AN AMERICAN LULLABY
“Yes,” she said. “Evil fortunes of neighbors give you top-of-earth feeling.”
Translation: “Look around, kid. You don’t have it so bad.” My mother is Chinese and met my father, a GI on leave toTaiwan, one rainy day in the fifties. A month later the marriage was arranged.
I was named after Albert Einstein, a man much emulated by my father who went to work for the National Atomic Energy Commission. My father was of Irish Catholic stock and we’d go to Mass Sundays promptly at nine. Mom would stay home and cook. The bacon and the jazzed-up Oriental omelets would be ready when we got home.
“I provide pepper, as should you be accustomed to.”
She’d say that to my father and then she would ever so slightly bow. Not too much, mind you. Enough to show respect, but not enough to show subservience.
My parents sent me to a Catholic elementary school. I got my ass handed to me there in fourth grade when I got into a fight with Johnny Burke during the afternoon recess.
“What is this, boys?” asked Sister Pauline.
He’s Japanese, says Johnny. The Japs killed my uncle.
“God teaches us to love all his children. Besides, he’s not Japanese. He’s half-Chinese. The Chinese fought on our side against the Japanese in the Second World War.”
Sister Pauline sat down on the pavement and started to cry.
“Please don’t cry, Sister,” I said. “Johnny didn’t mean anything.”
“I didn’t mean anything, Sister. Please don’t cry.”
Sister Pauline sobbed for another three minutes, probably not thinking how all of God’s children seemed to hate each other. She felt a fool because she hadn’t taught us history and geography better.
“Your eye black,” my mother said, when I came home from school. “You blood on your face.”
“I fell on the way home.”
“Your mother said you got into a fight,” said dad at the supper table.
I should mention that I have a twin brother, Frankie, named after Frank Sinatra, whose LP’s my mother listened to at her sewing machine in a sweatshop 12 kilometers southwest of Taipei.
I was always in Frankie’s rear-view mirror. He skipped fifth grade entirely and took an extra four credits a semester in college. Frankie was the scientist, with a major in chemistry and a minor in pre-med. I was the artist. Let me rephrase that. Frankie was the success. I was the failure.
“We have college-passing party for your brother,” mom said. All of my father’s brainy, atomic, friends at the party didn’t catch the real irony of our family. I was named after the scientist and Frankie was named after the artist, and we turned out vice-versa.
My college-passing party two years later was a more modest event, but the music was great. Janice played the piano; I played the violin. We were passionate about our music and about each other.
“Nice looking girl,” my father said.
“Evil witch girl,” my mother said.
My father smiled. He hadn’t worked in three months. Atomic energy was out of fashion.
“He shit luck, out of,” my mother said.
Times were tough in 1983. I got odd jobs here and there. Janice and I were living together by that time. My brother in Philadelphia picked up money like it fell from the clouds. My dad had a heart attack, fell off a chair, and was declared DOA two days before Christmas, 1985.
He was a piece of work, my old man, unafraid of anything except my mother. He would scoff at the Russians and the Red Chinese. Damn idiots. Their missiles will go up in the air and come right back down on themselves.
My dad had a metric ton of life insurance.
“I will buy new, big, house. Live with me, Albert. You must have wife.”
What-do-you-say, Janice? Mom thinks you should marry me. How could a girl resist?
We were married in a Catholic Church towards the end of July, when the temperature was 98 degrees, the sky was overcast and there was not a hint of wind. I knew what my dad would have said. Son, this is why wind power and solar power won’t work. We need atomic power.
Janice and I moved into the 5,000 square foot new rambler two weeks later. Both women were obsessed with one thing, and it wasn’t me. It was the game of Cribbage. They would play cards till three in the morning.
My mother decided that Frankie, Janice, and I should go visitTaipeiwith her in September.
Frankie was to come home for Mother’s Day. “He will stay here.” “Of course, Mom,” I said. “We can put him up for a few days.”
“Not a few days, many days. Frankie got in argument with dumb-ass supervisor.” On Mother’s Day I told my mother that Janice was pregnant and that we couldn’t go with her toTaiwan. That was only the second time I saw my mother cry. The first time was at the cemetery after my dad’s funeral.
Frankie gave me a blank stare that said, I’m the more advanced brother; I should have a child first. If you’re a twin, you know what the other one is thinking. Frankie, you need a woman to have a baby. You’ve studied science.
I didn’t speak, but Frankie knew what I was thinking.
“Baby needs garment for baptism. We will go toMinneapolisdowntown Friday. Your baby will have a proper garment. Janice will have rest at home, watch stupid American television, as befits woman awaiting baby.”
Janice agreed, anxious to watch stupid American television and eat stupid American popcorn.
Our car quit moving at 7th and Hennepin, the busiest intersection inMinnesota. It was my mother’s car, a new, high-amount-of-life-insurance, Saab. I was driving. Mom got out and started kicking the tires. A cop on the corner looked on.
