Three Houses (by Marybeth)

Summary:  Unexpected memories . . .
Category:  Non-fiction
Genre:  Memoir
Rated:  PG
Genre:  Word Count:  3233


The first time it happened, we were out in the driving rain, trying to hang Christmas lights. Seattle is not the most enchanting place to be in December. Instead of thick snow and sleds and icicles, we have drab, depressing, rain, lots of rain. We have some scant snowfall three or four times each winter, but it never lasts long enough. Not that our children mind, they have always lived here. Well, at least some of them have. Three of our eight children came from China. Shen Bo arrived here at the age of two years, MeiMei at age five, and Yuanjun at age seven. They had never seen snow in China, though, last winter, Shen Bo informed me to the contrary many times. “We had lots and lots of snow, all the time,” he declared cheerfully to whoever would listen. “All the way to our roof. My mother would let me sled out the window whenever I wanted.” Perhaps, if I had thought about it then, I could have seen it coming. How were we to know Shen Bo’s elaborate abilities for storytelling? Worse, how were we to know he would soon teach this skill to MeiMei, much to the disgust of the rest of our children?

At any rate, we were all hanging the lights together as the sky seeped ice cold drops down the necks of our coats. Our oldest children were actually helpful; a rather astounding fact if you ever tried to get kids to perform useful work. Brendan, Austin, Sara, and Emma were untangling the twisted cords of lights and John was busy testing them. My husband Mark, by virtue of being Jewish, was excused from duty and was inside cooking. To be truthful, he’s not very good at lights anyway; he tries to make shapes of snowmen, wreaths, or angels but they end up looking like tortured creatures. I have always attributed this to his lack of childhood experience with Christmas. Maybe he’s smarter than I think. While we are outside fumbling in the damp, he’s in the warm house. I can hear the football game; he has it up loud so he can hear it in the kitchen as he works.

MeiMei and Shen Bo are driving us all crazy. They have managed to step on the dangling colored light bulbs and fallen, several times into the box of still to be strung lights. All of our tempers are a bit close to the edge when I am stopped by a small sound. Yuanjun is sniffling quietly into his sleeve. This is his first Christmas since his operations. When he arrived, a year and a half ago, he underwent surgery on his clubfeet so he could walk. Last Christmas he spent inside in a wheelchair with casts up to his hips. This year, he could join us for this chilling, rainy, event. Lucky boy.

“You aren’t getting a cold?” I ask in the rhetorical way of cranky mothers. “You don’t want to get sick right before Christmas!”

Yuanjun normally speaks in a loud voice, a habit from trying to be heard in a noisy orphanage. But now, his words are soft and I have to bend low to catch them. “What are you saying?” I am still irritated; when I kneel to hear him my knee touches a muddy puddle.

“My grandfather loves lights.” The cold is forgotten. I know immediately he is speaking, not of his new grandfather down the lane from our farm, but his grandfather in China. Yuanjun has gradually revealed his secret grief over the past year. Until he was five years old, he lived with his biological family in Shanghai. He knew two parents, two grandparents, and a baby brother. They all lived together in a tiny apartment until Yuanjun was five. His mother had been gone long before that. She was in the Army and frequently absent even earlier; the father as well. But his paternal grandfather had been a constant and the baby brother a delight. Only recently, first in Mandarin, and now in English, have the memories come out.

I wait. If Yuanjun is questioned, he clams up immediately; these memories are too private, too painful.

“At the New Year, all the street has lights. Mostly red and white, you know, like the kind we put up when it’s time.” Yuanjun’s face is wet from more than rain. Oh, that he trusts me with these precious thoughts . . .

The Spring Festival, Chinese New Year, will be in two months. We take down the most of the Christmas lights before then and leave up only the red, orange, and white ones for the Chinese holiday. Yuanjun continues. “We would look out the window. Sometimes we could see the fireworks too.” He opens his mouth to say more but disaster intervenes.

