A Yellow River

RACE: yellow.

It makes color sound like a destiny, the finger of the Decider pointing at eight pounds of baby – “You will have the life of yellow.” If I had been able to look over the shoulder of Mr. David D. Helm, Registrar 5279, certifying my birth, I would have said I was not yellow. Bill was yellow, but not until he was bloated, jaundiced, and near death in Intensive Care. That was yellow.

I bet the registrars in China didn’t have a box labeled COLOR OR RACE: Yellow, neither in 1916 in Ningbo, nor in 1923 in Hankou, for my father and mother. The people at the Center of the World do not need to say what color they are.

If I could have had a choice I would have told the Decider to change that word to celadon green, an ancient Chinese color and the color of the sugar bowl I gave to Bill in his room at Mt. Auburn – a Christmas gift for when he got out of the hospital, which he didn’t. Or apricot. RACE: apricot.

Dad walked on the beach and collected only white rocks the size of olive rolls. He brought them home and spread them on top of the sharp stone ledge of the planter in the front hall. The white of the rocks looked both cold, like alabaster, as well as warm, like a steamed bao, against the slate grey. Hiking through the Northampton woods of Mt. Tom I recalled those white rocks of forty-five years ago. Dad would have especially liked the white mushrooms – smooth white caps sprouting up from the week of rain, distinctly pale amongst its surroundings. (How do they present themselves so clean of the worm casings, leaf mold, and moss through which they pass?)

Dad wanted me to have a white coat when I was twelve, which my mother dutifully found. I can still feel the soft downy furriness between my fingers.

Uncle James asked a tailor to make him a white suit for the occasion of his suicide. A hanging white suit.

Dad’s closet was filled with white shirts, dark pants and jackets, and polished wingtip shoes with leather soles and wooden shoetrees. I loved his daily polishing – the soft rectangular brush, the stiff little round brush, the padded buffer, the tins of Kiwi polish with the tiny swivel winged opener attached to the side. The rags. He talked to me while he polished. I loved the golden brown of the carved wooden shoetrees. I loved the way they collapsed at their metal hinges like a marionette and then slid into the shoe. They made a dull “chunk” when you pushed down the knob at the heel. Dad always wore a white shirt, pressed. He’s wearing a white shirt, with necktie, in the photo of him rowing a boat. He’s wearing a white shirt, necktie tucked between the front button plackets, in the photo of him riding a horse. My mother in later years told him he was too formal and bought him colored knit shirts and Vibram soles. He looked ill at ease in both.

In paint sets there are different kinds of whites: zinc white, titanium white, flake white, cremnitz white, silver white. But the names do not carry the feeling of the whites of real things. House paint companies have brochures just for whites – thirty-eight whites. But I cannot find the paint chip that matches the whites of peonies that grew in my mother’s garden and grow in mine – buttery or rosy or changing with filtered light through the flesh of the petals. People say the “whites” of one’s eyes. The whites of Bill’s eyes turned yellow. I grew up on white rice, sometimes drowned in my rice bowl with white milk remaining in my glass at the end of the meal and then eaten like cold cereal. When I learned the meaning of organic food, whole grain bread, and vegetarian diets in the 1970’s, I added brown rice to my repertoire. Then I realized there must have been brown rice in China, even though I never saw it with Chinese food, and of course there was – “rough rice”; I was told it was for the poor. White rice, like white bread, being an indicator of one’s status, it matters not whether you are white or yellow.

White snow drifted around my house in Wisconsin so high that I could not get into my house when I arrived home from school for a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches and Campbell’s soup in my favorite flavors – Scotch Broth, Chicken Noodle, Cream of Mushroom. I remember white chickens running around the driveway in one of the Madison houses, Waukesha Street or Tompkins Drive. Then I remember they killed them, but I was not supposed to know. I don’t remember eating them.

For the first forty-five years of my life I lived amidst white walls. Then I left my first marriage and I lived with color. Turquoise, Placid Sea, Robin’s Egg Blue, Crimson, Pointed Fir, Lavender, Clementine, Peach, Hawthorne, Marrett Apple, Tuscan Yellow, Apricot.

Since the late 1980’s I have been a “person of color”. Who came up with this? Was it a Person of Color or a Person of No Color? How is a colored person different from a person of color? This new phrase, “people of color”, was considered an improvement, yet the entire population of those who do not fit into that category retain their status – the nameless default. Everyone seems to know who the Colorless People are. Who would want to be Colorless? White like white bread – no color, no texture, no flavor, no substance, no nutrition, no character, no trouble, just passes through the system and comes out the other end with no impact. And yet so much power. White is both no color and all colors. A phrase so ill fitting and untruthful. But did anybody ask?

