The Chinese emperor who died one year before the Common Era began was a man in love with another man named Dong Xian. According to the historical volume Book of Han, one morning the emperor awoke to find his sleeve caught under Xian, who was still asleep by his side. Not wanting to disturb Xian’s slumbers, the emperor cut his own sleeve so he could get up. Upon recording the anecdote, the ancient historian commented amiably, “such was their love”—a departure in tone from his criticism of the emperor’s rule. “Cut sleeve” thus became a synonym for romance between two men. Among many names the Chinese have used for same-sex love, this might be the best known.
That archaic sense of normality regarding queer relationships, however, had been lost on me when I first read the story during my adolescence, my brain already tainted by the mores of the time. In modern literature, such allusions appear in combination with the word “addiction”—“cut-sleeve addiction,” for instance. The character 癖—addiction—has a semantic component denoting “disease.” Emperors being emperors, whatever they did had nothing to do with us ordinary people, or so the teenage me thought in the turbulent 1970s.
My mother began to let me borrow her journals shortly after the new millennium. She’d become rather generous in this; her rapid aging seemed to have freed her from either vanity or obligation. In her seventies, she no longer held her private writing as closely as she used to. Her journals are from 1950 on, five or six decades in the making, each labeled by year. For about a decade, during each of my annual visits to China, I put a few of those into my carry-on bag and brought them back to Boston, where I’ve made my new home. Those notebooks, full of history, were too precious for checked luggage.
She set no conditions, other than “Don’t lose them.” I searched in her words for answers to several questions long held in my mind, with little success. A particular one: What exactly had my father done to my mother in 1958, the year of her political disgrace?
My mother’s journals are a river of emotions, rarely specifics of events. Again and again the year “1958” leaps out like a slippery fish, only to disappear into the mist. I had almost given up reading—at times, it felt hard for me to keep afloat through so many years of reflection—when a lone bookmark appeared, between the pages she had written around the time I was in middle school.
Actually, the bookmark was just an old piece of paper, about one by two inches, which must have been a corner of something bigger, because the uneven edge on one side showed the trace of scissors’ work. On this faded and water-stained little piece of paper is printed the picture of an orange-colored daylily.
This daylily picture did not stir me at first, and it would have remained that way if not for what I read on the page: there is a mention of a woman whom my mother refers to as “my forget-worries flower.” Because of this woman, my mother wrote, “At this extremely difficult time, I especially find consolation: I am not alone in this world after all.”
The woman’s name contained a character that means “orange daylily.” This plant has several common names in Chinese, one of which is “forget-worries grass.” The Compendium of Materia Medica, a classical Chinese herbology volume written during the Ming dynasty, has a description of the plant’s medicinal use: the soup made from its roots can calm anxiety. Mother, an elementary school principal at the time, apparently exercised her poetic license to substitute the word “flower” for “grass,” her romantic self awakening at an inopportune time.
I certainly remember her, Ms. Daylily, though I wouldn’t have called her that then, not knowing the meaning of her name. She was my mother’s colleague, a decorous-looking and even-tempered schoolteacher. Her virtuous demeanor always reminded me of the traditional phrase “loyal wife, devoted mother,” an impression readily supported by the love her children, intimate friends of my two older sisters, demonstrated. Living just two blocks from our house, she had been a regular visitor starting from when I was eleven or twelve. As time went by, she became a close aunt to us children. During the Cultural Revolution, when my parents were mired in political troubles and few of their colleagues wanted to associate with us, Ms. Daylily’s comforting presence was heartily welcomed by my sisters and me. For a time, while Father was detained and Mother was denied the right to visit him, Ms. Daylily even became a messenger between the two.
A few pages after the daylily bookmark, Mother wrote about Father:
“He is an honest man; I can completely understand if he’s discontented with our behavior, which does not follow Mao Zedong Thought. But I can also imagine that, if I get into any trouble, he would treat me again just like in 1958. Thinking of this, my heart is filled with extreme darkness.”
The veiled words “our behavior”—that is, the relationship between my mother and Ms. Daylily—stuck out upon a second read, though it was “1958” that caught my eye at first.
