Authors: Jean Kwok
Swimming lessons were expensive but I suspected it was more about the humiliation of Grandma bringing me along to Lukas’s lessons. I was the only child who sat on the bleachers next to the adults instead of being in the water. But Grandma could not leave me alone at home and she was so superstitious that she thought this was a fine idea. At school, all of the kids chattered:
Did you get your B diploma yet? I’m already starting my C.
The birthday parties held at the swimming pool, which I was not allowed to attend; the outings to the beach. Trips out on that flat-bottomed family boat they moored on the Vecht. I felt myself a foreign leg, a misfit. There were so many occasions to exclude me. So I pretended I did not want to learn how to swim anyway, until my imagined disinclination became reality, like so many things we desired as children.
Now I saw the years I had missed—Lukas on the cusp of puberty, half child, half adolescent, sitting on an adult bike that was far too big for him. At his high school graduation, awkward and gangly, with my old friend Estelle—she was so tall!—her teeth a flash of metal braces, her white-blond hair in a ponytail, hugging him as they laughed together. I felt a flash of loneliness, a retroactive longing to be by their side in all those intervening moments. There was not a single photo of me. I had been erased as if I had never existed.
I stared at a small basket to keep from crying. It was filled with tiny folded bits of origami paper. So Willem still had his hobby—and what about his furtive affection, his clumsy attempts to offset his wife’s hostility toward me? I was a grown woman now. Why had Helena treated a child like that? Why did she take me in at all if she hated me? I wanted to ask her but despite all I had accomplished since I had left, I doubted I had the nerve. I could hardly breathe through the emotions that were running across my face like a sheet of shallow water.
Lukas came and slipped his arm through mine. “Is it going all right?”
I could not trust myself to speak. My heart was beating quickly, my eyes burning. I had not expected this room, remodeled for the outside world yet at its heart unchanged, to do this to me. I had chosen to forget as much as I could.
But as always, Lukas understood.
“I left here as nothing and I have returned as nothing.” My voice cracked.
His intelligent eyes dropped to my left hand, where I still wore my wedding ring. I could not bear for Helena to know of my failure. His voice was low and warm. “You were always something, Sylvie. You shone like a light in our class. Do not let my mother . . .” He broke off. “I am so sorry she . . . and I never . . .”
“But you did. You used to sneak me food when I was being punished, remember? And you were just a child yourself.” That word,
stuck in my throat. Lukas had never let me down.
“She was not always like that. It was as you grew older that she—” Again, he could not finish.
I did have vague memories of a warm and comforting Helena, one who hummed as she braided my hair, but somehow, she had stopped loving me, as everyone else did, except for Lukas and Amy. Helena made sure I knew she was not my mother. Those disembodied voices on the telephone that I heard once in a blue moon were my real parents. How helpless I had been. No more. Bitterness in the mouth makes the heart strong. I realized then that perhaps I had not been working so hard all these years just to earn the love of Ma and Pa, but to become an equal adversary to Helena.
Tuesday, May 5
ne year turned into two, then three, and more. There was never enough money for the flight, for another mouth to feed, never enough time to leave the workplace. It would be nine years before my girl returned to us. It was after Amy, Mei-Li, my Beautiful Jasmine, was born and had grown to two years old. When I gave Snow Jasmine away, I did not realize I would never fully get her back. Sylvie left a piece of her spirit behind in Holland.
She was a quiet, listening-to-orders child, always trying to blend into the woodwork, so unlike Amy, who laughed and sang more than she spoke. Sylvie did not speak any words of the Brave Language when she arrived, only Holland talk and Central Kingdom talk. Her speech of the Central Kingdom was good, far better than Amy’s would ever be. And despite the mouth-suffering of Amy’s stutter, I could only think of that as yet another failure on my part. Grandma had succeeded in transferring our language and culture to Sylvie, whereas I had failed with Amy. Of course, my ma was free to spend all her days with my girl, while I worked for almost all the days of their childhood.
