Saturday, June 28, 2014

Right Turn Only: Memories of my Great Grandma Peggy

My great grandma Peggy passed away last month at the age of 90, and I've wanted to jot down some memories and impressions of her. This is the first time in my life where I've been a part of going through someone's belongings after their death, and I've found it fascinating and curious how much more of her I suddenly know after spending time with extended family and literally going through the drawers of her life.

Something I definitely did know of her in life was her pride and poise as a proper lady. She was the definition of class, in a way that most woman don't even strive for nowadays. In a story I recount below, I found myself typing, "everything she did was beautiful and neat", and that is probably my most lasting impression of her. This song by Jeff Buckley is actually kind of sad and compares his more ordinary woman to that "other woman" who wears french perfume, manicures her nails, and always has fresh cut flowers. To me, Grandma Peggy was a class of woman who took time for all of those things, but she was no "other woman." Even if I, or my generation, will never manage to have everything quite so together (nor perhaps place such a priority on doing so), it makes me smile deep down to have known a woman who carried out her life in that way with the utmost sincerity.

Grandma Peggy seems to have thrown very little out in the past several decades, but all in all, seeing so many of her things - both treasures and trash - made me wish that I had known her better when she was alive. She was something of a character. There were many things I saw that made me wish I'd had the opportunity to ask her about them, because now there is a little bit of knowledge and history, wrapped up in her person, that's lost forever. Only our constructs of what's left will live on, and it's strange to realize that we'll almost certainly remember some things differently than she would have wanted, or simply just remember things wrongly!

Although I was not blood related to her (she was my mom's step-father's mother), we were always considered her family, and I feel I have more in common with her and am more proud to have been "related" to her than many people probably feel about some of their extended family. She loved fashion and fine things, sat on the boards of Los Angeles art museums, ate and drank well, entertained in style, knew her way on public transport to events like Celine Dion concerts (are you sure we don't share the same blood?!), gave extremely generous gifts (everything was from department stores - she gave me Kate Spade plates, which is pretty jaw-dropping for a family who shops at thrift stores), and was never short on stubbornness or eccentricities. She really enjoyed life, and she was an interesting person, and those are two things I greatly admire in a woman. [the photo above is my absolute favorite that I found of her! It was taken the summer after she graduated from high school, 1942, and the guy on the ground is her first husband, before they were married]

For example, she was famous for never making a left turn when driving. She was also famous for her sherry cake, but absolutely refused to share the full recipe. She would give you most of the recipe, but told people there were "a few tablespoons" of sherry in the cake, when there was really 2/3 of a cup, and she never divulged that there was butter flavored extract in the cake at all. I only know now because my aunt spent an hour and a half going through every single one of her recipe cards until she found the recipe. That's saying something too, because she had at least 100 cookbooks in her house. Although I'm never sure I tasted her sherry cake, I love that story about her, even if it seems totally unnecessary to guard recipes like that.

She would give me her old copies of Vogue magazine (in spite of my mother), and when I got married, she gave me a beautiful silk kimono, the only piece of lingerie I received that I've kept. She was so excited to see my ring when I got engaged [photo below from 2011], and she later told my mother that she not only approved of my wedding, but was impressed, which means a lot to me because she was a very proper and stylish lady in many regards (and because I abhorred planning my wedding and was so stressed out about the details the whole time). After she passed away, I was able to keep the beautifully beaded peacock shawl that she wore when she attended my wedding, which I'm very happy to have.

She lived in Studio City, California for almost her entire life, with the drummer(?) of the Foo Fighters as a neighbor on one side, and Jack Osbourne on the next block. She loved to take us to the Cheesecake Factory or California Pizza Kitchen, or the Italian restaurant Vitello's, where the actor Robert Blake allegedly murdered his wife. When her health started to decline (only within the last year, remarkably) and she went out a little less, she requested that my mom make her a batch of gazpacho from a family recipe. Neither my mom nor I had ever had gazpacho before (nor really cared to try, honestly), but I'll be darned if this recipe isn't in the top 5 best things I've ever made. I'm happy to have it to remember her by.

