You’re My Only

Photo courtesy Linda Kass
Photo courtesy Linda Kass

By Linda Kass

On the day my father turned eighty-eight—just over six years ago—my mother shuffled down the hospital corridor to visit him after surgery. Her five-foot stature diminished by degenerative arthritis and a series of falls, Mom had been the needier of my parents; my dad her loyal caretaker, driver, friend and, most of all, loving husband. She slowly pushed forward her walker, a metal substitute for my father’s arms that until then had always been there for her. This was the first time in their sixty-two-year marriage that she had to manage without him.

At the elevator, Mom stopped to sign a birthday card my sister bought for her to give to my dad. My husband gave her a book to steady the card and a pen.

She grasped the pen and, without pause, began to write. I looked over her shoulder and read her words.

You’re my only.

•••

I watched Mom sit in the chair at Dad’s bedside and gaze at his face. His decision to get knee replacements was part of his plan to keep the two of them together, to live independently. His bowed legs were failing him. By getting new titanic knees, he could continue taking care of my mother. As he slept, Mom held his hand in hers.

They were always holding hands. I’d often meet them for lunch at our neighborhood cafe. After we kissed goodbye, I’d watch them shuffle along the sidewalk to their car, Mom bent over, her eyes focused on the ground; Dad, a foot taller when they were younger, stooping to clutch her hand and support her weight. This image always left me wondering if it would be the last one I would see of them together.

•••

My parents were born within six weeks of each other in 1923, both to Jewish families—my father in the “waltz city” of Vienna, my mother in rural eastern Poland. Dad’s family immigrated to the United States in 1938, narrowly escaping the Nazi take-over of Austria. My grandmother wanted to live in the mainstream of American life, in a university town, in a place of opportunity. Dad was fifteen when they settled in Columbus, Ohio.

He finished high school and was halfway through college at Ohio State when, in 1943, he was drafted into the army. He served first with the ski patrol in the 10th Mountain Division located at Colorado’s Camp Hale. He contracted rheumatic fever there and, because of his understanding of the German language and culture, was transferred to an infantry unit and placed into military intelligence school at Camp Ritchie in Hagerstown, Maryland. His unit was redeployed to a military camp in Manchester, England, and assigned to the 63rd Division, with which he remained throughout the war.

From September of 1944 until April of 1945, Dad was part of a regiment in Paris during the time when Germans had infiltrated that city after the Battle of the Bulge. Reaching the level of staff sergeant, he assisted in the Alsace Mission, top-secret work involving the translation and analysis of captured papers on the German V-2 rocket, and helped locate installations at the Ziegfrid line, the defense demarcation between Germany and France. For his war efforts, he received a Bronze Star. Back in the U.S., he finished college on the GI Bill.

During this time, my mother’s family was fighting oppression—first, at the hands of the Soviets, then the Germans. When Mom was sixteen, her mother was deported to a Siberian work camp. Later, my mother and her father hid in a bunker underground to escape a Nazi concentration camp. Mom’s family reunited after the war, travelling to Krakow then Vienna, where my mother spent a year in medical school. Finally receiving affidavits of support to sponsor them, Mom and her parents set sail for America and settled in Atlantic City.

Shortly after their arrival in 1947, an aunt and uncle from Columbus invited my mother to live with them. Mom could resume her education at Ohio State, they said, quickly adding an even more persuasive argument to the parents of a single, twenty-four-year-old Polish daughter: a nice and handsome young man from Vienna finishing his degree at the university worked for them in their small office supply business.

A match was made.

•••

Other than feeling self-conscious about their foreign accents, I never thought much about my parents’ dramatic entries to the only country I knew. I took for granted their journey toward freedom and didn’t grasp the struggle that must have been part of their legacy as I was growing up in the late 1950s and ’60s. Now, I can only imagine the challenges for an immigrant woman still wrestling with a new language and culture, married with two young daughters—a former medical student turned Midwest suburban homemaker in an era when the work of being a wife and mother carried such urgency and social expectations.

I grew up thinking my mom hadn’t accomplished anything, all those afternoons she was waiting for me at the door, fixing me a snack, and making sure my sister and I understood the importance of an education. I watched my dad strive to build his business and spend many evenings doing volunteer work, part of his commitment to repay the kindness of a stranger—a Chicago businessman—who took a calculated risk on a Jewish family and sponsored their entry, a journey from Trieste to Ellis Island that spring of 1938. I didn’t know then that in the coming months and years, the war they barely escaped would destroy my father’s Viennese home, along with so many other residences, businesses, and synagogues.

Like most children and teenagers, I was in my own world and trying to fit in as one of very few among my peers who were first-generation Americans. I went on to college unaware of the deepening renewal of my parents’ commitment to each other. Their union seemed an anachronism back in the early seventies. During my twenties, while developing my career, I lived in Detroit and New York and was in a marriage that produced a son and ended in divorce. After I remarried at thirty-three and returned to Columbus, I was able to see my parents with fresh eyes. I used my journalism background as a license to ask detailed questions about their pasts to collect family history.

Over time, I gained a different lens, one that revealed two young European immigrants who found one another through quite distinct journeys but shared a deep desire for a safe haven in the middle of their new country. Shutting one door, opening another, and never looking back.

•••

Two years before Dad’s knee replacement surgery, my sister and I helped my parents move out of their condo to an apartment building with assisted-living and dining services. My sister was already at the condo when I arrived on the first day of what became a six-week process of thinning out the belongings of a lifetime. Mom sat in a chair wrapped in a white linen shawl that had turned up earlier that morning.

“Don’t be so quick to throw things out,” she said, watching my sister rummage through papers in the kitchen drawer. “Let me see them first.”

As I scanned the handwritten lists of names and phone numbers covering the desk, and the brief reminders scratched out and rewritten, my vague observations morphed into a troubling realization of the secret that our father had kept from us. It was confirmed as we later found Dad’s cell number scattered throughout the condo, neatly written on no less than three-dozen pieces of paper.

Mom had also saved countless birthday, Mother’s Day, and anniversary cards. Dad came through the kitchen as I was trying to gauge the sentimental value of one particular card. “Throw it away. It’s from our neighbor.” Muttering, as he walked away, “He’s dead.”

