Chapter 39. Mom Secrets and Her Recue by DadElizabeth Lin Johnson
Sunday morning after learning of my mother-in-law’s shocking revelation, I arose early at the Sainte Clare Hotel where I stayed when visiting San Jose. Leaving the hotel, I was tempted to drive by Edward's former apartment before visiting Mom. Instead, I drove to Alviso to seek again its mystical connection with Dad that still evaded me.
Even Alviso, however, had changed in Silicon Valley’s metamorphous. Val's was still there, operated by a niece of the deceased elderly woman who fussed over Gary and me, but the salt ponds had been converted to a national park. Instead of the soothing loneliness Alviso once provided it swarmed with visitors. The estuaries were filled with kayakers, throngs trekked the railroad tracks and levees and there was a new motel. Historical, cultural, and environmental explanation signs guided visitors. None matched the narrative Gary related to me. His, perhaps less accurate, was the better.
Laine's, more decrepit, still stood. I parked the car, walked to it, leaned against its wood wall, faced the railroad track, and reminisced of a passing train kiss. I didn't trek the rail line with others to the ghost town of Drawbridge. With nothing else to connect with, I left to visit Mom. Returning on Lafayette Street, the country road on which I drove to meet Gary at Alviso had morphed into a highway. As I passed the former California’s Agnew State Mental Hospital complex, I glanced to the left and saw a sign that announced it was part of Sun Microsystems. I wondered where Agnew’s mental patients ended up.
Where are they now? They're our street homeless. The cuckoo’s nest hatchlings are camping in downtown, begging at the crosswalks.
Past it, I zig zagged on streets to the right amongst high tech plants until I arrived at the Great America Park, the San Francisco 49’s stadium, and large hotels, somewhere within them the spot of my birth with accompanying placenta buried by Dad. Like Dad’s and Mom’s past, mine also was gone. It’s as if the pear orchard and farmhouse I was born in never existed. The Valley’s change had left me homeless too.
From them I went directly to Willow Glen and Mom’s house. My mother in law’s revelation about Hubby’s natural father bounced about in my mind as I drove. I concluded it best was kept as an ultra-secret. It, however, renewed my curiosity about my parents. I decided to ask Mom how she met Dad.
I took Mom to brunch in the little downtown of Willow Glen which had revitalized into an upscale boutique shop and trendy restaurant street. Afterward, we drove to our old Tropicana Village neighborhood. Our house and street looked so much smaller than remembered but were less tawdry than when we lived there, fitting for the Valley’s escalated home values. We stopped at the church of my wedding. The sign in front announced times of mass in Tagalong, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Mom chuckled. I responded.
“Wow Mom, we'd fit right in now.”
Next, we went to Dad's grave at Santa Clara Mission Cemetery with flowers for his headstone that proclaimed, "No Sad Songs."
In the afternoon, back at her house, we ate take out Thai food and sipped wine in her small back yard. I enjoyed the late afternoon California sun and let it dry out my Pacific Northwest dampness. The wine warmed us.
Mom rarely drank. A little wine turned her complexion red and her tongue loose. She gained color as we drank. At rosy, pink, we talked, talked as daughter and mother confidants, adult equals. Other than Sainte Clare Hotel housekeeper gossip from long ago it was the first time we talked beyond chit chat. To get to how she came from Hawaii to California and met Dad, I set her up with flattery.
"Mom, I admire you. I always did but as I grow older, I admire you more. I appreciate everything you did for me."
"No, I admire you. You help me. I must thank you. Even when you little, you help."
Every daughter wants to know how her mom met her dad, so I got to the point.
"Mom, tell me about Hawaii and how you met Dad?"
There it was, point-blank. I wanted to know her past, the past she never talked about. She sat silent. A tear welled up and zig-zagged down one wrinkled, red-hued cheek.
"Please Mom, don't cry, I didn't mean to make you cry. Let's talk about something else. Do you need some help in the yard?"
Her face crinkled in concentration. She was struggling with memories, scar scabbed over ones, now scraped open by my inquiry. When she finally spoke, she reverted to the Pidgin English of her Hawaiian origin.