What my father, a rather timid man, did to my mother in 1958 was something I vaguely knew by rumor. That year, following the stormy 1957 when Mao Zedong launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign against dissident voices, China must have seen a record number of couples divorcing—so many among friends of my parents and parents of my friends had separated then, for fear or for love, especially those with small children. My parents stayed in their marriage, though my mother, a rising star as a woman leader in her late twenties, was demoted and sent down to a rural area for seven years, while my father’s position as a Party cadre remained intact; later he was promoted through the ranks until the Cultural Revolution that spared no one. That does not mean everything was fine between them. Nor that everything was wrong—at least as a child I did not sense the discord. They hid it well, thanks to my mother’s determination to not burden her young children with parents’ problems.
So in the 1960s, for many years of my childhood I lived a consequence that I did not know was a consequence. A child knows only the life she’s born into and that is her norm. Mother had been mostly absent since my memory began. (Father was at the supper table every day, but that was pretty much the only time I saw him back then.) If I asked Gaga—my maternal grandma who took care of us—where Mama was, the answer was always “at work.” When Mother did come home, on a rusty, clanking bicycle, the visits were often at night and rushed. She’d check our homework, ask Gaga how we’d behaved, and be gone before I opened my eyes in the morning.
There was something about Mama’s nightly bike treks that made Gaga worry. It bewildered the small me. I might have been a girl quick at math, but I was slow in understanding the female body. (Several years later I’d take my first period for a wound; I was so frightened by the sudden blood streaming down my leg that I cried.) The opaque conversations between Gaga and Mama—in low voices that pricked my ears—instilled a vague picture in my brain that men posed a particular danger to women under the cover of night. Why? How? I had no clue. I had yet to learn the word “rape.”
It took me a long time to see the meaning of those strange evenings under a swaying, fifteen-watt bulb, to understand the vulnerability of a woman’s body.
My discovery of the daylily bookmark was not entirely accidental. I was browsing that particular journal more carefully than others because of a puzzling incident from middle school. My memory of that incident always drifts with the missing fragrance of wintersweet. Wintersweet, orchid, bamboo, and chrysanthemum, as my poetic Chinese ancestors would say, are the four nobles among flowers and plants. And look which is first: the small, light yellow blossoms adorning bare, dark, gnarled branches, their clean fragrance braving the chilly north wind to foretell spring. Each January and February, the fragrance would find its way into our house and gladden my young heart, as my mother kept buying bouquets on the street, no matter the political turmoil.
“Scattered shadows slant the shallow water / hazy fragrance floats in the moonlit dusk,” a Song dynasty poet sang of wintersweet.
I did not know the poem then. China was a book-free zone throughout my teens. This is not fiction. It was called the Cultural Revolution. The year was not yet 1984, nor were fire engines repurposed; nonetheless, books had been seized and burned or locked up. I frantically hunted for books, any book, my eyes open round like an owl searching in the dark. By luck, two friends and I became acquainted with a young teacher who’d hidden away an attic full of forbidden books. We visited Teacher Li’s attic once a week, and he let each of us borrow one book at a time. The stealthy visits went on for nearly a semester. I wouldn’t tell anyone, especially my mother, a hen fiercely protecting her chicks.
Teacher Li seemed utterly touched by our thirst for reading. “Nowadays where can you find students who want to read books?” he said more than once. As we became closer with Teacher Li and his fiancée who owned the attic, he told us that, each year, during the Spring Festival in early February, they hiked to the South Mountain and relished the wintersweet perfuming the slopes. “You are invited to go with us next year,” he said.
“Really?” I said.
“Really,” he smiled.
In retrospect, his invitation would have made for the first literary outing of my life. Only he said it too early, I longed for it too much, and it would never happen.
One day before the summer break I asked Teacher Li for a book I’d heard about, but he did not have it. He said he’d look for it and let me know. My home did not have a phone. I gave him the number of my compound’s mail room and asked him to call if he found it. Nothing. After a while I forgot all about the whole thing. I had also forgotten to tell him not to call on weekends because my mother would be home.
That was exactly what he did. When our visits were paused by the summer break, one weekend, someone in our courtyard shouted at my window and said there was a call for me. My mother was in the yard washing clothes. She threw all the laundry in the wash basin and ran to the phone. I was unhurried, not believing anyone would call me. Then I heard my mother demand, “Who are you? Why are you looking for my daughter?”
Bang! My mother hung up. What followed was an interrogation, her yelling and my resentful crying.
