“Oh, poor Mother,” Mama said. Then a few minutes later, “Oh, poor Daddy. He shouldn’t have been moved. At his age, moving across the country.” Then the next minute, “Oh, poor Mother. She has so much work. She’s going to be so tired.”
We were driving from South Dakota to Indiana for my grandfather’s funeral, and the closer we got to Grandma’s house, the more nervous my mother grew. My brother and his friend Roger sat in the back seat, exchanging comics and laughing at their own jokes, while I sat next to Mama in the front, reading the AAA TripTik. Mama chewed on her nails and gripped and re-gripped the steering wheel.
“Stop biting your nails,” I said automatically, staring out the window at the endless asphalt.
“Stop. Biting. Your. Nails.”
“Don’t talk to me like that!”
“Mama, you told me to tell you to stop biting your nails and you’re biting your nails. You told me to tell you. You made me promise!”
“Oh, I did, didn’t I?” Mama said. She stared straight ahead at the road, looking at something I couldn’t see.
For the first thirteen years of my life, we had very little to do with my maternal grandmother while Gramps was still alive and drinking. I’d heard the stories. I’d seen the tooth that Gramps had punched out of my mother’s mouth when she was seventeen. It was soldered into place by a line of gold that caught the light when she smiled.
Then two months after my fourteenth birthday, Gramps died and Mom decided we’d attend the funeral. We’d just moved the year before from the East Coast to South Dakota, so we were close enough to drive. My mother hated to fly. Papa didn’t go—he was at a university on the East Coast on an academic fellowship that summer. He’d been dismissed from his administrative job that spring, but he’d won the fellowship and so Mama had encouraged him to go anyway. She thought it would help his mood. We’d moved to South Dakota for his job and now it was gone.
I also suspected it was convenient that he was away. Grandma and Papa didn’t get along, and he wouldn’t have wanted us to go on this trip.
At the last minute my mother decided to bring one of my brother’s friends, a kid who lived on a farm about a mile and a half down the road from us. He was often at our house, playing with my brother or hiding in our fields. Even if he wasn’t, his mother would call or drive up, trying to find her son whom she wanted to come back and do more chores. The mother loved her eldest son and bragged about him all the time. She complained about this other son all the time. That kind of dynamic was enough to trigger my mother’s sympathies. And as we were packing our bags, Roger came walking up our driveway in time for dinner.
“You should come with us!” my mother announced. I was a little surprised, but my mother was convinced it would be a good idea to bring him. “Roger is so cheerful,” she said. “He’ll be good for Mother’s spirits.” Then Mama called Roger’s mother and persuaded her to allow him to come. Maybe she thought it’d be safer to have another person, too. Another witness.
After we turned off the interstate, fruit stands lined the two-lane highway to Warsaw where my grandmother owned a large double-wide trailer and where she and my grandfather had bought their cemetery plots long ago.
“Look at those trees, kids,” my mother pointed out the window. “We used to call those Indian cigar trees.” I looked at the trees with the long rubbery pods hanging from the branches.
“We had a farm,” Mama said. “It was beautiful. We had a stream we could swim in. Ran right through the property.”
“Was your farm here?” my brother asked from the back seat.
“Oh, no. No, no. It was far away. In the South. Not here,” she said.
Abruptly, Mama pulled off at one of the fruit stands and bought a cooler’s worth of peaches. “Everyone will be hungry,” she said. “They’ll need these.”
Now that she had the peaches, Mama grew more cheerful.
“Oh, smell these peaches, kids!” she brought one to her nose. “Isn’t it heavenly? We always had the best peaches when I was growing up. Mother would make pie. She makes the best pies! Oh, Mother’s pies! We lived on a farm in southern Indiana and we had our own berry patch. We used to pick the berries and eat them till our lips were dyed blue!” She laughed at the memory. “Every year Mother would ask me what kind of pie I would like for my birthday. And I would think about every kind of pie. Strawberry rhubarb, peach, boysenberry, huckleberry. ‘Lemon meringue,’ I said. I remember. That was my favorite.”
My stomach was growling. It had been many hours since we’d stopped at a McDonald’s for lunch.