"Okay, okay, I tell you. You must know. You must know your mother now. It not good, not good, it bad, very bad. You must not tell I was bad."
"Ha! Mom, you make me smile. I know you. You can't lie to your daughter, the daughter who always went to Mass with you. You’re not bad! You’re the goodliest!"
My conjecture was she would tell me she was not a virgin when she married Dad or her and Dad never married. I repressed a smile thinking of how her bad would pale before mine.
"You never say what I say now. Very bad… Rickie… he… he only."
She fell silent needing a nudge to continue. My mind flashed to thinking she was struggling to say something about Rickie being killed in Vietnam, somehow twisting it into being her fault. I needed her to get over the Rickie bump to get her to tell me how she left Hawaii and met Dad.
"Mom there’s nothing you can say that would make me think less of you. I know you. I’m your daughter. Trust me. I have some sins, whoppers. I'm not the goody daughter you think. Please tell me about Rickie and then how you met Dad?"
"Rickie, Rickie, he, he is… your half -brother."
It came as a whisper. Boom! It exploded in my ears. Out of nowhere came, half-brother?
I sat quiet to let this sink in while I mulled over what would come next. Racing, no, bouncing to and fro in my mind was.
Who the hell is Rickie's father?
Trying not to look shocked, I broke the silence.
"Mom, Mom, that's okay, I am glad you told me. You’re good, you’re wonderful. I love you. I love you more. Trust me, tell me how it happened."
The truth was my mind was in confusion. A basic, fundamental precept of my family structure had just been swept aside. What else was to crumble? She struggled for words then began letting them flow, reverting more and more to pidgin, inserting Tagalog too. She stutter released the dam held back so many years.
"Hard, hard for me to say; hard me to tell you. Tatay, Ina from the Philippines, they work on pineapple company land. Maui, we live in Maui, Island. Big war, it over… High pineapple price no more. Then we poor time, poor, very poor, we were… poor. Nine of us Tatay, Ina and seven. Me, like you, the only girl. We live in a little house, four rooms. House, on poles, the bathroom, outside. I was good girl. I help Ina, like you help me."
Tatay and Ina are father and mother in Tagalog. She continued.
"Tatay work hard but still no good. We owe money. We… owe shop man money. Shopman… China man. He nice to me. He like me, give me sweet… but no like Tatay. He yell, Tatay must pay money we owe. We no have money to pay. I go to the shop to get spam for dinner but no can pay… No one in the shop, only shopman. I say I want buy spam but no can pay.”
She stopped, took a sip of wine, and continued.
“Shopman, he say, no pay. Take spam, no pay. He say, come to my room. I want to help family. I have no spam money. I go to his room. He grab, pull up sarong. He climb on me. He finish, he say take spam."
Each short sentence was accompanied by a sob. As she stopped, her body shook with sobs at her revelation.
"Mom, oh Mom, I’m so sorry, how old were you?"
With sobs abating but tears still streaming over her weathered wrinkles, unable to talk, she flashed her hand with five fingers, three times.
"Mom, you were fifteen?"
She nodded affirmative. I too began to cry. She tried to explain.
"I try help family. We no longer owe store man money. We get free spam, eat good. Tatay, Ina happy.”
“Mom, how long, how long did the shopman give food?”
She hesitated, then, blurted out.
“Not long. Soon I pregnant. Tatay no happy, angry, I ruin family.”
"Was the shop man Cantonese?"
It explained why Rickie was short. He was two inches shorter than me. My other brothers were normal height, close to Dad but a little shorter. Things were starting to fill in. I switched back to the sequence of events she was struggling to reveal.
"Mom, when you got pregnant with Rickey, what happened?"
She paused on what she was going to say then it rolled out in waves of revelations.
"Shopman, he in trouble. He worried plantation boss man hear he get girl pregnant, he get big trouble. Shopman visit Tatay, give money. Shopman, he take me Honolulu. In Honolulu, I lock in old Chinatown building on Hotel Street. I sold girl, must work for China boss man, pay back money paid to Tatay.”
