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It Mattered to Her

July 11, 2012

(From 2011 post as LitFusion)

Last night, around 2 am, as I drove myself home after a late shift, I found myself listening to Mei Mei: A Daughter’s Story on NPR.

This story follows the author’s mother through a very difficult childhood in Taiwan. Sold by her parents not once, but twice, and all before she lived through the horrors and misery of World War II. She attempted suicide three times, but each time was stopped by a figure she refers to as Lady Buddha. And Lady Buddha called this woman Mei Mei, or, Little Sister.

After WWII, Mei Mei moved to the United States. Although she was living as a “free woman” with a family of her own, she was still trapped in her own language and her own memories.

And that got me to remembering what my mother and grandmother have told me.

It was late at night, a Monday, on July 4th, but the tone of the evening was subdued. Like all Americans, we enjoyed our freedom the best way we knew how: with explosives.

We had shot our displays of guerilla fireworks into the rolling green Kentucky mountains the night before, glowing cardboard debris fluttering down until it hissed into the lake at our feet. Our stores of Stroh’s Light, moonshine, and bug repellent depleted, we’d finished with the obligatory yearly chat up of all our extended family. Almost everyone had departed slowly during the afternoon, quietly gathering the kids, bedrolls, tents and coolers, and the rest of us were preparing for the trip back east in the morning. We were either going back to real life or leaving real life, and it seemed like over all the years we’d been gathering here no one had been able to decide which.

Sitting at the base of a broad and well-worn fire pit, I could barely make out the outline of my grandmother’s face. Half of one of her glass lenses glowed orange, and her form was backlit by one of the farm’s two streetlights. Her brother sat a few feet away, behind her, less visible. Their little sister and her husband, whose land we were sitting on, were buried in a local cemetery. Their memorial stones reclined a few feet away, just beyond the edge of darkness. My grandfather was dozing by the fire.

As it often did, the conversation turned towards genealogy. An aunt, upon the loss of a child, had turned to the past for solace some 19 years before and in doing so chatted about distant and long-rotten in-laws as though she knew them. She visited their graves, analyzed their marriage certificates, catalogued their photos–in short, she cared for them in ways no living relatives had imagined, so you could possibly say they were well-acquainted. In that way we turned to Ma Medlin, my great-grandmother.

As a child I’d loved asking my mother and father endless questions about who their parents were, and their parents before them, and their parents, and so on. And so it was that when I pursued my mother’s memories with questions I could follow until we made it back in time, not very far, to her mother’s mother, and out came the word

orphan.

Suddenly

I was peering over the edge of a cliff,

desperately peering East into a dark horizon,

met with a towering wall — stretching back into infinity — of unknown.

My mother, venturing a guess, would say that well, maybe she was Welsh too, like my great-grandfather. Because everyone came over the ocean together and moved West from Maryland together. And, of course, because my mother and grandmother had “Welsh” noses.

Anyway, we didn’t know the answer, because Ma Medlin was an orphan.

And that frightened me. That word, applied as it was to my family, always tickled the bottom of my stomach with doubt.

We’d again come to the brink of memory and knowledge, but because people who had known and loved Ma Medlin were there, the conversation swerved sideways and didn’t bump into any Welsh noses.

“I think it really wasn’t as bad as all that,” my Grandma guessed.

“Oh, no, it was. She talked about it all the time,” Uncle Jim pushed back. “And if it mattered to her, well, those are her emotions that she felt, not yours, and that’s what matters.”

“I think the couple that raised her really did love her,” my Grandmother continued, her voice rising, sharper. It frightened me ever so slightly, that quick sharpness of tone, though it tickled me to see how she, always so calm, warm, and rational, could get so irritated by her younger brother. “But they were older, and now I can imagine how it might have seemed to her, it would be so easy for them to ask her to do things for them.”

Jimmy pulled up his chair closer to the fire, closer under the lamp above, so that I could make out his entire outline although his face remained bathed in darkness. The two of them were now facing me, addressing me, although their words were addressed to each other. My parents stood behind them, glowing a fluorescent white, the forest dark behind them, and I could tell that their conversation had slowed and that they were listening.

“That might have been true, except that they did make her take her meals in the kitchen, not with the family. And she had to fan them when they ate.”

“That is true, I do remember her saying that,” my mother’s cousin Bobbie Jo chimed in from across the fire. “She did tell that story often.”

“You see,” my Grandmother said to me, “she was raised by an older couple, after their children had grown. And the grown children treated her more like a servant girl. Maybe they were worried about her taking their place.”

“They made her cook and clean for them. And she didn’t get to go to school like the other children. And they never gave her shoes like the other children. She always talked about that.” Uncle Jim persisted.

“Yes, I remember, she always made us wear our shoes,” my Grandmother answered slowly.

“She did always talk about that,” Bobbie Jo repeated softly. “I remember that.”

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