“Should we stop and eat?” I asked hopefully. “AAA says there’s a Stuckey’s at the next exit.”
“Oh, no, no. Mother will be hungry. We’ll wait. We’ll take Mother out to eat once we arrive,” Mama said.
I wrapped my arms around my stomach, clenching. It was going to be a long visit, I could already tell.
In TV shows and movies, trailer parks were always depicted as run-down and filthy places, but Grandma’s “retirement community” was filled with trailers the size of ranch houses with small but well-manicured lawns, trellises covered in flowers, various lawn ornaments like stone bird baths and sundials. There was nothing trashy or kitschy here, no gnomes or plastic flamingoes. Many of the trailers had flagpoles and large American flags flying before their doors. I wondered how Grandma had found such a place.
At Grandma’s trailer, cars and vans were parked along the drive. I could hear the voices of my aunts on the breeze, but I could not see any of them. The front door was open and I thought I could hear Grandma’s voice rising and falling. Mama must have thought she could hear Grandma, too, because after we parked, Mama threw open her door and called out loudly, “Mother, I’m here! I’ve got peaches for you!”
I looked at my brother and Roger as they climbed out of the Jeep, their stiff legs nearly buckling after sitting for so long. “Should we bring in the peaches?” I wondered.
Several of my aunts came pouring out of the trailer, calling to us, “May-lee, Jeffrey! You’re so tall! You’ve grown so much! Let me look at you!”
And then more voices rose through the screened windows as the aunts inside shrieked in delight at my mother’s appearance. “Oh, Carolyn, I love your hair! Blonde! Oh, don’t you look great?”
We brought the cooler into the kitchen and Mama immediately began distributing the peaches. “Look, Mother! Look at these wonderful peaches! Smell them!”
I could barely see Grandma sitting at the table, while my aunts bustled around her. Cousins were in the living room. Strange men, who I assumed were my aunts’ husbands, drifted in and out the screen door.
“Are we going to eat anything?” Jeff whispered to me.
“I don’t know,” I said. There was so much chaos—voices exclaiming things, people moving in and out, the humming of the electric fans—it was hard to know where to stand, much less figure out if something like dinner was going to happen.
Eventually, Roger, my brother, and I ended up in the living room with our cousins. We introduced ourselves to one another. Many of us had never met before, but everyone knew who we were because we were the only half-Chinese cousins. We explained that Roger was a neighbor, not a relative. There was a baby on the carpet. None of the adults running in and out of the screen doors paid it any mind.
From my vantage point in the living room, I could see my mother’s elbow and the top of her head as she and her sisters gathered around the kitchen table. She looked so much like her sisters. Their hair colors didn’t match, she was blonde and they were all dark like me, but they stood alike, and now my mother’s voice changed, too, her accent melding with theirs, until they all sounded alike, their voices rising and falling, as they exclaimed over one another. They hadn’t been all together for a long time and the funeral was a kind of reunion.
One of my aunts complained she didn’t have a thing to wear, nothing appropriate, nothing good enough, and I heard my mother promise to make her a new dress. “Just get out the sewing machine and bring me the fabric!”
Women’s voices rose in laughter. They called one another by their old nicknames: “Elbows” and “Froggy” and “Buggy.” My mother called everyone “You kid!” She said it like a flapper, like Mae West, like it meant something completely different that only she understood. She invited everyone to come visit her farm.
Then Grandma’s tremulous voice interjected, “I need some help here!” Grandma recited a list of things she needed to have done and the voices lowered to murmurs again, dense as a thicket of thorns. After a while, I realized my mother wasn’t going to come out and check on my brother and me. She had become the Eldest Daughter of her family again.
The Husbands decided to keep the cousins busy and began throwing the boys onto the carpet. “This is how you wrestle,” one of them said.
“That’s not how you wrestle,” Roger whispered to me.
“We’re hungry,” my brother said, tugging on my sleeve.
“We can eat a peach,” I suggested. I pushed my way back into the kitchen where the Styrofoam cooler lay open on a counter. While one of my aunts was now debating with Grandma about the list of chores, I grabbed a few peaches and pushed my way back into the living room.