“Cheap, American car,” she shouted, then cursed in Chinese. The amused cop got a tow-truck. The car was hauled away to a reputable dealer, and we stood for a few minutes in the center ofMinneapolis.
“Your Saab, Mom, is made by a Swedish company.” She cursed in Chinese once again. Then we were off shopping. We went to a store where they sold Chinese specialties. My mother talked with a woman in English and in Mandarin for 20 minutes. I caught bits and pieces. Good, yes, and you. Oh, your husband, I’m sorry to hear. We do use a very good seamstress…” There was a phone call and everything was arranged.
The car wouldn’t be ready until 11 next morning. We got hotel rooms.
“It’s onlyeight o’clock. We will go out. We are in city.”
Frankie and I looked at each other. What could possibly be more exciting than hitting all of the local hotspots with our own mother? Since we’re twins, we didn’t have to say a word.
We started at Murphy’s Pub, had a drink and talked. My mother and Frankie would fly toTaipei, viaTokyo. The thought of a visit home turned my mother’s face to the color of a petal of a rose. “We are children of the Sweet Potato,” she said. “My land, it is the shape of sweet potato. I was happy there until the war. The Japanese took my father into their army, and there he died. My mother died too.
My older brother cared for me mostly, and then the factories came. Factories everywhere. But there was work. I could sew shirts for American men. Sew, sew, sew, then eat at noodle shop, then sew, sew, sew. At noodle shop one day your father walks in, all polished up in American Army uniform. He sits next to me and makes little talk. I know some English. He kiss my hand when he leaves. Your father come again and again. I was lucky girl.”
“Mom, he was lucky too,” I said, always quicker at saying things that would ingratiate me with my mother than Frankie was, even though he is the smarter twin. She hugged me.
“Yes, he was. I never met man so smart and dumb at same time. He couldn’t tie shoes. He works at atomic energy bowlshit.”
“Mom, it’s bullshit, not bowlshit.”
“What you know, Frankie, can’t even find wife? We go to next bar.”
We took the town by storm, or by drizzle anyway. There was some place on 10th Street where we stayed for an hour.
“You boys have much talent. Do not end up like your father. He had much talent, too. He ate too much fatty food. My fault, I think. I cook fatty food. You should know, Albert, and you should know, Frankie, that I miss your father oh so much. He treated me like woman of high estate, not like seamstress, when we met second time. Your father could have got daughter of owner of noodle shop. You kids would have a lot of money if he got her.”
“So? We wouldn’t have you then.”
“You boys talk shit, you know.”
My old man, if I remember correctly, did too, and my mother would say, if I remember correctly, you must have $37 dollars for this bill by Friday, or there will be penalty and my old man would say, of course I will have $37 dear, don’t I always take care of you?
“Yes, good care.”
“Don’t write out checks till Thursday.” Ours was some household. We used to have Catholic Irish Chinese American ceremonies, but I guess that is what this country is all about, or supposed to be.
We went to another bar on 2nd Street. We had a drink and one large man made some loud, very obscene comment. My mother was up in a flash and over to his table.
“Who you think you are?” she said. “You speak like man with garbage in his mouth.”
Oh, my God, I’m going to have to defend her, I thought. The man stood up. I hadn’t fought anyone since Johnny Burke. Mom stood firm, looked up into his eyes.
“I’m sorry. Please accept my apology.”
That’s mom. She slammed down another drink. “Frankie,” she said, “why you cannot find wife? You smart boy.”
“Well, I don’t know, mom. I just don’t get anywhere with women.”
“You should not talk chemistry bowlshit on first date, Frankie. Don’t take no Einstein to know that.
Boys, I not go back toTaipei. Home is here. Past is past. Would bring me tears to go back, see how country has changed. Albert, you and your sweet wife will have baby.
Frankie, you get married, have baby too. It’s theory of relatives.”
“The theory of relativity?” Frankie asked.
“No. Theory of relatives. You live for your family. Only dead people inTaipei, not so sweet a potato any more. I should be grandmother, look at future, not past. I’m drunk.”
We had to hold my mother up as we took her back to the hotel. She was singing “Ol’ Man River,” exactly like Frank Sinatra recorded it in 1947, well, exactly like Frank Sinatra would have recorded it in 1947 if he was off-key, drunk, a woman and Chinese, and had two sons holding him up by the arms, and if he couldn’t remember the words. My mother vomited twice by the side of the street. We made it to the hotel, led her up to her room, undressed her, tucked her in bed. She was crying, murmuring something about my father.
We picked up the cheap-ass Swedish Saab the next morning atquarter to noon, with its cheap-ass fuel pump replaced. The warranty took care of everything. We headed back home to the suburbs. Mom was uncharacteristically quiet during the drive, spoke but once from the back seat. A hangover is a hangover, whatever your ethnic background. “Would not be improper for new wife to play Cribbage, Frankie.” she said gently.