Shen Bo has wrapped himself in strings of light and is trying to convince John to plug him in. John steadfastly refuses but MeiMei, trying to be helpful, grabs Shen Bo’s cord and pushes toward the outlet. John shoves her down and she falls backwards onto Shen Bo, who is howling with laughter. Shen Bo manages to topple sideways on to Emma. Things turn ugly quickly. Time to go inside.

The three youngest boys are in the bath together. Brendan and Sara stay outside with the lights but darkness is approaching fast. We will have to finish tomorrow. The bathroom is steamy; the boys, warmed and clean, sit contentedly in the dirty bath water. Yuanjun is still somber. I am trying to rinse off the gobs of shampoo he put in his black hair; for once he is not complaining. “Our house had a bath but not like this—it was so much smaller.” He catches my eye. Oh, I think. This is a first, talking in front of the others. This is good. 

John stops splashing water out of the tub. “What house?” he asks. “At the orphanage?”

Yuanjun’s English is flawless now. “No,” he tells John. “My real house, my apartment.”

John looks over at me to see how I am taking the news. “That’s nice,” he answers Yuanjun carefully. “Apartments are nice.”

These three boys, Yuanjun, John, and Shen Bo share a bedroom in our home. At the top of the pecking order by virtue of his age, John can be fierce if a brother touches his ‘things’. But, sometimes, John can be kind. “James Bond has an apartment. That’s cool.” John beams at Yuanjun, then resumes making fast eddies which splash onto the wood floor.

“What else do you remember about the apartment?” I ask Yuanjun.

“My grandfather had a basket with three turtles in it. And he would lift off the lid to feed them broccoli. The basket hung from the ceiling. I shared a bed with grandfather. Sometimes my brother slept there too.”

Yuanjun has forgotten the name of his infant brother. When we met Yuanjun in the Shanghai orphanage, it had been two years since he had seen his grandfather or his brother. When he came home with us, he spoke in Mandarin, occasionally, of this baby brother. Even then, the name was lost to his memory. What recollections he does have, we have carefully written down to preserve them for him forever. The lack of his brother’s name rankles him still.

He continues with his memories. “The bed was on the floor and I could look out the window. The ground was far away outside and people were very small. My grandmother had a little black table and she cooked on it.”

This has caught Shen Bo’s attention. “She cooked on a table? She made it hot?” His eyes are wide; this sounds interesting.

“No, no. She cooked on it.” Yuanjun pauses for the words. “She made food on it. She cut food and we ate it.” 

Shen Bo mulls this over. He purses his lips and puffs out his chubby cheeks. At last, he responds. “That’s not cooking. That’s cutting. You should say she cutted on it.”

Yuanjun and John both roll their eyes. Shen Bo can be so bossy. His English isn’t better than his Chinese siblings but he came here first, so he is sure he is the expert.

Downstairs, the football game is still going. The New York Giants are being thumped and Mark is not in a good mood. He is chopping the onions and carrots ferociously.

“That,” explains Shen Bo, “is cutting.”

Later, when the soup is done, we gather around the long table to eat. Brendan has turned off the lights inside so we can see the twinkling ones outside on the dripping trees. There are also lit strands of Christmas lights on the lawn and draped over the driveway. Apparently, I wasn’t watching Shen Bo and MeiMei as well as I thought.

Yuanjun gazes out at the Christmas lights. It is clear where his mind still lingers. “Are we going to have firecrackers this year?”

Brendan laughs. “Fireworks for Christmas? That’s an idea.”

I explain. “No, we were talking about Spring Festival. We didn’t have firecrackers last year.”

Yuanjun is telling the whole family now. “My grandfather bought me fireworks. Little ones, that bang when you throw them.”

“Oh, like for the fourth of July?” Sara pauses as she drinks the chicken soup. “I love the fourth of July!” She turns to Mark who is trying to see the game from his seat at the table. If he leans far to the left, he can just manage to see a corner of the television. “Dad? Can we get fireworks for the next Chinese New Year?”

“Sure,” he answers absently. “Sounds good.”

