Category Archives: Family ghosts

Family Photos

This week, my mother sent me a poem. She didn’t write it herself and I don’t know who did. Like most of Mom’s emails to me, she forwarded something a friend had sent to her. Usually Mom sends photos, recipes, cleaning tips and YouTube films about China.

Last weekend, I was looking at old family photos. All of them came from an album my maternal grandfather, my wàigōng (外公), once owned. Call it a moment of weakness when cheesy poem meets childhood photos to inspire this sentimental journey.

montebello

A little house with two bedrooms,
One bathroom and one car on the street
A mower that you had to push
To make the grass look neat.

Photo Mike & me
Mike & me, January 1964. From Waigong’s photo album

Every New Year, my parents took a photo of us kids standing at the front door. It was a way to mark the passage of time but also to show their pride in owning their own home. Here’s the first in this series of photos, taken when I was 3 and my brother Michael almost 2. Baby Philip must have been lying in a crib indoors.

For a long time, our playground was across the street. I’m not talking about swings or a sand box. This was a long stretch of undeveloped land that was our paradise. There was a hill just big enough to slide down in cardboard boxes. There was an area we called the swamp with tall reeds and frogs. We built forts, dug caves and fought many a battle. We stayed outdoors and played until it got dark and it was time to come home for dinner.

kitchen talk

In the kitchen on the wall
We only had one phone,
And no need for recording things,
Someone was always home.

Our phone hung on the wall next to the garage door. The cord was so long that it was easy to take the receiver into the garage for those super-secret teenage conversations.

Family photo
Dad’s birthday 1973. From Waigong’s photo album

But the most important item in our kitchen was the dining room table. That’s where I heard all those stories my father told of Old Shanghai. It’s where we celebrated birthdays. My mother wrote out her lesson plans on that table. You can see the folding chairs that did service as our dining room set, together with the TV tray in the corner.

the boob tube

We only had one TV set
And channels maybe two,
But always there was one of them
With something worth the view

Body bags coming back from Vietnam, Nixon in China and the Watergate hearings: those were the things my father watched on the evening news. On Saturday mornings while our parents slept in, my brothers and I gorged on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show and Looney Tunes. For the rest of the week, our TV consumption was strictly rationed. One program an evening: Star Trek, Gilligan’s Island and The Mod Squad.

Mom, Mike, Phil and me
New Year’s Day 1967. From Waigong’s photo album

The rest of the time, my brothers and I had to do our homework, practice piano and go to bed on time. We rarely hung around in the living room, which was exclusively for company and special photos like this one on New Year’s Day with Mom and her 3 kids.

leaving home

The rest of this poem gets pretty maudlin. Talking about the good old days when the milkman still delivered and your family doctor was a friend. When life was slow but good.

Slow was what I hated about growing up. Every day seemed to last forever and I couldn’t get away from home fast enough. I left Montebello for the University of California at Irvine in 1977. Irvine is an hour’s drive south of Montebello and it was the farthest my parents were willing to let me go at the tender age of 17.

Photo Mom & me 1985
Mom & me in Washington DC 1985. From Waigong’s photo album

From Irvine, I went back east to Georgetown Law School in Washington, DC and ended up staying there for my first job as an attorney. One of the last family photos in Wàigōng’s album was taken at the law firm in 1985. The note on the back of the photo proclaims this to be

Part of Karen’s private office.

Photo of Waigong
Waigong at Taroko Gorge, date unknown. From his own photos.

Was Wàigōng impressed? I don’t know. We visited him only once for the summer in 1969. After our visit, Mom continued to send him photos of us and he continued to paste them into the photo album that I inherited last year.

Wàigōng never came to the US to visit us. As far as I know, he never left Taiwan once he settled there in 1949. Here he is in one of the rare photos of himself. I’m pretty sure he’s striding across the bridge at Taroko Gorge.

nostalgia

My parents left the Montebello house in 1988, the same year that I moved to Amsterdam. They still live in Los Angeles County though the place has changed in ways I find shocking.

My brothers and I were once the only Chinese kids at our local grammar school. Now my parents can see a Buddhist monastery from their backyard. Mom and Dad used to have to drive all the way into Chinatown for their groceries and now my mother can choose from a dozen or more shops in her own neighborhood.

I’m not nostalgic for that past though I wish I had paid more attention. I was 10 years old the summer I met my wàigōng. I don’t recall any conversation with him, any moment that lingers in my mind when we connected in some way.

Was there a language barrier? The inscriptions my mother wrote on her photos were in English. Maybe Wàigōng could read English but was too embarrassed to speak it. Or, perhaps even more likely, he was simply not that interested in conversation with a 10 year old girl. After all, he had his own daughter for company after all those years.

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