As we uncovered photos and albums from as far back as the early twentieth century, my sister and I realized that Mom had kept every card, every photo, every newspaper article, every memento. To her, everything mattered and she wanted to remember it all.

On the afternoon I planned to wade through Mom’s closet for giveaways, Dad went with my husband to watch the Buckeyes play Northwestern. My dad never used to miss Ohio State’s fall football season; I remember attending games with him throughout my childhood. But as Mom’s needs rose, attending a football game moved farther down his list of priorities. Left alone for hours with my mom, I took her to lunch and looked at old photos. I wasn’t prepared for the greeting I witnessed when Dad’s key turned the doorknob. Their eyes lit up for one another as if they had been separated for months.

•••

While Dad’s knees were like new, Mom’s physical condition continued to deteriorate. She had frequent falls. Her memory lapses became more numerous, although she continued to call forth the most obscure details of decades past. Dad still drove, played bridge, and voraciously read magazines and books—and continued as Mom’s loyal custodian. But in the fall of 2015, both of them ninety-two, he began admitting that taking care of my mother—something he’d considered a life’s mission—was no longer sustainable. For the first time in their enduring union, they would need to live apart.

A new memory-care facility opened just fifty yards from their apartment building. Mom became its first resident. For nearly a year, Dad visited almost all day, every day. I’d often come by and find my parents in Mom’s sizable room—she in her wheelchair and he sitting on an ottoman close beside her. They were holding hands and watching television, the sound blasting down the hall. She cared little for what was on the screen. The man at her side was the source of her happiness.

When she left this world last May, eerily on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Mom and Dad were one month shy of celebrating the sixty-eighth year of their love affair. Instead we celebrated Mom’s life, and buried her on Mother’s Day. Dad had brought over Mother’s Day cards that he’d picked out weeks earlier, one for each of the moms in our family. I found a sealed envelope among his stack with my Mom’s name front and center, a heart drawn around it. I slipped the card from the pile and, later, unsealed the envelope, as if opening it for Mom. After the printed message from husband to wife—that she was the woman he would marry all over again—came three words in Dad’s shaky handwriting: “To my treasure.”

While Dad was heartbroken, he did what he always did in life. He pressed on. At Mom’s funeral, he told my best friend that he needed to “reinvent” himself. He added a fourth bridge game to his week, attended a few more Columbus Symphony concerts with friends from his senior residence, and even took a trip with my husband, our daughter, and me for part of my book tour in the Florida Panhandle. He engaged more deeply with friends and family. Always a realist, he knew life was precious and was determined to live fully for whatever days he had left.

When a nodule showed up on a lung CAT scan during an ER visit prompted by a fall last October, Dad handled the news with his usual pragmatism. He was uninterested in pursuing medical interventions.

“I’ve lived a long life,” he said. “A good life.”

By November, pneumonia and a lung infection left him weaker, and he developed an uncontrollable cough. Still, he’d get up around seven a.m., shower, put on a nice shirt and pants, a handsome sweater, and go down to breakfast. He continued to play bridge and would win most games. He read when he could. Right up to his last days, he possessed his gift of connection, a fellowship he’d built for a lifetime: with his business associates, with innumerable colleagues encountered through volunteer work, with his growing family from whom he took great pleasure, and with his network of friends.

Just eight days before he died, Dad had a nonessential physician appointment on his calendar that he had made months prior—to see his ear doctor. He seemed bent on making this visit to get his ears cleaned and have his hearing aids checked. He was extremely weak that morning and had trouble standing up with his walker. I told him I didn’t see how I could take him out that day. He was terribly disappointed—the appointment was on his calendar and Dad always showed up for every commitment he made. This one was no different.

So I called the doctor’s office and asked them to let me know if they had an opening in the afternoon. The receptionist phoned two hours later. They had a 3:45 p.m. cancellation and I took it. Dad rallied, as he often did, his will and determination pushing through. My sister came over as reinforcement and, together, we took him to the appointment. In the waiting room, we laughed; we shared personal stories. Dad voiced his impatience even though we were early and told him so. We laughed more. When finally in the treatment room, he chatted with the doctor and staff. My rather fast driving even got him back to his residence in time to have dinner with his friends. He was happy, grateful. He’d had a victory—one more in a life that he saw as so full of them.

•••

I keep going back to that March day of Dad’s first knee replacement, our trek with Mom to the fourth floor of the hospital. Except for the slightly glazed look in Dad’s eyes from pain medication he preferred not to take but did, he was alert, lying in a slightly reclined position, a serving table hovering over his lap. We placed his favorite Graeter’s black raspberry chocolate chip ice cream pie in front of him. On cue, the nursing staff came in to sing happy birthday. As they filed out, Mom handed Dad her special card, bending to kiss him. My camera in hand, I automatically pointed and clicked to capture the moment.

•••

LINDA KASS worked as a magazine reporter and correspondent for regional and national publications, such as TIME and The Detroit Free Press, early in her career as a journalist. She currently serves as an assistant editor at Narrative, an online literary magazine. Her debut novel, Tasa’s Song, inspired by her mother’s life in eastern Poland during World War II, was published in May 2016. She is working on a novel of linked stories, this time inspired by her father’s life. She is the founder and owner of an independent bookstore, Gramercy Books, in Bexley, Ohio.

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The Pink Room

woman parts
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

Content warning: rape —ed.

By Reema Zaman

New York, 2007. My hand pulls at the plastic ring attaching me to the subway rail. My wrist grows sore with each tug as the train lurches, burping noisily, without rhythm or apology. It couldn’t be more disinterested in us, this mass of bodies, compacted and caught, willingly. My palm and fingers slide along the grimy ring, the plastic soiled by countless hands, each leaving their oily imprint. I curse myself for forgetting my gloves, necessary not for warmth but for cleanliness and peace of mind. I’m from Bangladesh, and I loathe the cold. But as much as I dread winter, I welcome the layered protection of the season’s attire.

The man standing behind me pushes his crotch against my lower back. I’m grateful for my thick coat. Among all the clubs, predators have the most inclusive membership. They come in all forms: businessmen, lawyers, students, electricians, construction workers, old, young, white, black, brown, and everything in between. This one burrows his hard nub into me. The pressure makes me recede far as possible, which is scant given our cramped quarters. He knows this. He revels in this, sucking it like juice spilt from a ripe bite. I turn to glare at him. He feigns nonchalance.

