Once upon a time, in the kindergarten I was to attend, a girl who loved to draw died. I would learn of her after my markers began disappearing from their yellow plastic box, through the stories my classmates told. I do not believe in ghosts, and thought my classmates superstitious or playful, but to date I cannot explain how these markers kept disappearing even when I held the box closed. Eventually, I lost all my markers. Only a handful, and only the ugliest colors, returned to me, reappearing in trash bins and girls’ toilets. I remember spending afternoons at school long after class ended, the autumn sun pulling my shadow long as I hunched over a toilet bowl, stuffing it with toilet paper so I could flood the marker out without touching the water.
This story may or may not be true; I have always had a tenuous relationship with reality. In kindergarten, chronic sickness kept me fever-mad, and sleepless delirium permitted dreams to remold my memory; perhaps that is why when I think of family, I think about a man I’ve never known.
When my father was nine, my grandfather, who was dauntless, died. My father tells me stories of him with a smile that is never entirely happy, with motions like the tearing open of an old wound. I do not believe in ghosts, but I try to handle his memories with care because I know how malleable memory can be. I scheduled weeks in advance to record an interview with him, and even then the request felt insensitive. How do you cram an entire life into an one hour interview, especially when that life had been your father’s?
We conducted the interview remotely, in my Connecticut dorm and our Kentucky home, two points in space tethered together by an Internet connection. As my mother set up Skype, I set aside 20 minutes to download a video call recording program so my father need never do this interview again.
I no longer remember how he appeared during our call, but I can imagine him sitting in the rotating desk chair with that familiar wrinkled cushion, hunched over his joined hands. The top edge of a yellow legal pad appeared in the bottom of the video frame as he spoke; he had compressed his father into three bullet points. These sentence fragments reappear in English on my own notepad, 850 miles away, describing my grandfather as dauntless, loving and curious. Dauntless, for he outlived the short lives of Red Army rebels, ate the leather off his belt to survive the Gobi Desert and fooled a dozen bandits in a shootout where he held a single gun. Loving, for he never beat and always spoiled his children, especially my father, the youngest, whose homework assignments he paid my aunts and uncles to complete. Curious, for he was selected for covert operations because of his intellect. He learned to memorize secret documents by sight, but regretted all his life never learning to read.
These scrawled anecdotes covered two pages of the notebook. Now, I reread the bullet points after our interview and experience the ugly thought that they remind me of the stories my classmates told, the stories that may or may not be true. At the end of the interview, my father admitted that what he tells of Grandfather are not only the decades-old remnants of his own memories, but also stories he has spent 40 years telling and retelling to himself, forming a mélange of dreams with reality. He has never told them to anyone else, my father said, with that smile which is never entirely happy, as he described the act of storytelling with a gesture like the tearing open of an old wound. I remember the dread I experienced while hunched over the girl’s toilet, when all I had lost were markers, and I think of my father hunched over his hands, with that yellow legal pad which held all that remained of his father. I prepared to record the interview, I realize, because I fear to prod. That video recording permits that I never again ask this of my father.
Besides, I have always had a tenuous relationship with reality. Before the interview, I thought that my grandfather disappeared on a mission, one of the covert “operations” on which he used to vanish for months at a time. My father often spoke of afternoons he spent waiting, sitting on the front porch playing marbles or completing homework, believing that his father would soon return. “I was too young to understand death,” my father would say, “so every day I waited for your grandfather to come home.” At this, he would gesture, always with his left hand. I would imagine him sitting on wooden steps, pointing to the path approaching his porch from the left — a path only he could see because it no longer existed except in memory.
My grandfather had died of liver failure. My father had been waiting for him to return from a medical, not a military, operation. I had not known. The notes I took during the interview are in Chinese, my parents’ first language, though I have the Chinese writing skill of a fifth grader. I transcribed the characters in phonetic sounds, with English letters, to keep up with the pace of my father’s speech. Now, less than an hour later, I’m having trouble associating the letters with the characters. And our family language leans so heavily on unspoken gesture; I remember watching Father make certain movements, thinking, “Thank God I have this on video.” With just my written notes, I can’t remember what the gestures were. I couldn’t come up with words fast enough to match the gestures. How can I remember without words?
But how could I forget? My father would await his father’s return until long after he came to understand death, until he woke staring not at the exposed wooden rafters of his childhood home, but at the tin roof of the military academy where he would inherit Grandfather’s profession. He was 18 when he had this dream for the last time. If my father has 18 years’ worth of dreams from only eight years with his father, then how much more will I dream — how much more will I miss — when he’s gone?
How much have I missed already?
I open my computer and look for the video: on my desktop, in my documents, in the downloads on the computer. There are four small files, each no longer than five minutes; they are just the video tests I used to verify that my program worked. Nothing else. A red record button blinks above the Skype window, waiting to be pressed. I never started recording.
By the time I realize I’m still staring outside my window into the courtyard, it’s evening. I tell myself I can do this again, at home in Kentucky this time. I can borrow my friends’ camera tripod and audio equipment; have questions drafted; do this again, but even better this time. My father lives. It will hurt him, yes, but I know he will not refuse me this. He has already completed the labor of remembering, compressing and flattening his father.
I don’t know how long I stared at my dorm’s whitewashed ceiling before falling asleep, thinking of a story my father told about his military academy with the tin-roofed bunkers. Before my father left the school and went to war, he had interviewed his own father’s former comrade — unlike me, of course, he could not interview his father in the flesh. The old soldier gave my father advice, the particular wording of which would change every time Father retold the story, except for this phrase: “War is the compression of space and time.” From war, the older man explained, one could learn in a week what civilian life took a whole year to teach.
I am my father’s daughter, and, like war, writing necessitates violence. When I hunch over my desk, I dread that the ugliness of my handwriting betrays the ugliness of its actions — because I cannot help but cut some stories short, because every word I write is an erasure of all the others which could have filled that space. Three lives that have spanned two languages, two cities, half the world and one whole century hold more stories than can fit on paper. But my father says that when I think this way, I should remember that I, too, came close to not existing — he had not met my mother yet when, in 1979, a bullet flew less than one foot above his head. I bow my head to the weight of heritage. Sometimes, with the smile that is not entirely happy, my father tells me that Grandfather would have been proud.
I do not believe in ghosts, but I cannot deny my memory of those markers disappearing from the box in my hands, and that I am haunted by the stories my father tells of a man I will never know.