Sunday morning, arising early at the Sainte Clare Hotel where I always stayed when visiting San Jose, I was tempted to drive by our former house and Edward's apartment before visiting Mom. Instead, I drove to Alviso, to seek again its mystical connection with Dad which evaded me.
Even Alviso, however, had changed in Silicon Valley’s metamorphous. Val's was still there but was operated by a niece of the deceased elderly woman who fussed over Gary and me. The salt ponds were converted to a national park with swarming crowds instead of the soothing loneliness they once provided. The estuaries were filled with kayakers. Throngs trekked the railroad tracks and levees and read park historical, cultural and environmental explanation signs. None matched Gary’s narrative as 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 and reminisced of a passing train kiss. I didn't trek the rail line with others to the drawbridge. With nothing else to connect with, I left to visit Mom. Lafayette Street had morphed into a highway. I noticed Agnew State Mental Hospital complex was now occupied by Sun Microsystems.
Where are they now? They're our street homeless. The cuckoo’s nest hatchlings are camping in downtown, begging at the crosswalks.
Like Dad’s and Mom’s past, mine’s also was gone. It’s as if the farmhouse I was born in never existed. The Valley’s change had left me homeless too.
As I drove, I weighed my mother in law’s revelation and decided 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. 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."
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 me too.
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, as adult equals. Other than 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 want you to know. I always did but as I grow older, I admire you more. I appreciate everything you did for me."
"No, it, I, admire you. You help me. I must thank you. Even when you were 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 stuttered 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 is 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 to buy spam but no can pay.”
She stopped, took a sip of wine and continued.
“Shopman, he say, you no pay. Take spam, no pay. He say, come to my sleep room. I want to help family. I have no spam money. I go to his sleep room. He pull up my sarong. He climb on me. Finish, he give me 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 affirmatively. 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 you let the shopman give your family free food?”
She hesitated, then, blurted out.
“Soon I pregnant. Tatay no happy, Angry, I ruin the 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 with plantation boss man. He get girl pregnant, he get in trouble. Shopman visit Tatay, give money. Shopman, he takes me to work in Honolulu. In Honolulu, I make money for the family. I work in an old Chinatown building on Hotel Street for China boss man.”
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.
“I get money, let 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. He, bring a doctor. Doctor, he 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 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.
“Chinese lady, she live in front of building with an office door on the street. Man come in the shop front door. It has a little bell that tinkles when open. We hear tinkle bell, know a man come, to see girls. 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 sees girl he likes, 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 it with a cloth. Rickie not see me do bad even if baby. Man sex me, I get a dollar. Boss man send the dollar to family. Some man after sex me, give tip money. I hide tip money in the Virgin Mary statue. I make family money. China lady was nice. She feeds Rickie and me good. All rice, pork, poi we want. She say want us to look big, like Hawaiian. "
"How many Mom? How many men came at night?"
No, not night only, sometimes day. Sometimes no men. Sometimes five, sometimes, more if big ship come in Honolulu.
I think, how to escape? Chinese boss lady say, if I run away, family must pay money back paid for me, I sold girl, no can leave. I think… find policeman, be safe.
Soon policeman, he come… Door tinkle. I see him, think me now okay. He, talk to China boss lady. 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 dress up.
When he leave, he still laugh take me, out to jail. Then I know police get money, not pay, sex girl free, police not help me."
When she paused, I just 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, visit. Sometimes 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, boss, he come, 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 and 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 us we go to jail… then ship us to Hong Kong. I afraid, police jail me, ship me away, 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… want us like China girl. We 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 nice, she know Rickie need time play outside., help me take Rickie out to play in park with man to watch me. Rickie, me, go little Chinatown park… church park… not Catholic. Rickie, he get fresh air, play.
Man come too, make sure I come back work. He, smoke, go eat mee soup. I think I run away when he no look. With Rickie, police no arrest me as sex girl. I go Santa Clara and pick beans. I want leave when man eats soup, no watch me. Near park is cable car, not block away. I know when it come. It, turn a corner, ring bell.
In the park, I listen, learn to watch for cable car, I think in the park I pick up Rickie, go to the cable car, leave and find work picking beans but worry man who watch me stop me go.”
Again. she paused to put her remembrances into words.
“After time, man, he goes soup, no pay attention to me, he goes get cigarettes, go smoke. I know the cable car comes when I hear bell. I keep tip money with me. One day, he goes eat soup, I pick up Rickie, run to the cable car. Hard to run, China dress, slippers, no can walk fast. At cable car I hold Rickie up to get on. Hard for him to get on. Man on, he take Rickie up, put him on seat, he reached down, pull me up too. The cable car goes up, up, hill then goes down fast, then stops. I see many people, pick up Rickie, man he helps me down. Many white people look, see me, me. Me China girl, carry Rickie. I go to big stores, near where cars go into the ground. I 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 in a cheongsam with Chinese silk slippers in these upscale stores before the 1950s. 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 a taxi, take Rickie me, to the 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.
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 a saleswoman. I suppressed a smile of her 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 columnist Herb Caen referred to as a LOL, (Little Old Lady).
I understood now why she never went with Dad and me when we went to Chinatown.
Mom calmed, still sniffling now and then, with her finally on a train to Santa Clara, I asked, "Mom, what happened when you got to the Santa Clara train station?"
"Train stop. Train ticket man, he, say it Santa Clara, me get out. It little station, no many people. I ask people, where you pick beans? No one know where go pick beans, think me crazy China girl with baby.”
“Portuguese lady, her name Louise, she, hear me, she take me in car, drive to country. She, find bean farm. It little farm, no big farm. She go, talk woman in house. Woman come out, 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 a little. 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. 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; her tears ceased. Relieved by this turn, I smiled too. Finally, something good was obviously going to happen to Mom.
“Things good, farm women help. Priest, he hear of me and come find me. I get confession. I tell him my bad things. Priest 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 Hawaiian Gardens. You know, it big restaurant. I waitress, wear sarong grass skirt but no see dede.”
Priest, he, know woman. She Italian, Mrs. Mariani, she let me 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 with two babies. She baby sit Rickie. I walk work, work night. We share money. She in trouble too, no okay she in America. She, sneak in, 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.
"Your father, he big man. Hawaiian Gardens, he, chef, not cook!"
Wow, Dad a big shot? Another shock but not bad like the others.
I poured us each 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? 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 where Rickie father? Your father, he say leave me alone. Manager, he young man, bad man, call me China girl, call father, Chinaman. He, not happy father has a white waitress girlfriend. One night, after close, I clean kitchen. Manager he, call me, take me storeroom, try to kiss me, wants see my dede. I yell no, fight him. I pull cans, bottles off shelves, many 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 it hard for him to find 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 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 know 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 tell 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 the 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, began 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! I wanted my real mother, my go-to Mass, pray before the Virgin Mary, light candles, housekeeper, save Kennedy silver half dollar mother but she was gone.
Author Notes: After learning her mother's secret past a woman loses the mother she thought she knew.