The doors open. A mouthful of us spit onto the platform. We scurry, spread, each person in a different stage of gritty swift. It’s rare to find a born-and-raised New Yorker. Most of us have come here with a fervent purpose, arriving on the wings of a wish. We plunge into the flow, weave our narrative with each other’s, and move as one pulsing organism.

I emerge from underground. The crisp evening envelops me in a gulp. I don’t need to check my bearings. My pace matches the quickest foot. A few loiter, drag their feet, second-guess their direction. Not us, the urgent ones.

I make it home, now in my fifth sublet, and on the good nights (and tonight counts as a good night, as the man on the subway decided not to follow me and is now of the past), I exhale with relief. Another day closed, and thankfully, safely. I hang my coat.

The months fly like pages thumbed by an uncaring examiner. Then, one mundane Monday, I stumble into an old colleague. An actor like myself. A friend.

“What a great surprise!” he says. “We have so much to catch up on. Dinner? Friday?”

“Sure,” I reply.

We met a few years ago in the summer between my sophomore and junior year, while working at Williamstown, a renowned theater festival. He was a bit older than me, in graduate school at Brown. We became quick, close friends the way everyone does in a community of artists.

In the performance arts, we cultivate closeness through specific practices. For weeks or months, we do exercises crafted to foster trust and loyalty. We divulge achingly personal stories. We spend long hours rehearsing, suspended from reality, in the studio, onstage, and on the road. Therefore, by the time we perform, the audience believes we are family, siblings, lovers, or best friends. It’s our job to communicate intimacy. Once two artists have worked together, we’re allied for life. We’re part of a larger, loving tribe, generations deep. It is understood that we don’t dishonor this.

Now, years later, he and I have run into each other in the city, the way most of us do and will. We caught sight of one another in the waiting room of a studio, the way most of us do and will. We hug with the easy affection all actors who have worked together do and will.

Dinner is wonderful. He’s wearing a button-down shirt and jeans. I’m wearing a short sundress and ballet flats. We share stories and laugh. My apartment is around the corner. I invite him up for tea. We talk and feel the attraction. He kisses me. I kiss him back. It’s all delightfully harmless.

It’s getting late. I walk him to the front door, adjacent to my bedroom.

“Good night. Thanks for a great time.”

He wants more.

He kisses me again, harder. He pushes me against the wall, my five-foot-four, one-hundred-five pounds feeling pitiful to his five-foot-eleven, one-hundred-eighty pounds.

“You have to leave now.” I keep my voice light but persuasive. He tries to push me onto the bed, forcefully, not remotely playfully. I hold my ground.

“No. You have to go.”

“No,” he says, grinning, his teeth glowing in the darkness. “I’m not going anywhere.”

The air has thickened like blood clotting. Dread curls around the edges of the room, like the scent of rain before the sky slits open. He comes towards me. I back away. I breathe slowly through my nose to calm my lungs and pace my heart. My mind sifts through every case study and self-defense lesson I’ve memorized over the years. I bolster myself with tactics, ready to use them: Place one hand on each side of his head, poke hard into his eyes with my thumbs. Knee him in the groin. Bite, kick, scream. Urinate. The shock and disgust might unsettle him, letting me run.

He grabs me again. I steel my body against his. I try to take his hands off me, twisting my arms and torso the way I was taught to do with assaulters. My teeth and hands tingle, eager to bite, to claw, to obey my orders.

But.

The vile truth, as bitter as bile: He is much too strong.

I fight with all my might, flaying like a fish caught on a hook. He keeps his hold on me, and the tussle flings us onto the bed. My left cheek is pressed against his shoulder and turned towards the wall.

My room is pink. I painted it this way, pink with a daisy-yellow trim. Growing up, I always wanted a pink room. There’s a Benjamin Moore a block down from my acting agent’s office. The day I signed with him, I gave myself a pink room. I’ve been trying to create something soft for myself within the black and gray bruise that is New York.

Life is surprising. Just as crayons fail to taste like their names, paint on a wall will be much brighter than paint in a can. I envisioned a light, blush pink but ended up with pink as vivid as flesh, sliced open.

Now, I’m inside a mouth.

Lining the flesh-pink walls are stacks of books, arranged in a way I think is pretty. My bedframe is lovely too, black wrought-iron in a delicate pattern of leaves and flowers, much like the tattoo on my ribcage, tucked into the small spot between my breasts. I chose that area for its sweet privacy, believing no one would see it unless invited. I found the bedframe on Craigslist. It didn’t come with a bedspring so I balance it on plywood boards.

I haven’t stopped fighting. I am still trying to wiggle out from beneath him. He’s pinned my wrists above my head, first with both his hands and then, only one hand to hold my wrists down. With the other hand he’s undone his jeans and hiked up my dress. Now, he knees apart my legs, and enters. As he jams in, I order myself to imagine what I’m feeling is an inanimate instrument, like those in a gynecologist’s office which, at twenty-three, I’ve been to only thrice. Now, he grunts, and grunts, his upper lip, forehead, palms, and torso growing clammy with sweat, saturating the room with his scent, musky, male, yet acutely his own. Cracking like lightning, the wooden boards beneath my mattress break from our combined weight and exertion. The mattress tilts down like a split bone. It juts into the air at an awkward angle, shaking with each thrust. The broken boards scratch my flesh-pink walls.

“You’re just too beautiful,” he hisses between groans. Astonishing, the power of the human word. Through a meager handful of sound and suggestion, I feel guilt for being myself and fury for having it used against me. I wish to be anyone but myself, to be anything but attractive, to disappear and remain hidden, indefinitely. I wish these things and hate him for it.

I’ve looked left, right, down, so now, I look into him. His sounds, scent, and desire have filled the room full of him, yet he’s completely left. His pupils have dilated so deeply, his entire eyes look black, dulled of light, dead of any humanity. I’m still repeating, “You have to go, you have to go, you have to go,” though I don’t know whom I’m referring to anymore, him or myself. I’d be grateful for either one of us to vanish. I switch to saying loudly, “No, no, no!” spitting the words like seeds that won’t take.