Sylvie had lost the baby loveliness. Her lazy eye, her bent tooth, and that haunted look made her too intense and foreign for the tastes of the Beautiful Country. When I tried to make up for the years I had not been able to hold her, her body stiffened and pulled away, scrambling to get as far away from me as she could. She missed Helena, Willem, and Grandma, no doubt.
Slowly, she spoke the language of the Central Kingdom less, or perhaps she was only not speaking much to me in general. I felt her moving further away. Sometimes when she would look up from her homework, with a quick wary flicker of her eyes, I would see it: she did not trust us. I did not blame her. Who believed in parents who sent you away so that someone else could raise you? The distance between us never disappeared. It only became obscured by the daily pattern of life. Pa and I scrimped to raise our children. I searched the secondhand shops or did my best to replicate on my sewing machine the Western costumes I saw. I tried to feed them enough white vegetables, buy them snake gourd peel and wood ear mushrooms when they were ill, praying that nothing in the apartment broke that we could not fix ourselves because the landlord never did anything.
I made my girls sweet egg drop soup on wintry days but Sylvie scorned it, sweeping out the door most mornings without a mouthful. I accepted this, knowing she was accustomed to better food from Helena. Then Pa and I were gone until late in the evening and it was Sylvie’s task to care for her younger sister. I marveled that she did it so well, and with the burden of her own schoolwork. It did not occur to me until it was too late to wonder where Sylvie’s friends were, if she had ever wanted to do anything other than her duty. I admit it; I had not wanted to know. My ignorance had been self-serving.
I became jealous of my own mother, Sylvie’s grandma, who in some ways was more her ma than I could ever be. I wondered what Sylvie’s relationship was like with Helena and Willem but she never spoke of them. They never contacted us either. The only person Sylvie loved with all her heart was Amy. She clutched Amy to her, lavishing kisses upon Amy’s rounded pink cheeks like she was devouring a delicious apple. It was as if Sylvie poured all of her warmth and laughter into Amy, and she had so much to give. Pa and I only received a few droplets once in a while, more out of duty than anything else, I suspected.
Then Sylvie left elementary school, tested into one of those special New York City schools for smart kids, and it was as if she had been launched into orbit. She was spectacular—one perfect report card after another, despite the fact that she sold newspapers and ran errands in her free time now that Amy was bigger. She was so independent, so important. The truth was: I was afraid of her. I could not understand her or her life. I was, after all, only a simple woman from a little village in China.
There descended such a barrier between me and my daughters, like a curtain through which you could only vaguely make out the figures on the other side. The Brave Language belonged to the devil with all of its strange consonants, a puzzle I could not solve, and they were constantly chattering in it: stories, joys, and pains. I desperately tried to understand. I never could. I could not reach them and they barely noticed me. I asked them to speak Central Kingdom talk but they ignored me as if I had been playing the lute for a cow.
I knew I could not do the things for them that other mothers did. If there was a problem at Amy’s school, Sylvie had to take care of it. If there was an issue with Sylvie, she solved it herself. When the stuttering mouth-suffering of Amy became a headache, Sylvie skipped her own classes to speak with Amy’s teachers. Even with her brilliant mind, so like her father’s, Sylvie often stayed up until late into the night to finish her schoolwork. When I tiptoed to her bed to lay a blanket across her thin back or offer a cup of oolong tea, her answer was always, “Do not fuss over me, ah-Ma. Go sleep. You cannot help me anyway.” And Pa and I were always working. The children came home to an empty apartment and all they had was each other. Who could blame them?
There was so much wisdom I could never manage to pass on to them. I never even taught them how to pray, though I believe we all find our own path to the gods. I closed my eyes, sitting in front of rows of mummified clothing in the dry cleaners.
The great gods have great compassion. Let the good draw near, let evil desist. Please protect my Sylvie, let her be safe, let her be healed.
And then Grandma fell ill. I would never see her again, my heart stem, and Sylvie had gone to hold her as she passed. Now Sylvie was missing as well. I had lost them both. I put my head down on the table and wept.
