Thursday, July 27, 2006

House of Whispers (fiction)

Decades later, the twenty one living grandchildren sit in a circle around the spot where the Christmas tree always stood. What is now missing holds more power than the more obvious changes to our grandparents’ home. In one room, the walls are painted purple. In another a chandelier hangs at an odd angle over a leather-clad water bed. Ten years ago, the house sold below market to a couple who transformed it into a bed and breakfast. My aunt Wanda’s husband rented it back for this one Sunday afternoon reunion. It was against his judgment, but it was her last wish.

We talk only in English about selling Cisco at fifty one, about working for the state department in Moscow, about where our children go to college.

"Kenny is it true what it said in Architectural Digest, that your wife really has one closet for all black clothes and another with nothing but white?"
Other questions sound less like “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” and reveal what simply refuses to be hidden.
"Where are you living these days?"
"What do you do for work?"
"Do you have any children?"
My grandfather had told me as a boy. "A Chinese family never forget its own identity. You understand?”

My Grandfather kept asking me the question whenever we had time alone, which was usually when he was handing me an envelope of hundred dollar bills to cover my tuition money for boarding school and later college out of sight of other family members. He would ask the question, I would nod, and then he’d ask it again, each time he seemed a little less convinced than the last, as we both watched the quarrels within my father’s family intensify as his passing drew closer.

The last time he asked me I was twenty two and in my first year of law school. My Grandfather was past eighty and completing his second round of chemo.

“Of course, I understand,” I assured him, but my Grandfather kept going.

“You see your cousin Sally?”

“Yes, sometimes.”

“You meet her husband and see her baby?”

“Yes, of course I have.”

“They invite you to their house for dinner?”

“Well, no.”

“You see them in the street and you say “Hello, I’m you cousin. We not strangers. You come have dinner with me.”

“Yeh-yeh, I’ve met them. I can recognize Sally on the street.”

“Do you know them?”

“Of course, I know my cousin.”

He shook his head, groaned, and closed his eyes. He then hissed at me in despair then said something in Cantonese frustrated with the imprecision of American speech. Of his grandchildren, only one ever learned to speak Chinese.

That was our last conversation. After the funeral, I did not see Sally, her husband, or meet her two children until today twenty four years later.

Except for a yellow Ferrari, the cars parked outside what was my grandparents’ house are German.

One cousin, dressed in a dun tunic, wanders the circle and asks anyone who will talk to him "Are you sincerely happy?"
We nod. He asks the question again and again as he echoes the way our grandfather would persist in asking the same question? I don’t know why, but it doesn’t occur to me to ask my tunic-clad-shaved-head cousin his own question back.

A younger male cousin is vague about his particulars and substitutes questions for answers.

"Do you remember how we used to slide down those banisters and jump off the front step?"

We nod and someone recalls cracking a tooth after trying to win a bet. He continues, "When Sally locked us in the basement, I got so scared because everyone said there were ghosts down there, I peed in my pants. Does anyone remember that? You all made fun of me. I never forgot.”

The others laugh, but no more giddy memories pop through the conversation. I had indeed forgotten. In my mind I can see the scene, but I can’t hear the giggles at all. The sound of their voices are increasingly faint.

Brochures scattered in each room offer a ghost free history of this bed and breakfast, Paperson’s only remaining business. This is what they tell me about my own family.

The owner built the mansion in 1935 in violation of an unspoken color line about the size of homes owned by non-whites. It was the biggest most elaborate Chinese home in the Sacramento Delta and even considered something of a Cantonese tourist attraction. People drove to Paperson just to visit the house and see what the dream of the Golden Mountain might look like.

My Grandfather was a diplomat who was alleged to own a gambling house. My Grandmother was so beautiful that her parents received fourteen marriage proposals before she turned 16. They raised six children. Bing Crosby once sang in the living room. Actually, it was Danny Kaye, but the publicist feared too few people would know the name.
Faded pictures, a Koumintang council, a Chinese drum and bugle corps, a portrait of Sun Yat Sen, and columns of inspirational calligraphy mingle on the walls with paintings of ocean sunsets and Laura Ashley prints.