In going through her things, I found a handwritten cookbook by grandma Peggy's aunt, who owned a Chinchilla farm, and once leaped across a table to scare hiccups from my mother. Unfortunately, it seemed to have worked, because my mother did that to me and my siblings growing up. It didn't work as well on us. Grandma Peggy also kept the April 1972 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, and knowing how much I love both fashion magazines and vintage fashion, my mom brought it home for me last week. Jonas and I were laughing at all the old ads and advice on how to tell a person's character from their facial structure, when we stumbled upon the real reason for having kept just that one particular issue - the first male nude centerfold (the link shows the photo, but the main "subject matter" is covered, just a heads up) in a popular woman's magazine. We were both shocked and highly amused at the photo and that grandma Peggy kept it.

I also took home the few now-vintage dresses she had kept, mainly from the 70s, which I adore. It was a bit difficult given my stage of pregnancy, but I made an effort to look as fashionable as possible at her memorial, to honor her impeccable style. Years ago, she gave me the orange dress she's wearing in this photo, which was her second wedding dress. I love the [candy?] garter she's wearing in the picture. Along with costume jewelry, nick nacks, most of the contents of her liquour cabinet, and a giant stack of cookbooks I inherited, there was a bottle of  Estee Lauder Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia perfume, which I have declared my love of before, but pretty much never dreamed I'd own. It's both strange and wonderful to have so many of her things (a cast iron skillet, some glassware, bras, packets of gravy mix, eye liner, etc. etc.) suddenly part of my daily life for a while.

When people pass away, they seem immediately immortalized and almost larger than life to me, and yet, when you have objects from their every day life surrounding you, it reminds you that they were very much human, and led a very present life only recently. I will miss her comments on Facebook (she was better at using Facebook than many I know who were decades younger than her), and the way she used to sign her name when she left a comment. Everything she did was beautiful and neat. Once, we had Easter brunch at her home and she made these macaroon nests, with little speckled chocolate eggs in them, wrapped in clear bags with ribbon. My family was on the way to a camping trip in Yosemite after we left her house. I forgot the macaroon at the bottom of my backpack, and in the middle of the night in Yosemite, I was awakened by my dad who seemed somewhat on edge, which is unusual for him. I looked over to see a raccoon sitting on my sleeping sisters' head, inches from my face. The raccoons had unzipped two doorways in to our tent, taken out all my clothes and books from the backpack, and retrieved the macaroon. They were entirely unperturbed by my dad hissing at them and shining a flashlight in their faces. I can't remember how we got them out without total chaos ensuing, but apparently we did, since I only remember the first part of that incident.

One of my other distinct memories of her is probably from a decade ago, now, when she spent Christmas with us at the beach in Oxnard. In our family, stockings are fair game as soon as you wake up (ahem, 4am??), but everyone must be present to open gifts. I can't imagine grandma Peggy slept in past 9am, but to us, it felt like she was going to stay in her room until lunch!

Once again, I'm almost positive I have a companion photo for this one, but it's not on Facebook and it could take me quite some time to track it down! I will add it here if and when I come across it later. Anyway, in this photo, Grandma Peggy is second from the right, my real grandma Nita ("Mana") is in the middle, and my mom is on the left, holding me. If I'm not mistaken, the more recent version is of Grandma Peggy, Mana, my mom, myself, and Ishmael. I'm really glad Grandma Peggy got to meet her great, great grandson before she died. At her funeral, the pastor of her church said that she couldn't wait to place a red rose on the alter in honor of her new descendant when he was born, which warmed my heart.

Sometimes I roll my eyes at memorials when every person who has anything to say about their loved on says "they were the best person I knew" or something of that caliber, because we can't ALL be the best people, right:? I've heard that Grandma Peggy could be very stubborn, perhaps beyond what was reasonable or necessary at times, but to me, she was always a lady. I admire her independence, even if it did make things difficult for others at times. Plus, she had a pink bedroom. I love her for it.

We'll miss you, Grandma Peggy, and I'll do my best to carry on your vivaciousness. And manicure my nails from time to time, and keep fresh cut flowers when I can. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

My Childhood in Brothels

I will update this post with real photos from the home and courtyard I wrote about when I find them. I swear they were on my external hard drive last month, but I can find no trace of them now, which makes me very sad and nervous. I will try and track them down on my parent's computer! 

