Tuesday, May 13, 2008

I'm writing this from a motel room in Amherst, NY, where I've come for my dad's memorial lecture by some guy from Harvard (title: "A History of Vasopressin-Induced Water Flow in Transporting Epithelia"--I have to attend but I'm bringing a book). I just got back from a so-so Indian dinner by myself in a strip mall, and after that I went for a drive to see our old digs.

I feel very tenderly toward suburban Buffalo now, as conflicted as I was growing up here. Nine years after my dad's death, and seven years after my mom, practically every street holds memories. I feel like I'm surrounded by ghosts: images of my mom and dad and brother John (who died at 25), memories of growing up here, and even my kids as babies and little ones are here. I parked the car near Mom's house and walked around the neighborhood. Everyone had those awful yellow pesticide signs on their weed-free lawns. Like Milwaukee, everyone was out, eager to take advantage of the 60s temperature.

When I look at Mom's and Dad's old house on Deer Ridge, I remember all those summers we drove up. I remember my mom ingratiating herself to her neighbor with the swimming pool so that our kids could swim over there. I remember my dad in his dementia letting himself into the house next door and sitting down to watch the Buffalo Bills. I actually walked up to my parents' house and rang the bell. The house was dark and I suspected no one was home, which was why I had the courage to go up and ring. From inside a dog barked, but no one answered. Knowing no one was home, I felt a little freer to walk around the house, peek into the back yard, etc. So many stories and memories flooded back. One year we had a clown birthday party for Meiko in the back yard. My mom met her at some church meeting or something, an older white lady, who it turned out did clowning on the side.

I drove up to the middle school and high school, then to the house on Robinhill where we grew up. I tried to find my best friends' houses but I could not recognize them. All the old people have moved out, and it's a whole new slew of young families in these houses. The houses have been re-sided and remodeled beyond recognition.

I sort of understand why people stay in Shorewood for so long and even come back. Especially when your loved ones pass away, geography takes on a resonance that is almost unbearably tender. Who would think those subdivisions could elicit real emotion even in me?

Also, at our last two salons, we've been discussing race, and I'm having all these flashbacks about my racial coming-of-age, so to speak, when we moved to Buffalo and became minorities for the first time. There's Jane L's house, the only other Asian girl at Heim Middle, whose mother, it was rumored, was a Jehovah's witness and crazy. There's Linda W's house, where I went for the birthday party and gave her a green rubber statue of a Chinaman with the caption, "I rov you rots and rots." Which reminds me of the joke Jie-L told in yoga class with the cross-country team: How do Chinese people name their kids? They throw silverware at a wall and name their kid after whatever sound it makes. How easily we take on the attitudes of the dominant culture, or is it a pretense in order to protect ourselves?

What's weird about Buffalo is that now it seems that the suburbs have become Buffalo, and the city itself is a relic. Amherst, Williamsville, Getzville, and Tonawanda ARE Buffalo now. Everyone lives out here. Which is a shame because it's a completely car-dependent culture, and the landscape chemically-dependent. There are tons of malls with gigantic, sprawling, largely empty parking lots. On the positive side, it's become quite racially diverse. Far more people of color everywhere than I remember growing up.

I went to the cemetery today where we have 4 family graves: my brother John, mom and dad, and Caleb, who was my brother's stillborn son. It was maybe the first time I've visited the graves alone, and it took me a little while to find them. There was only 1 other person at the cemetery and I was trying to give her space, but it turned out that she was visiting and tending the grave immediately adjacent our family plot. It seemed a bit intrusive and oddly coincidental to be right next to her as she was weeding and trimming the hedges, so I took a little walk around the cemetery (which also had just been sprayed). I saw and heard robins and red-winged blackbirds, and many other birds I don't know yet. The trees have tiny little leaves--picture little 2-inch oak leaves, so it was relatively easy to spot the birds. After the other visitor left, I sat on John's stone, sang songs, and left stones on each grave, a Jewish tradition, I'm told. It was wonderful to just hang out at the cemetery. Whenever I'm there with others we only stay a few minutes. This time I was able to just be there, feel, remember, and pray.

Tomorrow I see my uncle Waun-ki and brother Robert and go to the university for the festivities.

Basking in the shadows of our former selves,
pkh

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