She stopped. Like a good listener I stayed silent to let her put the words together she was struggling to say. Finally, almost inaudible she whispered.
“Men sex me.”
There it was, out in the open, her deep secret.
“Oh Mom, I’m so sorry. Don’t worry, I still love and respect you. I’m happy you told me. Let me help you carry this burden.”
She wasn’t finished.
“Soon boss man, know, I pregnant. Doctor come…, Chinese doctor, he come to take baby out but doctor, he say no, too late. No can take baby out. Rickie born, China boss man, he, say, give baby away! No, I say, I love him. I say kill me. I say give away, I kill me, I kill someone if baby take away. Boss man let Rickie stay. Rickie, me, we live in little room. There are six little rooms, six girls. We all Pinay except one, a Burma girl. They love Rickie but Rickie he, cry, boss man get angry when Rickie cry."
She stuttered stopped. Stunned I reached over and hugged her, openly crying.
"Mom, please, please Mom, let it all out. Let me help carry what happened to you. Oh God Mom, I love you!"
My words too were between sobs. After a pause, she began again to ease the secret burden she carried in life. I was eager to help lift it off her by listening.
“China lady, she live in front of building with office door on street. Man come in shop front door. It have a little bell that tinkle when door open. We hear tinkle, know man come see girl. China, lady, she, talk, man; white man only, army, navy, some not army, navy. Man, he, give five dollars to China lady. She has, little bell too. She rings little bell. We girls go in front room so man can look see us. We wear sarong down so man can look see our dede. He see girl he like, tell China boss lady. Girl he like take man to her room. Man sex her. Burma girl tall, man like her, like me too. Me young, dede big with milk for Rickie.”
She continued without tears and switched to a matter-of-fact manner.
“I take dresser drawer, put Rickie in and set on floor. I cover with cloth. Rickie not see man sex me. Man sex me, boss man send dollar to Tatay. No give money me. Pay some what I owe as sold girl.
Some man after sex me, give tip money. I hide tip money. China lady she feed Rickie, me good. All rice, pork, poi we want. She say want me look big, like Hawaiian girl. "
"How many Mom? How many men came at night?"
“No, not night only, sometime day. Sometime no men. Sometime five, sometime, more if big ship come in Honolulu.
I think, how escape? Chinese boss lady say, if run away, family must pay money back paid for me. I sold girl, no can leave. I think… find policeman, be safe.
Soon policeman, come. Door tinkle. I see him, think me now okay. He talk to China boss lady. He no give her money. No, she give him money, ring bell, we stand for look-see. He pick me, sex me. After sex me, I say to him, take me out with him. He, laugh. He, say next time, he take me out, take me jail. He, laugh at take me out, to jail while he put clothes on.
When he leave, he still laugh, take me out to jail. Then I know police get money, not pay, sex girl free, police no help me."
When she paused, I hugged her, broke free, wiped the tears streaming on my face, then waited for her to start again but she was not ready. At last, I asked.
"How’d you get here?
"After year, me pregnant, no can have baby. They no like, Rickie, no more baby. Chinese doctor, he come. Sometime he give girl needle shot. If girl pregnant, he take baby out, throw away. He take baby out me, throw away.
After I no pregnant, Chinaman, different Chinaman, he come give China boss money, take Burma girl, take me in big boat to San Francisco.
When boat go under bridge, I look up, promise Rickie we run away.
Then we see San Francisco is big city. Burma girl, me afraid. We stay in Chinatown building, on little street. We told, be good, make boss man money then we make money. If police come, we hide in secret wall. If police find me boss man say I go jail… then ship me Hong Kong. I afraid, police jail me, ship me Hong Kong, I lose Rickie.
We ten girls in Chinatown, sometimes more. Some, they China girl but most Pinay like me and Burma girl. China boss man he want we skinny,… China girl. I wear, silk China dress and silk slippers.”
“Like Hawaii, man, pick girl, lift China dress, sex girl, leave. Only Chinaman… no white man. Chinaman, they sex, run, sex run, no tip. Only can say English a little. Some no say English. One, he, say English. He say, he pick beans in Santa Clara, get two cents a pound picked. He say, I can pick beans, make money. I tell Burma girl we leave Chinatown go Santa Clara pick beans. We leave together, no like Chinatown. Burma girl afraid to leave. She afraid police ship her to Burma. I decide leave only with Rickie.”