The Husbands and the male cousins had drifted out the front door and were “wrestling” on the lawn.
Some of my female cousins watched from the door. The baby was still on the carpet, crawling fast toward the now-empty sofa.
“Whose baby is this?” I asked.
One of the girls shrugged. “I think it’s Aunt Bee’s,” she said.
The baby was pushing its way under the organ bench toward a light socket. I ran in front and blocked it with my legs. “Where’s the mother?” I called out. I didn’t know much about babies.
The screen door slammed and Jeff and Roger reappeared. They’d gone outside to watch the wrestling matches while I was chasing the baby. Now they panted over to me. “Uncle Kay’s got a knife. And Uncle Bob is showing everyone his gun. And Cousin Adam is fighting really hard. His dad keeps throwing him on the ground and he keeps getting up. He’s trying to get Uncle Kay’s knife.”
“Watch the baby,” I told them, then I ran back into the kitchen.
Grandma was talking and all my aunts were quiet, nodding, miserable.
I wedged my body directly in front of my mother, so that she could not ignore me. “Mama,” I said, “the men are wrestling the boy cousins on the lawn and they have guns and knives. This is very dangerous.”
Mama suddenly snapped back into herself. “Okay, just a minute,” she said in her regular voice, not the voice she used with her sisters, and she followed me out of the kitchen and onto the lawn just in time to see two of the Husbands picking up two of the boy cousins and throwing them hard against the lawn. One of the cousins rose up in a fury and charged the grown man.
“Boys, boys!” My mother called to the Husbands. “Mother needs your help! Bob, can you go to the grocery store and get crackers and cheese? There’s nothing to eat and everyone’s hungry. Kay, can you go with him and get paper plates and napkins? Mother is tired. We don’t need to do any dishes.”
Immediately, the Husbands stopped throwing the boys onto the lawn and sprinted to their trucks and drove away.
“Kids, come inside and wash your hands. We’re going to start eating soon.” The cousins responded to my mother’s clear, strong voice and started moving toward the door. “May-lee, keep the boys inside,” she said. Then she turned away and went back into the kitchen, where a new argument was brewing, Grandma’s voice rising and falling and rising while my aunts’ voices chirped in dismay.
The next day Grandma went to bargain with the florist and my mother sat at a portable sewing machine set up in one of the rooms in Grandma’s trailer, making a new dress for one of her sisters.
The Husbands had gone in a roar of engines, sent on errands. The baby was on the lawn, placidly pulling at the grass.
“Where are the parents?” I asked, and the two blonde cousins standing in the shade just shrugged. I took the baby’s hands in mine and tried to help it walk across the lawn. Jeff and Roger clustered next to me.
“Are we going to eat?” Jeff asked. “Roger’s hungry.”
“We’re all hungry,” I said.
Aunt Ginger’s VW Bug pulled into the driveway with a screech. Ginger was nineteen years younger than my mother. Her children were nearly my age, but she’d always seemed glamorous to me when I was a child because she was still so young herself and yet a mother, not like any of the other mothers I knew. She wore mini-skirts and short shorts and had long, dark hair and big, bug-eye sunglasses, which she now pushed up to look at me. “Hi, kids! Hi, May-lee. That’s a nice dress you’re wearing!” she said as she ran past us into the trailer. My mother’s sisters were trained to be nice women at all times, even in a crisis.
“Oh, Carolyn, something awful has happened,” I heard Aunt Ginger’s voice float through an open window. The thunka-thunka sound of the sewing machine stopped.
One of the Husbands had told one of the sisters that he was going to stand up in the middle of the service and say that Gramps was in Hell, burning in flames with the Devil for all that he’d done. The Husband felt it was the only moral thing to do, after all Gramps had put his family through.
Mama spent the rest of the day talking to everyone. She talked to the aunts and convinced them to remain calm and not to upset one another. She talked to the Husband and convinced him the funeral was not the best place to air his grievances.
“This is not about Daddy. This is about Mother. After all she’s been through, we owe her this much,” she said. The Husband promised not to disrupt the service. At the end of all the negotiations, the aunts were quiet for a moment, still, waiting.