I loved my mother, loved her all my life. But that moment stuck with me. She was usually a sympathetic and understanding parent. I just couldn’t comprehend where her ferocity toward men came from.
I never visited Teacher Li again. Never had a chance to take the Spring Festival hike I’d so looked forward to, a trip that sounded utterly poetic. All because Teacher Li was a man.
Around that time, one book that I pilfered from a locked and sealed library was Three Kingdoms, a classic Chinese novel. It opens, “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.”1 The ebb and flow of conflict survived the emperors and, for my mother, ran from the Japanese invasion of World War II to the Communist takeover of China in late 1949, through the Anti-Rightist Campaign of the late 1950s into the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s to 70s. I witnessed the last as a child, and I grew up with the knowledge that my parents had been “Underground Communists,” but decades would pass before I learned the most personal secret of my mother’s revolutionary youth.
At the age of nineteen, my mother was teaching at a rural elementary school in Chongqing, the last stronghold of the Nationalist regime. The year was 1948 and, in the north, grand battles between the two political forces were in full swing. The teaching job doubled as a cover for Underground work and a means to make a living. Several of her colleagues were young women her age. From time to time a librarian in another town who had been their teacher came to visit. They spoke highly of him: “erudite,” “quickwitted,” full of “progressive thoughts.” My mother admired those qualities, and she visited him a few times with her new friends. He analyzed the war situation for them with a depth lacking among their peers, and he brought them progressive magazines. Reading between the lines of his words, my mother was pretty sure this teacher was a senior Underground member, though Party discipline prevented any revelation of her own political identity. The shared ideology sped her trust in him. In late 1948, he began to pursue her, threatening to take his own life if she did not agree to be his fiancée. He was ten years older; she had always respected him as an elder and a teacher, and had no intention of changing that relationship.
One early winter day he wrote a letter inviting her to a weekend evening meeting in his library. There were other invitees too, all comrades in the student movement she had been involved with before. They were going to discuss the war situation, the letter said.
So she went. It took her more than an hour by foot and another hour by bus. She entered the library and its door closed behind her. He was waiting for her, alone.
Then he raped her.
Two years prior, she joined protests against another rape. On Christmas Eve 1946, in Beijing, a nineteen-year-old student named Shen Chung had gone to see a movie. On her way home, two U.S. Marines kidnapped and raped her. Newspapers reported that Shen Chung was so ashamed she wanted to kill herself. International media, including the New York Times, reported the “Shen Chung Incident” and the ensuing unrest, which now forms a part of China’s modern history. The rape triggered nationwide anti-American protests, and my mother, a seventeen-year-old student at Chongqing Teachers’ School at the time, became an outraged student leader in the movement titled “Protesting American Cruelty.” The Communists seized the opportunity and covertly sponsored the student movement. They took notice of my mother’s bravery and idealism, and they approached her. Thus, one young woman’s tragedy led another into a revolution, and my mother thought she had found the path toward women’s emancipation.
But when she was raped by a comrade, there would be no mass protests.
For a week following her rape, my mother ate little. She cried through the nights for her lost virginity—she could never have a family, and no man would want to marry her. Shame and desperation overwhelmed her; she told no one of the incident. She even considered marrying her rapist.
She and the man did not have contact for several months, until one day a younger girl friend came to ask her opinion about a suitor. It was the same man. Again he had threatened suicide had the girl not accepted his “love.” Outraged, my mother went to her Party superior and exposed his crime. It turned out he had raped seven of his students, all eager to learn “progressive thoughts.” But my mother was told that any action, either reporting his acts to the Nationalist police, or seeking his discipline within the Underground, would risk exposing other Underground members. His crime could not be punished. There was nothing to be done.
My mother met my father, another Underground member, the following summer, both of them in hiding from Nationalist pursuit. He was attracted by her beauty and country girl’s forthright manner, without the pretentious bashfulness he perceived in those pale-faced petty bourgeoisie ladies; she was attracted by his cultured demeanor and timidity, as well as his music teacher’s sonorous voice. After being harmed by a “mature” man, my mother must have also found a young man’s inexperience with women endearing and safer.
As their relationship developed through shared underground struggle, my mother was never certain about their future, her heart constantly burdened by her unspeakable secret. In October 1949, after Mao Zedong announced the establishment of New China in Beijing, and while Chongqing, still in the hands of the Nationalists, had started batch executions of captured Communists, she told him all. She had been prepared to die for the revolution.
