  I replied to Rocky that we’re lucky that Pauline is still able to recognize Paul, period.   That day will come when she won’t.  I’m barely in Pauline’s gray shadows now and I’m slipping away.”

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Two old pictures that don't have Ah-Ling clipped out of them. Ah-Ling and I share similar fashion sense.

While Uncle Bill and Suzie visited Pauline in the hospital last year, the nurse asked a few preliminary questions after her surgery to check her mental condition. Name, location, date. She then asked about her family. How many children, who were they, where.

Pauline had told the nurse that she had two sons and one daughter. However, in a moment of clarity and rare disclosure, she said she herself was the reason why she and her daughter don’t speak. This subject was never brought up again, and by the time Suzie had appeared in front of her, it looked like old anger had returned.

Like a turbulent tide receding, it looks like by my appearance in her life that her anger subsided. Whether it’s a matter of forgiveness, senility, or some other factor that softens her old resentment, nobody knows.

Never the End

I had left the airport crestfallen. I had shitty photos, more questions than answers, and a skeletal narrative. I also had no idea which stories to trust, whether they necessitated trust to begin with, or how to understand them objectively. Pauline has her stories, my uncles and mother have their perspectives, and I have mine. I was flying away from Tucson and Pauline; time and distance were longitudes of care and indifference. I could present a different project, or create a different narrative that minimized her role, but I had to care about what I had lost. I was obligated to care. So directly, she could make me understand myself. She is one of many crucial variables leading up to my own existence.

My boyfriend picked me up from O’Hare. I couldn’t look him in the eye. The shame and embarrassment was plentiful.

“Are you okay?” my boyfriend asked.

Only the closest relationships can make that sentence a sluice. I cried in self-pity, anger, relief, and all other emotions that self-loathing can compose. Anger, mostly at how much this project had completely went out of my control, made those tears dry.

“I think what I learned from this project, and myself, is that anger is good.”

“That really shouldn’t be your moral of the story,” he laughed.

Pauline has lived off anger. When I was angry, channeling Pauline’s fiery spite, I felt powerful. Alive, awake, and ready to burn with self-righteous indignation.

“You’re right, I mean. Not being angry all the time. I mean…that some anger is crucial to my family’s identity. Maybe.” I was backtracking. I had to pull some moral out of my ass, right? Out of all the maybes and apparentlys, writing at length and trying to analyze and nitpick, I realize I said little. I’m still working it out.

There is a strange power to anger; a survival mechanism borne out of desperate circumstances. After feeling so distraught for much of my whining twenties, feeling that I’m not made for surviving in Chicago, this economy, any career I put for myself, all of it, here’s the small part of Pauline I feel connected to: the anger necessary for reincarnation, motivation, and change. If deep depression is a flatline, then anger became my defibrillator.

If it’s a lesson learned from Pauline the nü gui, it’s seeing her as the embodiment of anger excess. A spirit who only knew how to consume and regurgitate anger, a lifeblood that knew no other balance other than one extreme of spitfire. However, it’s an exhausting drain. My mom and uncles say that Pauline could have aged gracefully. “That’s what living off spite does – a permanent frown,” they commented.

This exploration into the past is surely a mess. Several thousand words later, there’s little resolution in our family history. There are far more questions than I started; photos and bits and pieces sometimes survive past their origins. No easy tidying up. I saw Pauline and saw myself; however, I saw my mother, and also saw myself.

Post

It was 10 PM. I was sitting on my couch, playing a video game, drinking a couple of beers. Cell phone rings.

“Colee? I got Pauline on the line. After so many phone tags, I got her here. I figured you could ask her questions now. Hopefully this is a good time?”

I was a little bit tipsy. “Uhhh? I’m a bit tired, but let’s see.”

Pauline remembered my name. I was caught surprised. She asked me how I was (great), where I was (Chicago), what I thought of Tucson (too hot), and what I was doing in school. Uncle Bill tried to translate “Digital Media and Storytelling” into Chinglish, but in the end, I just said “marketing.”

“She’s graduating, Ma,” Uncle Bill told her.

She said she was very happy for me. She also said she was sad that she couldn’t send a gift in time. I told her not to worry.

“Who is your mother?”

What? “Suzie!”

“Lorna, Ma. Lorna.” Uncle Bill clarified.

“Oh, right, right,” she murmured.

She expressed she was tired, which was our cue to end the call. She told me she loved me and said goodnight. I accidentally called her “Pauline.”

“Goodnight…Grandma.”

I don’t know when the next time I’ll see her again. I know there’s a lot left to unravel and explore. Until then, I’m happy to be in her memories, even if I eventually dissipate.

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