BLONDIE / The day Lan came, you could still say whose family this was—Carnegie's and mine.
We had three children. Two beautiful Asian girls—or should I say Asian American—Wendy, age nine, and Lizzy, age fifteen, both adopted; and one bio boy, Bailey, age thirteen months. Carnegie's ancestry being Chinese, and mine European, Bailey was half half, as they say—or is there another term by now? With less mismatch in it—'half half' having always spoken to me more of socks than of our surprise child, come to warm the lap of our middle years.
Our family was, in any case, an improvisation. The new American family, our neighbor Mitchell once proclaimed, tottering drunk up our deck stairs. But for Carnegie and me, it was simply something we made. Something we chose.
His mother, Mama Wong, thought this unnatural.
The trouble with you people is not enough periods, she liked to say. You can say I think like Chinese, but I tell you. A child should grow up, say this is my mother, period. This is my father, period. Otherwise that family look like not real.
Always good about assigning blame, she blamed the family on me.
I know Blondie. Everything a nut do, she do too. She is not even a real nut, like her friend Gabriela. She is only try-to-be-nut.
To which my friend Gabriela would say: Janie. Your name is Janie, I can't believe you let Mama Wong call you Blondie all these years. And Carnegie too! That is like the definition of low self-esteem.
I tried to tell her that it was my choice—that I liked nicknames. I tried to tell her that she could think of Blondie as my married name, as if I'd changed my first name instead of my last. For that was the way I was—or thought I was, before Lan came. An open person. A flexible person. Had I not been voted Most Sympathetic to Others in high school?
CARNEGIE / Our very own Blondie had, in her day, held the Kleenex for the homecoming queen.
But, whatever. Gabriela minded the Blondie bit far more than she minded being called, herself, a nut. She being the first to admit that she had gone back to the earth two or three times, maybe more. Also that she had spent years finding herself without much progress.
BLONDIE / At least you have your family, Gabriela used to say, thumbing through the personals. She circled possibles in pink; her red hair looped out the back of her baseball cap.
At least I had my family.
I was forty-five when Gabriela last said that; Carnegie was thirty-nine. It was 1999. We lived in a nice town with good schools, outside of Boston—a town within easy driving distance, as we liked to say, of both city and ocean.
At least I had my family.
Every happy family has its innocence. I suppose, looking back, this was ours.
Back then, our bird feeder was the most popular in town. In the snow we could have a hundred birds or more. But squirrels came too sometimes, more and more squirrels as the years went on. I fixed a tin pie plate to the top of the pole from which the feeder hung; I greased the pole itself. Yet still the hungry birds huddled in the bushes, some days—too many days—twittering. Clumps of snow pitched themselves from the branches as the birds refined their positions. In contrast, the squirrels leapt at the feeder from the trees, often from two or three directions at once. They gyrated midair—hurtling, twisting, flailing—only to plummet, midflight, to the ground. It was only every so often that one would make it to the seed, tail twitching; but then how the feeder would shudder and swing! Seed flying in black sheets onto the white snow.
—Squirrels will triumph, said Carnegie, observing this. It's only natural.
But the seeds, surprisingly, sprouted in the spring—and wasn't that natural too? I had assumed the seeds sterile. They ought to have been sterile. One day I noticed in the grass, though, a rosetta of sunflower seedlings—each topped with a little leaf bow tie—which were almost immediately no longer seedlings; which were daily, miraculously, larger and larger—until there they loomed, modestly huge-headed, fantastic with a rightness I wanted to call beauty.
It was these that I saw, when I sat up in bed, the early fall day that Lan came to us. Our house was an old house, with enormously wide floorboards and, between them, correspondingly wide cracks. I toed one of these, and felt, for all our housekeeping, graininess. The children thumped hollering down the stairs; Carnegie called for reinforcements, meaning me. Still, for a half second more I enjoyed my flowers. In one way, they were all wrong—a sudden haphazard clump in the middle of the yard. And yet how I drank them in, through the window screen, and the sunlit fog—that awkward glory. So crowded; disorderly; addled. They looked as if they'd dropped their contact lenses, every one of them, and all at the same time. These were the homely, brown-faced kind of sunflowers—some twelve feet tall, single-stalked, scraggly-leaved. Their huge heads knocked into one another. How strange they were—that bird feeder still nestled among their knees, like something they might trip on. And yet how authentic, somehow. How blissfully undeterred; full of the triumph of having become, from the seed of themselves, themselves.
