Scraping to Zion
“OK, a/c on.” Dad’s finger punctuated the announcement, and blessedly cool air filtered back for the next quarter hour, until the needle crept toward Hot again and we had to turn it off, for fear of overheating the car. It was the third day of our family vacation, circa early 1980s, and we were going to Zion National Park, in Utah. I was sixteen.
I was sitting behind Mom in the passenger seat. “Ying Ying, dup gwut,” she ordered, leaning forward in her seat in our white Toyota Corolla. Masking my disgust, face a blank, I scooted forward and began pounding rhythmically on her back with my fists. This was before mandatory seatbelts. Her small, bony arched back underneath her beige sweater hunched under my fists, never relaxing. I hated her ugly shapeless sweaters that she wore even in 110 weather, her sloping shoulders, tiny sagging breasts, pale sunless skin like the underbelly of an insect, frowsy too-dry too-brown hair frizzing at the nape of her neck. I hated that she could sense my hate in my pounding, so I had to exit my emotions, shut them off behind a vault door, keep touching her and smelling her slightly sour odor, like a sick baby.
Her body was a source of horror to me, an enfleshment of all her unsightly incompetence, discontent, cloying need, and control over us. I was revulsed at the thought of having been birthed by this lump of quivering, juddering nerves and anger, pale and scared of sunlight like a pasty hump of uncooked dough. Many an evening, she would require us to help in executing a Chinese remedy for her nerves: my dad would take a long cigar-like tube and light it, and it would smoke and smell for hours. He would hold the tip an inch from her naked back as she lay on their bed, and slowly move it all over her exposed lumpy flesh, till the heat brought out the redness. It was never explained as redness or pinkness that arose as a result of the heat, but rather, as a drawing out of nerves and pain and badness within, called forth talismanically by the cigar that was not a cigar. Ceci n’est pas une pipe. Celle-ci n’est pas une mère. The vision of the fire and pollution that was my mother rising to her surface conjured the idea of leeches and bad blood. I would picture lumpy brown spongy creatures feeding on my mother, and this added to my recoiling. My sister and I hated the heavy acrid smoke of the “cigar” that would linger in the whole house till the next day.
As I grew older, I learned that one common form of torture involves burning the prisoner with a lit end of a cigar. How microcosmic a metaphor of my childhood, then, this recurrent burning of my mother’s back: stopping short of actual pain and physical abuse, merely infusing the house, my world, with a putrid fetid rancorous smell, catalyzed by her ongoing pain, anger, and inability to care for herself.
After the cigar had smoked halfway down and my mother’s back was hot to the touch, we would be called for. We would fetch a Chinese soup spoon and a bowl of cold water. Dipping the spoon in the water, I scraped it down my mother’s flesh, over and over, bringing out yet more pinkness. The spoons rasped slightly differently depending on whether they were porcelain or plastic. I vastly preferred porcelain: its edge was duller and thicker, so rasped less and felt smoother. The feel of the porcelain disguised a bit more the texture of my mother’s flesh. When we studied Eskimos in school, and how the women chewed whale blubber, I thought of my mother’s flesh, and vice versa: scraping her flesh made me think of chewing blubber.
She preferred the plastic spoons, for their greater hardness and sharper scraping. My sister and I alternated this hateful task. To this day we have never alluded to it.
My mother’s liking for sharp-ish things pressing into her flesh extended to our fingernails. At home, on the sofa, she would grab one of our hands, cradle it in her own, and push each fingernail, one by one, into the flesh of her own fingerpads. In the car, as now, on our way to Zion (marching sure enough, as the hymn says, but as conscripts, not joyous warriors), she would demand one of our hands, which we would have to reach up to her in the passenger seat. She never explained why she so liked the feel of our nails—always blunted, because of piano lessons and because long nails were vain and worldly—sinking into the fleshy part of her fingers, and we never asked. She never explained anything. Nor do I know whether my sister was as revolted by Mom’s penchant as I was, but I loathed the sensation of her flesh closing round my fingertips. To this day, whenever a lover accidentally or intentionally pulls my fingernails into a section of flesh, I cringe.
