They pull me close, their hands warm on my shoulders, breaths sour like morning. They kiss my face, my hair, with those curious nose-sniffs that Vietnamese substitute for mouth-to-cheek contact. I feel the intimacy of my skin in their nostrils and wonder what they smell from me. Can they catch the spicy mustard of the Cuban I ate in the airport or the gust of citrusy perfume I walk into every morning? Or do they just smell themselves, stewed meat and clean Irish Spring soap, their aromas stronger and more pressing than my own? They call me “gold nugget” over and over again, so often that I settle in—into their arms, their homes, their very hearts—and agree that I am, indeed, a precious child.
I cooperate in this charade of time, willing to pretend that I’m eight years old again, nestled into the arms of my grandparents, my mother, my sweet aunt. We’re all pretending, as we do for this week of every year, this week of reunion, of amnesia.
I listen to my grandfather talk about wars and trees, hear him repeat my words back to me—sometimes in French, sometimes in English—as if singing a duet. He’s repeating so that he can understand, or perhaps so he can be closer to me, at one with my words.
“Columbus,” he says, nodding, the word drawn and lugubrious in his mouth. And then later: “Master. Master of fine art.”
I never feel more important than when I am with him. He lost weight after my wedding, but he’s gained it back. He’s strong now, though more spotted than ever, a brown farm egg.
Here in my grandparents’ house, the rafters are so high that I have to squint when I look up. The north Georgia sunshine pours onto the carpet in front of us, even in the heart of winter, and we look toward it, a makeshift fireplace. At our feet, a little space heater blasts hot air on our ankles every few seconds. My grandmother’s foot wriggles and I can see her ankle bone jutting out, the part that got stuck in a bike spoke when she was a young girl. It used to fill me with disgust, that strange misplaced bone, but now it makes me curious, and, of course, deeply sad.
“Did you miss me?” she asks. She’s playing coquettish games with me. “You’ve got friends and a husband and new in-laws. You can’t miss your old, crazy grandmother.”
She is old, and quite possibly crazy, which is why I kiss her, Vietnamese-style, her cheeks so soft and thin on my nose that I tear up. I almost cry. How can someone be so loved, yet so forgotten all the other months of the year? I grasp her hand, rub my thumbs over the raised veins. Her fragility makes me forget the smacks over the head, the crone-like dig of her fingernails in my arm. I forget, and she forgets. We do this for ourselves, though we each say we’re doing it for the other.
A couple of hours before dinner, my aunt and my mother get up to cook. I watch, reaching across the counter to pick up bits of meat and bread that they leave out for me. The meat is slippery on my tongue, hot from the fryer, and the taste stays with me long after I’ve eaten it.
My aunt is indulgent in her own stern way, her black hair like a mushroom, heavy, swooping around her pale face. When people say I look like her, I’m sure it’s a compliment. She shoves a plate of shrimp my way. “Eat more,” she orders. “You’re getting skinny.”
I pinch the love handles popping round and smooth out of my jeans and shake my head. But I take another boiled shrimp, eat all but the fanned tail, which I push around the plate like a tiny broom. I watch their hands flit through the meat and herbs and noodles, slicing, folding, pushing. Graceful, like origami.
My husband Dan is in the other room, watching the news with my grandparents, their silence pendulous but amiable. He thinks I’m spoiled, but our families are different. His is Midwestern to the core, chock-full of those good, dependable values I secretly envy. They love with full permissibility, but their hugs are quick, like moths alighting on exposed light bulbs.
In the evenings there are elaborate family dinners that span the length of two rectangular tables. Sometimes my grandparents serve prehistoric beef ribs, charred black on the outside, tasting of garlic and soy sauce, sinewy in my teeth. There’s always rice and noodles, thin cellophane nests that glisten with oil and fish sauce, washed down with Coke (never diet and never Pepsi) and toxic-orange Crush. Inexplicably, my aunt makes a Jell-O mold, spread thick with cream cheese frosting.
