We walked through the door of Sharleen’s ancestral home and her hand covered her mouth and tears streamed down her face. This was the home of her mother, her mother’s parents, her grandparents, and her great grandparents. All had immigrated over time. Sharleen and her mom were the last to live in the house and left it for good in the late 70s. It stood as a grand house, beautifully adorned with painted and sculpted detail. Timber and brick made it strong to stand the tests of time. Heavy oak furniture and ornate carved alters showed its wealth of its day. However it was built in the early 1900s without electricity, without running water, and with an open fire stove. Those amenities were never added as time advanced. Sharleen’s family left for the United States bit by bit. Her Grandfather, all three great aunts who were also born in the house, her two uncles, her grandmother and aunt, and finally Sharleen and her mom.
The house had been vacant since 1980. Good friends, neighbors for generations, looked after the house for the decades since. They added electricity in 2010 after some break-ins and thefts. It was those neighbors who greeted us as we arrived. Now in their 70s and 80s, they were excited to see us.
They prepared a wonderful meal for us. After Bi-San, honoring the ancestors, we ate together and caught up on old times. It was a simple, but wonderful meal: Sweet potato, beans, broccoli, chicken, fish, and goose. It was a nice contrast to the complicated ‘fancy’ restaurant dishes.
In the store room we saw giant clay pots used to store the rice after cutting to let it dry. Rusting and decomposed sickles lay about with large wide thrashing baskets. Some rooms were empty, others had small pots in the corner. A storage room filled with steamer trunks full of old fabric and traditional clothes worn by Sharleen’s grandmother and great grandmother. Luggage and old bikes sat in their own decay. The kitchen had tiles worn deep with washing, washing that Sharleen remembered as a child. The roof of the cooking room was black with smoke stains from over century of use. Dried wood and brush was ready in the corner for another meal.
|Old clay pots used to store husked rice until it dried well enough for thrashing.|
|Someone used this bike. Now it is left as a monument to a past long ago.|
|A comb and wax filled tin left in a drawer.|
|Steamer trunks full of old clothes and a cabinet full of quilts, and a thrashing basket sit left as a monument to families long gone.|
|A baby carriage once used for someone’s pride and joy, now carries dust and old baskets.|
|A well used kitchen, walls black with over a century of use, still proved functional for the homecoming feast.|
|A child’s bike lay stored in place next to a dresser.|
|The house abacus. A well used device from another time. Might my great great grandchildren feel the same way about my computer?|
In Sharleen’s old room stood a dresser with a mirror. This was the same mirror that Sharleen’s mom taught her how to comb her hair. It was probably the same mirror where Lonnie’s mother taught her how to comb her hair.
The drawers were filled of small items of daily life from another time: A comb, a wax candle in a tin, a glass vile of medicine long ago used. A lesson book filled with English words made me think of Lonnie or Sharleen learning English trying to prepare for life far away from the village in Gum San (literally Golden Mountain, a name given to the ‘Golden State’ after the gold rush). In the drawer of another piece of furniture had old pieces of money from lucky money envelops, currency that hadn’t seen the light of day in decades. Framed pictures were in some drawers. Old family Polaroids and snapshots from slices of life from the 60s and 70s lay sandwiched in picture frames laying against the wall gathering dust.
Parts of the ceiling held the paint of beautiful detail. A giant hook hung down to hold an oil lamp.
The center of the house, the largest and most significant room, was the house alter. Some sayings from Buddha, three wishes of luck: Gold, Jade, and many offspring, as well as other sayings were written in gold on the red boards. Pictures of the family tree with the great great grandparents, then “bai gong” great grand dad, and photos of the different family trees that sprung forth from this house hung on the wall.
Kylie and Alyssa viewed the house more as a treasure trove of interesting artifacts, not really grasping how they fit into this puzzle. Taking in the significance of the house, what it meant to Sharleen and her mom was a bit much to Alyssa and Kylie. Sharleen was dining with the other family in the other room. During the meal, I thought I’d help make it more clear:
“Do you know what legacy is?” I asked the girls.
“That man on the top traveled to Gum San long ago. He worked the railroads, earned money, and sent it back. That allowed for this house to be built and lives of the people who lived here to be sustained. Every ten years he came back and had more children. Soon his children married and they left the hardship of village life behind to improve the lot of their offspring. When he died, that burden of improving the lives the progeny fell on your great grandfather and great grandmother. Your great grandmother, his daughter, worked extra hard in the fields to earn money for your grandmother to become a seamstress. Your great grandmother knew that staying out of the fields would improve your grandmother’s life opportunities. Your grandmother, sacrificed her home and her familiar surroundings and ventured to California to improve your mother’s chances in life. She worked three jobs and saved everything so your mother could attend college. Your mother landed in fourth grade knowing no English. Your mom worked and struggled and fought her way into one of the most prestigious universities in the world: HAAS Business School. What did all of those generations leave behind? These bricks? This wood? They left a path, a road, an opportunity for you. You are the last line of this branch of the family. All they did, was for you. You are their legacy.”
“OK. Can I have some more rice dad.”
“Sure, eat up. Maybe you’ll understand it more later.”
Not all lessons are learned at the time when opportunities present themselves.
Saying Good bye
Sharleen cried because her mother couldn’t be here. Her mom had spent more time in that house than any other family member – Nearly 30 years. Her mother had maintained the relationships, sent money back periodically, made the phone calls, and wrote the letters. She couldn’t be a part of this experience because of a paperwork snafu over her visa.
The finality of this visit made Sharleen’s burden ever more prescient. Sharleen bore the burden of saying good-bye on behalf of her mother. For five generations these two families were neighbors and friends. Tears fell. Between sobs, they exchanged profuse and sincere thank-yous and good-byes. Sharleen embraced the Grandma with all the love of her and her mother.
We clamored back into the car, backed out of the narrow village road. In one block we hit encroaching modernity, growing around the village pushing onto itself. A new freeway is almost complete, and with it, more development. This entire village will disappear in time subsumed by modernity. It’s almost gone, as we would be. We took one last picture of the village gate and drove off.