Now Ma Ma has suffered a stroke, leaving Jenny feeling as helpless as Ma Ma lying in her hospital bed. Suddenly it's Jenny's turn to hold the family together. But Jenny is stronger than she knows. As Ma Ma struggles to relearn the simplest tasks, Jenny will discover the thousand ways a mother and daughter are joined heart to heart, connected by painful family secrets and rich cultural lore, and by a treasure beyond price.
In this poignant first novel based on her own experiences, Nancy Young Mosny has fashioned a patchwork of growing old and growing up, of Chinese and American, of strengths and frailties, of the love and hatred that bind us all.
|Publisher:||Random House, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.28(w) x 8.27(h) x 0.74(d)|
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Chapter One: Jun Chou, Such Shame or What An Odor
She wouldn't listen. She just wouldn't listen.
Ma Ma's face the day long was visiting all shades of gray, a chromatic match for her salt and pepper hair. Between feeling a little dizzy, an uneasiness in every step she took from the waiting room to the examination room, she was feeling less strong, less vital, less chi, in her blood. She was hungry, as she always seemed to be, but today she didn't, she couldn't, stop to eat. Eating's importance was never lost on her and hunger disrupted her like a clock every four hours, she actually being one of the proverbial children starving in China. Ma Ma never lost a piece of food on her plate, even on our plates, her children's, and yesterday's leftovers were always highly respected and creatively consumed. Wasting leftovers was equivalent to losing years of your life, she had warned us. Kernels of rice stuck to your bowl will bring you a hideous spouse with pockmocked skin. But today her appetite was only a distant roar, taking a lesser priority, below her eyes, blinking and watery, and her vision, blurred and hazy. Ma Ma wouldn't take the afternoon off. How could she let a little physical discomfort, somehow feeling unnatural, intrude on her purpose, her job, her dedication, as the receptionist and office manager of her son's medical practice? She wouldn't rest.
Leave me alone, she waved her hand. "Yow ngor."
Her Chinese words were strong and swift, matching the swing of her head as she turned to look away. She continued to log the names of patients expected to be seen that day.
That night, no, it was predawn, shetried to find her way half in slumber to the bathroom in the Chinatown tenement she had lived in for nearly forty years. Her bedroom was only a few steps away in the four-room apartment, number 12, we had called home as children in the 1950s, on the ground floor of a reddish-brown brick building six stories high, tall enough for a dumbwaiter for garbage but not for an elevator. It sat like a throne in the elbow of Mott Street, the center spine of New York's Chinatown, in the heart of our Chinese ghetto.
Ma Ma had arrived in this Little China as a young bride in 1949, pregnant with my older brother, the doctor, and now she had fallen, struck down by a stroke, an implosion in her brain, exploding her life apart.
She had started down the hall in dignity and ended in a pool of urine, where she was to be found the next morning.
Only ten miles away but a world apart, mornings had been blending into nights and nights into mornings again for me, this time for baby Anni. Every four hours, Anni was awake and looking for her next cuddle at the breast. Snuggling was for me the purest highlight of motherhood. Still, I longed for the day when I could forgo my button-down pajamas for easier nursing and slip back into a silk spaghetti-strap nightgown.
This morning, Monday, was like most school mornings. Anni was my alarm clock, and I in turn was my family's. With Anni in my arms, I scurried to the children's bedroom. My seventeen-year-old daughter, Vicki, was asleep on the top bunk, putting her easily at my height, and I was always happy at some very elementary level that I didn't have to bend down to kiss her. I looked for her nose under the blanket to kiss, and this morning I went to the right end of the bed. Some mornings I ended up kissing her feet because she had fallen asleep at the other end studying where the clip light was. She takes her time to wake up, as do I, so I always kissed her first.
"Two more minutes, Mom," Vicki always said after the first kiss of the morning, pulling the fluffy duvet over her eyebrows. She could have had her own bedroom but a newfound loving, sisterly instinct made her choose to share one with her four-year-old brother.