Here we are. This. Is. Happening.

The horrifying certainty hits me like raw steak slamming a chopping board. Maybe because he too believes this is a secured success, his hold on my wrists slackens. His moment of sloth is all I need. I slip my wrists out from his hand, press the heels of my palms on his shoulders and push with all my might.

No,” I yell. The sudden volume and physical force are enough to shock him backwards. He comes at the same time he falls. If this weren’t rape, if I weren’t terrified, if my voice weren’t hoarse from being ignored, I’d be embarrassed for him.

I scoot back until I’m against the headboard, hugging my legs to my chest. My throat is chapped. I taste blood. I must’ve bitten my tongue. It’ll hurt tomorrow. He puts on his clothes, swiftly, silently. I say it once more:

Leave.”

He does. After his sentence—“You’re just too beautiful”—he hasn’t said a word.

I don’t call anyone for help. I sit in the dark for fifteen minutes, listing my options and weighing the costs of each. To negotiate any legal retribution for rape is a brutal ordeal. I’m here on my OPT visa, my agents will sponsor my next visa, and if I accrue enough professional credits, I can obtain a green card. I devote every minute and penny to the next meal, audition, job, and rent check.

I’m working so hard to live here. I’m concerned that if I press charges against him, the legal process will be even more grueling than if I were a citizen. The fine print of my immigrant status claims I’m not to be treated any differently than an American woman but often the fine print fails to inform reality. Similarly, the minutiae behind immigration include nothing to suggest pressing charges against a rapist would compromise my status here, or when I file for a green card. But all it takes for is for my case to land in the hands of that one immigration officer who finds pleasure in turning the innocuous into injury.

I cannot harm my chances at staying here. I love America beyond words. I haven’t a place in Bangladesh. But here, I’m allowed to pursue the life I want, to be a voice for those without one. The irony is acutely painful. I won’t press charges. I have to be quiet now to be a voice for others later. The hardest fact to reconcile is that my silence allows him the wicked freedom to do this to other women. This thought of hypothetical others brands me with guilt.

What now.

Get him off you.

I take a shower. Scrolling down and along the walls like the stock exchange are statistics and stories I’ve learned and lived as a girl and student. What a twisted joke. I feel the inertia of tears build and with them, my heartbeat, sounding like the decisive march of soldiers, resolute and incoming. So immense grows my panic that it drowns the sound of water and sucks in my breath. I begin to choke.

Stop.

Breathe.

I breathe. This is anger and self-pity, two faces of fear. Fear, another luxury I cannot afford.

My story. He is but one page. One character. It doesn’t occur to me for a second to feel small, dirty, or somehow damaged. This wasn’t sex; this was assault. He is neither a man nor all men combined; he is one predator. He is a scab and Momma taught me not to pick scabs. Especially if they are human.

Under my makeshift waterfall, I speak these words. They bloom then distill into one sentence: Only I author my life.

I step out of the water.

Now the wrecked bed. I return the wooden slats to their precarious balance, angling them on the thin lip of metal, making sure they don’t succumb to gravity. I lift the mattress. I smile, not from the strength of my arms but from the lack of trembling in my hands.

I sleep.

The next day I have an audition for Gossip Girl. Gossip Girl is presently the most coveted job for women my age. More often than not, I’m asked to read for the exotic vixen. I don the requisite tight black dress and five-inch heels and negotiate my mouth around the vapid script. No one in their right mind will believe me in these roles.

“Be less intelligent,” says the casting director.

I’m certain there are brilliant actresses who can achieve such feats. But I’m a mediocre pretender. Some things I cannot act.

I take the subway to my hostessing job, clock in a few hours. I mute my brain, play pretty, let everyone believe what they need to believe. Afterwards, I babysit for a family I met a few weeks ago. The Mama is a Broadway star and Daddy a tennis icon. He is as steadfast in person as he is on court. She sears through life, blazing with the audacious confidence of an enduring flame. The family resembles idyllic American characters I have read about, never believing they might actually exist. The first time I enter their apartment, a wondrous warmth spreads through me like ink spilling into water. So this is what it feels like. Home.

I balance the baby on my hip and look into her eyes, blue as the skies in sonnets. We are safe in one another. All she wants is for me to be present. I fill with a love so authentic it arrests my breath.

Mama and Daddy return home, I to my pink room. Another day arrives, followed by another. The days form into months, months into years. I don’t hear from him but I will run into him. I will run into him over the years because we are both actors, and our world is tiny, and because life has a harsh, wise way of doing what she does. She will give us things as provocation to die quicker, or, grow. I will read about him in the Times. I will see him at auditions. One time, I will sit across from him on the subway.

“How are you?” I’ll ask, looking him in the eye. In response, he’ll move through every shade of pale and burn. He will sputter and shake. I will refuse to break eye contact. I will smile. I will wonder, Have you become more than your past self?

Is that possible? For all our sake, I have to believe it is.

Over time, I will meet an uncanny number of men like him. With each person, I grow better at sensing the volatility beneath the sheen. I feel it like incoming rain: he holds the dormant capability to inflict pain. Tally the encounters and I run out of fingers and toes.

The idiom Everything happens for a reason, has never sat well with me. One cannot blurt Everything happens for a reason to a person who’s just lost a loved one, been raped, or been diagnosed with cancer.

I assign my experiences their reasons.

I choose to believe the reason for this one evening wasn’t to lose my faith in men, life, or my instincts. The purpose behind this night was it proved my resilience. My beauty and youth will fade. People and money will come and go. But my ferocious passion to live is mine evermore.

Startling. Realizing this lights something within me. For the first time in my life, I like myself.

My father visits the city for a conference. Time has softened him like butter left on a table. He says the city terrifies him. The pace, scale, crowds, remarks. A terrain dotted with magic unlike anywhere else, but otherwise cacophonic, putrid, and obstinately gray.

“Don’t you get scared?” he asks.

“Sometimes.”

Life is masterful at being fearsome. But listen and receive, the landscape will provide every wisdom. Like the days, each train arrives only to make way for the next. I stand on the platform with my fellow travelers. The doors open. I step into the maw.

