Heirlooms

Lani Kwon-Meilgaard

The inventory is eclectic: brittle childhood drawings in crayon and finger-paint, my husband's rusting set of golf clubs, and boxes of family heirlooms I had almost forgotten were here. Even in this tropical climate, the shed--a shell of scrap lumber and aluminum siding--has kept these things intact. I empty a box full of my old dresses. Some have holes cut into them, patches used to make quilts. At the bottom, I can feel the coolness of silk and the rough strands of gold fiber woven through an obi, the one my mother wove for my wedding so many years ago.

With thick dark hair and a certain graceful way of moving, she was a woman who raised eight children, worked days and nights as a laundress and seamstress to put us through school, to offer her children a chance for a better future. She died at the age of 52.

My granddaughter resembles her. Now, she is taller than I am, no longer a child. I can see her flashlight dance in the semi-darkness as she rummages through boxes on the other side of the shed.

Inside the obi, as I cradle the bundle in my lap, I can hear the ceramic pieces scrape against one another. I do not need to open it to know what causes the sound. The memories slice through my thoughts like the rays of the setting sun through cracks in the shed.

That summer evening in Kihei, I was preparing dinner. The kitchen was fragrant with ginger, shoyu and garlic in preparation for my son's and his family's long-awaited visit. I had already started the rice pot, rinsing talc from the metal bowl until the water ran clear. I cut through chicken and piles of rubbery abalone. The bok choy and bamboo shoots were chopped next, and I placed the cellophane noodles in a pot to cook. The stir-fry was last. I poured a generous amount of sesame oil into the wok, then threw in the vegetables.

The sizzling effectively blocked out other sounds, but I could sense my husband, John, pacing the room. Stoically, I stirred the three, large cooking pots and the wok on the gas stove, switching the burners to low.

When John caught my eye, he pointed to his watch.

I patted his arm, partly in comfort and partly to move him out of the way, as I went to the refrigerator to get the green onions. While I searched the metal shelves, pushing aside the guava juice, a jar of peanut butter and a plastic container of tofu, I could not resist a mischievous half-smile as I thought, Can't stand it when things don't go according to schedule.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw headlights flash across the kitchen window. "They're here," I called, as I wiped my wet hands on my old cotton apron.

John beat me outside, letting the screen door slam behind him. "Finally made it, huh?"

"Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad," Thomas said, then shrugged his shoulders in a gesture which had stayed with him since childhood.

"The traffic was horrible! Almost an hour and a half from Kula," said Karen, Thomas' wife.

I couldn't see my daughter-in-law's expression in the shadows just beyond the porch lights, but from the controlled tone of her voice, I knew that there was some other reason they were late.

John and Thomas went inside, carrying the suitcases and talking about the trouble with the growing population and traffic these days.

I turned to hug my daughter-in-law, reaching only to her chest in height. I could feel Karen's backbone through the thin fabric of her blouse. As I hugged her, I realized that I had grown fond of this daughter-in-law from the Mainland. Karen reminded me, in some odd way, of myself.

Mary, then nine years old, giggled and squeezed herself between us so she could be hugged, too.

Karen grinned and brushed a strand of hair back from Mary's face.

I smiled and said, "Let's go inside. Dinner's almost ready."

They gathered at a long koa dining table while I brought in steaming bowls of soup. My husband nodded appreciatively with the first taste, and I smiled knowing that this was the only thanks I would receive. He wasn't being rude, just Japanese-male, and we had been together for so long, habits had formed.

Thomas held his soup bowl close to his lips as he sipped the broth, slurping up the rice and pieces of abalone. He resembled his father, with an angular face and build, but smiled more easily and more often.

Mary sat cross-legged in a wicker dining chair and complained, "Not abalone! I no like dat kine." She was quieted by severe stares: her mother's, for the forbidden use of Pidgin English, her grandfather's, for her poor behavior.

I was just about to intervene, but Karen had already picked up a piece of abalone with the child-sized enameled chopsticks and passed it to Mary. Mary's nose wrinkled, and the expression on her face was so comical that I almost laughed. Instead, I surveyed the table.

Noticing Thomas' bowl was almost empty I asked, "More soup?"

"No, thanks, Mom. Why don't you sit down and eat?" Thomas motioned to the chair next to him.

"I want more soup!" Mary said, holding up her bowl.

"You do?" Karen's voice had registered surprise and amusement. "Abalone's not so bad, huh?"

"It's OK, I guess," Mary said and rolled her eyes.

Karen passed the bowl to me with a conspiratorial smile. I smiled back.

"So, Thomas . . . how's the job going?" my husband asked. His fingers impatiently tapped the sides of his bowl.

"Pretty good, Dad." Thomas paused to swallow his soup before he continued, "We just need to sign all the legal stuff, then we can build."

"More condos?"

I heard the beginning of this conversation as I went to the kitchen and shook my head. I could imagine the rest. John's tone of voice would betray nothing, but Thomas would know how his father felt about the project. John remembered Kihei before it had been "ruined" by developers. Seeking to change the topic, Thomas would say something about the weather or about the Islanders baseball team, and John would exhale heavily and continue eating. An awkward silence would then descend on the table.

