Lessons, House

Room Magazine - - CONTENTS - ME­LANIE MAH

Poa Poa was al­ways proud of the house. When you were a child in a small town in the foothills of Al­berta, you learned from her by lamp­light the Chi­nese word for “fall,” the one for “build.” She was talk­ing about the house in Sum Yuen Lei, Guang­dong. It had been in the fam­ily for more than a cen­tury, passed on from your great-grand­par­ents to your ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther and his fam­ily.

Some­time in the 1970s, your ma­ter­nal grand­mother, your Poa, started re­port­ing dam­age to the house to your mom. Poa went to China every few years and saw the dam­age spread like can­cer, spread like rot. First the roof dripped when it rained, and then it dripped some more. Be­fore they knew it, twenty years had passed and the roof col­lapsed, tak­ing some of the walls down with it.

By then the house was un­in­hab­ited—old and lonely like a nona­ge­nar­ian whose spouse has died, whose kids and grand­kids rarely visit. Peo­ple started ran­sack­ing the place, steal­ing your grand­par­ents’ fur­ni­ture, your great-grand­par­ents’ wed­ding china. They needed to re­build, lest more of their be­long­ings be sifted through and seized like sand by a re­treat­ing wave, lest the land it­self be taken away as well. That’s how things went in the vil­lage some­times. It’s what hap­pened to your fa­ther’s fam­ily’s sec­ond house, too. They owned it for the bet­ter part of a cen­tury be­fore it fell down and the land got claimed by some­one else. This is an ob­ject les­son in mem­o­ries, the way that they can fade. What does a hun­dred years of ten­ure mean, one hun­dred years of life? Not al­ways as much as it should.

For quite a long time, your grandma was your num­ber one, a hand to shel­ter your flick­er­ing flame, so kind and present for at­ten­tion-starved you. For years, she and your grandpa split their time be­tween Hong Kong and Canada, and dur­ing your sea­sons with her, you would come home from long days of racist taunts at school to com­fort in a bowl, tasty snacks she had pre­pared. Some­one would be there to holler out a sing-song re­ply down the sixty-foot hall of your fam­ily apart­ment to your shouted greet­ing—sweet call and re­sponse—and some­one other than your mom would in­ter­vene when your dad went on a tear, howl­ing and try­ing to hurt you. Decades of un­re­lent­ing house­work left your grandma with un­di­ag­nosed

os­teoarthri­tis, which is some­thing you can now re­late to. Her body ached every day you knew her; she was thin, bony, grey, and short, and even then she tried to pro­tect you. “Don’t be that way, Gok,” she’d say sooth­ingly in Chi­nese. He didn’t stop, but her bear­ing wit­ness, her be­ing in your cor­ner was sig­nif­i­cant in a way you have yet to fully parse even decades later.

An­other thing: she talked to you. In a home where you were sen­si­tive and teased, the quiet youngest child of par­ents with no time, the small­est part of a big and rau­cous fam­ily, you were guided this way and that, shouted at, and dis­cour­aged from both speak­ing and hav­ing friends. Given this, your talks with your grandma were a balm, a kind of calm com­mu­nion.

They were also an in­vest­ment in your fu­ture. Since you’re a writer, peo­ple of­ten as­sume you read or were read to a lot as a kid. Fact is, you didn’t and you weren’t, not re­ally, but some of the first and best sto­ries you were ex­posed to were ones told by your dad and grandma about their lives. If your writ­ing has any kind of emo­tional beat­ing heart, you imag­ine the rea­sons re­side both in their in­flu­ence and in your tem­per­a­ment. You feel things so much, and the more you feel, the closer you think you are to truth and beauty.

Your grandma had a dif­fi­cult past. If sad­ness were a kind of cur­rency, she was the na­tional mint. She was Fort Knox. Yes, there were happy times, the af­ter­noons af­ter school when she fed you, when you watched wrestling on TV and she rushed in from the kitchen to watch when you said Hulk Ho­gan was on, but more of­ten she was sad, more of­ten she was groan­ing from pain or cast­ing meal­time dole­ful looks from her end of the din­ner ta­ble.

