Malia Kuo

Mémé lived in a squat green house, just off the one big road that looped around the circumference of the island. Masses of bougainvillea bloomed in bursting colors outside the window. At night, you could hear the geckos chirping from where they clutched to the pink, stucco kitchen walls, and in the morning, Mémé would play music from her old radio — always the same bright, sunny songs, interspersed with the rapid French of the station hosts. Over the course of the month that Mémé welcomed me into her home as my host grandmother, I heard these same songs so many times that they became almost like a soundtrack in the back of my mind, scoring the entirety of my stay in French Polynesia.

 In Mémé’s yard, there was a mysterious, small structure with cross-hatched white wood walls, a stone floor and a red roof. I asked her, once, what it was. “It’s my husband,” she told me. Her French had a characteristically Tahitian accent, slow and with rolled R’s. Her voice was like her: measured, soft and, when she stroked your hair, impossibly tender. “That’s my husband,” Mémé said, “who’s lying out there. This way he keeps me company.”

 She told me about him, one night, as we sat together after dinner in the dark kitchen that was lit by a single, golden lightbulb. How she had met him and had loved him — so much, in fact, that when he became too jealous of the flirtatious men in her office, she did as he asked and quit her job. She told me about how he had left the military early and came home because he was scared that she would run off with another man. He didn’t want her to be by herself. She told me about how they had lived together for a long time, in that green house on the small island. They’d had three children, all of whom were grown up now. Sometimes, she told me, they would go dancing together, and in those moments, she had felt happy.

Before he died and she built that red and white mausoleum in her yard, Mémé’s husband made her promise never to love again. “I don’t want to look down from heaven and see you with another man,” he’d told her. And so, even though it had been 22 years since his death, she still lived alone. She did not go out, she told me. She did not meet men. Her children wanted her to move on, but she stuck to her promise. “I don’t need anyone else,” she said.

They had been very happy — this she told me again and again, almost urgently. As she spoke, she would peer into my face intensely, as though worried what I might think of a person who would ask so much of someone he loved. He was a kind man, she tried to assure me. A good man. They had been so, so happy.

There was a black and white cat who would come around Mémé’s house sometimes. She would feed him fish and milk and sometimes Milo, which I was confident shouldn’t be given to a feline. He was the only cat that she would tolerate. The host of small white kittens who I loved — like little waifs, how they hid under bushes — could only sniff their noses briefly before they were shooed off the porch with a broom. But this black and white cat, with his old and shifty green eyes, was always allowed to stay. He would watch us through the open door as we ate our dinner, and he would blink his narrowed eyes, as though jealous, as though he longed to be sitting there too.

Once, when I went out in the rainstorm to pull my T-shirts from the clothesline, I found that cat hiding from the downpour in the mausoleum. He was curled up near the plaque which bore Mémé’s husband’s name. I saw him sleeping there at night as well, or sometimes, he would lie there at midday, shading himself from the sun.

Sometimes, too, I would come home while Mémé was in town, only to find him inside the house. A quick glance at me, and he was already slipping out the window. He liked to come in, I suspect, when we were gone. I could see him in my mind’s eye, that black and white cat, snooping around the house. Sniffing at the sofa, sleeping on the pillows, screeching at the geckos on the walls.

I don’t really believe in ghosts. And yet, some part of me is convinced that I’ve met one. I even caught him once, that cat, prowling inside the house while I spied on him from outside, watching through the window. He was sitting there, staring up at the table in the living room upon which Mémé displayed so many photographs. He was checking, I am sure of it, making sure she still had that large framed portrait of him, in black and white, with its dark eyes and serious jaw — the one she polished so carefully and decorated with flowers, almost like it was a shrine.

Isabelle Qian |


Isabelle Qian covers Yale's graduate and professional schools. She is a sophomore in Pierson College and comes from Seattle, WA.