I took the fish-shaped platter, which my father had given my mother on their 25th wedding anniversary, down from the top shelf above the refrigerator. I had to strain on tiptoes to reach it. The fluorescent light reflected along the cobalt scales, making them shimmer and seem to come to life. I wiped the dish with a clean dish cloth, then arranged the chicken hekka on the platter, reserving a sprig of Chinese parsley for a garnish.

I returned just as Thomas said, "Dad, did I tell you that Karen's going back to school for her law degree?" and almost dropped the platter I was carrying.

"Karen, are you sure that's wise?" my husband asked. "Mary's only 8 years old."

"Nine!" Mary said, her lower lip drawn out in a pout.

"Well," Karen started, knowing that this was a touchy subject, "Mary's in school most of the day, and now there's the A+ after school program . . ."

"She'll be fine, Dad." Thomas said, obviously feeling guilty about having put his wife into the fire to get himself out of the frying pan.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that Karen was staring at him with a look that simultaneously conveyed her relief and irritation. I saw Thomas mouth an apology as I said, "Try the hekka, John. Tell me what you think." I spooned out a large portion for him, effectively diverting my husband's attention.

The tension in the room was palpable, just like the heat in the kitchen, except that there was nowhere for the steam to escape.

After dinner, Karen and I washed the dishes while John, Thomas and Mary moved the luggage down the hall. Karen scrubbed and rinsed the dishes and passed them on to me.

She held out the fish platter, which must have been as slippery as a real fish plucked from the water. It fell from her hands as I reached for it. Shards spread out over the floor like darting fish in a pond.

"Oh, no!" Karen cried. She wrung her hands on a dish cloth.

"Don't worry," I said and patted her shoulder. "Just be careful where you step." I hesitantly made my way across the floor to the broom and dustpan in the corner. I could feel the sharp edges under my zoris.

"But wasn't the plate an antique?" Karen had left the water running and only now shut it off. "I'm so sorry."

I stooped down to brush the pieces into the dustpan. Too many, I thought, no way to glue this back together.

"I'm so sorry," Karen repeated. Her voice quivered.

"It's OK . . . l know you didn't mean to do it." I smiled up at her, but she had already left the room.

When I found her, Karen was sitting with her knees drawn up to her chest, out on the back porch.

The wind was cool but not cold. I could hear it rustle through the leaves of the mango and banana trees. I could smell the light scent of plumeria mixed with the saltiness of the ocean, not far away.

"Karen?" I sat next to her on the old vinyl sofa. I tentatively touched her shoulder. Karen's voice was muffled by her arms, but it was not difficult to tell that something was very wrong. I put my arm around her and stroked her hair the way I used to do with Thomas, when he was still young enough to let me. I waited patiently.

"Mariko . . ." Karen looked up. Her cheeks glistened in the dimness of the porch light. "I . . . l don't know how to tell you this . . ."

Goosebumps stood up on my arms. I sat up stiffly, unable to say a word. Then I heard myself say, "When?"

"As soon as the papers go through." Karen said, her voice unsteady, but growing stronger.

"And Mary?"

"She'll come with me."

I stared at the crescent moon just above the spiky leaves of the lauhala tree in front of me. Darkness coalesced in the air surrounding our house, and the wind rustled through the leaves, casting odd shadows in the porch light.

There are shadows in the twilight, creeping in through the doorway of the shed. They snake along the back wall, over the boxes, over my foot in the doorway.

I place the broken shards and obi back into the box and cover them with the remnants of fabric. I will keep them to remind me, a symbolic gesture.

"Grandma. Look at this!" Mary moves toward me, her flashlight swimming forward in the dimness.

She holds the light up so I can see the netsuke my father collected.

He never used them for their intended purpose, to fasten inro, lacquer boxes to carry money and other personal belongings, to obi, the sash on his kimono. No. He had had a special lacquer case constructed, lined in velvet, to hold these, his most precious belongings.

They are intricately carved, walnut-sized figurines: an ivory crane, symbol of longevity and fidelity and a boxwood koi, the carp a symbol of strength and perseverance. There is one empty place, an indentation in the crushed velvet.

Mary is silent, holding a figurine in her hand.

I notice that it is a dragon, every scale inlaid in gold and silver, radiant in the beam of her flashlight. It represents mutability, the essence of life, adaptation to all circumstances, in all times, and in all surroundings. I close her hand around it, letting her know that it is hers now.


Judge's Comments

I enjoyed this piece because of the deft portrayal of a particular culture, the natural dialogue and the deep themes and the ambitious rendering of symbols.
--Chitra B. Divakaruni

The power of this story lies in its light touch. Under the carefully wrought and seductive guise of a simple family dinner, the lives of its characters are first examined, then laid bare.
--Tom Parker

This is a complete story with a clear and challenging point. If the central symbol seems at first to draw attention to itself, the reader soon finds that, in this passing tradition, symbols are important. The dim light of the shed is symbolic on yet another level. I like the way things are shown, rather than summarized, the brevity and directness of the telling, and, especially, the imaginative precision with which the symbols are chosen.
--Peter Steinhart