“Are you un­com­fort­able?” child you would ask over steam­ing plates.

“My teeth hurt,” she would re­ply sadly.

Some evenings you hung out with her while she scrubbed her­self with a life­long mar­tyr’s need for more suf­fer­ing and a rough wash­cloth dipped in wa­ter from a basin on the bath­room floor. Many nights you re­call creep­ing into her room while she sewed or folded plas­tic bags for later use. Your grandpa would be asleep, or maybe spend­ing time with your mom, while you sat on your grand­par­ents’ bed, hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions with your grandma like gloomy se­crets—the room lit by a lamp on a cord, the lamp­shade she made from a piece of card­board. She talked like al­most any other grandma would, won­dered aloud about when your sis­ters were go­ing to get mar­ried, shared hopes that it would be to good men. She said you have

to spend a lot of time with a guy be­fore you marry him; that you need to walk with him. Yes, walk—that’s what she said.

But what you re­mem­ber most was the way her face looked, the way she winced like a dog that had been kicked too many times as she told the same set of sto­ries on shuf­fle, on re­peat: the last time she saw her fa­ther—she was young—the job at a broom fac­tory that left her with­out teeth. She talked about how she was sold to your grand­fa­ther’s fam­ily at age eleven—later you learned she cost thirty pounds of yam—how they’d mar­ried when she was eigh­teen, how her mother-in-law tried killing her mul­ti­ple times, how your grand­fa­ther had a mean streak, too. In your mind, she is point­ing at her eye, the one like a blown head­light, say­ing he was the rea­son for that.

Her words hit you hard like slaps in the face; they emp­tied your chest. Your grandpa was meek and ec­cen­tric, a source of phys­i­cal com­edy in the fam­ily with his var­i­ous man­ner­isms, the strange, half-shouted trip­ping ca­dence of his piece­meal English, his bad hy­giene and propen­sity for fall­ing asleep with his mouth open any­where he’d been sit­ting too long. To think of him as an ag­gres­sor was to ap­pre­hend the threat in a breeze, or to imag­ine the hur­ri­cane that pre­ceded it. He shared ham sand­wiches with you, spared no ex­pense on your mom’s ed­u­ca­tion dur­ing a time when not so many girls went to pri­vate school, much less univer­sity. They went to movies to­gether, your mom and her dad; he liked candy. Could he have had a dark side, too?

To you, it seems likely de­spite the un­like­li­hood. You think you saw it some­times in how fast he went and how far ahead of your grandma de­spite her de­mands when they walked to­gether in the city. (Was this the im­por­tance of walk­ing with prospec­tive ro­man­tic part­ners?) You even saw a few times the way he looked at her when she nagged or talked back too much or when he thought no one was look­ing. These times were rare. They pre­sented a shock­ing con­trast to the man you thought you knew. At the time, you’d never seen hate like that ex­cept on the face of your fa­ther.

But the main rea­son you think he hit her was that she said he did. It was an early les­son in be­liev­ing women. Why would she lie? To re­tain your sym­pa­thy? To get power in a sit­u­a­tion where she had next to none? You knew how it felt to be pow­er­less at the hands of a man who con­trolled the con­di­tions of your life. If you’d ever had the courage to tell some­one how bad and dark things got for you, you would

have wanted that per­son to be­lieve you, to not find you at fault, to not take his side, to not think you had ul­te­rior mo­tives for telling them about it. Yes, your grandma nagged and nagged; yes, peas­ant China a hun­dred years ago was a to­tally dif­fer­ent time; yes, a per­son can look with ut­ter dis­taste at some­one they’ve spent more than half a cen­tury with; yes, peo­ple have dif­fer­ent walk­ing paces. You grant this, all of it. But you still feel sorry for her and you still choose to be­lieve her.