I found a box of crackers in the kitchen and snatched it. I found Roger and Jeff on the lawn, trying to entice a squirrel from a tree. “Come on,” I said. “Food.” Then we hid behind the Jeep and ate the crackers before anyone else saw them, cousins or Husbands, who were roving again, and tried to take them away.
That evening, before the wake, the aunts had left to set up the chairs and the Husbands had gone with them, and Mama was left to help Grandma get ready. Jeff and Roger were playing outdoors, and I was trying to read a book while sitting on the floor of the living room.
While Mama went to the bathroom, Grandma turned to me as though she only then realized I was there.
“So, do you have a boyfriend?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“Oh, Carolyn,” Grandma called to my mother, “do you think May-lee’s going to become a nun?”
“I’m only fourteen,” I said.
Grandma seemed disappointed. “I was in love with a boy I met when I was fifteen. Oh, I can remember him! I thought about him all the time!”
“Was that Gramps?” I asked, even though I knew it wasn’t, but I was hoping she’d tell me this story. The story about the boy she loved before she married my grandfather.
“No, another boy,” Grandma said.
I knew from stories that Grandma was worried that Mama was going to become a nun. She was in her thirties and unmarried and working as a teacher when she met my father. By that point Grandma didn’t even care that Papa was Chinese and Mama white when he asked Mama to marry him. She was just relieved that her eldest daughter was finally going to be married.
An unmarried woman was a dangerous thing in my grandmother’s eyes. Since her own marriage to Gramps was abusive, I always wondered why Grandma had encouraged all her daughters to marry young. Was it a kind of revenge she took on girls, lest they be happy? Was she afraid to discover that her own fate had not been inevitable?
My mother had thought marrying my father would keep her safe from the violence she’d grown up with. My father was a professor, a pacifist, a man who fundamentally did not believe in using his fists.
“Don’t ever marry an American,” my mother told me once. “American men are too violent.”
She had not imagined how marrying a Chinese man might provoke violence in others, in the white men who came shooting on weekends, killing our dogs, in the white men who’d been angry at my father for having a white wife and mixed kids, proof of sexual activity. How they wanted him fired from his job. How their wives would send obscene notes in the mail. How their children would taunt my brother and me at school.
“I don’t need a boyfriend,” I said. “I’m going to college.” My parents had drilled these phrases into me for as long as I could remember.
When I was five, a boy from kindergarten used to call me on the phone. My father would scream, “You’re going to college! You cannot have a boyfriend!”
My mother would say, “Hush, now! She’s just talking on the phone.”
Then my mother would tell me the story of her sisters: “They will tell you, ‘Oh, look at my house, look at my refrigerator.’ They will tell you, ‘It’s so fun to have your own house. It’s so fun to be married.’ But a woman needs an education. You must go to college. You must have a career.”
I could remember thinking, “I’m five!” I’m six, I’m seven, I’m ten.
Now I said loudly, “I’m not going to get married ever.”
“Oh?” said Grandma. “Did you hear that, Carolyn?”
My mother came out of the bathroom and joined us in the living room.
“Well, of course you’re going to get married someday ,” Grandma said.
“No, I’m not,” I said. “I am never going to get married.”
I was fourteen and I was sick of this visit. I was sick of taking care of the baby whose parents were always gone. I was sick of scrounging for food for me and Roger and Jeff. I was sick of being the girl who had to be the responsible one who broke up fights. I was waiting for Mama to say, “Why don’t you want to be married?” and I was going to say, “I don’t want to be like you.” It would hurt her, and I wanted to hurt her. But she didn’t ask me.
Then Grandma started talking about the price that the florist had tried to charge her and Mama was saying, “Mm-hmm, oh, Mother, you’re so good at business,” and they both forgot I was there.
That night at the wake there was no service, just folding chairs in front of the open casket in the Masonic Hall. I refused to stand in the line, I didn’t want to see my grandfather up close, see the corpse. It frightened me and grossed me out.
I sat in the very back row with Roger and Jeff when the Husband with longish brown hair and a big silver belt buckle and jeans stood up. He’d married Aunt Bee when they were both teenagers and he’d apparently become the kind of man Gramps hated; Gramps would have called him a hippie or worse. Then the Husband started singing. It was a kind of hymn but not the kind anyone sang in the Catholic church that we attended back home. I recognized the words “Jesus” and “save me,” but I didn’t know the song and the Husband could not carry a tune anyway. He was full of confidence and sang loudly and long.
