Sweet, tangy, fruit fit for the gods are words used to describe the tone and mood of the glorious persimmon. The following story, entitled “Sweet Persimmons,” excerpted from my guidebook, TellTale Souls Writing the Mother Memoir: How to Tap Memory and Write Your Story Capturing Character & Spirit, sets the tone and mood of memoir in a comparably delightful manner. The story begins on page 113 of Act Three in the section entitled “Using Descriptive Imagery.”
You can easily find other stories I’ve posted from the book by searching “Bio-Vignette No.”
TellTale Soul Helena uses dialog in a compelling way, allowing her characters to interact expressively, with feeling and emotion, infusing energy into her delicious story. Notice how she conveys the mood, the overall feeling of her story, by the tone she set through the various voices of those present.
I rang the doorbell and waited, my thoughts going back so many years to the little girl I was, eagerly awaiting the crack of dawn so I could go to the beach outing with my father and mother—one time per year, always on September first. The day had finally arrived. I hadn’t slept a wink the night before and I could not wait any longer. The key on the inside clicked, the chain on the top slid away from its slot, the door swung open, pulling me back into the present moment. There, meeting my eager glance, was the smiling face of my aging mother. “Daughter, you are home at last!” she quietly exclaimed.
In all my memories of my mother, she does not smile often; but when she does, it is like watching the peony bloom in my garden. Every intricate petal unfolded, revealing the golden yellow heart, sweet with nectar. When my mother does not smile, her brow knits tightly together in deep furrows. The corners of her mouth droop, as if dragged down by weights. She looks tired, sad and all alone. This image of her haunts me when I am far away, and, with it, the memories of the hardships in her life as wife, mother, and woman. I am also haunted by her laughter, which was even less frequent than her smiles. Her laughter has always lit up my heart like fireworks in the night sky or birthday presents. I wish my mother would laugh more often.
My mother has seen a lot of history-in-the-making in her lifetime. I have often wondered how different my mother’s life—and my life, too—would have been had she not gone through those difficult times.
Six years into the new Republic of China in 1911—following the collapse of the Manchu Dynasty, the last to rule China—in the tiny British outpost on the southeastern edge of China on an island called Hong Kong a baby girl was born. This baby was my mother, the forth daughter borne by my grandmother. My grandmother was hoping for a son, no doubt, and her husband said, “Let us name her ‘Precious Hope,’ and maybe we will have a son next time.” Soon enough, the fifth child arrived, a boy in glory when he was born, and “Glory” became his name.
My mother’s mother was illiterate—illiteracy was considered a womanly virtue at that time—and very beautiful, which was nearly a detriment to her. A wealthy merchant, admiring her looks, wanted her as his second wife. My mother’s mother would become no such thing and chose instead to be the one and only wife of a man with little money. My mother inherited this independence of spirit, for she, too, chose her own life companion when she was ripe for marriage.
The new republic into which my mother was born brought other new values and freedoms as well. My mother banished the old virtue of female illiteracy to the wind and, as if quenching her thirst with cool sparkling water on a hot summer day, she went through her education from elementary to secondary and on to college in one gulp. She became well-versed in the Chinese classics, skilled in poetry writing, and acquired a fine hand in calligraphy. I admired my mother’s literary knowledge greatly, like a child idolizing the classmate who played a fine hand of piano on stage in front of the entire school.
My mother’s career goal was to be a teacher, and she took a second job at home to be my teacher as soon as I, at three, became educable. She was a very strict teacher. She made me memorize awful passages with archaic words, which held no meaning for me. “These are poems of the Ninth Century Tang Dynasty, and there are three hundred of them that I want you to recite,” she said. “Now hold the brush upright and make this downstroke as straight and strong as a bamboo branch.” She would strike a blow to my hand or head if I made a wrong move. I became her obedient disciple, at times glad to bask in her attention, other times grudgingly, with tears in my eyes, when she hurt my pride or my hide.
Now I laid down my luggage in my mother’s apartment and felt back-to-the-womb safety and comfort in her presence, rendering my adult sense of independence obsolete on this homecoming visit. I surrendered to her nurturing, which comes mostly in the form of food. “Come to the table,” she beckoned, “I have made your favorite dish.” I took a bite of the delicately flavored minced pork with eggs and crab. It tasted every bit like she used to make it. “But where is the crab?” I asked. My mother laughed her heart-lifting laugh. It suddenly dawned on me that she was pulling an old trick on me. It happened one day long ago that my mother, while making that dish, left out the crab but kept in the garlic, which was what distinguished the dish from its ordinary version made without the crab or the garlic, and we fell for it. We all laughed, I most heartily, second only to my mother’s laughter which rang across the room, bounced against the wall and back, like flying boomerang.
Tomorrow she would take me to a Thai buffet; the day after to a dim sum lunch with high tea at the Mandarin hotel. My mother had already worked out each and every meal I was going to eat during my two-week visit with her. I watched myself in my mind’s mirror grow ten pounds heavier, bulging in all the wrong places.