How do you love an abuser? It’s a hard ques­tion, the love is com­pli­cated, but things were al­ways dif­fer­ent with your grandpa, any­way. Evenings with you were not his cup of tea. Decades later, while writ­ing this es­say, you’ll re­al­ize you know next to noth­ing about his life—say, his birth­day or the town and year he was born in. Plus, he pro­vided in­ter­mit­tent af­ter-school snacks for you, but they were all store-bought. And sure, ham sand­wiches are nice, but it’s not your grandma’s twohour con­gee, not her fried rice or jih yok beng, a dish you con­tinue to love, one that con­tin­ues to have emo­tional res­o­nance for you to this day. Also, per­haps most tellingly, when your dad raged at you, your grand­fa­ther stayed silent, eyes on the TV, con­tin­u­ing to eat his din­ner, to spit any­thing he could not chew into tiny enough bits on to the ta­ble like noth­ing was hap­pen­ing. You re­mem­ber your grandpa call­ing you fat and you an­ger­ing at that, and him laugh­ing at your anger. In a sit­u­a­tion like this, if you had to side, wouldn’t you with the one who’d al­ways been kind when it counted, the one you felt sorry for and had things in com­mon with?

Ev­ery­one has their spe­cial place. In ses­sions, some­times your ther­a­pist wants you to med­i­tate. She tells you to close your eyes and go to the best and safest place you can. For you, it’s an empty room; more rarely, it’s a beach. If you were to guess, you’d say your grandma’s place was her vil­lage, the one she mar­ried into, Sum Yuen Lei. It’s an­other place she went on your evening lamp­side chats with her. She told you about the vil­lage, the peo­ple there who were kind to her and to whom she sent money and clothes. She told you about the fallen-down house she wanted to re­build. She wanted it to be beau­ti­ful, and you’d do any­thing to make your sad love smile, wouldn’t you?

So you let her take your clothes—old things, but also stuff you liked and were still wear­ing—to do­nate to folks in Sum Yuen Lei. She put the clothes in a gi­ant sack, and when it was full, she tied it with rope. Be­fore she left to fly half­way around the world, you gave her money. Fifty dol­lars, one hun­dred dol­lars. Your child al­lowance build­ing her house week by week, five dol­lars at a time. You were an ide­al­ist

who didn’t un­der­stand the value of money. In this way you’ve barely changed. But still, when you gave it to her, she gave thanks like you were hot shit, al­most like you were the Bud­dha. She smiled like when the sun shines on your face and you close your eyes all happy and warm. For many years, she was the only per­son who ever said you were any good. Is it pos­si­ble to for­get some­one like that?

But even af­ter all those lamp­side chats, there were still many things about her you didn’t know or un­der­stand. Some­how you’d thought you’d have a chance to learn, but time’s ar­row moves in one di­rec­tion only. You grew up. In the late nineties, you grad­u­ated high school and moved to the clos­est big city for univer­sity, while the sec­ond-old­est per­son you knew con­tin­ued to get older. She and your grandpa, three years older than her, came to stay in your par­ents’ half-empty house in Ed­mon­ton. They slept on bedrolls in one of your three liv­ing rooms even though there were beds avail­able, and they rolled these blan­kets up each day like campers at a tem­po­rary site. Their vis­its got shorter and shorter be­fore they fi­nally stopped com­ing for good, but they were still alive. You moved to San Fran­cisco, then Toronto.

In 2005, your grandpa died along with most of his sto­ries, a warn­ing, but your grandma per­sisted. You went to grad­u­ate school to learn to be a writer. You were fin­ish­ing your the­sis when your fam­ily de­cided to take a trip to Hong Kong. You had al­ready ex­tended your the­sis dead­line by a cou­ple of semesters and you didn’t want to spend any more money. Plus, it would have been tight; your un­cle’s condo has two spare bed­rooms only.