“Your favorite,” she reminds me, though I’ve never expressed an affinity for Jell-O of any kind.
I eat everything in front of me, my plate filling from all sides, my grandfather dropping meat over one arm, my mother saving the choice pieces of fish for me. They feed me like a bird, depositing pockets of goodness in front of me. Eat! They’re proud that I eat so well.
My husband smiles. He’s amused by the affection I smugly receive. “You’re a baby here,” he teases.
I nod, my mouth full. Elsewhere, I am rigid and reserved, my exterior unyielding. People tell me I come off as hostile. And maybe I am hostile. I crave my family’s unabashed love so much that I flinch from anything else, put off by the strangeness of being with others. I think this is what survival means, this premature severing of connections. Nothing will ever be as good as the first love I’ve received, that most passionate and abiding love of my own kin.
Yet for most of the year, I avoid coming home to Snellville. I call only on Sundays, timing my phone calls so that they end before ten minutes—the approximate length of a ride to the grocery store. I remember birthdays occasionally, but rarely mark death anniversaries the way my mother does. I’m only a seasonal child.
The Jell-O sloshes back and forth on my plate. When I lick the cream cheese icing, I think of the Midwest, a place in which I’ve never eaten Jell-O. How has it followed me here, to Georgia, to this wide, weightless home of my grandparents? I ask the same thing when I’m in Columbus, eating a bowl of steaming pho from a local Vietnamese restaurant. How has it followed me here?
Someone hands me a glass of Vietnamese coffee, strong and weighed down by goopy condensed milk. I curl my tongue into it at first, lapping like a cat, but then I set the glass down, shake my head. I never remember it being this sweet.
After everyone’s gone to bed my mother teaches me how to make rice porridge. She measures out a cup of rice and then pours cold water into the pot. “About here,” she says, waving at the surface of the water.
That’s how she gives direction, how they all give direction, as if most of this is bone-intuition anyway. I demand exactitude: ounces and tablespoons, please. Tell me what to do, I plead. They laugh, kiss my cheeks. You’ll know, they say.
“Now you leave it on the stove for an hour, maybe two. You can check on it. Make sure it doesn’t burn.”
We stare into this pot, waves of steam rising in our faces. It smells starchy and clean. I want to take a bath in the porridge. The bubbles gurgle, making tiny sand crab pockets in the rice.
My mother tells me all about rice porridge. It’s simple and hearty, she says. Peasant food. The stuff you were born into. It begins with rice, a splash of water, and then it becomes pillowy, decadent. Something unbelievable. You add the condiments—pork shredded so thinly it becomes savory floss, pickled radishes, an egg brined in a canister of salt—and it’s a meal.
“Just like that?” I ask.
She nods distractedly, stirring. Clumps of softened rice grains stick to her spoon. We lean into one another, staring closer still at the pot, the answer, the occasion and destination of this night.
When the porridge is done, she offers it to me in a shallow dish. She drops half of a caramel-colored hard-boiled egg into the bowl. I eat though I’m not hungry, and she watches. The only sound in the room is that of my spoon hitting the sides of the bowl, scooping bits of porridge and egg. I taste heat and salt. A feeling a hair’s breadth away from satisfaction settles between us.
They discuss death here. It’s not morbid or wheedling, the way my husband’s grandmother talks about it. My family talks about it dreamily, as a meeting place beyond the backyard. My grandfather thinks about eternal fruit trees, warm weather on his old spine grown divinely strong again.
“I’ll be with your great-grandmother,” my grandmother sighs.
I’m angry, unyielding. I’m not ready for them to talk this way. I stamp my feet, leave the room. It’s a tantrum I can’t feel silly about having.
I kneel in front of the shrines nearly every day I’m at my grandparents’, murmuring words of prayer in front of black-and-white photographs of solemn, wise-looking ancestors who, in the photos, are just barely older than me. I ask why no one has photos of themselves in old age, and my grandmother shrugs. I think it’s the same reason why I don’t bring my camera on this trip, why I never attempt to take photos of my grandparents. As if the act of marking for posterity will bring death about more swiftly.