•••

REEMA ZAMAN is from Bangladesh and was raised in Hawaii and Thailand. She holds a BA in Women’s Studies, a BS in Theater, and a minor in Religion from Skidmore College. She worked as an actress and model in New York for a decade. Now, she writes memoir and personal essays, residing in Oregon. She is represented by Lisa DiMona of Writers House and Reema’s first memoir, I Am Yours, is presently being circulated to different publishers. She also writes for Dear Reema, where she responds to letters sent in by readers. Her work has been published in The Huffington PostShape, and Nailed. Reema is the creator of You Are the Voice, a talk on resilience, self-ownership, and empowerment that she performs in colleges and other venues nationwide. This piece, The Pink Room, is an excerpt from her memoir I Am Yours. For more, www.reemazaman.com.

Her

her
by Sodanie Chea/Flickr

By Jiadai Lin

I never knew my grandmother well but I was told growing up that I had her yan sher, which literally means “eye expression” in Mandarin. I understood it more colloquially as referring to Grandma’s spirit, her aura. My father said this as a compliment. My mother, not so much.

The woman I call Grandma—my paternal grandmother—grew up in the pre–Cultural Revolution Chinese countryside just north of Beijing. She had a clumsy instinct for things like judgment and war and enemy lines. She played with the Japanese kids in the yard who nobody was supposed to play with. She unraveled the bandages wound tightly around her feet and learned to read. She became a wife before she was twenty, and a mother soon after. She birthed seven children from her tiny frame and lost two.

Of course, she wasn’t all good and mighty. Grandma’s fingers were just as clumsy as her instinct to judge, so she could never properly sift the rice hulls from their grains in the fall. The rice patties her kids brought to school for lunch weren’t white and pure as they were supposed to be but speckled with brown. This was considered an embarrassment, but Grandma didn’t lose any sleep over it.

When I was young, I sensed that Grandma wasn’t exactly the model of a woman that I should want to embody. Enemy-befriending, bandage-unraveling, wooden-fingered Grandma wasn’t supposed to be my ideal of feminine perfection. She was wrinkled and weathered by the time she was thirty, and she didn’t know how to smile properly for a picture. Her fingers, unnaturally thick for such a small lady, were dusted charcoal gray no matter which picture I looked at.

And I looked at many. From halfway across the world, from a second-floor apartment in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I flipped through the thin stack of Kodak photos that sometimes came in the mail. The images I remember were all set in winter. Grandma and cousins posed wearing puffy neon jackets in their front yard. The ground wasn’t grass or the concrete sidewalks of Milwaukee, but a worn, packed dirt. Grandma sat on a wooden chair, cousins stood in a row, and the family dog, Little Black, lounged at their feet. Their expressions seemed never whole—never just a smile or a frown—but instead halfway through a sentence or question, as if they weren’t sure when exactly the camera would go off.

These pictures were mostly the same but I studied each one as if it were a unique blueprint for my own identity. Of all the cousins on my family tree, I was the only one to live in America. I was special in that way, but I was also alone.

“You’re like your grandma,” my father would say.

“How?” I’d ask.

“You have that same sarcastic look in your eye. Yan sher.

“What do you mean?”

He never replied directly. The answer came at me slowly, through stories and pictures gathered over years.

•••

Just before I turned two, my parents brought me to visit my father’s family. After the stay, I observed that Grandma didn’t pay much attention to me.

“She’s not an affectionate woman,” my father said.

“That’s right—she’s not!” my mother said.

I don’t remember this early impression of Grandma and clearly, it didn’t do anything to diminish her in my eyes. Maybe Grandma was busy playing poker with the village ladies or preparing dinner with the aunts or walking Little Black instead of cuddling me.

My family moved to America shortly after that visit, and I only saw Grandma a few more times in her life. The last was the August before my senior year of college. On this trip, I noticed that my cousin Hailian had bought gifts for the family—bottles of perfume, silk neck ties, a watch for my father, a jar of L’Oreal face cream for my mother. The girl had manners, my mother noted, and I decided that I should learn a thing or two from Hailian.

During afternoon nap on a particularly hot day, I snuck out to the village convenience shop with my little brother. When we walked in, a bell on the door jingled and a sleepy shopkeeper emerged from behind a shredded plastic curtain. We apologized for waking him and asked in our best Mandarin for a nice woman’s shirt.

“For your grandma?” he guessed right away.

“Yes.”

My brother and I examined the one option shown to us, a button-down shirt made from a flowered pattern. It would do.

Grandma had an afternoon routine. She spent hours hanging out with other neighborhood women on the stone ledges that lined the narrow village streets. I had often seen them perched in the shade waving their bamboo fans and swatting at mosquitos that buzzed by their legs. These women greeted everyone by name—kids returning home from school, men in suits riding bikes to and from work in the next town over, the fat lady with the toothy smile who herded her goats down the village’s most central streets every afternoon.

On this particularly hot afternoon, my brother and I found Grandma on the stone ledges and presented her flowered shirt. Almost immediately, the neighborhood ladies clapped their hands in laughter. Look at those American kids! What funnies! They called us not by our names, but as our father’s children.

Grandma laughed too, then started unbuttoning the shirt she was wearing. Soon she was topless and slipping her arms into the flowered shirt we had bought. I stood there with my eleven-year-old brother, unable to turn away. Grandma was skinny and tan, her breasts small and wilted, gently falling over her ribcage. Her skin was withered as if a layer tissue paper had been glued onto her actual skin beneath. I had noticed that Chinese women, who often showered communally, were generally more comfortable with nudity than American women. But an eighty-something-year-old woman changing out on the street with a group of ladies cheering her on? This was not normal. Afterwards, Grandma sat there on the ledge sporting her new shirt with a beaming smile on her face. This was her way of saying thank you for the gift.

When I recounted this story to my mother, she looked disturbed. I got the message. What Grandma did was not ladylike. It wasn’t something I should emulate. But over the years, I always remembered this story and felt a kinship with Grandma. Maybe she wasn’t refined and full of grace, but she was bold. She was a hoot. She didn’t care what others thought about her. She did what she wanted to do, in that nonchalant way that always had my mother shaking her head.