She told him during a date, after a sudden afternoon thunderstorm poured down on their walk together. She had stumbled and he had held her arm for the first time. She left him calmly after her confession. She’d depart again in the morning, and she slept well that night. The decision was in his hands now.
The next morning, my father saw my mother off at the port, where she was to take the ferry back to her job post in another town.
It was not your fault, my father said. I don’t blame you.
To my mother, this was the moment that their relationship became certain.
To me, that was such a poignant point in light of his political abandonment of her nine years later—in 1958—in the New China they had successfully fought for. A man who had the vision and courage to brave the patriarchal tradition could not stand up to the Party for his wife.
Nearly five decades after the diary entries, her words surrounding the daylily bookmark are still heart-wrenching to read.
August 18, 1971: I never thought that such wild feelings would come to me at this old age [of forty-two]. It has never once happened in my life. It crazed me, now writing love letters twice a day …
My mother had written love letters to Ms. Daylily twice a day! How did she deliver them? The mail would’ve been too risky. They could not afford being found out.
At the time, my mother was away from home, and stuck in a political “workshop” to be criticized and self-criticize daily. As a child I was aware of the first half of the fact but not the second, though I knew other scary circumstances…
When the Cultural Revolution began, Mother had finally returned to our family after toiling in the countryside for seven years. She was assigned a new job as an elementary school principal. The school was no more than ten kilometers away, and she usually came home in the evening by bus. If for some reason she needed to stay overnight at school, she’d let Gaga know. But it was only ever one night at a time, until a week in the eleventh year of my life.
When she did not come home for two or three days in a row, no news whatsoever, Gaga became very worried and sent me to find out what was going on. To save money, I did not take the bus; I walked along a riverside trail for about an hour. I had done this many times before.
As I neared Mother’s school, I heard gongs striking—the sound of a parade. Pedestrians stopped walking and stepped aside. I stretched my neck excitedly, till I saw the woman who beat the gong in her hand had a dunce cap on her head. With each strike she shouted a curse at herself in the familiar hoarse voice. Dong! “I’m a Capitalist Roader!” Dong! “I’m a monster and demon!” The escorting crowd, her colleagues and students, all of them wearing red armbands, pushed her along.
I froze, as if a bucket of cold water had been poured over my head on a below-zero day. Nothing in my eleven years had prepared me to see my mother being perp-walked on the street like the lowest animal. The parade marched past me, the striking of my mother’s gong and her hoarse shouting getting louder and then fading. The onlookers around me dispersed. I turned and ran away.
The face of the man who led my mother’s shame-parade kept following me. I knew that face. He had been a trusted colleague of hers. He had been so flattering to her and so nice to me on my visits before.
When Mother eventually returned home, she was calm, as if everything was business as usual. I never saw her scared by anything. She never showed us children that side of her. It is me who reads her diary in reflexive fear, long after the fact.
August 15, 1971: These two weeks, the feelings between the two of us have rapidly escalated to a scary extent. I can’t understand why, I’m scared …
August 26: I can’t think, my mind a pond of muddy water. If it continues like this, I might really go crazy, I’m scared …
August 30: … She is scared; it is all because my [political trouble] implicated her. Her depression worries me.
September 10: I heard that Daylily will be sent to labor, substituting for another person. She is a victim completely implicated by my trouble. I feel so guilty. Am very scared too.
A fortune among all their misfortunes: nobody, with the possible exception of their husbands, knew they were in love. Apparently people, her children included, just thought they were close friends. At the time, two young women walking together and holding hands was smiled upon as a lovely friendship; that would be unacceptable behavior for two men—history retreating from the early civilization of the “cut sleeve” era.
There was a criminal code written in China’s law at the time: “offense of hooliganism.” What kind of behaviors would be construed as such a crime? Unspecified. But gay men had been arrested, shame-paraded and spit on, even executed.
July 4: I have words but no one to say them to. Mom doesn’t understand. Little Third is too naive.
I am startled by the mention of me, her naive third child. Judging by the date, it was close to my middle school graduation, and certainly long after Teacher Li’s doomed call. At fifteen, I was the only one my mother could have talked to. My beloved big sister had drowned three years earlier; Ping, my other older sister, had gone to the countryside to receive “reeducation”; the youngest, Feng, was only ten years old; seventy-eight-year-old Gaga was fixed in her thinking. Apparently my mother had considered, if only briefly, confiding in me. But being oblivious as I was then, what reactions could I have given if she had?
