Welcome to my family stories. They were misplaced during a website migration years ago, and now I've found them. There are 22 in all and I will do my best to post one each week. If you've ever read the Author's Notes at the back of my novels, you will know that family memoirs and stories about my ancestors often make their way into the books - so if any incidents in these stories feel familiar, it's probably because they've been used in a novel. But which one?
This is a story about my grandmother's ghost. It has not (yet) been used in a novel.
M y father always spoke of his mother with immense love and sadness. He once mentioned that out of all the possessions he had lost along the way, the greatest loss was a collection of letters from his mother. When he and my Uncle Ning were away at school in Hangzhou, their mother wrote every week to enquire about their health, and to give them news about the family. Even when she was fatally ill, she continued with her missives and forbade the rest of the family to worry the boys with news of her condition. She supported them with her letters, written in the precise and perfect brushstrokes so admired by her family.
My father said he didn’t realize it at the time, but her letters were carefully composed essays of guidance. They were meant to stand in for her own voice, for she knew she didn’t have long to live. She poured into those letters all her counsel, love, encouragement, and above all, the principles she expected them to live by.
After her death my father cherished the letters even more, for he didn’t even have a photograph of his mother with him. Those thin sheets of paper were his only keepsakes. He pasted her letters into the pages of a notebook, which he carried in a canvas bag with his textbooks. He would read and re-read the letters, hearing his mother’s voice speaking the words.
It was during his days as a refugee student that the letters were lost. My father was attending the University of Nanjing when China and Japan went to war. His university, along with dozens of others, were ordered to flee to safety in the interior of China. Carrying their belongings and school supplies on their backs, the campus evacuated.
One day my father noticed the notebook containing his mother’s letters was missing from his knapsack. Textbooks were in short supply and shared around by all the students. He asked a classmate who had recently borrowed his books if he remembered seeing the notebook. Not only did the classmate remember the notebook, he told my father that he had thrown it away.
Since he didn’t have real glue, my father had used a homemade rice paste to stick the letters into the notebook. The paste attracted weevils, and the classmate, seeing that many of the pages were already damaged and fearful the weevils would move on to consume the precious textbooks, decided he would do my father a favor and throw away the contaminated notebook. Since the school had now traveled on to another town and it was too dangerous to turn back, my father couldn’t recover the notebook. Thus he lost his last words from his beloved mother.
During the war, my father couldn’t be sure whether his letters reached Pinghu or whether his family had any way of knowing where the university would move to next. So it wasn’t until the school had settled into their wartime campus in Guangzhou province that he was able to send letters and receive replies from his father and grandmother. From one letter he found that his father had re-married. A later one informed him that his stepmother had died after only a year of marriage.
Infrequent though they were, these letters linked him again to Pinghu, and in the early hours of the morning he would daydream of going home, of lying in a clean bed and eating the familiar food of his childhood. At the time, he couldn’t think of anything that would give him more delight than to be enjoying these simple comforts. But it was impossible to travel with any guarantee of safety, and in any case he couldn’t afford the train fare, nor could our family afford to send him any money.
Just before the end of the war, my father wrote to tell the family that he would be going to the United States for his graduate studies because he had earned a scholarship through the Lend-Lease program. It was while at university in Wisconsin that he received a letter from his grandmother about the haunted bedchamber.
She wrote to say that in recent months, the family could hear strange noises at night from the second story chamber formerly occupied by his mother. At first they believed these noises were made by rats; but after a while, it became evident that the sounds were not the scuffling noise of rats darting about. Rather, they sounded like soft footsteps pacing up and down the empty room. From time to time, sounds of quiet weeping accompanied the footsteps. There was even the occasional squeak of a floorboard.
Then on the anniversary of his older brother’s death, the weeping sounds began as soon as night fell and didn’t cease until the dawn, and by this the family knew beyond a doubt that the room was being haunted by his mother’s ghost. When her eldest son lay dying, his mother had moved him to her own room so that she could look after him all day and all night. She didn’t sleep for many of those nights but paced the room in despair, finally breaking down when the fourteen-year-old boy died.
Now that the identity of the ghost had been established, it was clear what needed to be done.
“Therefore,” wrote his grandmother, “could you send some money so that we can buy offerings and pay for a priest to speak to her spirit? We have no money to spare, but neither can we let her spirit weep on so distressingly. She is obviously worried about her children, for none of you live here anymore. The priest says the offerings would be more effective if the money came from you, for you are her oldest living son.”