•••

My mother was a different kind of woman. She wore billowing dresses and strappy sandals and tortoise-shelled sunglasses with lenses the color of tea eggs. She knew how to stand for a picture, arm-in-arm with my father in front of Tiananmen Square the year before I was conceived, a silver flowered clip locked into her wavy hair. After we moved to America, she bought do-it-at-home hair perm kits that came in purple and silver boxes with a blonde lady on the front.

I can still see my mother standing over the sink in our tiny bathroom in Milwaukee, her hair dripping of something that looked like milk and smelling of chemicals. I’d watch her from the bed where we all slept—my mother, father, and me. Every night, my mother would come to this bed and put Lubriderm lotion on her hands, her fingers smooth and long like a ballerina’s legs. And then she would take mine and do the same for me, paying special attention to the dry cuticles that I had a bad habit of chewing off.

•••

For a long time, whenever my mother tried to teach me about being a woman, I felt like she was pulling me away from myself. More times than I can count, my mother would come up behind me, rest her hands on my shoulders and press her thumbs into my spine. “Straighten up,” she’d say.

I’d arch my back to an extreme. “Like this?”

She’d shake her head. “You know what I mean.”

Did I? I don’t remember. What I remember is feeling defiant. Proud of the fact that I didn’t naturally stand up tall or want to sit nicely at holiday parties with the women who gossiped until midnight spooning dessert from the table. I wanted to be the one rolling in the dirt, the one with the scraped knees hanging from the top branch of a tree, the one riding her blue Huffy down the street that ran the length of our apartment complex. Through grade school, I insisted on wearing tee-shirts and cargo pants, the kind that could be unzipped at the knees and transformed into baggy shorts for the summer. In high school, I wore my hair in a messy bun that I had to keep re-doing throughout the day to keep tousled because my thick hair always fell straight.

My mother thought of names for me. Things like kuang tou (basket-head) and bu-nan-bu-nu (not-boy-not-girl, or, as I guessed, tomboy) that she muttered when she saw my getups. I knew these names were not endearing. They were meant to stir me to change. I did change, but in the opposite direction. I messed up my hair even more and slouched defiantly. I wanted to show my mother that this was who I was.

I felt less that I was caught between two cultures and more that I was caught between two women. Except I wasn’t really caught. I knew who I wanted to be, but I was too young to be her yet. I felt a maddening ache to get out of the house and out of our town. Once I grew up, once I moved away, once I had my own place, my own money, my own life, I could be whatever kind of woman I wanted to be.

•••

A month before I started college, my parents and I attended a dinner reception for incoming freshman and their families. We drove into New York City in our green Dodge Caravan and circled the blocks around school several times before finding a parking spot. My mother wore an olive and bronze–colored silk dress with a sash at the waist. She had brought this dress with her from China and kept it in her closet, taking care to replace the moth balls every winter. I don’t remember what I wore, but I know that it had not occurred to me that I was supposed to look nice for this event. I probably wore my uniform at the time: jeans and a tank top, flip flops, and a choker necklace made of plastic sea shells.

There was a woman at the reception who seemed important. I don’t remember what color her hair was or what she wore, but I was alert to her presence. While the families sat at round tables, this woman paced around. She shook hands and made friendly conversation to which families laughed and nodded as if on cue. As this woman circled closer my table, I noticed the muscles in my mother’s neck clench. Her hair was twisted into a bun with a flashy jewel barrette that she saved for special occasions. By the time the woman got to the table next to ours, my heart was pounding hard in my chest. I was suddenly embarrassed at how out of place my family looked. I watched as the woman told her joke, smiled, and then moved straight to the table on our other side.

I ate a piece of my bread and tried to look unfazed. But I was confused. Did the important woman skip us by accident? Would she come back around? I was glad that I was spared an awkward encounter with this woman, but why didn’t she speak to us?

My mother and I never talked about this incident. It occurs to me now that maybe it doesn’t stand out in her memory as an exception to her everyday life. When I was growing up, my mother always reminded me that it wasn’t easy to be an immigrant. “You have to be better to get the same result,” she would say. A better student, a better woman, a better friend.

I’d usually laughed it off. “I don’t feel that way,” I’d respond, “You’re being paranoid.”

But being at that reception, as I sat proud and excited and anxious at the prospect of being alone in the world for the first time, I experienced something that never left me. Only years later did I understand that what I had experienced was how it felt to be an immigrant’s child. That lucky first generation. And all the pride and burden and vengeance that came with it.

•••

I graduated from college and then law school. I got a job at a firm in New York and rented an apartment on the Upper West Side. I worked long hours and indulged in fancy cocktails to justify those long hours. One Monday night in late September, I had come home and had just stripped off my corporate outfit when my mother called me. This was normal, so I took the call and steeped a peppermint tea. Then I put my mother on speakerphone on the kitchen counter and got ready to scrub at the dirty dishes in my sink.

“You should sit down,” my mother said.

I did.

“Your grandmother…” my mother started.

I immediately had a bad feeling in my stomach. My mother never said much about Grandma. Something big or bad had to have happened.

Grandma had died sometime through the night. The night in China that was the day I had just lived. I tried to remember something, anything, that had happened during the day that felt tragic or poignant. A moment I could identify in hindsight as a sign that I knew viscerally my grandmother was gone. I must have felt something. Grandma and I were connected by blood, and something even stronger. We shared yan sher. That had to count for something. But I had nothing. I had been sitting at my computer for most of the day, chatting occasionally with coworkers but mostly working on assignments that barely varied from one day to the next.

After I hung up the phone with my mother, I went to the bathroom. I stood in front of the mirror above my sink, next to my blue shower curtain. The pattern on my shower curtain was a map of the United States, and I thought about how my grandmother would never step foot on American soil.

Grandma wasn’t sick. She had been weak through the previous winter but rejected my uncle’s invitation to stay with his family. She liked where she was. She was walking to the market every morning for breakfast buns and soy milk and playing chess on the stone ledges with the ladies in the afternoon. It had been a good summer. She was getting stronger. Of course she would die someday, but I wasn’t prepared for her to die today.

