Many Happy Returns

Here’s the third assignment for school. The assignment was to interview a family member. Just so you know, there was no interview; it’s supposed to be a fiction class…

My mother and I are in her bedroom sitting on her bed. It hasn’t been easy organizing this visit. My mother hasn’t wanted to do it, but I can be persuasive when I need to be, so we sit together on her bed with a pile of family photos between us. I sort through it.

There is a photo of the wedding of my grandfather and my grandmother, my mother’s parents. He wears a dark suit. One of the pant legs is rucked up a little, and shows that he is wearing white socks. She wears a turquoise silk traditional jacket and a black with turquoise silk brocade skirt. The jacket and skirt are beautiful. The couple is beautiful

I ask my mother about what she knows of their wedding. She tells me this: “They married in 1928, when he was twenty three and she was eighteen. It was an arranged marriage. The bride price included: two roast pigs; 24 barbecued ducks; 48 roast chickens; 200 pounds of rice; 20 pounds of fortune cookies; 10 yards of silk; 2 dozen oranges; 20 dozen hard-boiled eggs; and other stuff that I can’t remember.”

Quans-pre-doug-small“Gramma told me that the cookies went stale and the oranges went moldy before they could be eaten.” Gramma [my mother’s mother] was born in Cumberland, and Grampa [my mother’s father] and his father emigrated from China when Grampa was 15. What with the restrictions and fees for Chinese immigration, I don’t know how they managed to get into Canada in 1920, but my mother explains it away as their having been of the merchant class.

After the marriage, my grandparents settled in Nanaimo. There is a postcard of the young family before Dougie, the youngest, was born. My mother is a toddler. She and her two older siblings look ill-nourished and not too alert. There is a recognizable shiftiness in the five year old eyes of my Uncle Art – he continues to be shifty. The mouths of my Auntie Margaret and my mother, Elizabeth, gape. The baby, Gilbert, looks as you would expect him to look, like a baby.

“We had a half acre with a chicken farm. Grampa [her father] had dogs, Dobermans; they were one man dogs. They loved him, and he could put his feet on them. They bit everyone, except him.”

My mother is still afraid of dogs. I have a hazy memory of cranky dogs that lived under the back steps of my grandparents’ house at 456 Keefer Street. We never went into the back yard unless Grampa was there. Call me a coward, but I am still wary of large snapping dogs.

There is a photo of my mother as a young child. When I show her this photo, she says, “This was taken in our first house after we moved from Nanaimo. It was at the corner of Gore and Union. I was three years old.”

This house was there until recently. I knocked on the door about three years ago, and the fellow who was living there showed me the living room. There was still an oil burning stove. I imagined my grandmother cooking on it, and my mother and her siblings playing in front of it.

There is a photo of my mother as a toothless school girl, which prompts her to remember this: “We used to take the trolley car to school every day. I always dozed off. I was up so late studying every night, but I still never got it. I was always so stupid.”

Hearing her say this makes me very sad. My mother is naturally left handed and was forced to use her right hand. She is now ambidextrous, though dyslexic. She has never had good reading skills, and she reads nothing more complex than TV Guide or romance novels. This also makes me sad.

There is a photo of my mother as a young woman. She is leaning against an old dodge, just north of Strathcona field. Behind her the big green house and the small yellow house on Heatley at Pender, can be seen. They are neither green nor yellow in the photo. My mother is very young, maybe eighteen. I ask her if she hung out with a big gang of Chinese kids back then. “My brothers all had a lot of friends. I hung out with them and their friends. I didn’t have many friends.”

More sadness, my mother didn’t know how to make friends, she still doesn’t know how to make friends, and she still doesn’t have any friends.

There is a photo of my father and my mother and my half brother, Steven, walking together at the PNE. My mother says, “This is the first picture of you, I was five months pregnant.”

I am there too, just visible as a bump getting ready for a life.

There is a photo of my mother as a young woman with me as a baby. I ask her what she recalls of this time, what it is like to have a baby:

“I don’t remember. They knocked me out, I woke up and there you were, my beautiful daughter.”

We stop and I hold her for a while because she needs to be hugged. She hugs me back hard; I am her life-line, her beautiful daughter.

There is a photo of my grandmother’s 80th birthday. She has a tight afro perm. My mother also has an afro perm, but not so tight. She and my grandmother are dressed a lot alike, in polyester blend tops and polyester pants; my mother looks like a younger version of my grandmother.

When she sees this photo, my mother touches her mother’s face and says, “Gramma didn’t like me.”

This is strange because when my grandmother died, my Auntie Margaret said to me, “I know I was not my mother’s favourite daughter.”

This makes me sad too, that my grandmother had two daughters, and this emotional desert is what she left to them.

There is a photo of my mother and her four siblings. She has just been released from the hospital where she has spent the last nine and a half weeks. She had an emergency bowel resection, and spent 12 days in ICU, and then, in the Step Down Unit, she had multiple organ failure. She nearly died, truly, we expected her to die, but she did not. She isn’t well now, but she is better than she was. In the photo she looks bloated and frail. I ask what she remembers of this time. My mother is getting tired. She looks at the photo and says nothing, which means “Nothing.”

There is a photo of my mother at her 75th birthday. She is sitting at the Pink Pearl Restaurant surrounded by me and my three friends, Marlene, Amy and Pat. She is there with us, with her brother Gilbert and his girlfriend, with her cousin, Lonnie, and her two kids, with my half-brother, Steven. We have just had a huge meal.

I ask what she remembers of this photo, and she says “Dragons.”

It’s true, there are dragons – the women in and around my family are dragons, and there were dragons – the restaurant was split in half and there was a big banquet on one side of the retractable wall, and regular dining on the other side. We had occasional glimpses of a young person or two dressed in some shiny silk or satin outfit.

About halfway through our meal, the wait staff opened the wall right in front of our table and we were able to read the sign: 4th Anniversary Banquet for Wushu Society. Several young people in shiny outfits, men and women, gathered in a line and took turns dragon-dancing. In all there were five sets of dragons – red, gold, silver, black, and white – leaping and frolicking, heads and tails wagging. Then all five danced simultaneously, worrying at the lettuce offerings.

My mother has not had an easy life, not like the easy life she gave to me, her much beloved daughter. But what an auspicious 75th birthday: five dancing dragons, one for each 15 years. It was a birthday greeting from the universe, and in the card was written, “Many happy returns”.

~ by thiscassandra on Saturday 1 November 2008.

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