Mild maternal masochism? A way to focus her emotional pain and neurosis into a sharp-if-mild physical pain? An effort to exit the numbness of her existence? Yet one more pathetic attempt to force a closeness with us whose possibility receded ever more remotely with each passing year and family vacation and road trip? All I know is the chilling effect of these forced contacts with her body—a body she felt embarrassed of, a body she did not fully inhabit, as I could tell by her perpetual sense of shame, her hunched stance, withdrawing her breasts and shoulders into herself, her way of walking by not moving her hips or butt at all, just taking mincing baby steps, the crabbed way she stood on the few occasions I accidentally saw her, through the cracked-open door, coming out of the shower.
She let me stop pounding her, and I sat back in relief, trying to cool down, my sweaty back making my shirt stick to the seat. I escaped into my book, as always. One of Madeleine L’Engle’s stories about Meg—that awkward, gawky, ungainly girl in Wrinkle in Time who feels like an ugly duckling in contrast to her gorgeous accomplished mother, but who eventually becomes a happily married beautiful mother herself, thus fulfilling her duckling destiny. The fairy tale had a sense of rightness: the duckling feels insecure, is reassured, and becomes a glorious swan, beautiful inside and out. Meg’s bildungsroman spans numerous novels, and again, felt right: the child is the one meant to feel insecure and ugly, the adult confident and beautiful and full. So what did it mean that I was the child living in dread and horror of becoming my mother? Was I supposed to see her as beautiful, as admirable? My skin crawled at the very thought.
Zion, it turned out, was aptly named: the indescribable red glory of its canyons, the variegated layers of striated stone, the breath of both vastness and intimacy. Zion filled me with yearning—to be left blessedly alone, untethered from family and duties, free to breathe and look and listen to the silent space. Here, shame could be scraped away. Tradition, belief, custom, and obligation could be leeched out of life, burnt clean by the sun, ossified into something irretrievable and thus finally beautiful. Redness could be redeemed. The red of blood, pain, embarrassment, and humiliation transformed into glorious lambent vermilion.
“Ying Ying! Fai di lay!” I hurried back to pack my things into the car before they got unintentionally thrown out by the hurricane that was my mother. Today, my sister had taken the seat behind Mom. Probably a knowing sacrifice to relieve me. She was always unselfish that way. Perhaps the road to Zion is paved with sacrifice.
The list of horrible things I swore never to do to my kids climaxed when I was twelve, when we moved to Bella Vista. It was the middle of Christmas vacation, our new house wasn’t done yet but we had to move anyway, and so we had to live for a whole month with the Ungs, these old friends of my parents with incredibly annoying kids. My biological parents. Let me back up.
My father, Wei Chu, and my mother, Susan Kwok, met and married in Hong Kong, moved to California, and had me. Then Wei had the ill fortune to die in a car accident when I was a toddler. Two years later, Mom had remarried Henry Fong and had my brother, Josiah. So Henry was who I called Dad. But it was Wei and Susan who’d had the big network of friends back in H.K., and so any time we moved (which we did a lot), Mom would discover yet another set of old friends who we all were obliged to meet, and host endlessly, and pretend to like, and needless to say, anything less than utter abject adulation on all of our parts was a slur on the sacred memory of Wei.
Now, Wei was my real dad, and so I kinda get how I ought to have liked his friends, and I certainly get how Dad (Henry) was totally forbidden to say anything against Wei’s friends, but c’mon, it really seemed a bit much to expect Josiah, a little boy totally unconnected to Wei, to like his friends.
Be that as it may, there we were, halfway through my sixth-grade year, living with Pansy and Roger Ung, the Wei-friends, and having to share rooms with and walk to school with Benjy and Alice. The kids. Privately, Jo and I referred to them as the Ughs.
Benjamin was already fourteen, in high school, and yet his doting and otherwise intelligent parents insisted on calling him Benjy, which was the sole factor that induced me to feel a modicum of sympathy for him. He was a scrawny, pimply, whiny momma’s boy who destroyed everything he touched out of clumsiness. He was incapable of handling a single photograph (this was back in the days when people had photos printed on actual photo paper, decades pre-iPhone) without creasing it and leaving a smudgy thumbprint. And horrors, he had a crush on me.
On the couch watching TV, skirting the table and selecting seats for dinner, in the car on rainy days, Benjy and I danced an awkward and exasperating little pas de deux, wherein he waited for me to pick a seat so he could sit next to me, and I waited for him so I could sit as far as possible away from his wet-fingered little self. Jo didn’t think much more highly of him, and he had to share his room and be grateful to the bugger for his “hospitality.” I had to walk to school with him, since my junior high was just a couple blocks from the high school.
