STEFANIE PENG SET DOWN her briefcase and purse on the glistening gray tile of the entry hall. She kicked the door shut quickly to keep out the flakes of snow that drifted down on northern Illinois. Setting the brown paper sack on the stairs leading up to the main living area, she stopped and pensively lifted the top item from the bag to look at more closely.
Small plastic figures of a handsome, blond Caucasian in black tuxedo and a black-haired, petite Chinese girl in a traditional white wedding gown faced each other in a garden of silk Chinese white lotus and red roses. This hint of East meets West had been intended to crown a large and very American tiered cake.
It occurred to her that the scale of this bride and groom wasn’t quite right. The groom should tower even more over his diminutive bride. Not that it mattered. Through the plastic wrapper Stefanie brushed the groom’s molded features and painted-on smile
Roger, why? Why do you need to be high to be happy? Why do you need other women to feel like a man?
Resolutely, she dropped the topper back in the bag. Some Goodwill store shopper might be happy to top her wedding cake with a blond groom and a Chinese-Hispanic bride.
Stefanie hung her black leather three-quarter-length coat in the entry closet, wiped the melting snowflakes from it and stooped to remove her boots. Something seemed odd. The house was silent—no vacuum cleaner, washer, or dishwasher was running. Her grandmother’s cheerful English or Mandarin chatter on the phone was missing.
Stefanie checked her watch. Maybe Nanai went with Madre to pick up the kids. Her eighteen-year-old sister, Amanda, and twelve-year-old brother, Jamie, would be out of school soon. And her mother had mentioned taking Nanai to a doctor’s appointment.
Still, it felt wrong. No snicker of the cleaver cutting up onions, no sizzle and scent of vegetables cooking in the wok to the accompaniment of her grandmother’s humming. Even the fuzzy little Chihuahua-Pekinese Amigo had not jingled his dog tags at the door in greeting. Amigo was both pet and family symbol, purchased as a joke by her father to represent the eclectic family over which he was nominal head.
Nor had her grandmother opened the priscillas in the living room today. In her twenty-four years, Stefanie could not remember the house ever feeling so cold and lonely. It was the way her whole life felt these days. Putting her boots away, she wiggled her feet into slippers and padded up the steps, listening to a muffled sound she could not identify. She paused in the darkened living room to pick up a glass her father had left on the end table the night before.
That’s odd. Nanai must have overlooked it.
Amigo whined as she entered the hall between the dining room and the two upstairs bedrooms. In the dimness she squinted to make out a very abandoned-looking dog, that was sprawled with his nose in the crack under Grace Peng’s closed door.
Stefanie stopped with her hand on her grandmother’s doorknob. The sound she had heard was sobbing. “Nanai? Are you all right?”
She must have startled the elderly woman, for her grandmother gulped audibly and sniffed but did not answer.
Stefanie pushed the door open.
The tiny woman pushed herself upright on the bed. She dabbed at the tears on her wrinkled cheeks with a wadded handkerchief. Her steel-gray bun was working itself loose. Her eyes were swollen and bloodshot.
Stefanie sat beside her grandmother, clasped one of her weathered hands in her own and stared into those dark, deep eyes.
“What’s wrong? What happened? Are you all right?”
Her grandmother leaned against her. Stefanie stroked her hair until the woman could speak.
“It is not me. I do not mind for me. It is Chongde.” She had lapsed into her native Shanghai dialect, as she always did when upset. Stefanie had never won more than a rudimentary understanding of her grandmother’s native dialect, so she tried to lead her into Mandarin.
“You heard something about Grandfather? What happened to Grandfather?”
“I always thought we would be together again on this earth.” She shook her head and leaned against her granddaughter’s shoulder. The elderly woman’s shoulders shook with the effort of controlling her tears.
Stefanie glanced around the room but saw no new letter. The picture that her grandmother had fled with from China during the Cultural Revolution lay on the bed. Thirty-year-old Peng Chongde and a smiling twenty-seven-year-old Grace held their only child, Andrew, a thin, somber child of six, between them. Friends who saw the picture would ask Stefanie where she’d had it taken, for her resemblance to her grandmother as a young woman was amazing.
Stefanie had grown up hearing the story of how her grandmother and father escaped Mao-crazed China during the Cultural Revolution with only the picture, her grandfather’s violin, and a few other items wrapped in a quilt.
Her earliest childhood prayers had always remembered her grandfather. He was the family hero, who had insisted that his wife and teenage son rendezvous with a group of fleeing refugees, where he would try to join them. He was leading an aged university professor and his wife when they were captured by a band of ardent young Maoists.
The story that finally reached them was that Peng Chongde had thrown his body between the attacking students and a frail old woman they were beating. When the Maoists discovered that he was a Christian and a church leader, they had made him stand for hours in the “airplane position,” bent slightly at the waist with his arms thrust back and out while they taunted him. For days they had ordered him to write confessions of his crimes as a rightist and a cow demon. They had beaten the half-starved man. Then they had imprisoned him.