Brendan snickers. “Dad? Can you give me a hundred dollars?”

“Sure,” Mark repeats. “Sounds good.”

After dessert, we pull out the Christmas stockings. It’s still three weeks till Christmas but we all like to see them hanging by the fireplace. Shen Bo has been pretty quiet; he looks like he is already half asleep. Unexpectedly, he makes an announcement. “I remember my house in China too!”

Mark is very gentle with him. Is it possible he could remember? We had been told Shen Bo arrived at the orphanage as an infant, as had MeiMei, but maybe we are wrong. We give him our full attention. “What do you remember?” Mark asks softly.

Yuanjun and John roll their eyes for the second time tonight.

“Well,” Shen Bo looks around at his large audience. “We had a big house, bigger than this one. It was very nice.”

“You did not!” Yuanjun can’t take it. “You’re lying!”

“Am not!” Shen Bo is now wide-awake and looks ready for battle. He leaps to his feet. “I do so remember!”

Mark raises a hand for silence. “Let’s let Shen Bo finish,” he chides the boys.

Shen Bo warms to his task. His next statement removes all doubt about any truth. “We had a big, big swimming pool and I took lessons every day.” Shen Bo is from a poor farming village outside of Ningbo. It is impossible anyone would have a pool. I try to keep a straight face. “That’s a nice pretend, Shen Bo.” I wish to help him save face in front of his now giggling siblings.

He tugs at his shortened left arm. He was born with only one hand; the other arm stops at the wrist. Shen Bo calls it his ‘little hand’. When Shen Bo first came, he told us horrific stories about how it had been chopped off by a wild man on the streets. Shen Bo, you might say, has a history of embellishment. Nonetheless, we are willing to give him another chance. “Go ahead, Shen Bo.”

“It’s true!” He shouts at them. “And the roof was red and we had white rugs everywhere. And…and…I slept on a throne!” He hurls this last description defiantly at Yuanjun.

Another voice is heard from. MeiMei holds up an imperious right hand. Like Shen Bo, she is missing her left hand too. Her stories about it are even more colorful and extreme than her brother’s. “I remember my house too.”

By now, the older kids are guffawing but Mark freezes them with a look. MeiMei has the floor. First, she deals with Yuanjun. “We had fireworks every day. Oh, and lots of lights.”

Next she gazes at Shen Bo, her lustrous brown eyes serious and disdainful. “You didn’t have a pool,” she informs him. “Our house was on Cannon Beach.”

How her Chinese house came to be on the Oregon coast, the same beach where we now vacation…well, I wasn’t going to ask.

She flipped her long back hair over her shoulder. “My house was ten houses big.”

It went on for a long time, this battle of words and boasting. You’d be surprised at the amount of detail a young child can give, especially if they are competing for drama and for bragging rights. I thought Yuanjun was going to tear his hair out that night.

We have struggled so hard to help Yuanjun deal with his memories, his true memories. They are a gift that also causes him great pain. Yet these are JinJin’s keepsakes, his only mementos of his first family. And so, we treasure them together. His family was unable to continue caring for him in the face of his serious medical problems. It is a grief he will carry forever. He unwraps these memories at the most unexpected times. In the car, waiting for the bus, playing quietly in the bath. I try never to push such moments away, though sometimes I fight against the tears that do come. My own tears, I mean. It is achingly difficult not to sweep this sorrow away from both of us. To stop myself from distracting him with happy chatter, to try to solve this loss.

Even the younger children recognize his memories as something of value. It is for this reason they desperately try to manufacture their own. Sometimes we let Shen Bo and MeiMei have their head. They leap forward, creating wonderful visions of a home in China. A home with parents, with grandparents and, always, with a baby brother. What a coincidence.

In the grocery store, Shen Bo will sometimes use these ‘memories’ for an obvious benefit.

“I want some coffee,” he announces as the lady hands me a sample in the grocery store.

“You can’t have any,” I tell him. “Don’t you want to be as tall like Brendan?”