Would this Lan—her name was Lan, meaning 'orchid'—like them?
Back when I was a sophomore in college, I spent a summer in Hong Kong, studying Mandarin. A summer was not a long time. Still, I did learn, a little, about how the Chinese in general prized the cultured. The cultivated.
These sunflowers, meanwhile, were anything but.
Of course, Mainlanders were different than Hong Kongers. The younger generations were different than the older. The less educated were different than the more. Daoists were different. Lan herself could be different.
In this family, we do not generalize, my mother would say. In this family, we keep an open mind.
Still, in my heart of hearts, I wished that this Lan would never come to behold them at all. I wished not to have to explain their beauty.
Now I believed, please understand, in openness. In the importance of cultural exchange, especially what with globalization and whatnot. My family had always hosted exchange students. And whatever the circumstances under which this Lan came, she was, after all, a relative of Carnegie's. Family.
Yet if I could add a word to our language, it would be a word for the peace a grown woman feels on the days—the rare days—when she needs to consider no view but her own.
WENDY / Dad has the windshield wipers on but like no one can see on account of the fog. How can the plane even land, says Lizzy, but Dad says there are special instruments, no one has to be able to see anything.
—It's like jumping, he says, can't we land on the floor with our eyes closed?
—A plane doesn't have feet like ours, says Lizzy. That's reassuring but not true.
—Oh really, says Dad. And where did you learn that?
—Some things you know yourself if you're smart enough to realize it, she says.
—What's reassuring? I say.
—Oh, use your brain, says Lizzy.
—Ah-ah-ah-choo! says Bailey.
Baby Bailey is so little he still has this mirror in front of him in the car. Now he sneezes at the baby in the mirror again—ah-ah-ah-chooo!—and laughs and laughs, loving himself so much that he drools. Dad says he's like Narcissus making his own pool, but then doesn't tell us what that means. In the fullness of time you will get my jokes, he says. In the fullness of time.
—Maybe it will lift, Mom says, let's hope for the best.
—Maybe it will lift, says Lizzy, imitating her. Let's hope...
—Elizabeth Bailey Wong, says Dad. Stop now.
He twists his head clear around like an owl, practically, so we can see how his neck skin always wrinkles in a kind of spiral when he does that. Dad's parents were Chinese Chinese, like from China, so he has the same kind of skin as me and Lizzy, soft smooth like a hill of snow nobody's walked on, only kind of tea-colored in the summer, and creased like in a couple of places, it makes you realize that every time he turns around he does the exact same thing. Over and over. But he keeps on doing it anyway, just like Lizzy keeps on being Lizzy, if she didn't we'd probably all float up to the ceiling with happiness and bang our heads.
—Maybe it will lift, says Lizzy one more time, in her imitation-Mom voice, and then says, in her regular voice:—When I grow up will I also spout inanities out of nowhere?
—And what if we don't like her? says Lizzy. Can we send her back to China?
—Can we send her back to China, sighs Mom.
Lizzy is wearing a nose ring and earrings, and henna tattoos in the shape of snakes. Thank god the tattoos at least wash off and that short short blond hair will grow out too, Mom says, but of course not in front of Lizzy, because she completely knows what Lizzy will say back. Namely, Why shouldn't I bleach my hair, it's no different than you highlighting yours, and besides why shouldn't I be blond when my mother is blond?
So instead Mom just says things like how she doesn't like that phrase, sending people back to China. Because people say that even to people who speak perfect English and have been here a long time, she says, and how are you going to like it if people say that to you?
—They aren't going to say that to me, says Lizzy.
—We hope, says Mom.