Mom began to talk more rapidly, as if excited.
“China boss lady, she okay, she know Rickie need time play outside, let me take Rickie out to play in park with man watch me. We go little park… church park… not Catholic. It in Chinatown. Rickie, he get fresh air, play.
Man come too, make sure I come back work. He, smoke, eat mee soup when Rickie in park. I think run away when he no look. With Rickie, police no arrest me. I go Santa Clara and pick beans. I leave when man eat soup, no look, see me. Near park is cable car, not block away. I know when it come. It, turn corner, ring bell.
In park, I listen, learn to know cable car come. I think pick up Rickie, run to cable car, find work pick beans but worry man who watch me stop me go.”
Again. she paused to put her remembrances into words.
“I keep tip money with me when go park. When man go get cigarettes, smoke, eat soup, no look see me, I go, I hear bell, know cable car come. I pick up Rickie, run to cable car. Hard to run, China dress, slippers, no can run. At cable car I hold Rickie up to get on. Hard for him to get on. Man on cable car, he grab Rickie, pull him on, put him on seat. He reach down, pull me on too.
Cable car go up, up, hill then go down fast, then stop to turn around. Man, he help Rickey, me get off. Many white people look, see me China girl. I pick up Rickie, carry Rickie to big park where cars go in ground. I see big stores, go Imagine store, people stare, boss lady wants to know who I am. I afraid she call police. I run to Paris store. I stop, ask people where Santa Clara. They think I crazy girl, no understand me.”
I had to repress a smile thinking of her escape in a cheongsam with Chinese silk slippers carrying Rickie, wandering lost in San Francisco before 1950. She continued.
"Old woman, white hair, she, wear fur coat, she in Paris store, store under pretty glass roof, she see me, she kind me.
She, hear me ask help. She take me other, big store, Macy. I cold in China dress. Rickie cold too, crying. Workmen fixing Macy store. No one notice us. She, buy me coat and Rickie blanket. Not let me pay. She get taxi, take Rickie me, to train station. She say, she, buy ticket to Santa Clara. I say no. I buy ticket."
"Oh God Mom, I am so sorry. I never knew how you suffered. Oh God, please, oh, God Mom!"
We sat until she calmed tears of memory trickling down her face, no sobs, no crying just tears, one by one, silent, drip by drip.
I thought of her in a cheongsam, small step constricted, trying to catch a rumbling cable car on Powell Street at the edge of the Chinatown ghetto. I imagined her carrying a young boy, a stranger helping her, picking up Rickie, her jumping, grabbing a railing, dangling, the man pulling her up too.
I thought of the cable car's noise as it's underground cable rattled and clanked, first struggling to pull it up the Powell Street Hill then the brakeman pulling back hard the chrome brake handle, the underground chain groaning to keep the car from crashing down Powell Street, the bell's ring a ding to clear the traffic, it stopped at Union Square with its underground garage surrounded by big upscale department stores. I thought of her as a spectacle among the throng of shoppers, hobbled in a cheongsam with slippers.
I imagined her wandering frightened in the big upscale department stores I Magnum and City of Paris, now gone, her being confronted by their saleswomen. I thought of her bewildered plight under the glass dome of the City of Paris and her rescue by an old San Francisco matron in a fur coat, saved by what the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper columnist, Herb Caen, referred to as a LOL, (Little Old Lady).
I finally understood why she never went with Dad and me when we went to Chinatown.
After relating the details of her escape from a San Francisco Chinese brothel, her getting on the train to Santa Clara to pick beans, my older brother Rickie a young child with her, Mom’s sniffling ceased. Embolden by her calmed conditions and rent with curiosity, I asked.
"Mom, what happened when you got to the Santa Clara train station?"
"Train stop. Ticket man, he, say it Santa Clara, me need get out. It, little station, no many people. I ask people, where pick beans? No one know where pick beans, think me crazy China girl with little boy in blanket.”