For fifteen years in the middle of my life I refused to wear a skirt – no more men’s hands up my dress. I should have refused to take showers – no more hands reaching around the shower curtain. I should have refused to open my car window – no more hands reaching into my car window to get to my neck. I should have refused. But did anybody ask?

Yellow. We gathered by the river, at the foot of long rough granite blocks providing steps to the water’s edge. My brother walked quickly ahead of everyone else. He was the one who had scouted for this spot on the riverbank – diligent, conscientious, seeking just what would be the most fitting, the most respectful, to honor her, to think of our responsibility.

My brother had the dark blue box in his arms. He was waiting at the site, anticipating, so I picked up my feet, and before I could pause to take in the moment, he was opening the box and scooping the ashes with his hand and tossing them into the water. The water looked dark brown and was hardly moving. I knew this river, always slow. I watched. The silence of everyone else watching behind us made me almost forget they were there. My brother offered the box to me, and I threw handfuls of the heavy dusty matter into the water. They are not really ashes. They are bone fragments and granules. It is not really “remains” either. So much more remains than a mere bag of powder. Fine light grey dust stuck to my hands like plaster. I patted my hands on my dark green coat… Mother. Not Mom (how she usually signed her notes and letters), or Ma, Mum, Mama, or Mommy, but “Mother” – factual, documentary, genealogical, formal.

Dear Lillian and Tishan,
I have decided to end my life today…

Continuing, I scooped and tossed, changing the arc of my arm so the ashes would spread out in the toss – scatter, as people say. With each toss I watched the powder, both coarse and fine, seeking some depth. At the water’s edge it was only a few inches to the muddy riverbed. I squatted. How does one do this? Are we trying to create meaning out of cold substance? We would never know if they just gave us six pounds of anyone’s remains. They picked up other bodies in Cambridge that night. They slide many boxes into the crematorium in a daily routine.

The paleness of the ashes reveals the true color of the water, and it is yellow. A beautiful yellow, not the kind of yellow the Decider was thinking of surely when he wrote “yellow”. And not the color of my skin, or Mother’s skin, or Dad’s skin, or the skin of anyone in my family, or my extended family, or in all of China for that matter. More like the yellow of the moon cakes that my father celebrated. In August he would come home with a box, square and tied with thin string, and open it up to reveal the beautiful embossed designs and scalloped edges of four moon cakes, each held in its quadrant by the cardboard sides of the cake box. The egg glaze made them shiny and golden, a thin crust tightly shaped around the dark bean paste center (my favorite), or the more tawny lotus seed filling, or the one that had the surprise duck egg yolk in the middle. So dense we would cut them into small wedges and share each variety. They were like Chinese furniture – carved, at the same time delicate and squarely solid.

I believe this is the time for me to quit…So, goodbye. I wish you all a healthy and happy future.
I wish to be cremated and the ashes spread into the Charles River, as Cambridge has played a large role in our family. I would like for this to be done when the schools are out and everyone is home.

Did she imagine us all mourning? Who is “everyone”? Why nowhere does she address her three grandchildren, who would learn of her suicide, then come home four months later, when we all, being good children and grandchildren who loved her, would honor her request. How did she imagine this scene that she requested we enact? Must she not have imagined the kids when they found out, and then when they scattered her ashes? Did she imagine her grandchildren, in each of whom she put years of expectation and love, interest in their lives, and relief that they were all okay and good – did she imagine each of them, in their vivid personalities and sensitivities, receiving this news? Who did she imagine would provide some explanation that would help them make sense of the missing final chapter? When her friend had said to her one day, so casually, “Oh, Charlotte, you can’t commit suicide, you have a responsibility to your children and the people who love you!” Mother had replied quickly and definitively, “No, I don’t.”

At this modest spot some eighty miles down river, the water that begins to soak up my mother’s remains is not brown or green the way it looks driving alongside it, but a beautiful earthy yellow. We wanted the River to take her down to the ocean. But the water seems not to be going downstream. It is swirling slowly upstream and around in a circle, wandering, as we might wander when we do not want merely to progress toward a destination and might take off left or right, or backtrack, and then rejoin. My brother told me several days later that he went back to the spot the next day to make sure the River had carried “it” away, and he said, reassured, that the water in that area was all clear. So good, Mother was not just lingering around in the mucky River’s edge.

Now her six pounds of dust are gone, and she no longer walks through the Square, where I might catch a two-block distant glimpse of her and know I do not want to approach, where I have more than once been frozen in my tracks at the site of her, taking in the sadness of disconnected love, the longing for connected love, the witnessing of Yes, there is my mother walking across the street and she does not see that I see her and I do not know when she lay the first course of stones and began building her fortress.

©2012 Lillian Hsu