Monday February 26 11:22 AM EST
"Writers on Writing: Family Ghosts Hoard Secrets That Bewitch the Living"
Writers on Writing: Family Ghosts Hoard Secrets That Bewitch the Living
By AMY TAN
The New York Times
In Amy Tan's latest novel, "The Bonesetter's Daughter," Ms. Tan found in memory and imagination what she had lost in grief over her mother's death.
In the last week of her life, my three half- sisters, my younger brother and I gathered around the easy chair in which our mother lay floating between this world and the next.
"Nyah-Nyah," she moaned in Shanghainese and waved to an apparition on the ceiling. Then she motioned to me. "Invite Nyah-Nyah to sit down. Bring her tea, and quick, fetch her my mink coat."
Indulging my mother these wishes, I began to write her obituary, with the help of my siblings. It was a task that kept our minds focused, unified us, made us feel helpful instead of helpless. That was how I learned for the first time what my mother's birth name was.
"Li Bingzi," my sister from Shanghai told me. My God, to think I had never known the name given to her by her own mother. "Born Li Bingzi," I duly put down, "daughter of Li Jingmei . . . " And another sister chided: "No, no, Grandma's last name was not Li. It was Gu. Gu Jingmei."
I sensed the ghost of my grandmother in the room. "Ai-ya! What a stupid girl," I could hear her saying, "This is what happens when you let them become Americans." I imagined other wispy-edged relatives, more frowning and head-shaking.
As my sisters and I chatted, we exchanged further notes. Our mother, one sister revealed, received a different name, Tu Lian Zen, when she was adopted after her mother's death. Then she chose a school name, Tu Ching, which she kept after she married an abusive man named Wang. Whether she ever legally divorced this man is not clear. Nonetheless, she fled the marriage, left behind three daughters and came to America under the name Ching Tu, then married my father, who christened her Daisy after a song about being half-crazy in love on a bicycle built for two.
My mother, I realized, never told my sisters about the name Daisy Tan Chan, which she took when she married for the third time in her 70's. A year later she had the marriage annulled and reverted to Daisy C. Tan. As to T. C. Lee, the dapper gentlemen whom our family in Beijing met when he and our mother honeymooned there, well, the truth was, she and T. C. had simply lived together without the benefit of marriage. My sisters guffawed.
My mother's many names were vestiges of her many selves, lives I have been excavating most of my own adult life. At times I have dreaded that I might stumble across evidence of additional siblings, husbands and lovers, more secrets, ghosts and shame. I had once thought I was the only daughter, the middle child, a position I took to have great psychological significance. I then discovered I was actually the youngest of five girls, that one had died at birth. There were three brothers as well, including one I didn't know about; he died at age 2 in 1939. With all taken into account, I was demoted to No. 7 of eight children.
There was also confusion about my mother's age. She had one birth date based on the Chinese calendar of ancient lunar cycles and the method of considering a baby 1 year old the day it is born.
In determining her younger Western age, she miscalculated the year and date, thus writing that she was born on May 8, 1917, instead of May 9, 1916. When she was about to turn 64, she told me she was really almost 65. She knew this for sure, she insisted, because she was born in a Dragon Year, 1916, just as I was born in a Dragon Year 36 years later. There was absolutely no way she could confuse this. Thereafter, she fretted day after day, until my husband untangled bureaucratic knots and set the record straight in time for her to retire in the right year and collect Social Security.
But that was not the end to her questionable age. My sisters and I found out that for her obituary the international Chinese-language newspaper wanted to report her as 86 instead of 83, to account for the bonus years she had earned for living a long life. All the confusion about her age, her three marriages, her many names and the order in which her children, living and dead, should be listed led us to nix the idea of a Chinese obituary. It would not look proper if we told the truth.
In writing a simple obituary, I realized there was still much that I did not know about my mother. Though I had written three novels informed by her life, she remained a source of revelation and surprise. Of course I longed to know more about her. Her past had shaped me: her sense of danger, her regrets, the mistakes she vowed never to repeat. What I know about myself is related to what I know about her, her secrets, or in some cases fragments of them. I found the pieces both by deliberate effort and by accident, and with each discovery I had to reconfigure the growing whole.
"Nyah-Nyah," my mother kept calling in the last days of her life.
I finally thought to ask what Nyah- Nyah meant.
"A Shanghainese nickname for 'Grandmother,' " my oldest sister, Yuhang, replied. And then I remembered a story my mother once told me, of her being 4 years old, delirious and near death as she called to her grandmother to stop the pain. My mother had been horribly injured when a pot of boiling oil fell across her neck. Nyah-Nyah had sat by her bedside, day and night, telling her that her funeral clothes had already been made but were very plain because she had not lived long enough to deserve anything more elaborate.
She told the little girl that everyone would soon forget her because she had lived too short a time for them to remember much. That was how Nyah-Nyah, who loved my mother very much, scared her back to life. Now my mother was calling for Nyah-Nyah once again. This time I think Nyah-Nyah was telling my mother that her funeral clothes had already been made, and not to worry, they were fancy beyond belief.