I sat on the bathroom floor against the cold bathtub and cried. I had never lost anybody close to me before, and I hadn’t expected the tears to come so diligently, before I could even fully process my sadness. I was puzzled by my tears because along with vague sadness, I felt something light. I felt the peace of a life ended without great injustice. Grandma had lived long. She had died in her sleep, as she always claimed was the best way to go. Her death had not been big or bad.

That night, I lay in bed staring up at the wooden beams across my ceiling. I thought of my grandmother, who had gone to bed not long ago. Now her small body was cold and empty of life, her brain without consciousness. It was impossible to understand how a person could just be gone like that. And not just any person, but Grandma. The lady with the sarcastic look in her eye. Now there was only one of us in the world.

•••

A few nights later, I left my Midtown office building and walked up Sixth Avenue. I strolled along the southern edge of Central Park, past the row of carriage horses resting in the shade. It was a quiet night, the air cold but comfortable. I settled on the stone fountains facing Columbus Circle and spoke to my father, who had gone home to China.

In my grandmother’s village, funerals were celebratory events. My father described how the whole village had come out. There was a live band and two teenage go-go dancers. At funerals, it was tradition for family members to dedicate songs to the deceased.

“Your uncle selected two songs for you and your brother because you guys couldn’t be there,” my father said, “It was really a nice celebration. Everyone said that your grandmother was a really kind lady.”

I watched as two men in front of me played with neon rockets that could be wound up and shot up into the sky. At the top of their trajectories, the rockets flashed with bright lights, lingered for a moment, and then fell back down. I kept my eye on them. Up and down, over and over again. Something about the simplicity and sureness of their paths was calming.

All this reminded me of Grandma. As long as her life had been, it was never meant to be much more than what she was born into. She would get married and have kids. She would live in the same house through most of this and die there too. Then I thought about own my life. I was born in a hospital in Beijing, to a country-boy scientist father and a Manchurian mother with a graceful edge. Maybe I was not meant to travel far in my life either. But I had. What were the chances that somebody like me would be here sitting in Columbus Circle on this very night?

My grandmother could never have dreamed of this life for me, but she did live to see a glimpse of it. A few months before she died, Grandma found my lawyer profile online. She didn’t mention this until she overheard my uncle talking about my website profile in the other room. “I saw it,” Grandma said.

A clunky old computer had sat idly in the corner of Grandma’s room for months, maybe years. Nobody guessed that she knew how to use it. But there it was, in her browser history. My name, my picture, my degrees.

This last story makes me smile because this was Grandma’s way. Understated but crafty, insulated but modern, modest but full of pride.

•••

I see now that while Grandma could never have dreamed of this life for me, my mother did. And even more, she demanded it of me.

Over the years, I realized that the main difference between my mother and grandmother is how each woman handled judgment. Grandma was fearless. This was the essence of her aura. She was not ashamed. She did not care that her children brought to school rice patties that were not perfectly white. She didn’t often ask, am I good enough? She just was what she was.

But my mother, she never stopped asking that question. My mother didn’t believe in accepting what you were born into. She believed in being better. She believed in learning to sit up straight and breaking bad habits. She believed in going to the salon for a perm, and when she found herself in a new country with little money, she believed in doing it herself. She believed in upkeep. And most of all, perhaps, my mother believed in her kids. While I begrudged my mother’s attempts to mold me when I was growing up, I see now that her intentions were pure. She pushed me because she believed in me.

It is a humbling thing to look back on your younger self and see somebody who cared so much about how you would turn out today. The lesson, I think, is in the effort and intentions. Perhaps the time I spent as a girl searching for the good and bad and admirable allowed me to face the judgments I had of myself. Perhaps being exposed to the wildly different personas of my mother and grandmother instilled at a most basic level the idea that there was no one way a woman could or should be.

I never did find a model of feminine perfection that both satisfied my mother and sat comfortably with me. I was a college grad who sometimes dreamed of being a farmer, a corporate lawyer who changed immediately into sweatpants at home, a tomboy who learned to walk in heels. And while I was becoming these things, I forgot to think about how much I wanted to be like Grandma. I forgot to think about how much I wanted to show my mother exactly who I was. I forgot to try so hard. Without detaching from either woman, I detached myself from the idea of being confined to their qualities. In growing up I became my own woman, and I am still becoming her.

•••

JIADAI LIN lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where she is working on a novel based on her former life as a lawyer in Manhattan. She can be found on Twitter here: @jiadailin 

 

The Accidental Immigrant

budapest stamp
By Laszlo Ilyes/ Flickr

By Zsofi McMullin

My twentieth high school reunion was held at a restaurant right across the street from my former school in Budapest. I wasn’t sure why I wanted to be there so badly. I didn’t love high school—who does?—but what’s worse is that I barely remember it. I have no memories of, well, of anything really from that time, except for one boy I had a huge crush on for four years.

But this story is not about that.

I was repeating the tale of what I’ve been up to for the past twenty years for about the fifth time that evening—this time to a former teacher—when he asked me, “So, did you just decide one day to move to America?” At first I wasn’t sure why the question shocked me. But then I realized that it was because it assumed that there was a decision involved, a moment in time when I said “no” to staying in Hungary and “yes” to becoming an American.

But really there wasn’t. My trip to America wasn’t driven by war or famine, by financial difficulties, or political unrest. I didn’t have to come to America. And I certainly didn’t have to stay.

I was eighteen when I came here and, looking back, it’s hard to imagine how I had the courage to do this. Actually, it’s hard to imagine how my mother had the courage to let me go. She worked at the American Embassy in Budapest and when the question of college came up in my junior year of high school her colleagues encouraged me to apply to American schools. I am sure my parents thought about and discussed the pros and cons of sending me off to another continent. I am sure. But I don’t remember my own thought process, my actual decision about going ahead with the plan. And even if there was a decision, I certainly never considered the possibility that it would have an impact on my life twenty years later. You just don’t think of that when you are eighteen.

Mountains of paperwork, a full scholarship, and a trans-Atlantic flight later, my mom and I were driving through the woods of Pennsylvania to the school where I would spend the next four years. We spent the night in my new dorm room drinking iced tea from the vending machine and arranging furniture. My mom left me there the next day and after she drove off, I went to the bookstore to buy thumbtacks for my new posters.