At my grandparents’, I become a believer of lore again. I imagine rings of protective Buddhas surrounding me at night, their fat legs crossed, eyes cast benevolently on my sleeping form. I’m easily reassured by incense and icons. I believe that death is not an ending. In another life, another city, I consider myself completely atheistic. Here, things become possible again.
A black crow passes in front of a window, and I know it means something.
Before I leave, my grandfather hands me a Ziplock bag with two photos: one of himself as a youth, and one of my grandmother and him shortly after their wedding. They are so beautiful in the photographs, I don’t believe it is them. These can’t be my grandparents. My grandmother looks like a starlet, with wide, kohl-rimmed eyes and a dimpled mouth. My grandfather is skinny, so young, but already stern, his mouth set like a line of grout in a brick wall.
“For when we’re not here,” my grandfather says.
I know what he means without him having to say it. I’m touched and angry all over again. These are my constant emotions throughout my stay. I love my family so deeply that I’m often ashamed of myself for it.
I take the photos and slip them into a book in my suitcase. I don’t want to look at them anymore. Instead, I look at my grandparents as they are now, wrinkled and hunched, but real, and in color. I put a hand on each of their knees. I don’t care for those beautiful phantom people at all.
Dan and I are set to leave early in the morning, but Snellville has gotten its first hit of snow in a century, and no one knows what to do. Outside, the fuzzy layer of ice takes on that bunched, crispy quality, like colorless Panko crumbs.
At 5:00 a.m. my mother knocks loudly on our door. I bump into Dan upon waking. I’m surprised to see him there. My dreams have been about childhood: road trips sprawled on the floor of minivans and sweet cinnamon toast, oozy-hot on the tongue. The quick scatter of cockroaches across our yellow linoleum floor. I have no husband in my dreams, of course.
I touch his closed eyelids and settle back into the present, and into him. Soon, we go downstairs to drink one last cup of coffee, watching the news reports about snowstorms in the Northeast. On television, people huddle together in airports, their holidays abbreviated by the unfortunate weather. Cars slip on broad roads, curvy patterns winding behind them.
“Black ice,” my grandfather says. “Can’t see it, but it’s there.”
In a flash, the trip is over, and my husband and I are going back to Ohio—to more snow, more ice, the cold no longer an anomalous threat, but a sacrosanct fact. We shroud ourselves in coats and long scarves, pull on five-pound winter boots.
“I don’t know how you can live that way,” my mother says, shivering.
I want to tell her that you get used to it, that you just duck your head and walk forth. Life goes on, and all that, even in bad weather. But I think of this home, this family, that is still so frozen and so immobile—planted in the South for these last two decades, though they hate it so thoroughly—and I ask myself: Is leaving any kind of progress, if it is circular in nature, if it all leads back to the same place?
Once, I ran away from my grandparents’ home, which at the time was the only home I knew. I was eight, and I’m sure I had read of some daring child doing the same thing in one of my novels. I didn’t pack a thing, so confident was I in the world and its ability to care for me. I slipped out the front door and only got as far as the mailbox.
A group of neighborhood kids sat in a circle in the yard across from ours, slapping cards on the hot grass. They looked up when they saw me, but there wasn’t a flash of recognition in their eyes, though my family had already lived there for nearly a year. Those kids didn’t know me. In an instant, I felt sure that they would never understand why I talked to myself in the shower or why I loved to pick boiled crabs apart with my fingers or why I kept a book in every room of the house, just in case.
They turned back to their circle, and I turned back to my grandparents’ house. It was the first of my many attempts to disconnect. I can only conclude that as much as my turning back toward home represents a failure, it is, in almost every respect, a step forward. We return to the site of our earliest traumas and joys, because therein lies the kernel of our truest selves. We are at all times children and adults, stunted creatures swerving aimlessly on roads of our own making.