Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What do you want? May 16, 2004

My immediate family is pretty much comprised of a cheerful pack of highly literate agnostic humanists with a love for storytelling and a deep appreciation of the absurd. My Hankow-born grandmother and the Chinese gods who attend her, according to family mythology, have been the source of amusing tales my entire life.

I always thought the little deities were mischievous but essentially harmless. Then they wrecked her car.

Chinese gods always give Grandma what she wishes for

    My grandmother was born in China, the daughter of a Navy doctor stationed in Hankow, and she was raised on stories about the little Chinese gods who attend anyone born in that country.

    These ancient gods, I am told, are strange creatures, given to fits of temper and jealousy. And once you are assigned a crop of them by virtue of your birth on Chinese soil, you never really shake them. Not even if you move to Florida.

    So I grew up hearing my grandmother joke about the little Chinese gods that watch her, and their special way of giving her what she wishes for at the same time they make her sorry she ever wished.

    The clearest examples of this are the stories of my mother and uncle, born five years apart. When my grandmother was expecting my mother, she told anyone who asked that she didn’t care if she had a boy or a girl, so long as it was an intelligent child.

    Enter my mother, who came into the world sickly and squalling, scrawny and miserable throughout her babyhood.

    She wouldn’t eat. She didn’t grow. She always cried. But the little Chinese gods had heard my grandmother. As soon as she was able to sit up and talk, my mother started setting academic records, skipping whole grades and winning prizes in everything. She was voted most intellectual in high school (which she still says was mortifying), had her choice of college scholarships and eventually earned a doctorate at the University of Virginia with two small children in tow.

    When my mother was 4, my grandmother learned she was expecting another baby. She was not thrilled. The first one had nearly driven her to madness. So when anyone asked, she despairingly told them she didn’t care if the child was a boy or a girl, so long as it would EAT.

    Enter Uncle Kurt, who was born healthy and very, very hungry.

    He towered over the other kids in school from the time he could stand up. By the time I knew him, he was 6 feet 6 inches tall and about 350 pounds. I recall sitting at my grandparents’ table eating breakfast with him when I was a scrawny 8-year-old. He watched me push my fried egg around my plate.

    "If you want to grow up big and strong like me," he said, "you’d better eat that egg."

    I recoiled in horror. If eggs would do that to me, I was never going to touch another one.

    Kurt was smart, particularly with machines, but didn’t much like school. He dropped out of high school and eventually became a Harley-Davidson expert at the American Motorcycle Institute. He teaches other mechanically minded people how to take the cycles apart and put them back together.

    They’re quite a picture, my skinny English professor mom and her giant, Harley-Davidson expert brother.

    Last month, my mother and I loaded my 3-year-old son into the car for a week-long trip to Florida to see my grandmother, my uncle and all the little Chinese gods. The visit was really nice, and about four days in, as we sat around the kitchen table talking about nothing over breakfast, my grandmother said "I’m so glad you all could come, but I really wish you could stay longer."     

    A few hours later, as my grandmother drove toward town in her Nissan Stanza, a man driving a rented Penske moving truck blew through a stop sign and smashed into her.

    My mother, my son and I had spent the afternoon at the beach and got to my grandmother’s house that evening to find she hadn’t returned from her errands. The phone was ringing as we unlocked the door.

    That night I stood over my grandmother’s bed in the hospital and fed her ice. Her face and head were swollen and purple, her eyes blackened, her arms lacerated, her chest bruised blue.

    She was lucky, my uncle said after he inspected the remains of her car. The big yellow moving truck had decimated the front end of her little Nissan but missed annihilating the passenger compartment. It could have been worse.

    "We’ll stay until you’re better," I told my grandmother as she drifted into a Percocet sleep.

    "And the next time you want us to make a longer visit, please don’t mention it where your little Chinese gods can hear you."

No comments:

Post a Comment