Her grandmother and father escaped to Taiwan and later gained a resident visa to come to the United States. Not until the late 1980s, however, did the family hear rumors about Chongde’s release from prison. He had soon been arrested again and reimprisoned. The family had written to him. One of Stefanie’s earliest letters, written in laborious childish script, had been to Grandfather. They had written appeals to Vice-premier Deng Xiaoping, the “core” of the Chinese Communist Party. With every change of leadership, the family renewed their hopes and their letter campaign. The Chinese government had ignored all of their efforts. Over the years, only five letters had reached them from Peng Chongde. These now lay open and tearstained next to the picture on the bed.
Stefanie continued to hold her grandmother’s hand and stroke the frail, brown-splotched skin.
“What did you hear about Grandfather?”
Her grandmother brushed her other hand across her chest, a common gesture lately.
“I miss him so. You could not understand.”
Stefanie glanced at her left hand, at the finger that had so recently been encircled by a rather showy diamond. No, she couldn’t understand completely, but she understood better now. Even knowing that Roger had deceived and betrayed her, she still missed him.
Nanai did not answer Stefanie’s question. Instead, she returned to a story she had often told. Her words were filled with longing. “He had just been released from prison after Mao’s campaign against rightists. He was so thin. I thought him plain, but the church elders asked him to play the violin for us. He played ‘Amazing Grace,’ and it sounded like the voices of angels. His face was transformed.”
The lines on Nanai’s face eased. Stefanie knew that inside her grandmother’s mind a violin rendition of “Amazing Grace” was echoing. After some minutes she prompted, “And you fell in love with Grandfather at that moment.”
Nanai nodded. “He had such a soul for God. How could I not?”
As if Nanai’s love for God was one whit less than her husband’s had been.
Nanai patted her hand. “You are such a comfort to this foolish, old woman.” She rubbed her chest again. Her voice trembled. “Dr. Liu thinks I have breast cancer.”
Stefanie stared at her grandmother. It was suddenly difficult to breathe.
“You must be strong, Stefanie. You must help me through this and be strong for the others.”
“It must be a mistake. She is wrong.”
“I have a lump, have had it for several weeks. Dr. Liu wants to do a . . . a . . .” She made a slashing motion.
“A biopsy. That will prove she is wrong. It will not be cancer. It will be benign.”
Nanai shook her head. “She has seen much cancer.”
In the silence, Stefanie realized that she was drumming her fingers on the spread. With some effort, she stilled her hand. “But they can treat cancer.”
“With a knife. I cannot. I am too tired to fight cancer and knives and radiation and chemicals. I want to go home to be with Jesus and Chongde.”
“Doctors do not always use knives now. Sometimes they use lasers. You might not have to go under a knife at all.”
“Like your father worked on?” Andrew Peng was a research physicist who had been part of a team that researched military applications for lasers for the U. S. government.
“Yes. Remember how they used a laser on Mrs. Avery’s mother’s cataracts?”
Nanai shuddered. “So they burn a hole in me instead of cut me?” She shook her head.
Stefanie rose and paced the room. Though she loved her parents, she and Nanai had a special bond. When Roger had asked her to marry him, she had grappled with the idea that she would have to leave Nanai.
Not yet. Not now, she pleaded silently to God.
“I am ready.”
Stefanie clutched her grandmother’s shoulders. “You cannot give up. You cannot. Think of Grandfather.”
She looked for something that could change her grandmother’s mind. The room was simple—gray carpeting on the floor, the double bed Andrew Peng had bought years ago in expectation of his father’s release from prison. Her grandmother had covered it with a wedding quilt that combined Christian and Chinese symbols in red. A dresser, a small desk and chair with a calendar above the desk completed the furnishings.
Stefanie stopped before her grandmother’s dresser. Picking up her grandfather’s violin case from the right side of the dresser, she opened it and removed the violin. After deftly tuning it, she poured her being into the music of “Amazing Grace,” trying to reach out to snatch her grandmother from her precipice of sorrow and resignation. When she had finished, she quietly laid the violin back in its case and knelt beside Nanai—this woman who had been her life. Her grandmother’s eyes were filled with fresh tears.
At that moment, Stefanie decided. She must renew the promise she had made as a child.
“Nanai, I promise that I will find Grandfather and bring him to you. But if I do that, what will it be for him if he comes to America, and you are not here? Think of all he’s endured. Would you deprive him of that as well? What if it were the other way around? Would you want him to wait for you, to endure, to be strong—even if it meant having surgery?”
Nanai bit her lip. A tear slid down her cheek as she picked up the picture of her family. Nodding, she stroked Stefanie’s long black hair.
“I will call Dr. Liu tomorrow.”