And I remember this: one day in the last year of my middle school, Ms. Daylily appeared at our door. She usually dressed neatly despite the colorless time, but that day she was somewhat disheveled and looked like she’d just been crying. “He hit you!” Mother said angrily. The two adults talked fiercely in low voices in Mother’s bedroom, door closed. I thought I heard Ms. Daylily’s sobs. I eavesdropped and heard Mother say, “You shouldn’t come here anymore!” When I told Ping about the puzzling incident during one of her visits home, she wasn’t surprised. She said Ms. Daylily’s husband suspected the two women were in love.
That was the year I’d heard, for the first time, the term “tongxing lian”—same-sex love. Those words had a horrible sound. At a time when even heterosexual relationships were shameful, homosexuality was unthinkable.
“He’s talking nonsense,” Ping had said, referring to the man’s suspicion, “she and Mama are just fast friends!” I rarely felt much in common with Ping, but that time we were together against a common enemy, the abominable feudalist man maltreating his wife. I even thought about dumping a chamber pot on him had he chased his wife to our house. But he never did, not wanting to risk making such an affair public.
I recently learned that, in the couple’s later years, when Ms. Daylily was falling into dementia and her husband was dying, the old-fashioned man left a will requesting that their four sons and two daughters take care of their mother at home rather than leaving her in a senior care facility, a wish the children dutifully followed. He believed the best care for her could only be provided by her own children. The man who was so concerned about his wife’s physical well-being was the same man I knew who once smashed an iron onto her foot to stop her from seeing my mother.
August 27: My forget-worry flower said, “For more than two years I had been in unrequited love with you, even losing sleep, you just don’t know!” Yes, it was that onrush, declaring a stubborn, determined, indomitable, loyal love that opened my caged soul; my lifelong yearning for love is now fulfilled and given every care to. At this extremely difficult time, I especially find consolation: I’m not alone in this world after all.
So Ms. Daylily had been pursuing her for two years before my mother finally accepted her love. That traces the beginning of their affair back to 1969. In my memory, Ms. Daylily’s frequent visits to our house started in late 1967, so there was a year or two of friendship before this development. Apparently, it had never occurred to my mother, who came from a poor rural family, that she could have such feelings until they were upon her.
Love is more universal than many of us believe. I will never know what, if any, intimacy the two women achieved in such difficult times. I can only guess that Ms. Daylily’s love must have sprinkled a timely rain onto my mother’s arid heart withered from losses, betrayal, and unjust punishment.
Then they broke up as lovers, but stayed friends.
My parents hid their 1958 trouble well, until we kids grew up and they got old and my mother could no longer bear to conceal her grudge toward my father. Still, she would talk about that time in general, but nothing specific about him. And we knew better than to peel the unnamed scab that had never healed.
I did try to find out once, half a century after that history. I was visiting Hainan, China’s southernmost province in the sea, where spring stays year-round. My younger sister had managed to rent an “elderly apartment” for our parents’ winter escape from frosty Chongqing. One afternoon during my visit, I saw my father sitting alone reading a newspaper—my mother must have gone downstairs to take a walk—and the question just rolled out my lips. I asked what happened between them in 1958.
As soon as he heard it, my father’s hands began to tremble, his face paled, and he couldn’t utter a single word. He was shocked by my question; I was shocked to see just how hard it can be for a man to face his past wrongs. (The problem with my father, however, was that he did not know the wrong at the time; as a loyal Communist who put Party interest ahead of personal, he thought he was doing the right thing.) I was frightened that I might be causing him a heart attack. “Okay, okay, you don’t have to answer,” I said, raising both palms to calm him, to push away his panic. My younger sister rushed in to our rescue in the nick of time. She yelled at me half mockingly, “Are you persecuting the old revolutionary?” and she helped our father away to rest. The year was 2008, and by then “persecuting” had become a teasing word for younger people who had never experienced or witnessed it in action.
I never broached that topic with my father again.