His face turns very red. He gulps back what sounds amazingly like a real sob. “My grandmother in China always let me have coffee!” he wails. “Whenever I wanted it!”

The sales clerk is beginning to blubber. “Oh the poor boy, the poor dear boy.” She looks at me like I have grown devil horns and a tail. “Couldn’t he have a just a little?”

I give in finally and watch as she slips Shen Bo the tiny cup of coffee. The sales woman ruffles his hair and now bestows an approving smile on me. “Don’t worry,” she consoles me. “I filled it most of the way with milk.”

I continue to push him around the grocery store. Shen Bo sips delightedly from his paper cup of coffee and milk. As we go by the candy aisle, he pulls a long face. “Can I have some chocolate?”

“No!” I give him my sternest mommy face.

“But, but,” he sniffles, “my grandmother in China…”

I cut him off midstream. “Don’t even try it, buddy. Nobody’s listening.”

The aisle is empty except for the two of us. He looks around from his little perch on the cart. “She did, you know; she always gave me chocolate for breakfast.”

“Sounds like fun,” I acknowledge. “Sounds like a good pretend.”

MeiMei is less likely to use her tales for her personal benefit. She often draws elaborate diagrams of what her house ‘looked like’. I find them taped to the icebox or as presents in my purse. She pulls one out and we go over it. “See? I had a red roof like Shen Bo’s, only mine was pinker.” Her slender fingers point out the details. “And that was my window there.” She touches a smudge of green crayon. “I had little trees by my bed, little, uh, apple trees.”

She smoothes the picture over my knees. “We had three kitchens. And my mother is there, making brownies.” We bend our heads together. There is a little MeiMei with one hand in the drawing, her nails painted bright red.

“Is that your mother?” I peer at a fuzzy blob of crayon. The mother in the picture has curly blond hair and blue eyes. “That is how you see your Chinese mother?”

“Yes, isn’t she pretty?” MeiMei gives me an appraising look. “She has yellow hair just like you.”

“Blue eyes too,” I point out.

“Of course. I already told you that. She always let me brush her hair, all day long. We would sit in the kitchen…”

“Which one? I see three kitchens here.” I hold her drawing aloft.

MeiMei doesn’t even hesitate. “The blue one. Yes, the blue one in the morning and the black one at lunch.”

“Don’t you pretend there are three? Where’s the third one?” I swear I can almost see her kitchens in my own mind.

“No, the other kitchen’s just for boys. We don’t ever bother to go there.”

“Of course not. Did you want to brush my hair?” While she gets a brush, I carefully write down everything she said on the back of the drawing. They may be pretend memories but, when she is a mother herself, I want to be able to tell MeiMei exactly how it was.

Yuanjun has grown accustomed to the wild tales of his Chinese siblings. Christmas has come around again; the stockings are pulled from the old cedar chest. The sounds of football filter through the house; I am reading quietly on the couch. Yuanjun, MeiMei, Emma Rose, John, and Shen Bo are sitting in front of the fire too, comparing stockings, and trying to remember which one is each of theirs. With so many in our family, we never seem to keep the stocking ownership straight. At last, they all agree, and hang them, three weeks in advance, for Santa to fill. Emma Rose and John listen as the talk turns to China. Shen Bo repeats his tales of his home and MeiMei adds her pretend memories. Yuanjun adds some real ones but they all mingle them agreeably. MeiMei touches the shoulder of Yuanjun and Shen Bo. “I just remembered,” she tells them, “our homes were near each other.” She pushes her fist into the rug then raises it and places it down twice more. “My house was here. And Shen Bo, yours was a little farther away. Yuanjun lived in the apartment behind my house. We had three houses, do you remember?”

Yuanjun sighs, then gives them both a gift. “Yes, your houses were close by mine. Maybe I remember now. When mom and dad take us back to visit China, we will look for them — the three houses together.”

Shen Bo smiles broadly. “And my grandmother will make us coffee.” His generous grin reaches to me. “We will eat chocolate and drink coffee all day long.”


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