Mark always jumped out of his bottom bunk every morning, still too short to bump his head, immediately awake, like his father. This morning he put his arms around my knees and pulled us down, Anni and me, and we tumbled into a bundle of rolling, laughing family. Vicki joined in by swinging her arm down, reaching for us like Dumbo's mother through the gates of jail. We pulled her hand toward us, trying to kiss it. Boy, these kids will require a lot of affection when they grow up.
I managed to pull away with Anni still in my arms as though we were one entity, which we still were in many ways, and stopped for a group hug and kiss with my husband, Tomas, on our way to the kitchen. He leaned out from the bathroom and kept his cheek cocked and taut where he had been shaving and where Anni and I formed a triangle of air with our lips. From the time we were married, Tomas always rush-started his mornings with the loud razz-razz of his electric shaver, claiming he had to shave before our showers steamed up the bathroom. He then rushed to walk Max, our miniature dachshund, before lounging on the sofa with his coffee and the TV morning news. This hurry-up-and-relax routine was his two-step dance every morning.
In our kitchen, which opened out over a long counter into the dining room, I pried Anni away from me, bent her into the high chair, and put a zwieback cracker into her fingers. The view of the Hudson River outside our windows in New Jersey justified the month. Slabs of ice were floating near the shallow slicks of water on our side of the river and the sky was especially thin, I could see from our twenty-third-floor window, making the birds and airplanes appear lighter still. Hot oatmeal. That's what we need this January morning. It was ambitious of me because time usually only allowed for cold cereal. But I could hear help in the barracks. Tomas was trying to convince Mark that wearing jeans would be more comfortable under his snowsuit than wearing sweatpants. Vicki walked into the kitchen in her school uniform, a gray flannel skirt, white turtleneck, and navy knee socks, looking more grade-school girl than teenager, and immediately started to take milk and juice from the refrigerator to set on the dining table. The blast of cold air from the fridge set me worrying again that her exposed knees would freeze. She squeezed Anni's cheeks together, pursing her lips into fish lips, and gave her a loud kiss. Daughters are wonderful, I thought, but sisters are better, and the phone rang. It couldn't be a snow day, so somebody must need a ride for nursery school.
It was my brother. "Something happened to Ma Ma," Kent said quickly but with pause enough only to try to lessen my shock. I heard his controlled detachment for my benefit. He could have been saying "Today is Monday" with as much emotion, being more the doctor now than the brother or the son. "Ma Ma had a stroke last night and we're taking her to the hospital now."
A brain attack.
That much I knew. But didn't it cripple the body and the brain? Didn't it slur the words and mire the movements? Didn't it end life? My shoulder cranked the portable phone too tightly to my ear as I waited for my brother to explain it magically away like a David Copperfield of Medicine. But instead I saw my hand stirring my stream of warm tears into the pot of hot oatmeal.
"What should I do?" I said, as much to myself as to my brother, becoming in an instant the little sister instead of the mother in charge. How can I get to the hospital before Ma Ma dies? Does Mark really need a snowsuit today? Will Vicki have to miss her trigonometry exam? How will we ever have time to walk Max? I caught myself in this whirling madness of inconsequential thoughts.
"Meet me at Bankford," Kent said and hung up.
The silence of the still phone gave me a chasm into which the collision of all my thoughts fell. Had I been blissfully breast-feeding Anni in the middle of the night while Ma Ma was suffering a stroke? How damning! My chest began to shake as I put down the phone and my knees buckled in turn. I crouched, my back against the tough, resilient refrigerator door, my hands over my face, the wooden spoon in my hand sticking out of my right ear. The stirring became a tornado in my head. I cannot serve oatmeal with tears to my family, I could not stop thinking. I've got to undo what has been done.
How impossible, how surreal, how pathetic.
Ma Ma, stroke, stillness, paralysis, dying, death.