In the years following my failed probe of my father, during my annual visits to China, the daily routine was that my sisters and I took our parents for a walk in the sun and talked weather and health, or sang some old songs together, something both of my parents loved to do. There was one song, however, only my mother knew, and she’d sing it with melodious melancholy when she happened to be with me alone:
You led me into a dream
But in another one’s dream I forgot you
All day I watered the roses
But let the orchid wither away …
I never heard her sing this song in my father’s presence.
Later I’d find out this was a movie song, “My First Love,” from the 1930s, and the lyrics were written by the then-renowned poet Dai Wangshu, who pined for another woman throughout his marriage. His wife ended up divorcing him. Feng, my younger sister who lives in Hainan, told me that Mother sang this song all those years when she took walks with her during her winter stays, so much so that Feng had also learned how to sing it.
Three years passed thus. In the spring of 2011, as soon as I crossed customs and connected with my sisters, I heard my eighty-five-year-old father had had an operation to install a pacemaker the day before, following a midnight scare when his heart nearly stopped. I was worried.
But my father surprised me when I saw him in the hospital; apparently there was something other than his heart condition that concerned him even more. He told me he had been deeply depressed lately. This wasn’t like him, a jolly, sometimes silly, old man. I asked what was making him depressed. He said, “I keep thinking of the things I did wrong when I was young…” He mentioned a number of Party lines that he had believed, including the lies that the big famine of 1959 to 1962 was a “three-year natural disaster” (when in fact it was caused by the government’s catastrophic economic policies and prolonged by the subsequent cover-up), and that the “rightists” in 1957 were the enemies of the people and the Party (when in fact the whole ordeal had been started by Mao inviting frank opinions on his Party and then, overwhelmed by mounting criticism, turned around to prosecute those who followed his call to speak up).
The next thing my father said was that he felt sorry about my mother. He did not give specifics, but the year 1958 hovered in the tensing air. I paused, not sure what to say. This was a big change. Last time I saw him, those topics were still unspeakable. Had my probe three years before precipitated his depression?
I looked back at my frail mother, who was staying in the hospital room to accompany my father. I don’t know how many times she had dutifully been at his side this way.
My mother did not show much of a reaction to my father’s apologetic words. She was about to turn eighty-two. I doubted those words still meant much to her; they certainly came too late. People always say it’s never too late to apologize—that may be true for the one who owes an apology, but not for the one owed.
By then I had more or less put the puzzle together: when the Anti-Rightist Campaign began in 1957, my mother was on another assignment away from home, thus fortuitously putting her, a candid person, out of harm’s way. When she returned months later, however, she was shocked to see several close friends stripped of everything and about to be sent to labor camps. Her sympathy toward those “rightists” made her a new target. It seems that my father, who believed in the Party more than his wife, spoke against my mother in a series of denunciation meetings, and even analyzed their pillow talk—some quibble about a superior—as politically motivated. My mother, then twenty-nine, was shaken to the core by these actions from the man she loved and trusted. When the Party’s decision to punish her was announced, she’d wanted a divorce and my father might have agreed, but a sympathetic superior talked them out of it.
In my mother’s silence, I felt I had to say something to the old man. “You didn’t know then,” I said. This was a filial daughter speaking, not a critically-minded writer.
“It’s true I didn’t know then, but that does not ease my guilt,” my father said. His tightly locked eyebrows did not smooth out. His consciousness was torturing itself. My mother still said no words, her expression indifferent.
At the time of my visit in 2011, my parents had just received a puzzling decree from the government demanding a marriage certificate of them, sixty years into their turbulent lives together. Back in the early 1950s, at the nascence of the Communist era, witnesses at a wedding party sufficed to give evidence of a marriage, such as in their case. No paperwork was required then, no photo taken. She was twenty-two and he twenty-five. Why would a certificate suddenly become necessary so late in their lives? My aged mother tittered, as she often did those days at an official nuisance. She also tittered at my father’s unquestioning excitement, as he seemed to see it as the chance for a second wedding.
It was not in question that my father would follow the government’s request, if only for the fear of unforeseeable consequences. I understood, but I wasn’t sure if my mother would be willing to follow through and go obtain a largely meaningless document. A year or two earlier she had threatened to divorce my father—belatedly, after everything that had happened to them. Her threat made my sisters and me really worried, for Mother’s emotional status and for Father’s physical well-being, but my frail mother was the stronger one, as she always had been. My father had been cared for by women in our family—his wife, mother-in-law, and daughters—nearly all his adult life, and he was incapable of doing household chores—no cooking, no laundering. How could he survive a divorce?
