In the writing group I attend once a week, there is a diminutive woman, quite a bit older than the rest of us, who joins in from time-to-time. This enigmatic 93 year old always has a smile and her eyes still sparkle even though she is somewhat hunched over and may even be in pain. My curiosity is piqued and I want to know what she did during her lifetime.
One day she read a story she wrote during our open writing session and when finished, she commented rather urgently how she needed to publish her work because, she said in an urgent and somewhat raspy voice, “I’m running out of time.” I felt my breath catch as her words hit directly home. Was the Universe trying to remind me?
It was less than a year ago when I began a mental laundry list of things I needed to do, just in case…because I also felt some subliminal nagging voice saying time was short and my list of things to get done was long.
I needed to get my Power of Attorney notarized. I called for an appointment to join The Neptune Society. It was already time to review the will I filed with an attorney 5 years ago.
At the Neptune Society appointment, I proceeded to buy the ‘deluxe’ plan so they will take care of everything even should I die in another country. This was an awesome option since I am a traveler, it would be a hassle for my kids to ship me home. The Society was also running a special deal eliminating interest charges if I signed up for the payment plan by the end of the year. Such a deal!
This isn’t morose, it’s life and death and how we get through it. I’m finding myself rather blasé about my own death, actually, as I remember my mom being the same way. Death didn’t bother her because, as she told me, there was so much death which she saw first-hand in China. But, a middle-class American-born girl like myself never had to experience that reality. There were no bodies piling up in the city streets of San Francisco during the 50s and 60s. And to tell the truth, I didn’t handle the deaths of my maternal family members very well. I actually shed an ocean of tears grieving them.
I watched my grandmother and mother live until they reached 91 and 84 years old, respectively. As the only child of my mother’s who had any common sense (not bragging, merely the truth), I became the keeper of our family history. As a first generation American born child in my immediate family, there was always a sense of duty to chronicle their unusual lives and safeguard the troves of documents.
Over the years, I poured over the love letters, legal documents, and photographs my grandfather took when he worked as a police inspector during the wild and exotic Shanghai days in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. These photos are of the arrests, the executions, the Japanese bombers destroying the most cosmopolitan city in China at the time, and of the people in his life whom he loved very much.
Shanghai was a city teeming with expats from all over the world; Russian dance girls; gangsters; the rich living large. The cost of living was so low that many, including my family, could afford amahs (housekeepers who sometimes also performed nanny duties), cooks, gardeners, and drivers. The expat women wore the latest Paris fashions dressing in silks and brocades while copying designs from magazines.
There were also citizens and immigrants starving during winters, German Jews hiding from Hitler’s spies, bodies piled up alongside the dirt roads frozen to death, and massacres such as the horror in Nanking.
In the same mixed race neighborhoods could be residents, like my grandfather and grandmother, who were living opulent and sometimes unrealistic lives not knowing that within a short period of 15 years, their lives would break into a thousand different shards of remembered experiences. Assassinations, captures, interrogations, scrounging together what food they could find, and the necessity of wearing armbands to identify their citizenship became the norm. My mother’s safe life in a Hong Kong boarding school would be stripped from her tight little grasp only to find herself skidding down a metaphorical avalanche which really did make her stronger since it couldn’t destroy her. She was forced to become a functioning adult at the age of 13 when she was put in the position of identifying the body of her father since her mother couldn’t bear to do it. How does one maintain strength at that age and still survive a Japanese concentration camp for the next 4 years? The thought humbles me.
After the war, they managed to immigrate to San Francisco to start new lives, while forever intertwined with unwanted memories from their joint experiences. Life continued to be a struggle while attempting to maintain their opulent Shanghai life in a new city laden with refreshed high fashions of the late 40s and into the 50s, in a new cosmopolitan city with more immigrants, as well as military men, home from WWII. Single women magnetized toward these young men especially when they showed promise of climbing the ranks or had already achieved stars on their uniforms. There was an illusion of wealth and culture amidst the Chinese curios which managed to survive the journey from Shanghai, China to San Francisco, California as well as new crystal goblets to begin entertaining new friends in the evenings again.
I hope to chronicle their journey while I upturn the truth of their lives as well as share the many details which they could only gloss over when telling me their stories. Thanks to people writing books and the internet, more details are surfacing. It is overwhelming. Later this month I will visit Shanghai to see for myself where my family lived.
By visiting Shanghai, I hope the book I have begun writing will convey what I have seen as I try to describe the noises, the disappearing architecture, and the Asian aromas of this 23 million strong city by the river.
My dead family have tales to tell and I hope to do them justice.
After all, time really is running out…