I'm worried that the older I get, the more I'm forgetting details of my missionary kid days, because those days are becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of my whole life. Plus, I'm one of those people with virtually no memories before age 7 (for no apparent reason - nothing particularly traumatic happened), which was definitely one of the most interesting times in my life. On top of that, it's hard to track down pictures of specific memories, even though my mom was stellar at taking them because it was a time before people documented every moment. So basically, what we have to work with is a patchy memory and a flare for dramatic storytelling in place of visual representations. (Click here to read the first installment from my series on memories of growing up in China).

Some of the things I remember take new shape as I reflect on them now, as an adult. For example, I spent a lot of time around prostitutes, and it was pretty perfectly normal to me then. I didn't really know what a prostitute was as a younger kid anyway, which probably helped. As you probably know, "my childhood in a brothel" does not refer to me having been a prostitute or pimp or otherwise involved in prostitution itself. I did, however, essentially live in a brothel.

At the time, my family lived in a very small town in-the-middle-of-nowhere, China, and the one thing beside an incredibly high number of brothels in town was an army base. They kind of went hand in hand. In fact, one of the reasons that my family ended up moving away eventually was because the police chief in town required my dad to engage with prostitutes in order to stay in his good graces. Kind of a deal breaker for missionaries. Rumor had it that when that police chief eventually moved on, his "parting gift" to the town/base was a 100 new women.

My family made a home in the old post office in town, which had been turned into a motel/brothel/rental space. The living situation was set up similar to a traditional Chinese home, with buildings on three sides and a large gate on the fourth side of an open courtyard. The gate faced the street. If you turned to your right upon entry, there was a wing of motel rooms, several of which were converted into bedrooms for my siblings and I. Straight ahead from the gate, across the courtyard, were two large living rooms in a second wing. One room was the entire home of a Chinese family with three daughters, the other was the living space for my family, including our kitchen in the hallway. Sometimes we'd have to leave for several months in the winter when the water pipes froze solid.

Once, when we were watching a movie, we heard a blood curdling scream, and ran out in to the shared hall to find our neighbors skinning a dog alive to eat (you don't want to kill it too early before eating or drain all the blood, because blood in the meat tastes better). Another time, my dad found a man who had hung himself in the alleyway behind those rooms. In the corner between the motel wing and the living room wing, there was a dirt lot that was the communal outhouse for most of the time we lived there. There were three make-shift walls of linoleum for some privacy (no roof), but one of the guys in the compound would take his radio out with him so that you knew the outhouse was occupied. That outhouse - rather, hole in the ground - gave a whole new meaning to not wanting to get out of bed to pee in the night, especially in the winter. Furthermore, that corner of the lot was in perfect view of a guard shack on base up on a hill across the road. Sometimes the guard shack blew over in the wind, and one time, we got a gun pointed in our faces when we were playing in an abandoned house near the base and stuck our heads over the wall. Eventually, my dad turned the outhouse corner in to a greenhouse where just about nothing grew.

Behind the living room wing was a mysterious abandoned factory full of gold colored dust that we frequently broke in to and marveled at. There were also a lot of dog and cow carcasses and a 5-foot high tunnel that stretched a third of the way under our block - we never could figure out what it was for. It was a great town to explore as kids. But anyway, back to prostitution....

The left hand and final wing was the brothel where the landlord occasionally stayed and where the ladies lived. I can't remember being particularly sternly warned away from them, but we definitely got the vibes that we weren't welcome to just chill over there, not least because they weren't particularly friendly. Even from across the courtyard, I could tell that their rooms were very sparse, basically just a bed in each.

As I recall, there were about 3 women who were there regularly. They did a lot of laundry and their clothing was fancy and scanty in a town with nothing to do and nowhere to go. They "slept" a lot during the day and seemed generally grumpy and miserable, perhaps because their lives must have been incredibly monotonous. Looking back, it's strange that I never thought to ask more questions about them.

When we moved on from that house, we did a walk through of another brothel that was becoming an available space. This one was a second story to a shop on the street. As I recall, there was a very large wood-floored central room with several smaller rooms branching off of it. Someone in our family - probably me, given my general nosiness - tried to explore one of the off-shoot rooms and was quickly shooed away as it was "in use". It was embarrassing and strange. Once again, I didn't totally get all the logistics of how sex work operated, but I understood that what was going on was kind of hush-hush and not altogether upstanding. I just couldn't figure out what all the sleeping during the day was about.