And any­way, you thought there would be time. You would be fin­ished very soon, then af­ter that, you would spend months with her, get­ting all the de­tails of her life, all the big sto­ries, too, that you’d never writ­ten down. All the boul­ders, rocks, peb­bles, grains of sand in the rock­pile of life. How many tons does a long life weigh? Be­fore you had a chance to see, she was drop­ping nuggets, start­ing to fade. Dur­ing the trip, she met your soon-to-be brother-in-law Brent, but was al­ready un­clear about who your sis­ter was. Poa went with your par­ents and other rel­a­tives to Sum Yuen Lei, and the pic­tures there were not tra­di­tional—taken on a canted an­gle by some­body’s phone’s cam­era—but they were con­ven­tional in their way, a line of fam­ily stand­ing, the el­dest seated in a place of hon­our at the cen­tre. They’re pos­ing in front of the house. Your grandma looks tired and be­atific.

Weeks later, in Hong Kong, she gave up the ghost and died, aged ninety-eight. It re­minded you of peo­ple close to death in the hospi­tal, how they wait for one last thing, maybe per­mis­sion to de­part or that one er­rant rel­a­tive to visit be­fore they die, only it wasn’t you she was wait­ing for, you were just one of ten grand­kids, and there is no po­etry in ex­is­tence, no deep mean­ing to life and death, or if there is, it’s like draw­ing straws, ev­ery­one takes a dif­fer­ent one and mean­ings di­verge.

Your grandma was the one who at last made you un­der­stand the fi­nal­ity of death. In the years af­ter she died, you in­ter­viewed her daugh­ter, your mom. You cor­re­sponded with her al­most daily, look­ing for ev­ery­thing she knew about her par­ents, but there wasn’t much to re­port. Through­out her life, your mom paid at­ten­tion to other things, to school, school songs, sock hops, her friends, to Elvis Pres­ley and the Bea­tles, Chubby Checker, and then work, sur­vival, her hus­band, the busi­ness, which build­ings to buy, how much rent to charge, TV, her kids, and when you, her youngest, fi­nally wraps her head around death and its ef­fects—its tu­mult and still­ness like a small, sud­den, pre­cise snow­storm—and you de­cide to ask her what she knows, there isn’t much to say. She’s like her fa­ther, your grandpa, that way: pri­vate. Plus, you’re mostly tex­ting ques­tions now. Your shy­ness stops you from bring­ing up the big top­ics when you’re with them in per­son, though you know you could get more that way. Still, her knowl­edge of them is in­com­plete—so many ques­tions she did not ask be­cause of shy­ness, dis­trac­tion, in­dif­fer­ence.

The whole thing makes you sad: no mat­ter how many ques­tions you ask, you’ll never know the en­tirety of your grandma’s life, you won’t even know half. It’s time for you to face the facts: knowl­edge of an­tecedents, even close ones, fades. You envy peo­ple you know whose an­ces­tors came over on the Mayflower, peo­ple who know their great-great-grand­fa­thers’ names, oc­cu­pa­tions, towns of res­i­dence, even one or two of their per­son­al­ity traits, but your mom does of­fer you some things, a few choice nuggets she pulls from her pock­ets like jew­els. The mean­ing of your grand­mother’s name, the name of the town where she was born, how many sib­lings she had, roughly how old they were rel­a­tive to her.

Years af­ter your grandma dies, you find you have some­thing else as well, a long­stand­ing wish whose ful­fill­ment may not tell you all you want to know, but you still have it, and you ful­fill it as you stand in front of a build­ing in 2015 and then again in 2017. It is tall and white and has a paint­ing of trees and birds above the door and you can roam the halls and look at pic­tures on the walls and burn in­cense for

her there. It is her wish, her love, a semi-con­stant com­pan­ion over the lion’s share of her hun­dred years. She wanted you to go there. You wanted it, too. Her house. You open the door.

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