She doesn't twist around like Dad to talk to us, she just looks in the mirror on the back side of the car visor. Mom is like the complete opposite of Dad. Dad is muscle-y. If you threw him in the ocean he would sink plunk to the bottom, while Mom would bob right up, Dad calls her za-za vavoomy. And she's like colorful. We can see her in the mirror, those blue blue eyes and that blond blond hair and those pink pink lips. It's the complete farm girl look, Lizzy says, that being where her family is from originally, on her mom's side anyway, a farm in Wisconsin where people were real and not phony. Of course, she herself grew up in Connecticut. Still who would've thought she'd end up in a place where people actually buy those black designer diaper bags? That's what she wants to know sometimes, I guess she always figured she'd kind of drift back to the farm someday.
But like here she is.
—We hope, says Mom. But even if they don't, in our family we don't talk about sending people back to China. Because some of the people who get told that aren't from China to begin with.
—Some of them are from New Jersey, says Dad.
—Some of them aren't even of Chinese origin, says Mom.
—You mean some of them are who-knows-what, says Lizzy. Right? Japanese, or Vietnamese.
—Or mixed-up soup du jour, like me. Right?
—You're too sensitive, says Lizzy.
Mom flips the visor back up, making that little light next to the mirror blink out. Which was the maybe brightest thing I've seen all day, I realize, that's how gray it is out.
—And how is it that the honky in the family gets to explain this? Mom asks the air.
Dad puts the windshield wipers on high even though it isn't really raining.
—You are a superior being married to a quasi-Neanderthal who has yet to internalize the mores of the middle class, that's how, he says, turning to her. And when she doesn't turn back, he puts his eyebrows up and down, he has these big thick eyebrows like caterpillars. Then he says, quiet like:—I do beg your patience.
His cell phone rings, this week the tune is 'America the Beautiful,' which he says is for the benefit of Lizzy and me, he wants to make sure we know more than 'Afunga Alafia.' Not that he has anything against Swahili, Swahili is very nice, he says, a language spoken by many.
—Sounds great, he says now, into the phone, in his work voice. Just make sure the visuals are in order and that new one...exactly.
Bailey starts crying, so Lizzy plugs him up with a passy.
—Anyway, she's from a little town someplace between Shanghai and Beijing, Mom says. Which are cities in China.
—You told us that already, says Lizzy.
But Mom keeps going over the whole thing anyway like it's what to do in case of a fire or something.
—She's very nice and she's our relative, says Mom. She'll be here for a couple of years, helping with you guys, and we are all going to like her.
—That's reassuring but not necessarily true, says Lizzy.
—No one can say anything around here, says Dad.
—That's not true either, says Lizzy.
—So what is true? I say. If you're so smart.
LIZZY / —Parents are liars, I said. When they're worried they reassure you and they steal your Halloween candy if you're not careful.
—Nobody stole your Halloween candy, said Dad. If you're talking about last year.
—I was careful, I said.
WENDY / —Some was missing from mine, I say.
I look at the black back of Dad's head. Then at the blond back of Mom's.
—I don't even like Reese's peanut butter cups, says Dad.
—Oh, for heaven's sake, Carnegie, says Mom.
—Nor do I care for Kit Kats, he says.
—Honestly! says Mom. You are my fourth child.
—So sue me, sue me, what can you do me, sings Dad. I...a-a-ate...them.
His cell phone rings again. We can hear the words in our heads. Ohh beau-ti-ful for spacious...
—Will you put that thing on vibrate, says Mom. And when Dad doesn't answer:—Honey, please. Taking phone calls night and day is just not going to help. If there are going to be layoffs, there are going to be layoffs.
—Thank you for that consoling insight, says Dad. It will bring me almost as much solace on a sleepless night as knowing the Great Greenspan saw this coming.
His phone rings again. Ohh beau-ti-ful for...
—And may I just point out that I turned mine off even though I have that board meeting tomorrow, says Mom.
—Nobler than springtime, are you, sings Dad then. Sweeter than Kit Kats, are you...
But he shuts his phone off and hands it to Mom. She puts it in the glove compartment, closing it up with kind of a bang because it doesn't work that great. Of course it falls back open again anyway, so she hits it again, only more gently, which works. There's that click. Then she looks over her shoulder and says:—Your dad is a joker.
From the Hardcover edition.