My father immediately made arrangements to wire money to Pinghu, for he was paid an allowance that was modest by American standards, but to a Chinese student used to doing without, it seemed abundant. He hardly went to the movies or ate at a restaurant, and drank the occasional beer. He washed his own clothes in the kitchen sink, and in general behaved as though each penny might be his last. So my father had a tidy sum put away, and was only too happy to spend some on appeasing his mother’s ghost.
In the next letter from Pinghu, this time from his father, he read that the family had purchased food, paper money, incense, and the services of a Daoist priest. They had set up an improvised altar in the bedchamber for incense and offerings. Through the priest, they told his mother’s ghost that all her children were well and away at university as she had hoped, all receiving fine educations. They urged her to rest and stop worrying. Since then, according to the letter, there had been no more noises from the bedchamber.
When the war ended, my father was 28 and hadn’t been home in 14 years. When he went back to Pinghu, he found that he was now considered too prestigious a family member to be lodged in the small bedroom he used to share with his brother, my Uncle Ning. Instead, his mother’s room had been aired out and a bed made up for him there. He protested, saying that he hadn’t seen his grandmother in such a long time, and he wanted to sleep in her room instead. He had dreamed for years of eating her cooking and sleeping in a clean bed in her room as he had on occasions when he was a child and not feeling well.
How his grandmother rejoiced to hear such filial words! She gave orders for a cot to be set up in her room, and cooked a few special dishes herself that evening to serve to him, and thus my father’s modest daydreams of comfort were fulfilled.
Unfortunately it wasn’t quite what he had anticipated. His grandmother was so happy to have him there that she talked to him all night from her bed on the other side of the room. Mostly she complained about his grandfather’s final years and his concubine who she resented terribly. When she finally fell asleep she snored loudly, and he hardly got any rest at all. He excused himself from his grandmother’s room a few days later and moved back to his childhood room. He was used to it, he told them, and would sleep better there.
But in fact, he said, the real reason he had asked to sleep in his grandmother’s room was because he was afraid of sleeping in the haunted bedchamber.
It seems to me that if it had been his mother’s ghost, then he hadn’t a thing to fear for she had always been a loving person and would never have frightened or harmed her own son. But my father always had a terrible fear of death and of ghosts in general, so it made no difference to him whether the ghost had been his mother’s spirit or some other more malevolent being.
This is the last ghost story my father ever told me about our ancestral home in Pinghu. It seems appropriate that this final tale of the supernatural should be about my grandmother’s ghost, because her sad, quiet life has haunted me for years. Because of her, I set down these stories and wrote THREE SOULS, my first novel.
A bout this story
I have written about my grandmother once before, in The Difficult Daughter. Whenever my father spoke of his mother, it was almost with awe, he had so much respect for her intelligence and strength of character, for the dignity of her conduct despite being married to a man who was in every way her inferior. I was aghast when my father recounted how his classmate threw away his precious notebook. Personally, I would have strangled the classmate but that wouldn’t have brought back the notebook. We have nothing of my grandmother except two photographs and a fan that she painted. This fan, framed and mounted on my wall, is one of my most cherished possessions. It is evidence of the grace and talent of a woman I never knew, except through stories.
There are twho other ghosts I wonder about sometimes. One is my grandfather’s second wife, who was my father’s stepmother. He mentioned her to me only once - when he recalled that his father had remarried after his mother died but this second wife had lived for only a year after the wedding. This must have seemed like a bad omen, and my grandfather didn’t marry again. My father never met this stepmother and we don’t have any photographs of her from this brief union so we have no idea what she looked like. I don’t even know her name or background, or how old she was when she entered our family. My father didn't know either. By the time he returned home, his stepmother had been dead for many years, a barely-remembered presence.
I wonder how this woman felt, to be married to a family in decline. Did my grandfather marry her just for a dowry? Did her family arrange the marriage to get a spinster daughter off their hands? My father paid for the services of a priest and offerings of food and incense to comfort my grandmother’s ghost. But does the ghost of this second wife haunt the grounds that used to belong to our family? Did anyone make offerings to appease her sad spirit? Somehow I'm certain she died in sorrow.
The second ghost I wonder about is that of my uncle Wenjing, my father's older brother who died of tuberculosis when he was only 14. The picture above is the only one we have. He was considered full of promise and mature for his age. My father said that of all his brothers and sisters, Wenjing was closest in temperament and looks to their mother. I always thought he was a funny looking boy until the day I zoomed in on the photograph and focused on his face instead of the haircut and the ears. There is a delicacy about his features, his sensitive lips. He was quite a beautiful boy, this poor, dead uncle.
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