It occurred to me though, that the government’s request for a marriage certificate presented an ironic dilemma to Mother’s threat: to formally divorce is to revoke the marriage certificate. If they didn’t have one to begin with, what could she revoke?
To our relief, my mother did not resist—or care about—the idea of getting the redundant marriage certificate. Shortly after Father was out of the hospital, our entire family went to the Marriage Registration Office.
April 12, 2011 was a sunny Tuesday. In the pictures we took that day, my elderly parents hold hands, standing in front of the Marriage Registration Office. Father’s left hand grips a red booklet near his heart; Mother’s right hand clutches an identical red booklet by her hip. In the booklets are their marriage certificates—one copy for each. Father’s smile is broad and free, Mother’s barely discernable and shadowed. Wrinkles like a spider’s net surrounding Mother’s turbid eyes, she looks a lot older than Father who is actually three years her elder.
Had they a wedding picture from sixty years earlier, I wonder if it would show her belly slightly swollen, her smile fearful or guilt-laden, my big sister growing like an unstoppable weed within her, the consequence of their one impulsive night weighing on her heart like a rock. I wonder if my father’s smile would be forced or reluctant, unprepared to marry if not for the need to cover the illicit pregnancy and avoid discipline from the Party.
As we were taking the pictures, behind my hand-holding parents a young couple in their twenties passed by, each with a blue booklet in hand. The woman was crying; the man looked away. The same office also handled divorce, but my parents would never return for that.
My mother’s diaries are a mixture of love and resentment toward my father. But as her dementia got worse in her final couple of years, she could only recognize him as a longtime comrade, not her husband.
One day four years after our mother’s funeral my sisters and I would bury our father’s ashes in the same tomb, as he’d wished. I’d set out to look for Ms. Daylily the next day, only to find she’d died two months before my father did, leaving behind a purse full of my mother’s pictures big and small.
The day my mother died, March 8, 2015, was International Women’s Day, but that was not the only coincidence.
The Chinese have a saying, “The judgment on one is set when the lid on the coffin is closed.” That doesn’t apply to my mother. Her funeral was surprisingly deserted and quiet, despite the fact that she had had lots of friends. All I can say is that the farewell ceremony was held in the wrong place at the wrong time, and none of her old friends made it, including those who had a “life and death friendship” with her, as they’d say.
The day after the funeral, a midweek day, my cell phone rang. The phone wasn’t mine. Ping, my older sister who still lived in our birth city, had lent me her extra phone because my mobile service was useless in China. I had ignored unrecognized calls thus far, but for some reason I took that call—in my deep disappointment with the funeral, I probably would have vented at any stranger who happened to be bothering me.
But I heard a voice I used to know. “We are going to have a family party for my mother’s ninetieth birthday. She wants Principal to come,” the caller said without saying hello, just like the olden days. She thought I was Ping.
She still called my mother “Principal” after all these years—all these decades—as if times had not changed, and our mothers still taught at the same elementary school.
“My mom died Sunday,” I said.
I heard silence at the other end. Then she said, “Oh.”
I identified myself and we greeted each other. I asked how her mom, Ms. Daylily, was doing, and learned that my mother’s old love had been suffering from dementia for years. The day before, however, Ms. Daylily had a rare moment of clarity and she wanted to see my mom.
That was the same day I had asked Ping whether she had heard anything about Ms. Daylily. I knew the reason for my question. Ping didn’t. She told me she had lost touch with Ms. Daylily’s family for ages.
I don’t believe in anything supernatural, yet I could not help but wonder what happened internally between Ms. Daylily and my mother at the moment of their eternal parting. Did Ms. Daylily’s spirit attend my mother’s funeral that no one else from their generation had?
It was early March, and the wintersweet had finished blooming, but when I wandered the residential compound where my mother had lived, here and there the waxy-color petals could still be seen sporadically, and if you pulled a stem close, the faint fragrance would still embrace. By now I have crossed many oceans, and sauntered in many gardens and arboretums, still I have not seen wintersweet anywhere like that in the city of my birth.
- Quoted from Moss Roberts’s English translation of Three Kingdoms (Beijing/Los Angeles: Foreign Language Press/University of California Press, 1991)