Saturday, April 2
re you ready?” Lukas asked.
I nodded and we went up the stairs. They seemed shallower than I remembered. Before we entered the room, I could smell the sickly scent of medicine and death. There was Grandma. Had she always been so tiny? Her body was barely a lump underneath the covers. Her little feet ended somewhere in the middle of the bed and she was sitting upright, propped against a mountain of pillows, staring at me.
With a gasp, I rushed to her side and took both of her hands in mine. I rested my cheek against hers. I did not kiss her, as Grandma had never taken to that Dutch custom—
Why do they all lick me on the cheeks, and three times too? Is once not enough?
Even with the oxygen glasses, the small flexible plastic tubes directing air to her nose, she was breathing quickly. I had not known she was on oxygen therapy. She said in Chinese, “Snow Jasmine. You have returned.”
I switched to Taishanese, the dialect of her old village in China. “Grandma. It has been too long.”
I could see the bones of her skull clearly through her thin, fine skin. Her skeleton was beginning to triumph over flesh, her bright eyes sunken and dimmed; her thick black hair had gone fine, wispy and completely white. Bits of pink scalp showed through. Had it truly been so long?
Grandma wore a long-sleeved flowery shirt she had doubtless made herself. She was so small that nothing store-bought in this country of giants ever fit her. The blouse hung on her gaunt frame, her emaciated hands and wrists protruding from lace sleeves, limp against the coverlet. Where were the strong hands I remembered, the ones that guided me home after school each day and stirred the flour for wontons and dumplings?
She smiled at me, happiness brightening her eyes, and I caught a glimpse of the elegant woman she had once been, always immaculately dressed and made-up, waiting for me and Lukas each day after school. We would often find some other kid’s grandpa towering over her, laughing and trying to communicate with her despite how few words of Dutch she’d learned. She was so unlike Ma and Amy, who never cared how they appeared. Now her lips were white and bare, vulnerable flesh. All these years, when I had thought about Holland, Grandma was the one I held to my heart. I had blocked out Helena. That was how the mind worked, deceiving us so we could bear the many sorrows of life.
My voice was thick with unshed tears. “I should have come sooner.” My regret was as plentiful as the hairs on my head.
“You are back now. And you are as lovely as ever.” Her voice was thin, the words slurred. Underneath the hooks of the oxygen tubes, I could see she had hearing aids in both of her large ears. Next to her, on the table beside the oxygen tank, sat a photo in a silver frame: me and Lukas, the day after my birthday, both four years old, hand in hand, my first day at elementary school. For Grandma, I had always existed. The image was from the time before the crooked tooth, and before my right eye started to move away. Yes, Grandma would remember me as beautiful.
“As are you,” I said.
She barked a laugh and shook her head. I heard her fight for each breath. “My heart has borne too much through the years and now it is failing. No one should see me like this.”
“Only because you do not have the right help.” I reached out and touched her cool fingers. “I could get gloss for your hair, if you want, and put some makeup on you.”
Her lips swept upward, and she said, “Would you? I hate looking like an old woman.”
Lukas, who stood by the door, laughed, and Grandma and I joined in. “Who is minding her?” I asked him.
“The home care. She is coming later today.”
I turned back to Grandma. “I will speak to the nurse and if it is allowed, I will make you up, okay?”
Her eyes were tremulous. “It is good to have my girl back. I have something for you. It is in the drawer next to the bed.”
I slid the rickety wooden drawer of the bedside table open and gasped when I saw what was inside. “Tasha!” My old rag doll, the one Grandma had made for me—and so much smaller than I remembered. I smoothed her black yarn hair back with a finger. The first time I had seen her, I had been amazed at a doll that was dark like me, instead of blond like the Barbies in the stores. The rip in Tasha’s red satin dress had been repaired, her dark brown eyes restitched with care. I could still see the stain where I had once spilled grape juice across her leg. I pressed Tasha to my chest. “I have missed her.”