But first, she wanted to know if I would accompany her to the market in the morning, thinking I might want to share in her passion. Going to the market is a ritual that follows well mapped-out plans. First she would tour all the open-air vegetable stalls, noting and comparing prices, then on to the covered market to scrutinize the fish and the meat. Only on the second round would she make her purchases. I have often wondered, following her from stall to stall, how she could possibly tell minute differences in quality or remember all those prices without having to jot them down. My mother loves food and she loves bargains. She is frugality personified. It is also her way to show one-upmanship. I remember an exchange between her and my father:
Mother: “How much are those grapes?”
Father: “How much do you think?”
Mother: “I wouldn’t pay more than 30 cents a bunch.”
Father: “Guess what? That was exactly how much I paid.”
Mother: “In fact, I saw some of even better quality than these yesterday, and they were only 25 cents a bunch!”
One-upmanship or not, my mother managed to keep her family with two young children alive during the war with the Japanese, while so many others died of starvation. Whatever was edible my mother gave to me, since I was her first-born, then to my sister, then to my father, and to herself last, if there was anything left.
She walked the many miles to the school where she taught, rather than spending the one-penny fare. She walked until holes appeared in the soles of her only pair of shoes. My mother had healthy, rounded cheeks when she was a young girl, but by the war’s end she was reduced to mere bones and skin. Her eyes had developed a sad, haunted look, and her body was riddled with illness brought on by years of malnutrition.
It was ten years before she felt strong enough to bear more children. Then my mother had two more daughters and, just like her mother before her, she finally had a son, whom she named simply “Joy.” At last her life was complete. Almost.
Years of deprivation and war had left our family quarters badly in need of repair. The crickety, long, dark wooden stairs up to the top floor where we lived haunted my mother’s every step. The roof leaked in many places and the termites nested. Worse than the water coming in were those termites when they decided to migrate; they rained down on us in droves in the stealth of darkness, putting an end to our sleep for the night. And we looked to Mother to save us from all this—my father was at work dawn till dark.
Left alone, my mother had to decide for us all. She would have to amass enough money for a new apartment with her limited resources and seven mouths to feed. She could not stand the thought of her family in danger—trapped under rubble should that old building collapse or engulfed by flames if the wooden structure caught fire. She had to look for a safe haven for her children. She worked toward that goal with feverish earnestness and haste. Our life was stripped to the barest necessities: meals with lots of beans and very little meat, no new clothes, no telephone or radio. We wore our school uniforms inside and outside school, living like ascetics in a cut-off world. I waited patiently, helping whenever I could.
The day came when my mother said to me, “There is an apartment in a newly built building that I am going to buy.” We all went to look at it. It was on the fifth floor—not the top, thank heaven—so no fear of leaky roof. The solid walls were fireproof concrete. Best of all were those modern amenities we had only dreamed of: a gas stove for cooking, modern flush toilets, shiny smooth hardwood floors. No more begging to use the neighbor’s telephone. We could have a radio to listen to sweet Doris Day or trembling Elvis Presley. How exciting it would be to make ice, mold gelatin, and prevent ice cream from melting! My mother would no longer have to labor for hours over the washboard to clean our clothes. And to top it all, there would be air-conditioning to stave off the oppressive summer heat and a television to watch all the movies we wanted. All in our own home?
Praise to our mother, who led us out of the darkness into the brave new Sputnik age! We shed our old life like a snake sheds its skin and slipped away without ever a glance back. It was our family’s Great Leap forward. And then, despite the hard times, she eventually put all of her children through college. How did she do it?
And now 35 years later it is June 1997, and I have only four more days to stay with her. Like a little girl, I entreated my mother to tell me the stories of long ago. She is a great storyteller, and over the years her skill has not diminished, but like a tumbling stone in the stream it becomes polished like a smooth round pebble. She has the ability to tell the same story again and again as though she has never told it before. And each time it was new to my ear. I begged my mother to write down all her stories. But I thought, without the voice behind them, they would be mere words on paper, still and without spirit, like exhausted butterflies at summer’s end.
May my mother’s heart stay forever young!
With my mother’s poems packed safely away in my luggage, I bade her farewell. “Promise to come back soon!” my mother said.
“I shall see you first in California this fall,” I reminded her.
“It is getting harder and harder for me to travel these days. Come back when the weather is cooler,” she insisted.
“The sweet persimmons will be in season in San Francisco in November, waiting for you!” I shouted before the elevator swallowed me, my mother’s words still ringing in my ears.
“My daughter, there will not be many more years for me to see you again. So come back soon!”
I will, Mother. I promise.
Although I don’t have Helena’s photo or personal remarks to share with you, her story was one of the first treasures in my collection. I admire her beautiful writing style, compassion, and depth of understanding. Her Mother Memoir is longer than most, because she felt every word of it was necessary to make the one story she wanted to write complete. I find it encompasses the passion and mindfulness crafted through deft character portrayals and just the right mix of humorous and poignant dialogue that TellTale Souls seek.
Daughters and sons from 9 to 90 use The Story Woman’s TELLTALE SOULS METHOD to move memory into memoir in a uniquely creative way, “Keeping Spirits Alive.”
You can easily find the stories I’ve posted from the book by searching “Bio-Vignette No.”