secrets |  melinda


 
train image

The bridge of immigration - or of exile - and all places in between - is a bridge between immigrant and emigrant, between murder and life, here and there/there and here, between the way "I" knew love and the way "I" have learned to love. The bridge between my hearts in China and the hearts I hold in good stead here, then, is the bridge that stands invisibly beneath, and supports, the piece below. It is a bridge that has, in many ways, not healed me so much as saddened and pained me. But it is also a bridge that, as I make out its lines, becomes a steady and beautiful structure that informs every shadow of my being.

I do love this bridge.


There are many secrets. And yet to my father, they are not really secrets; they are something else. They remind me of the economy, the practicality, of Mom and Dad's assumption that I would not accompany them to Taiwan when Gu-Ma, Dad's elder sister, passed away. Now, I am drawn to the sense of age in the plastic bag at the foot of the stairs -- hints of yellow and shadows of faces; and I come upon the first photos, I realize, that I have ever seen of my grandmother. It amazes me what happens, the way naturalness is born into a family when new generations are made, the naturalness of an invisibility that would not have been there had we never moved to a new country. "We". As if I could have existed.

I sweep up the plastic bag as I mount the stairs to my room, so absorbed with my inquiry that, once inside, I flop across the bed out of childhood habit, reaching for the seams of the bag just as I land on my elbows. Two detached leaves of a photo album lie inside. I scan the images greedily, wanting to know already what it is that I will know. I see, mostly, a woman whose two, three generations of life are spread across the pages: in the first she is direct and stunning, she tells her dreams, perhaps all dreams, by the gaze. Later she is not so glowing, not so fierce; there is rather something worn, in retreat. Again and again she appears beside a man whose entire self seems to settle into his square jaw; it speaks, silently, in advance of her, in advance of his own lips. I do not stop to wonder who they are.

Two other photographs. One of young Gu-Ma: so round-faced and gentle, holding the same love I've always known, but this young time a patient, wide-eyed love. It possesses none of the urgency I felt as a child when, on the side of a sunny street whose colors, in memory, have faded to pastel, Gu-Ma closed her one brief journey to Illinois and bid a long farewell to me. I see her now: a loose blue paisley print presents the folds of her gentle body, her smooth face dwarfed by a stark plastic glasses frame and firm lenses, a stubborn pout beneath. Squinting whether from sun or from devotion, she presses my hands tightly between hers and transfers, seemingly desperately, all that lies behind her eyes, straight into my bewildered face. That moment, I feel now, was all about love invested with collected time, made concrete in the slender chain that rattled in my palm when my hand was finally released. But in this photograph, her young gaze was simpler, could afford perhaps to be alive with the moment: this time, it was the photograph that had sustained the labors of traveling through time and space, preparing a different message for each soul it would encounter.

Looking into that gaze, I began to recognize it as my father's. There was something to Gu-ma and my father both, something soft and innocent, eyes opener than open: I would never hurt you. I would only love you. That is why I have been surprised when my father's dry cynicism has occasionally surfaced; it is, somehow, unbelievable. The other photograph is of a frosty elder I instantly know as my grandfather, for his lame eye and firm cheeks, the same man whose portrait hangs on that wall in Taiwan, same cast of the elitist disciplinarian I have heard about. But then, he has also been here, the young man with the woman of the generations -- this, too, is my grandfather, now smiling, young, head square but bursting with life and open will.

And then one sepia picture, the largest, filling half the cardboard on which it is mounted: a scene in a park, tree canopies above, a footbridge to the right, and crisp young adults looking outward and ahead. One of the men in a kind of traditional dress, headpiece and draped waist. Scanning left to two sitting figures, I think, yes, those must be my grandfather and grandmother. But where is my father? I peer right, left -- perhaps the gangly youth with a long face and easy smile I imagine will be perched on one of the adjacent rocks -- but there is no such young Michael, no teenager. There is only that terribly fat baby -- yes, that is him! - the same beady look of innocence, but this one not so aware of what love meant, perched suddenly on his mother's lap.

I saw him. I saw them. Everything came together. I did not need music to feel. Inexplicable, that this sense of history could have easily swallowed all these years, left for my discovery at a later time when Dad died, or when Dad started to realize he was going to die, shock at seeing the face of the woman who I'd just heard days ago had died of alcohol poisoning from drink. This was a secret, one of many I still didn't know, still to be kept from my friends and loved ones. Still? I was only to say that she had a liver problem, a cancer. That my father admitted the truth to me was only because I had laughed and pressed him, challenged him, asking him how could it be cancer because before he had told me that she had died of tuberculosis? There are secrets, secrets that must be kept at all cost, there is no benefit from the knowing.

This sense of so far away. There is really nothing near. There is my father, here, in the flesh, available to share his life with me, having shared his life with me already for more than thirty years, living with me. And yet, I have somehow heard so little. Only seen, and felt, the look of his face, the innocence of his gifts throughout my life, the frailty of his sensitive heart. And perhaps, I wonder to myself, that is all he has wanted for me to have.


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