Roger started sniffing and I thought he was crying, but in fact he was trying to suppress his laughter. Then I was laughing, too, and then Jeff was giggling, and we couldn’t stop.
That evening after the wake at Grandma’s trailer but before we went to our motel, Grandma said she wanted to talk to Mama alone. She had something important to say.
I thought Grandma was going to say something about the Husbands. Maybe she was going to thank Mama for keeping them busy. Or maybe she was going to cry and need comforting. I felt afraid. “Don’t go in there,” I said to Jeff and Roger as they approached the lawn. “Just wait right here.”
Grandma’s neighbor, a large white man who’d sat in a white undershirt before his trailer underneath a small Confederate flag while my cousins and I had played on the lawn earlier in the day, now watched us from behind his screen door, squinting. I turned my back to him, so that I wouldn’t have to look at his pinched face.
I heard Grandma’s voice rising until the sound poured through the open window. She was angry.
“I am so tired, Carolyn, and you have been no help at all!” Her voice quivered with rage. She listed each and every of my mother’s sins. “You brought that child. That stranger. To your own father’s funeral. And then you just had to sew a dress. I’m trying to make all the arrangements, I’m trying to honor your father and give him his due, and I had to make all the arrangements with the florist and the mason’s for the wake and the service and the luncheon and you—you—!” Grandma’s voice broke. “You brought those smelly peaches! Everything smells like rotting fruit now! What were you thinking? How could you do this to me?”
“Oh, Mother, I’m sorry. I thought it would be nice—”
“You did not think about me! I am your mother. This is my time. I am the widow. This is my time to grieve. And you—you—you!”
Mama apologized again in a small voice I’d never heard before.
I made the boys get into the back of our Jeep. Somehow if I could hide them there, it might make everything better. They were afraid, trembling. Roger was crying because Grandma had called him “that child” and was angry that he was here. Jeff was crying because Mama was crying. My heart thumped in my ribcage.
When my mother finally climbed back into the Jeep, she closed the door then put her head on the steering wheel.
Jeff and Roger were now sobbing loudly in the back seat.
“It’s not right! You were just trying to help!” I said. “You were helping Grandma! She shouldn’t have yelled at you!”
But my mother didn’t lift her head.
It infuriated me that Grandma yelled at Mama when she had done nothing wrong, that she didn’t yell at the Husbands who brought knives and guns to “play” with children, who caused all manner of problems and who were never blamed. She wanted a perfect funeral for Gramps even though he’d beaten her and abused her and the children for all the fifty years of their marriage.
I knew that in the early years of Grandma’s marriage, the police and sheriff had brought Gramps home whenever he got into fights in bars or public places. The sheriff said, “You should keep a better eye on your husband, Ma’am,” and then they’d let Gramps into the house to terrorize his family.
I’d heard the stories of the neighbors and the relatives and the coworkers who refused to help when Gramps was beating Grandma, when Mama ran to their doors and begged for help. “Don’t worry. This is a matter between your parents. They’ll be fine,” they told her.
But now at the end, Grandma wasn’t grateful to Mama for her help. Grandma was going to blame her, place her anger on her daughter’s body, make her hurt.
Did every abused woman do this to her daughter? Punish the fruit of her own flesh.
Before we came to the funeral, I’d secretly hoped that my mother’s family might help us. We were alone in South Dakota, the first mixed-race family with a Chinese husband and a white wife anyone in town had ever seen. I’d hoped maybe we’d find allies here—all these white people standing by our side, it might tip the balance, make the neighbors think twice before they attacked our dogs, sent us the obscene letters, before their kids called my brother and me names in school.
But I could see that my mother’s family was going to be no help at all. They had their own problems. I wasn’t sure if my mother understood any of this.
The funeral passed quickly the next day. None of the Husbands denounced Gramps, and then there was some kind of luncheon. Strangers came to console Grandma and she nodded gravely, but pleased, proud in fact. The funeral had gone off without a hitch. My mother and aunts posed for pictures with each other, standing in a row according to their height.