Before I could interrupt, she continued.
“Portuguese lady, her name, Louisa, she hear me, she take me and Rickie in car. She drive to country. She, find bean farm. It little farm, no big farm. Woman come out house, go to car, see me, see Rickie in blanket. She small, like me but Japanese, not enemy Jap. She nice, take me in house, feed Rickie, feed me. After feed us she take us to bed. I sleep good but up early, pick beans. She, take care Rickie, I learn pick beans with her husband, he Jap too, but American. They just back from war camp. They have bad time too.
After no more beans, Rickie, me, we go farm to farm. Farm women talk, help. They know I Pinay Hawaii girl, not China girl. I no have family, work hard but no know how I have Rickie or bad things I did. I work good. I pick prunes, get twenty-five cents box picked. Easy to pick off ground even Rickie help. I cut apricots too, 50 cents a tray. Some pay me clean house, babysit, cook for pickers, it better than picking. I happy, but no happy for Burma girl, sad for Burma girl.”
With things looking better for Mom I stopped crying too. I needed Dad in the picture. I had to get back to what every girl wants to know how her parents met.
“Mom, how’d you meet Dad?”
She smiled. Relieved by this turn, I smiled too. Finally, something good was obviously going to happen to Mom.
“Time is good, farm women help. Priest, he hear of me and come find me. I get confession. I tell him my bad things. Priest, he say God, forgive me, tell me I no go to hell. Tell me no worry about hell. I no go hell. He tell me, I good, not bad. He know people. He get me work. I work at restaurant, it Hawaiian Gardens. You know, it big restaurant. I waitress, wear sarong grass skirt but no see dede get tip money too.”
Priest, he, know Italian woman, Mrs. Mariani. She let me and Rickie live in house she no longer, want live in. It, farmhouse, in little orchard, on Meridian Road, close to work. Mexican girl, she, live there too. She has two babies. I walk work, work night. She help take care of Rickie. We share money. She in trouble too. No okay she in country. She from Mexico. Husband, he leave her. Priest, he helps her too. Sometimes we cry, hold each other, then we happy again."
She stopped with a sigh, exhausted. Then the smile broadened, and she continued.
"Father, he big man in Hawaiian Gardens, he chef, not cook!"
Wow, Dad a big shot? Another shock but not bad like the others.
I poured us more wine. I needed it. I didn't know what else was coming, if we had crested the bad shock hill but her smile suggested it was all downhill coasting.
"So, Dad was the chef at Hawaiian Gardens? You liked him?"
"No, no! I work, no pay attention man. Have enough man. Some man rude, say me cheap China girl. Try touch my dede, tease me, ask who Rickie’s daddy. Father, he say leave me alone. Manager, he young man, bad man, call me China girl, call father, Chinaman. He, not happy father have white waitress girlfriends.
One night, after close, I clean kitchen. Manager he, call me, take me storeroom, try kiss me, want see my dede. I yell no, fight him. I pull cans, bottles off shelves, bottles break, make big noise."
"He raped you?"
"No, no, father, he open door. He say, let me go. Manager, he say, shut up Chinaman but father, he stay. Manager try hit father but father know fighting. They fight. Manager, get arm broke, blood on face. He go hospital. Police come, arrest me and father.
Priest come and police let me go but father stay in jail three months. We no more work at Hawaiian Gardens. When father get out jail, he come, live with me. We do farm work. Father jail time make hard for him work as chef.
Father never hit me. He kind to Rickie, never ask who his daddy is. Soon I have four more and we big family like you know. That’s all I say. I have bad past but good now. Please no tell others, Rickie, your half-brother, my bad past."
Her faced changed to a smile of relief but her eyes were still wet. Her puppet shadow secret explained the over three-year birth separation between Rickie and I, then the rest born about a year apart. I mulled over Dad not being Rickie's father and suddenly realized I already knew but didn't regonize it. Dad's 1948 entry to Canada meant he couldn't have been Rickie's father. How could I be so stupid? It was all because when reconstructing Dad's image, I'd forgotten about Rickie. I flashed back to Mom.