We ended up finding another place that hadn't been used as a brothel, to my knowledge, but some aspects of the lifestyle remained in my life. Wet hair, for example. As I mentioned before, sometimes the pipes would freeze or we wouldn't have running or hot water at home for some other reason, so we'd go to a public shower house, which could easily have been mistaken for a dungeon and which had slime of every imaginable kind lurking in the corners. It still gives me the heeby jeebies to recall. No one used hair dryers, but my mom always wanted us to cover our heads on the way home, and I hated wearing head scarves, which was unfortunate in a predominantly Muslim area.

Again, no one really spelled it out in so many words at the time, but it turned out that wet hair was associated with prostitutes because they were the only ones who bathed so regularly as to often have wet hair. In China, people don't shower daily, and when they do, it's at night, which is a habit that I continue to hold as an adult in the U.S. Another thing about hair and prostitutes in China - hair salons are the most common cover up for brothels. Often, the store front is a sham of a barber shop, and behind a curtain or in a back room is where the real business takes place. I always wondered how one was supposed to know where to go if you wanted an actual hair cut?

To me, there's still a strange sweetness in the whole hair thing, though. I distinctly remember being about 8 years old and admiring the long, straight, black hair that all the Chinese women had in the women's dorm that my family lived in on a Chinese college campus. I remember thinking to myself that when I grew up, I was going to have hair like that. I'm not sure I realized you couldn't just grow the hair you wanted, but either way, those long black locks have remained one of the few childhood style ideals I've carried into adulthood. I continue to find the hair of Chinese women exceptionally lovely and I like my hair black the best. [image]

Another thing that stuck with me was all the pink florescent lighting. In english, we do call areas with a high concentration of sex work "pink/red light districts", but I don't know if that's as universal or prevalent in the rest of the world as it is in China. But why all the pink bulbs in bedrooms? Ambiance? Some hidden meaning I've never heard of? Some sort of feature disguise? I'm not sure, but they used the heck out of pink lights and the glow still makes me uncomfortable, even if it's out of context.

Fast forward a few years to my other deepest ties to prostitution in China.
I went on a summer missions trip in eastern and southern China, led by a dear friend. I was the only short-termer on the team coming from a different part of China instead of the States, and my Chinese language skills therefore differed from the rest of the group, so I had private tutoring sessions (including some spiritual vocabulary), and separate homework assignments.

I should get out of the way that I don't blame my experiences in this story on the leaders of the trip - they remain close and respected friends of mine. However, looking back, I wish I'd just put my foot down about something I felt strongly against, or had approached it in a way that was more in keeping with my views on missions. As it was, this turned out to be pretty much my worst experience as a missionary, which is saying a lot because I didn't consider myself a missionary for almost any of the time I lived in China. It was clear to me that I was there with my parents, who felt called to missions in China, where as I did not.

So anyway, on this trip we were supposed to get out in the neighborhood and practice our new vocabulary and whether real or perceived, I felt like I was supposed to be evangelizing too. There were two shops that I visited - one sold earrings, which I still have two pair of. The other was a hair salon with a few chairs in front and a brothel behind a curtain. I managed to make myself a fixture in the front room in the most awkward way possible. It was clear that they didn't really want to hang out with me and/or figured I didn't get what the whole establishment was about.

I remember their tired smiles and quiet scoffs - who was I? It was obvious to everyone, including myself, that I was in no place to question their lifestyle of desperation. I can't even articulate how awful that whole scene was and the tangible joke of it. For many prostitutes in China, they choose their jobs because it's by far the most money they can earn and they have children far away whom they send support to. I'm ashamed that I attempted to make them explain to me why they were there. I didn't pose it quite like that, but I certainly went in with a missionary agenda, and I hate  that style of missions. I detest that model of thinking that I know better than them and that somehow I'm going to love them out of their situation, when really, I wasn't loving them at all. We were all enduring a terrible hour at a time for the sake of some idea I felt compelled to live up to, or at least try. In reality, they didn't deserve to be treated as my guinea pigs, and I had no way of comprehending anything about their situations, especially at 15. It was one of the most ridiculous, naive, and conceited things I've ever done. I don't know how to describe further what those several visits were like, or why I feel so negatively about them.