In the kitchen, grandmother's soups have given way to ripe brie. Was I the only one who remembered that she used to gather garden snails in the backyard and stew them?

She was so Chinese, it seemed impossible that she'd been born in San Francisco and thus a native-born American citizen who happened to speak heavily accented English. This fact let my grandfather beat the alien land law by buying the land beneath Paperson in his wife’s name.

We sit down to catered lunch of rigorously multicultural California cuisine. Pita, teriyaki, salsa, maybe its an accident that nothing is Cantonese?

I twice approach my cousin Karen, who somehow keeps her shoulders and eyes pointed away from me as she chats on the couch with two other cousins. Maybe she doesn't want to ask about my mother, once her favorite aunt. After my dad died, her parents stopped speaking to us two years after an argument about real estate. Before then, I’d had dinner with Karen more than once without other family around. We’ve never discussed the rift, we’ve just never spoken or even seen one another since.

For two years after my Grandmother died, my parents and I moved back to my grandparents’ house to look after my Grandfather as her last wish. I was fourteen. There had always been arguments within my father’s family, but after we moved in they got worse. Perhaps the rest of the family feared that my mother and father would have too much influence over my Grandfather. Perhaps my mother wasn’t enough of a diplomat to manage their fears. My Grandfather, at my aunts and uncles urging, blamed my mother. While I was gone, my parents were called to a family meeting in the basement and were asked to move out by one of my aunts on behalf of my grandfather.

For six years, my father and I came to this house for Christmas without my mom. The first two years, I would try to refuse to go without my mother, but it was my mother who always insisted. “It doesn’t concern you. You need to keep your relationship with your grandfather,” she would tell me. “He’s paying for your school. You have to respect that. This is your educastion.”

I sit alone on the one step drop that sets off the living room from the entry room until my cousinMelvin, now close to sixty and white-haired fills the space between my other cousins and myself by sitting down in the middle of the step. It wasMelvin who had to move out after we moved in here. He was twenty four at the time.
In seconds, he tells me, "I was grandmother's favorite, you were grandfather's. No one acknowledged Kenny, so he was always angry. The family was dysfunctional. "

This is the first time, it’s ever occurred to me that Kenny wasn't just mean to me back then. It’s also the longest conversation I’ve ever had with my oldest cousin Melvin.

Another cousin takes digital pictures, promising to e-mail copies.

The lunch over, we pose for one last picture, all of us our parents' age when the family last gathered.

In what is now the purple-painted room, my grandfather used to make us bow three times before photos of our great grandparents. The gunpowder flash rendered their one surviving image somber and anciently oriental.

We promise to get together again with wives and children the next time. Someone suggests that by then we can celebrate the closing of the estate. Twenty seven years after our grandfather’s death, the surviving aunts and uncles still can’t agree on a distribution plan.

Kenny offers to host us in the house he is having built with view of Angel Island in Tiburon, “It’s going to be thirty five hundred square feet but just two bedrooms, because we decided not to have children. The real estate people say we’re crazy, but I’d rather have the space for my cars and toys than bedrooms we won’t be using.”

I almost say something about our grandparent’s house being exactly thirty five hundred square feet with its six bedrooms, but stop myself. Instead, I find myself saying,”Sure, just let us know and I’ll get my family there.”

My grandfather built the house so well that these plaster walls will last another two generations. He dreamt that all his sons would live with their children in this compound just the way they would have in Guangdong province.

Other fiction on this site

link to a bed and breakfast spa in an old Chinese house in the Sacramento area

another link to same inn

Please Note, the Inn at Parkside is considerably more tasteful than the bed and breakfast described in this story. They are not the same place.


At 7/30/2006 05:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I made the hideous mistake of visiting two childhood 'homesteads' before I realized that this 'purple wall/leather waterbed' phenomenon is too disorienting of memory to be worth it. The choices that the usurpers make are always awful.

Pretending any family feeling with cousins et al from the mists of the past is equally awkward. The imposed faux feeling is worse than if they were simply strangers.

You capture all of this gruellingly well in your story.

At 7/30/2006 08:28:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Thanks Mr. Pogblog.

I do think family and continuity in family do matter and they can be wonderful things. I think many of us need to rebuild it or make it rather than try to save it though.


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