At the reception on the lawn of the funeral home, one of the cousins, the nine-year-old son of the Singing Husband, knocked the cup of fruit punch out of the hand of his four-year-old sister. “Don’t pick on your sister,” I said.
He stared straight at me, picked up another Dixie cup, and smashed it on her head. She looked stunned.
“Don’t do that,” I said. “She’s just a little kid.”
He made a fist and then Roger tackled him, and Jeff and he pinned him to the ground.
Good grief, I thought. I ran into the reception hall, looking for Mama, but the adults had drifted somewhere else. I ran back outside.
“Come on, Jeff, Roger. We’re going.”
Roger got up off the cousin. The cousin jumped up and grabbed one of the large bricks outlining the flowerbed and held it over his head.
“Run, Roger! Run!” I shouted. Roger ran and shot into the reception hall. The cousin tried to follow, but I intercepted and grabbed him by his skinny arms. He was a little kid, nine years old, and I could barely hold him. He squirmed left then right. The other cousins gathered in a circle, staring.
“Help me!” I shouted.
I thought if I could only gain a little leverage. I tried dragging the cousin closer to the door. If I could just pin him to the wall, use my weight to my advantage, and hold him and scream for help, I thought that might work. I swung him around trying to pin him and he swung his head back, and I heard the THWACK of his head hitting the aluminum siding. His body went limp.
“Are you all right? Are you okay? I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I cried. Oh, my god, I’ve killed him, I thought.
I sat the cousin on the ground and he moved in slow motion, sat up, rubbed his head with his hand.
“Are you okay? Say something! I’m sorry, are you okay?”
Then the cousin jumped up and ran away. I looked up at the circle of cousins staring at me.
“Jeff, Roger, come here!” I shouted. “We’re leaving! We are leaving right now!”
Then I burst into tears, hot, angry, snot-inducing tears. I didn’t want to cry in front of everyone, but once I started, I couldn’t stop. The angrier I felt, the more I cried. I could barely see. My glasses were fogging up, but I stumbled forward, Jeff and Roger on my heels.
We walked to the parking lot.
“Where’s the Jeep?” I said, and Jeff and Roger found it. “Get in!” I commanded. I climbed in after them and then I locked all the doors.
Several hours later we were still seated in the Jeep. Jeff and Roger had opened the back door to let the air in, and several cousins came by to report on events as they unfolded. The Singing Husband brought his son by the car and squeezed the boy by the neck until he apologized and then they left. One of the aunts brought paper plates of reception food, which was cheesy and milky and made Jeff’s lactose-intolerant guts bloat up. He and Roger amused themselves by taking turns farting out the back door. Finally, Mama reappeared.
“I’m not getting out,” I said. I thought Mama would argue with me, but she didn’t say anything. She drove us to the motel to get our luggage and then she drove to Grandma’s trailer.
She went in to say goodbye, and I thought she’d be in there forever, but she returned fairly quickly, carrying our old Styrofoam cooler.
She put the cooler in the back and then climbed into the driver’s seat and we drove away.
“Are there any peaches left?” I asked. I hadn’t eaten anything at the reception, and I was hungry.
“No,” Mama said. “Everyone ate them all.”
“Can we go to McDonald’s?” Jeff asked from the backseat.
“We can go to McDonald’s,” Mama said.
“Mama,” I said, “Cousin Barry hit Jessica.”
“Don’t bother me, May-lee! I’m busy!” Mama snapped in a voice so sharp, it took my breath away. “My daughter! What’s wrong with my daughter?”
We didn’t talk for the rest of the drive.
Later she’d say, “Whatever you do, don’t tell Papa. It will only make him upset.” She meant, Don’t tell him anything about the funeral, nothing about the family, not about the violence or the lack of food or the Husbands or Grandma making Mama cry or the cousins, any of it.
We all promised not to say a word.
When Papa asked, Mama told him about the peaches she’d bought, the sweet juicy peaches, the best Indiana peaches, the kind she ate when she was growing up on the farm, how delicious they were, just as she remembered.