For four days my mother's breathing kept me in suspense. She would take three breaths, then nothing would follow for 45 seconds, sometimes longer. It was like watching the tidal wash in anticipation of a tidal wave. At night I lay next to her, sleepless, staring at the pulse bobbing in the cove of her throat, my own heart pounding to this steady yet uncertain rhythm. Later I put a pearl in the hollow so I could more easily see this proof of life. Though I dreaded that she would stop breathing, I was relieved that she would die of natural causes and not from suicide.
For as long as I can remember, my mother talked of killing herself. The threats came at least once a month, sometimes day after day. She would utter them in front of me, my brothers, anyone within earshot. On a few occasions she made an attempt. I remember seeing her lean out an open door as our car sped down the highway, and we, her mute children, sat in the back. Several times she ran into busy lanes of traffic with flailing arms.
In my memories of adolescence there are also flashes of a knife, a cleaver, a pair of scissors. The reasons my mother wanted to die were many. It could have been something my father did or didn't do. It was often something I said or didn't say. Whatever it was, we were supposed to make amends before it was too late. Once I refused to say I was sorry. Then I was really sorry.
I didn't realize until I was in my 30's that her suicidal impulses most likely started when she saw her own mother kill herself. She was only 9 when this happened. And thereafter some part of her would always remain the 9-year-old who believed that the only escape from any kind of unhappiness was the route her mother took, an immediate departure from this world to a heavenly form of China. As long as she was alive, her mother's death was an everlasting punishment to her. Whenever bad luck visited us, she asked aloud whether her mother was angry at her. Was this a curse?
Though my grandmother killed herself in 1925, she was a presence in my young life, a ghostly presence. Ever since I was 4, my mother had believed I could see my grandmother. That was because like most children I had complained about a bogeyman under my bed. Instead of reassuring me that this was only my imagination, my mother asked me to pass along messages. She was convinced my grandmother had taken me as her confidante.
I soon learned not to mention what scared me, and my mother did not press too much for me to talk to the ghost. That was because my father, an engineer, was also by avocation a Baptist minister, and the only ghost he believed we should talk to was the Holy Ghost.
But when I was 15, my father and brother died, both of brain tumors, and my mother began urging me often to ask their ghosts why this had happened. She had me sit before a Ouija board, then noted when the room grew cold, when telltale pings and creaks signaled that the spirits had arrived. She was always hoping for one last goodbye, one more message of love.
Pragmatic woman that my mother was, she would also seek their advice on the stock market. With our fingers poised over the planchette, she would ask, "Should I buy I.B.M. or U.S. Steel?" I would push it to whichever answer was the shortest, a method of stock trading that, by the way, proved quite successful in my mother's portfolio.
For our mother's memorial card, our family selected the photos that captured her best: Grinning as she cooked with a gigantic wok. Smiling shyly for my father in the early days of their courtship. Staring solemnly as an 8-year-old adorned in mourning clothes for her grandmother, Nyah-Nyah.
My mother had always been a natural Shanghainese beauty and quite vain and snobby as a result. She bragged how spoiled she was as a child because she was "pretty beyond belief." She used to lament openly that I had not inherited any of her good Shanghainese features, that I resembled my father, a Cantonese. My nose was too broad, my skin too dark, my lips too coarse. I had long recovered from the wounds of those remarks when Alzheimer's began to erode her logic and memory. One day, my mother announced that I looked just like her. It was not too late to hear such praise.
As I studied the photos with my sisters, I saw that I did indeed resemble her. She and I had the same crimped chin, the wrinkling caused by holding back what we felt but could not say. In her case, it was secrets and hopes. In mine, it was protests and desires. For many years we had been unable to say, "I love you" to each other.
During the last hour of her life, our family murmured to our mother that we loved her very much and were sad to see her go. We whispered to her all the things we would miss: her dumplings, her advice, her humor. To myself I mourned: Who else would worry about me so much? Who else would describe in explosive detail what might happen to parts of my body if I was careless? Who would be frank enough to warn that my husband might exchange me for a younger woman unless I forced him to buy me jewels so expensive it would be impossible for him to leave both me and the gems behind?
My mother did not speak during those last four days, but with her final breath, a long release of an exhalation, she uttered a faint sound, a single sustained note. I had to bend my ear to her mouth to hear. I was the only one who heard it, but I don't think it was my imagination. To me, she sounded surprised.
After my mother died, I began to rewrite the novel I had been working on for the past five years. I wrote with the steadfastness of grief. My editor and dear friend, the great Faith Sale, would have called that grief "finding the real heart of the story." My mentor, Molly Giles, said the bones were there, I just had to reassemble them in a new way. To find that heart and repair the bones, I had to break them into pieces, then start to dig.
And so I rewrote, remembering what scared me: the ghost, the threats, the curse. I wrote of wrong birth dates, secret marriages, the changing place one has in a family, the names that were nearly forgotten. I wrote of pain that reaches from the past, how it can grab you, how it can also heal itself like a broken bone. And with the help of my ghostwriters, I found in memory and imagination what I had lost in grief.
Email this story - View most popular | Printer-friendly format
This article is part of a series in which writers explore literary themes. Previous contributions, including essays by John Updike, E. L. Doctorow, Ed McBain, Annie Proulx, Jamaica Kincaid, Saul Bellow and others, can be found with this article at The New York Times on the Web:
|Archived Stories by Date:
Click HERE to return to brain tumor news headlines