Alice was no respite from her brother. She was ten and Josiah was nine. The two of them had to walk to school together, and Jo complained that Alice was constantly trying to put barrettes in his hair, or get him to sing church songs with her out loud on the street, or teach her how to do boy things like throw balls. Well, to be fair, she certainly wasn’t gonna learn any boy things from Benjy. But she was beyond hopeless. Now, I am totally hopeless at anything involving playing ball, and even I am an Olympic superstar compared to Alice, if that gives you any idea. I at least don’t literally burst into tears if you pitch a baseball at me, especially if I have just begged you to teach me how to bat.
Mom absolutely adored Alice. I suspect she might’ve been glad to switch us. Alice wore colors like pink and beige. She would actually wear, to school, those hideous clothes everyone gets from Hong Kong featuring bright yellow furry duckies, or balloons filled with misspelled English words. Alice had tiny slender fingers that to Mom looked graceful and to me looked wimpy and useless, as if her hand had never fully developed in the womb. Alice was “delicate” and “refined.” Alice liked my mom’s cooking. Nobody liked my mom’s cooking—either Alice was a liar or she had no taste buds.
Two cities and three moves prior, I had had a wonderful babysitter named Teri. She had taught Josiah and me to make clay animals, and we had a whole collection of them that we had christened Elm Valley. The Elm Valley guys—that’s how we referred to the whole mini-society—lived in a cardboard box that Teri had designed and painted to look like a schoolhouse. Jo and I carefully toted Elm Valley from house to house—it was our shared prize possession. Right now, Elm Valley sat in Alice’s room.
Alice, fancying herself to be possessed of a delicate artistic temperament, asked us to teach her how to make clay animals. We agreed, but two weeks went by and we never had time. So one day, she decided to enlist Benjy’s help. Jo and I weren’t home. Benjy and Alice rooted through Elm Valley, examining the Elm Valley guys and accidentally pulling off parts: noses, eyes, ears, paws, and fins all started coming off and/or crumbling. Mortified, they tried to glue them back on and wreaked more havoc. Giving up on the clay, they set to examining our glass animals, fellow store-bought residents of Elm Valley. More broken limbs joined the wreckage. We also had several wire animals, made in Hong Kong, crafted of colored coiled wires. Soon the lion’s mane and tail had unraveled, as had the fish’s fin and horse’s leg. Alice narrated all this to me much later.
Guilt-ridden, they took the whole kit and caboodle and dumped it in the trash bin, not wanting to hurt our feelings by showing us the devastation. They didn’t fess up till the trash truck had come and gone. The conversation with Mom, later, went something like this:
Mom: You should admire Alice. Her feelings are so sensitive that she realized so quickly how your feelings might be hurt. The Bible teaches us humility. Alice is a wonderful example of godliness. I hope you appreciate her. How dare you look at me like that—so angry with your own mother! Shame on you!
Josiah: Well so how bout if wonderful Alice gives us a wonderful f____g apology?!?!
Dad: (hauls Jo off to teach him rather forcefully how to refine his vocabulary)
Auntie Pansy: Tabitha, Benjy and Alice are so sorry they ruined
Mom: No, no “ruin”! Tabitha, say you’re sorry for being so angry and rude.
By the time we moved out of Chateau Ugh, I’d survived one attempted and foiled kiss from Benjy, three nights of ginger chicken cooked by Mom and requested by Alice, three identical nights of spitting most of my dinner down the toilet, one obligatory viewing of Benji, the old dog movie, one night of all four parents screaming at me because they’d walked in on the precise moment when I’d happened to switch the channel to a sitcom displaying a guy in his briefs, and one night of having to kowtow to Alice because she had forced me to try on her putrid green cardigan with bunnies on it, and then a button had fallen off.
Had Mom and Dad been plotting a diabolical failsafe scheme to ensure that Jo and I would have no complaints about our new house, and would show our seamless adjustment to this latest move by making ourselves a ton of new friends at school, they could not possibly have succeeded better. When I am Queen of the Universe, my royal decrees will include mandatory fashion inspectors for all packages originating from Older People in HK containing clothing being sent to Younger Peeps in the US. All packages failing inspection will be given to charity.
Celestine Woo: "I am an English professor at Bard High School Early College in Newark, New Jersey. I have taught English and French at several colleges in New York, New Jersey, and Colorado. I am a published poet and a dancer."