I believe Jesus can work through idiots and the culturally insensitive, but I also know that Jesus would not have tried to jam two unfitting puzzle pieces together for 15 minutes and then check it off his list. A part of me is repelled by the logistics of the trade of prostitution, but a lot of me is just sickeningly sad remembering the vacancy and callousness of the woman I met caught up in it. It makes me think of that Nirvana song, "Jesus doesn't want me for a sunbeam", when in reality, I know that Jesus wants every one of those ladies as his sunbeams, and wants me for a sunbeam too, even when I abuse his name and what he truly stands for. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


Have you ever been watching a post-apocalyptic movie and wondered how the writers came up with such and such a terrifying detail? Sometimes I have, but if you're ever been unable to escape from the screaming of grumpy, sick, or downright disobedient children, you need no longer wonder. Or on the flip side, your child being seriously hurt can make your life feel as dark as the apocalypse. [image]

We've been going through a rough patch in the last few days with Ishmael. He is generally such a sweet kid, but all of a sudden, he has decided that listening is for babies, and he's no baby. One of my greater parenting struggles is being a consistent disciplinarian, but there comes a point where I'm fed up enough to enforce the law of the land. He thinks that's cute. In fact, he really doesn't find spankings to be much of a deterrent, and I didn't expect him to pull that one on me.

Equally distressing is my first experience feeling like I'm powerless to protect him from the world. On Saturday morning, we noticed strange marks on his arms and torso and I've been worrying myself sick unable to figure out what happened and whether his excessive crying and tantruming is because of some mysterious pain that I can't fix or understand. Coupled with the fact that he was (at the time I was first writing this) having many meltdowns and crying excessively over absolutely nothing that we could tell, it was very difficult to watch and wonder if it was the new tooth coming through, or something much more serious. I'm not one to get weepy when he falls and scrapes himself, but the fear of the unknown reduces me to a puddle. 

This morning as I was feeding Ishmael breakfast and wimpering inwardly out of fear and sadness and trying not to fly off the handle in reaction to his incessant and grating meltdowns, an old worship song that my dad used to play popped in to my head. It's by a band called Enter the Worship circle, and the first few lines are, "since I am so sick, since I am in need, since I have no healing within me....", a reference to Psalm 30. The part about "no healing within me" is particularly painful today because I feel helpless to take care of my son, but they are also a good reminder to me that I am not alone as a parent nor can I ever hope to be everything that Ishmael needs. 

The one island of goodness in these harder days is that I get to be the comforter. It's so touching to have another human fling themselves at you and cry out that they need you and love you and come to you for protection and to be rejuvenated. The fact that I get to be that safe place where Ishmael can recharge his strength and courage and then go back out and face the fears and trials of his miniature world is something I'll never tire of in all my days.

Since I started writing this post, I was able to get Ishmael in to see a doctor, who hardly batted an eye before diagnosing him with phytophotodermatitis which sounds gnarly, but isn't really that big of a deal. Basically, there's a chemical in limes, mangoes, celery, some sunscreens, and many other every day products that when it gets on some people's skin and is then exposed to sunlight, creates marks that look very much like severe bruising or chemical burns. Very often, the marks are shaped like finger marks and placed where hands would have held him, leaving this skin condition (which isn't painful, and will fade within a week) commonly misdiagnosed as signs of child abuse.

I don't think I've ever been so worried as a parent as I was this past weekend. And it was an experience that raised so many questions and feelings that I never imagined having to face as a parent. We were so blessed to have friends and family supporting and comforting us, and most of all, we're thankful that we have a loving God to run to when when we have no healing within us. It was so difficult to live with the possibility that someone could have hurt my sweet, sweet son, yet be baffled as to how that could have happened. The whole experience has made Jonas and I take a hard look at our lifestyle (a lot of working away from our kids), making sure we're taking care of our sons the best that we can with our time and our money, and what exactly that looks like, despite the fact that it turned out that this very scary incident was no ones fault nor a result of negligence on anyone's part.

What's the scariest thing that you've encountered as a parent? What brings you comfort when you're faced with the fact that you can't protect your babies from everything? In case you're facing a Toddlerzilla, a fearful unknown, or perhaps just some limes right now, I must say, Psalm 30 is a keeper.

P.S. Isn't it crazy what sort of medical things you become a mini-expert on when you're forced to confront them in your life? Pregnancy and childbirth are great examples! 
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