My one-year scholarship turned into four years. Graduation turned into a job. My job led me to my husband and marriage. Pennsylvania turned into Maine and Connecticut. Jobs, a child, friends, a life.

And now, twenty years later, in that half-lit restaurant in Budapest, I realized that I have become an immigrant. I don’t even like to call myself an immigrant. That word to me somehow means desperation, flight, the life of a fugitive. I became an immigrant just by living my life, doing whatever comes next.

•••

When we arrived in Budapest just a few days before the reunion, there was nobody there to greet us at the airport. My parents moved to the U.S. a few years ago, and so they weren’t there to pick us up or drive us around during our visit. With no close friends or relatives, we were left with a grumpy taxi driver who gave us curious glances hearing me speak Hungarian to my son and English to my husband. We were tourists.

If you didn’t know me, you would never guess that I am not an American. I don’t have an accent. I write and dream in English. The pull I feel to my homeland is invisible to everyone else. It’s a faint tugging feeling in my chest, something empty and burning. I go through life, day by day, even feel happy most of the time. It’s only when I am quiet that I get that uneasy vibe, that feeling that something is not quite right. Something is out of place.

Whatever. Move on.

There is a life to live, things to do. No time to wallow.

I assume all immigrants feel this no matter why they are away from home.

The cruel thing about all of this is that going “back home” does not make you feel better. Suddenly you are a stranger not in one place—your new, chosen land—but two places.

The first thing I did after booking our plane tickets to Budapest was to buy a map of the city. It’s stupid really, because I know—or used to know—the city and its streets by heart. As a teenager I went everywhere by myself—on trains and trolleys and buses.

But suddenly I felt unsure about whether I would find my way from the hotel to the metro station, to the store, to my old high school, to a friend’s house. It was all unfamiliar territory and, like a tourist, I stood on street corners with this little crumpled map in my hands, drawing lines with my fingers from street to street.

Of course, it all came back after a day or two but with a sense of strangeness at every corner: I tried to pay with a bill that’s been tucked in my wallet from our last trip, only to find out that it’s been out of circulation for over a year. Bus stops have moved. Shops closed. Neighborhoods fell and rose. Buildings crumbled. There were new parks and fountains, coffee shops, hip bars.

People have moved on. It was hard to find things to talk about with my former classmates and not just because so much time has passed. I couldn’t really imagine what their lives were like and I assume they felt the same. There were the inevitable questions about America: “So, does everyone really own a gun?” And there were the personal ones about how much money I make or what kind of car I drive—both very American pursuits to the outside world, I assume.

And despite all of that—the feeling of being a stranger in your homeland, the loss of friends—there is a comfort to being “at home.” Old reflexes return, memories surface, the empty, burning feeling of homesickness is suddenly gone when I am on the streets of Budapest. I have no reason to feel at home, yet I do. And more than just feel at home—it all feels right. Settled. Comfortable.

•••

My late grandmother’s apartment in Budapest had a long, narrow hallway leading from the front door to the living room. One the left side of the hallway was the kitchen, a wall with a mirror and coat hangers, and a smaller hallway leading to the bathroom. On the right side of the hallway were three floor-to-ceiling cabinets.

It was a tradition during my childhood that my parents and my grandma would harvest the fruit growing in the garden of our summer cabin, haul it in big wooden crates to our apartment in Budapest, and make jam. For a few days each summer, our small kitchen would smell of apricots or plums or peaches—whatever was in season. Jars boiled in huge pots on the stove, and the floor was sticky with the juice dripping from our fingers as we peeled, sliced, smushed.

Once sealed in jars, most of the jam would make its way to my grandma’s apartment and to her pantry cabinets for storage. She would bring a jar or two with her every week when she came to visit, or she’d use the jam for baking.

When she died last year, her cabinet was still full of jars—carefully labeled with a mysterious system of letters and numbers. For example “08P” might mean plum jam cooked in 2008. On some jars, the writing faded and only after carefully removing the tight lid would we be able to tell what the jar held—the color of its contents darker with age, but the scent of the fruit still potent and unmistakable. Ah, apricots! Is this cherries, maybe? Let’s taste it.

On a recent weekend we were sitting around the breakfast table with my parents, my brother, and my son. This particular breakfast table happened to be in Maine, a world and lifetime away from the summers of jarring jam in Budapest. But there they were: two jars of jam that my parents brought with them when they cleaned out my grandma’s apartment. One jar of apricot and a jar of cherry and sour cherry mixture.

My son preferred the sugary, sickeningly sweet grocery store jam. But the rest of us used long spoons to carefully spread grandma’s jam on buttered toast and savored every bite.

I couldn’t help but think back to the person I was at eighteen—to the people we all were twenty years ago. When my grandma tightened the lid on these particular jars just a few years ago, she already knew that her son and grandchildren would be eating it somewhere far away.

But I didn’t know how much it would taste like home.

•••

I think that when people say that America is a melting pot, they don’t actually mean it. It’s not a huge vat of gooeyness that’s all blended together, uniform, smooth. It’s more like a tossed salad—chunks and bits and pieces of this and that thrown in. It’s easy to fit in—it’s just as easy to stand out. I think that most of us immigrants alternate between those two options—embracing what makes us different, but just as happily disappearing into the crowd.

I have to admit that there is some comfort in the limbo I feel when I am trying to decide where I belong. I can be a bit exotic, a bit different, slightly off-kilter and blame it on my Hungarian-ness. I wonder if this is what I have become, if this is my “thing” now: being different, being from nowhere and everywhere, being two people in one body. Should I let it define me?

But maybe that is the lovely thing about America: no definitions needed. I can be defined by my memory of cobblestoned streets, jars of jam, first kisses along the banks of the Danube. I can also be defined by the life I built here out of nothing really, just the two suitcases I brought with me twenty years ago.

I had hoped that as the anniversary date of my arrival in the U.S. gets closer this summer I would feel more settled with my American-ness and less conflicted about the eighteen-year-old me making this huge decision without realizing what she was doing. But maybe it’s time to embrace all of it—the homesickness, the uncertainty, the double life.

Maybe it’s time to plant some trees and start making my own jam.

•••

ZSOFI MCMULLIN lives in Connecticut with her husband and son and blogs at http://zsofiwrites.com. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People.