"What happened to the Burma girl?"
"I not know. I think of her. I ask priest help her but priest say Chinatown no can go, closed. I pray to Virgin Mary for her. I pray for Mexican girl too."
Wow, her red candles and prayers before the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary were completely different than my assumed superstitious peasant ones.
My respect and love of Mom leaped higher.
Through the priest, she got work as a maid at the Sainte Claire Hotel and had a steady, if modest, income. Mom and Dad moved from one old farmhouse to another for cheap rent and supplemental farm income. She stayed with Dad as he rescued her and accepted Rickie. Her work and his gambling and carousing made more sense and why she never talked about her past or family. I better understood her fear of my getting pregnant before marriage and her never talking about sex.
Dad's puppet shadow on life's screen rose to star status. I asked what Mom knew of his past, but she knew nothing before Hawaiian Gardens. We cried together, as a different mother and daughter.
I thought of her secret puppet shadow, a young girl with a baby in a brothel for the US military in Honolulu. I thought how she was shipped with a child to a Chinese brothel in San Francisco and with luck scrambled and left to survive in Santa Clara Valley farm labor camps. I thought of how she chased tips as a waitress and was rescued by my father. It was a different mother and it kept tears welling up as we hugged and sobbed.
It then hit, hit me hard, all her efforts to protect Rickie were snuffed out in a senseless maneuver accomplishing nothing in Vietnam. I finally understood the extent of her loss. It was the closest we ever were. Still stunned after Mom's revelations, I continued to sit in her yard letting the California sun dry out the Pacific Northwest rain and absorb our conversation until dusk.
In the evening I drove back to the hotel and ate dinner at Original Joe’s next to the Saint Clare Hotel to reconnect to my past. I asked for and got the same booth I sat in on the eve of my engagement. I reminisced how simple my world was then compared to my parents.
Monday morning, after showering and dressing in my Saint Clare Hotel room, I left twenty dollars for the maid with a note saying it was for her so she wouldn’t turn it in as lost. I went down to the restaurant for breakfast before going to Santa Clara University Parents' Day, the official purpose of my trip.
Watching the businessmen read their paper, before rushing off to do a "deal", I mused how hubby dove into his newspaper with coffee in the morning before all else, including conversation with me. As I poured tea from its pot, I mused it was a male trait then realized but refused to admit.
My family assumptions are so wrong.
A huge, ugly revelation was churning in my mind's gut. I gulped it down with sugar in the tea, an additive I never use.
Driving to the University on the Alameda, the dark thought I was repressing, fought its way to surface, a vile thought, worst ever to cross my mind. I diverted images to other things, anything but still, it came, no matter how I tried to not think it, to replace it with something, anything else.
Like acidic vomit, it surged up to my brain stem. I tried to mentally swallow it back, choked and it retched up uncontrollably into the memory cells of my brain, its acid etching them forever.
Please God, no, please God don't let me think it!
My desperate plea swept aside, in gut-wrenching mental heaves it came up, in waves.
Mom was a whore! Mom was a whore! Mom was a whore!
No, erase it! Do not think it! It’s not true!
Yet the words kept coming, Mom was a whore!
I mentally calculated the time periods, the days, the men each day. A number flashed, as she so innocently expressed it, she was sexed. I calculated it was over a thousand, maybe much more. Images of sailors, swarming off a big ship, standing in lines, entering the foyer, Mom paraded semi-nude before each, her getting up and down, the men sexing Mom, Ricki hidden in a corner stuck in my mind.
Oh God, don't let me think this.
I pulled over and parked in a bus stop, the first space out of traffic. I shook and sobbed, not over what happened to Mom, for me. I didn’t want to carry the burdens that first my mother-in-law and then Mom put on my shoulders. I was too weak to carry it all. If only I could un-hear what I’d heard.
I wanted my old truth back. I wanted my Mom, my real mother, my go-to Mass, pray before the Virgin Mary, light candles, hard-working housekeeper, save Kennedy silver half dollars mother, but she was gone.
Author Notes: After learning her mother's secret past a woman loses the mother she thought she knew.
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